Ocracoke Island – Old Salt

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.