The Sun, the Moon and the Stars – Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
By Janine Breyel
The Sun, the Moon and the Stars – Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
A trip to Ocracoke Island, like other things of value, requires some effort. From the DC area it is a little more than a four hour drive to reach the beginning of the Outer Banks in North Carolina (I-64 to VA 168 to US 158), then another hour and a half on NC 12 to where the barrier island ends. From there you board the Hatteras Ferry that transports you across the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke, the last habitable island in the Outer Banks. Once you disembark, you are reconnected to NC 12 and for 13 miles you drive along the narrow strip, frequently catching glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean to your left over the dunes before reaching the quaint village of Ocracoke. For those seeking crowded boardwalks, chain restaurants, busy putt-putt courses, and similar attractions that dominate so many beach towns on the Eastern seaboard, this is not the place for you. But for those of us who seek a quiet, relaxing vacation in a location with interesting history, friendly locals, miles of empty beaches and opportunities to enjoy nature, then the drive is worth every minute.
My family has been enjoying Ocracoke since our boys (all grown now) were young. We have come during the quiet, waning days of late fall (in 2016 on a Thanksgiving trip our son, Mason proposed to his now wife, Erika) and the bright, fresh days in late spring. But typically, we spend a week in the summer, preferably in mid to late June when the weather is more predictable, to enjoy long days of sunshine at the beach. Although we have always had good experiences with renting houses in the village (the most popular option for those staying for a week or two), we have stayed at the National Park Service’s campground just 3 miles north of town for the last 15 years. We love the campground for many reasons; one advantage is that we can avoid the heavy weekend traffic when house rentals change over. Because the status of the entire island is protected by national seashore, there is no development on the beach, the NPS campground is the only place you can stay where you are just a short walk over the dunes to access the beach. The campground is a fantastic place to gaze the multitude of stars and bright planets that fill the night sky. It also offers the lullaby of waves as you drift to sleep. Ocracoke Island, in addition to being consistently voted one of the best beaches in the US, has also been called the best place for star gazing on the East Coast. The remote location and miles of protected seashore mean the sky stays dark with little light pollution, allowing the opportunity to see the Milky Way blurred across the night sky.
We were not sure what to expect when we planned our 2020 summer visit for June. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, would the island even be open to visitors? And if so, what restaurants, stores, and attractions would be open? In September 2019 Hurricane Dorian devastated the island, destroying many businesses and houses leaving the residents cut off from the mainland for 16 days. We were saddened and anxious when we had heard the reports last fall and had followed, as closely as possible, news from the island. For many of the 950 residents of Ocracoke Island, their livelihoods are primarily dependent upon just a few months of the year during the summer. Having these back to back challenges was upsetting. Fortunately, the determined spirit of the islanders, used to tough conditions, has been evident.
Although several businesses have closed for good, many well-loved restaurants and shops have reopened. These include Zuilly’s (great for a glass of wine on the porch), the Ocracoke Island Coffee Company (known for their coffee drinks, smoothies, and breakfast breads), Howard’s Pub (large, popular restaurant), 1718 Brewery (local beers), Eduardo’s (delicious tacos and other fare served from a food truck) and The Slushy Stand (ice cream and other treats). Nonetheless, remnants of the hurricane are still evident with many shops still shuttered. It is satisfying to see new construction as the island rebuilds. For a complete and current list of opened businesses, visit ocracokeobserver.com/2020/05/11/whats-open-on-ocracoke-as-of-may-11/.
Ocracoke Village is on the southern tip of the barrier island and is only about 4 square miles. One of the first things you notice when you enter the town is that the speed limit drops down rather abruptly to 20 mph. Throughout the village, the speed limit is 20 mph (and 15 mph in a few areas) and is strictly enforced. Cars share the roads throughout the village with bicyclists, golf carts and pedestrians. The slow speed helps ensure that all stay safe as the village becomes busier and more crowded in the summer months. It also adds to the laid back, stress-free vibe that permeates the village. There are no stoplights on Ocracoke and you can walk to most places in the village. All restaurants, shops and services are locally owned and operated.
Ocracoke Island is best known for being a hangout of Blackbeard the Pirate, whose real name was Edward Teach. It was also the site of his demise. In 1718, Lt. Robert Maynard killed the famous pirate offshore of the island. According to legend, Blackbeard’s headless body swam around his ship three times before sinking to the ocean floor. Teach’s Hole, the Blackbeard Exhibit located on the right side of the Main Street just after entering the village, is dedicated to the life of the pirate.
Without question we spend most of the time while we are at Ocracoke on the beach. It is easy to find stretches of beach with very few people. We read, sunbathe, take walks, play in the surf and swim. The ocean can be rough with strong currents and riptides. The public access beach nearest the village has a lifeguard on duty in the summer months.
Every year we make a point to visit Springer Point – a nature preserve – a short walk from the Ocracoke Lighthouse. A trail winding through the preserve marks different trees and other vegetation, as well as an old cemetery, takes you to a point where the Pamlico Sound meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is in these waters that Blackbeard and his crew were said to have sought shelter and hid from authorities. In 1718, Blackbeard, two months before his death, hosted what is believed to have been the largest ever gathering of pirates. Today the point provides a nice place to watch the sunset over the water.
Other activities we’ve enjoyed over the years are National Park Service programs (crabbing, tales of Blackbeard, ghost stories on the beach are a few I remember fondly), the Ocracoke Ponies (their pen is located about 10 miles north of town), and visits to the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The island is also known for its fishing and areas where you drive on the beach (permit required). To further explore the island, kayaks, bikes and golf carts are available to rent.
Janine Breyel lives in Morgantown, WV. She is a project director for the West Virginia Perinatal Partnership, a statewide organization working to improve health outcomes of mothers and babies. She is the mother of 4 boys and has been happily married for 26 years.