An isolated outpost for centuries, Ocracoke Island has a small-town, seafaring charm. Only about 750 residents live here year-round, a population that was once largely fishermen and sailors. You can tell the old-timers by their distinctive dialect, peppered with Cockney inflections—instead of “high tide,” they say “hoi toide”—tracing a direct line from the Elizabethans who settled here 400 years ago.
In fact, the very first settlers from England, the doomed Lost Colony, sailed into the New World through the Ocracoke Inlet. When Ocracoke Village was established in 1715, it functioned as a base for boat pilots whose job it was to guide ships through the often-treacherous waters of the inlet. Adding to the danger, the pirate Blackbeard (aka Edward Teach) cruised these waters; he was killed in a bloody sea battle here in 1718 in a place now referred to as Teach’s Hole. Navigation got a little easier after the squat, whitewashed Ocracoke Lighthouse was built in 1823—it’s the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country; you can see it from most any vantage point in the village, but the interior is not open to the public.
Those treacherous waters gave Ocracoke another of its distinctive historic features: the wild ponies that once ranged the island, descended from Spanish mustangs shipwrecked here in the 17th century. Now safely ensconced in pony pens (kept well away from the busy summer traffic) and cared for by the national park service, these “ponies” are actually fullgrown horses, small but powerful. Isolation has ensured that their distinctive breed characteristics have remained pure.
In the summer, ferries chug in from either Cape Hatteras or across the wide, shallow Pamlico Sound from the mainland, loaded with visitors arriving to swim and play on some of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches. Part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Ocracoke’s beaches are pristine, undeveloped stretches of tawny sand; Ocracoke Beach is consistently named one of the nation’s finest, and it’s a beauty, with frothy white surf rolling up in near-perfect precision. The visitors crowd Ocracoke Village’s Silver Lake harborside, dining on briny Hatteras clam chowder in weathered wooden cafes and biking around the island’s sand-dusted streets. For an isolated backwater, Ocracoke is surprisingly sophisticated, with some of the best grub on the Outer Banks, predominantly fresh seafood, a bounty of fish, crabs, shrimp, and clams. The ambience, like that along the rest of the Outer Banks, is sandnshoes casual.
A sturdy, self-sufficient lot, Ocracokers have lived through hurricanes and rough seas, carving out a rigorous, do-it-yourself kind of existence on the edge of nature. Despite (or maybe because of) the rigors of living on in splendid isolation, these islanders appreciate a good time: Any event is an excuse for a party, even hurricanes, which this part of the world experiences on a regular basis. For an old salt with feet of sand and a spine of steel, Ocracoke offers a rollicking good time.