By Josephine Valois
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
The Outer Banks boasts some of the most pristine beaches on the East Coast, attracting thousands of tourists and visitors each year to its small, yet beautiful islands and towns adjacent to mainland North Carolina.
Head down to the Anchorage Marina around 3 p.m. in the summer as the salt-covered commercial fishing boats take anchor to witness the fresh tuna and mahi mahi glistening off the boat as seagulls scavenge for a taste. Rent a beach cruiser for the day and wind around the cracked pavement of the back roads, discovering the hidden cemeteries and little pieces of history tucked beneath the trees.
It’s a taste of life on island time that cannot be recreated—an experience sought by many, but often left overlooked.
Ocracoke Island is one of the few remaining places untouched by commercialism on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Long-time vacationers and residents say the island and its town are perfectly nestled back in time, withstanding the wave of tourism that has swept up much of the land on the neighboring island, Hatteras.
Upon crossing the first bridge joining the mainland to the Outer Banks, many don’t travel beyond the northern towns of the first island, Hatteras. Towns such as Corolla, Kitty Hawk and Duck are among the most popular tourist destinations, each showered with popular chain restaurants, mini-golf courses, luxury resorts and shopping centers.
But farther down the island, something magical happens. Sand begins to sweep over the two-lane highway, vegetation engulfs the trees and homes within them and golden dunes peek slightly above the horizon, exposing the blue waters behind.
Many people believe their travelling has come to an end once their tires touch the Outer Banks’ land, but for Ocracoke visitors, the trip has just begun.
It takes approximately two hours by car to travel to the ferry at the end of Hatteras Island, and from there it is about an hour ride on the ferry depending on the time of day.
“I like to tell people it’s not easy to get to Ocracoke and that’s what makes it worth it,” said Sundae Horn, Ocracoke Island’s director of travel and tourism and long-time resident of the island. “Once you get on that ferry, that ride is part of the adventure.”
Horn said that Ocracoke may be far from the main attractions of the Outer Banks, but everything on the island is convenient and within walking distance, giving the island an “old-fashion village feel.”
“Living on the island is a lot like high school,” said Rob King, a surfing enthusiast who has lived in Ocracoke for 11 years. “There is a wonderful sense of community. Everyone is pretty easy-going and accepting.”
Ocracoke is home to about 1,000 year-round residents, according to Horn. That population nearly doubles during the summer season when tourists and “day-trippers” from other parts of the Outer Banks visit. The island is home to one grocery store, one police station, one fire department and one school with 181 enrolled students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It’s a pretty magical place if you’re okay with not a lot of civilization,” said Connie Lienbach, owner of Ocracoke’s local newspaper, the Ocracoke Observer. “It’s difficult if you get really sick because you have to get flown off the island. There’s no hospital.”
Both tourists and local residents agree that what makes Ocracoke unique is the plethora of family-owned businesses and local restaurants. Whether grabbing a quick bite to eat at SMacNally’s along the marina or listening to local musicians while indulging in an ice cream cone outside The Slushie Stand, one will always feel at home on the island.
“It has a sense of being a very safe place, especially for families,” Horn said. “There is almost zero crime. It feels like a safe place to walk around at night and let your kids run around. It’s also very pedestrian and biker friendly.”
The sense of being on a fairly small, remote island rich with history, culture and community is what attracts travelers to Ocracoke yearly. Many do not know that natives of Ocracoke still live on the island and keep the history alive within the town.
Stefan Howard is one of many Howards who contributed to the island’s reputation and its preservation. Howard grew up on the island as a child and is the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of William Howard, the last colonial owner of Ocracoke Island who purchased it in 1759.
According to Howard, it is speculated by his family that William Howard is the same man that was quartermaster to Blackbeard the pirate back in the early 1700s.
Many who visit Ocracoke know that Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Teach, one of the most notorious pirates in history, stumbled upon Ocracoke and took residence there only to be beheaded on the island years later near Springer’s Point, a favorite spot to both locals and tourists.
Secluded behind dense layers of live oaks and vibrantly green vegetation, Springer’s Point is the last remaining maritime forest on the island and is home to over 120 acres of undeveloped land and shoreline. Part of the experience of visiting Springer’s Point is the walk itself—with no access by car or bike, visitors must walk to the preserve to breathe in the crisp, pristine atmosphere. A sense of serenity hangs over the trees as the sun turns warm and orange over the horizon, showcasing the most breathtaking scene over the Pamlico Sound—the magnificent Ocracoke sunset.
“It’s considered to be somewhere left untouched,” Howard said.
Across from Springer’s Point and the sound side is the most popular part of the island for tourists in particular—the undeveloped, golden beach spanning 16 miles along the coast. Like every coastal destination, the beaches prove to be a crowd favorite in the Outer Banks due to their emptiness and relaxing nature.
For long-time vacationers like Jon Mikel-Bailey, the best part of the beach is taking the car in four-wheel drive and toughing it out on the sand. Mikel-Bailey has been visiting Ocracoke since he was a child and fell in love with the atmosphere instantly.
“I love that you can drive on the beach,” Mikel-Bailey said. “Just parking, dumping your stuff and enjoying the day. Doesn’t get much better than that.”
Others enjoy the beach simply for the breathtaking view. According to Ocracoke resident King, you can always find an empty spot on the beach even in peak season, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable. King prefers visiting the beach in the fall due to the colder temperatures and general drop in tourism.
“The humidity drops out of the air and you have the best light that time of year,” King said. “It makes the sea oats in the dunes glow gold… a lot like a hay field does.”
Whether visiting in the peak season of summer or the desolate, yet captivating season of winter, many things will always remain the same on Ocracoke—the pristine beaches, homey atmosphere and experience of life on island time.
“It’s a great place to visit for its back-world, quiet charm,” Horn said. “You always know what you’re getting into with a visit to Ocracoke.”