First-timers Guide to Ocracoke Island
Why do people fall head over heels in love with Ocracoke Island the first time they visit?
It’s the simplicity, the tranquility, and the unspoiled beauty that captivate the hearts of visitors. It’s the feeling of disconnecting from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and reconnecting with nature and yourself.
Ocracoke allows you to slow down, savor the moment, and appreciate the little things that make life truly special.
Our family of four visited Ocracoke Island for the first time in Spring and fell in love, and I’m thrilled to share with you a comprehensive first-timers guide to this stunning island, located off the coast of North Carolina in the Southern Outer Banks.
Why You’ll Love Ocracoke Island
Here are just a few of the reasons you’ll fall in love with Ocracoke Island.
1. A true island life experience, one where bridges and passenger jets don’t disturb the serenity and turn up the chaos. Out here you feel like you can think and breathe clearly and freely.
2. Ocracoke is all about LOCAL. Out here there are no hotel chains, no Starbucks, and No McDonalds.
3. On Ocracoke, you can park your car in your driveway and leave it there. It’s an island that is easily navigable by your feet, two wheels on a bike, or a golf cart.
4. Most of Ocracoke Island is part of the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which means outstanding natural beauty, pristine beaches with fewer crowds, and an abundance of wildlife will forever be wild and pristine.
5. From renowned pirate parties to sunken German submarines, Ocracoke has a rich and fascinating history for you to explore.
How to Get to Ocracoke Island
Getting to Ocracoke Island is part of the adventure itself. It involves cruising through waters on a car ferry with the wind in your hair, possibly a dolphin jumping or two, passing sand barrier islands, until you reach this small island at the far southern reaches of the Outer Banks.
It does take a little bit of extra effort to get to Ocracoke, but that’s another reason to love it. It’s a unique experience that sets the tone for your entire trip.
There are three car ferry options you can take:
- The Swan Quarter Ferry to Ocracoke: You can reserve these tickets in advance, which cost $15. It’s quite a large ferry and there’s a good sitting space upstairs. It takes 2 hours and 40 minutes. Ferries run three times a day.
- The Cedar Island Ferry to Ocracoke: This ferry is smaller than the Swan Quarter one. Again, be sure to book in advance and it costs $15. Ferries run three times a day.
- The FREE Hatteras Ferry to Ocracoke: This was the longest drive time from Raleigh, but the shortest ferry time, so if the timing works out, it could be the best option. However, it is first come-first serve and no reservations allowed.. Ferries run every hour.Cost is $4 round trip and bikes can be brought on at no extra charge.
- RESERVE your ferry tickets in advance here.
Getting Situated: The Two Parts to Ocracoke Island
Visitors will soon learn that Ocracoke Island is divided into two sections.
On the west side of the ocean (Pamlico Sound) you’ll have the elbow-shaped peninsula of Ocracoke Village. This picturesque community is filled with charming shops, art galleries, and cozy restaurants serving up delicious local cuisine. Most visitors will stay in Ocracoke Village where most of the amenities are.
The rest of the island is then the beaches and marshlands of the protected Cape Hatteras National Seashore. This is where you’ll find endless outdoor adventure and stunning beauty.
Where to stay on Ocracoke Island?
Is there anything better than staying in a vacation rental on an island vacation! As a family of four, we love having the space to spread out, a deck for sunrise coffee mornings with the birds, and a kitchen to help reduce costs with eating out.
Vacation rentals are the norm on Ocracoke Island – just be sure to book in advance during peak season.
Ocracoke has a small number of boutique hotels and B&B’s, a small RV park in the village, and a larger campground by the beach in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
How to get Around Ocracoke Island
Okay listen up. If you want to make full use of slow-living, chilled out, island vibe living, then park your car and hide your keys.
It’s time for pedal power to shine. Everywhere is within biking distance on Ocracoke, and every store, cafe and restaurant will have a bike rack.
It’s only 10-minutes to bike from the village to the beaches. This was one of the reasons we fell in love with Ocracoke Island.
If you insist on driving, you may prefer the open-air golf carts zipping around the village. But note, you cannot take them beyond the village.
Another option is to take the free village tram that operates Memorial Day to Labor Day and goes to 8 stops around the village
Top Things to Do on Ocracoke Island
Brush off the sand and pack up your beach towels, Ocracoke isn’t JUST about lying on the sand all day. Although a definite highlight, there are many other wonderful things to do on Ocracoke Island to suit all interests.
Here are some of the top attractions you don’t want to miss on a first-time visit.
Relax on Ocracoke Beaches
Pick a beach, any beach, and lay down your towel. Don’t just take my word for it that these beaches are pretty special. Dr Beach ranked Lifeguarded Beach on Ocracoke as the best beach in the USA in 2022 because of its clean sand, clean water, and beach safety.
The entire stretch of Ocracoke Beach is pristine and beautiful like this, it’s just that the Lifeguarded Beach section of it has amenities and lifeguards.
We also liked the Pony Pen Beach section, which has an ADA-accessible ramp!
4WD Beach Driving
One of our favorite adventures on Ocracoke Island was beach driving with Ray Stallings in his 4WD to South Point. Ray shared captivating stories, facts, and folklore about this protected area and its history, including the impact of Hurricane Dorian.
There are plenty of spaces to park and swim, take a walk, have a picnic, collect shells, or do some beach fishing. Access to this location is exclusive to 4WD vehicles, but if you don’t have one, you can join a tour with Ray. (Phone or text: 252-908-2994)
Please note that beach driving restrictions may apply throughout the year due to nesting birds and turtles, so it’s important to follow the guidelines set by the National Park Services.
Paddle Out to the Salt Marsh Creeks
Time to paddle around the quieter side of the island – Pamlico Sound and the creeks in the salt marsh.
Allow for about two hours as you paddle past life on Silver Lake, out the harbor entry, and around the corner to the marsh-lined estuaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, passing by Springer’s Point on the way.
We kayaked to the salt marshes, and then paddle boarded on Silver Harbor for a lovely perspective of the marina area and lighthouse.
You can rent a kayak or paddleboard from Ride the Wind Surf Shop.
Take a Hike
Need to stretch your legs? Hiking is something we always make time for on a family vacation. Don’t worry, Ocracoke is flat, you’ll barely raise a sweat.
The Hammock Hill Nature Trail is a 0.75-mile boardwalk trail looping around the sand dune forest filled with live oaks and pine trees. We biked here from the village – only 20 minutes on the bike path.
Close to the village is Springer’s Point Nature Trail, a short, and easy .8 mile stroll on a sandy trail through the maritime forest passing under huge live oak trees.
Springer’s Point was the infamous Blackbeard the Pirate’s favorite anchorage, where he held the biggest pirate party known, and where he eventually met his end just offshore in the waters of Pamlico Sound now known as Teach’s Hole.
Shop Ocracoke Village
Ocracoke has a surprising number of fantastic local stores for shopping. There was no kitsch or tacky, only classy original artwork, jewelry, and clothes on display in the various boutique stores and art galleries.
Some of our favorites included:
- Sea Break in Community Square with a beautiful collection of candles and jewelry.
- The pottery collection at Village Craftsman located along the beautiful live oak canopied lane.
- Books to be Red in an 1898 historic home with a wonderful collection of gifts and books.
- Bella Fiore with beautiful jewelry and pottery pieces.
And of course, you can easily bike between each store!
Eat Seafood (especially oysters)
Prepare to be pleasantly surprised by the culinary offerings on Ocracoke Island, which range from Greek to Thai, casual to a little fancy.
But taking center stage on this barrier island is seafood. So, it’s a must for any first-time visitors to Ocracoke.
What’s served up on your plate depends on seasonal runs and what the bounties the fishermen haul to shore at the marina. Expect daily catches like mahi-mahi, tuna, and drum.
This area is a noteworthy stop along the North Carolina oyster trail, making it a must-visit for oyster enthusiasts. We enjoyed delicious fresh Cedar Island oysters at the Ocracoke Oyster Company.
Explore the History of Ocracoke
Ocracoke has a fascinating history to explore throughout the island, ranging from the original inhabitants – the Woccocon Native American tribe – to the pirates who frequently anchored at Ocracoke, and the significant war history attributed to its remote location.
Here are a few ideas:
- Visit Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second oldest operating lighthouse in the USA.
- Step inside the Ocracoke Preservation Society, a small museum that shares the fascinating history of Ocracoke with artifacts.
- Chat to the knowledgeable Chester Lynn – a native o’Cocker – from the living room of his Annabelle’s Florist and Antique store. He’ll share the stories of his antique collection from the Including Blackbeard’s pewter plates and a Spanish revolver from the late 1600s.
- Visit the British Cemetery, where some British soldiers who died protecting the US borders during World War II were buried in honor.
Enjoy a Sunset Sail
A popular evening attraction in Ocracoke is a sunset sail with Captain Rob on Windfall II, his traditional schooner.
Captain Rob is an expert on the history of Ocracoke, and he shared many stores of nearby Portsmouth Island, Blackbeard the Pirate, and his own sailing adventures in and out of his Ocracoke Island home, where he first came as a young boy on vacation catching the old mailboat in.
You can bring your own alcohol onto the boat for sunset sips.
Or a Sunset Drink
There’s no better way to wrap up a great Ocracoke day than with a stunning sunset.
Sunset is meant to be best at Springer’s Point or the parking lot right at the end of the village in front of the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum and near the ferry port.
You can also enjoy it from the marina at SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar & Grill with a glass of passionfruit – or mango if you prefer – mimosa.
1718 Brewing (named after the year Blackbeard died) has an outside upper level deck with sunset views, perfect with a flight of craft brews.
A Few things to Remember
Before you set off on your Ocracoke adventure, here are a few tips to make your trip even better.
- Firstly, be sure to pack sunscreen, hats, and plenty of water, as the sun can be quite strong during the summer months.
- Mosquito repellent is also a clever idea, especially if you plan on hiking the island’s nature trails.
- If you have your own kayaks, paddleboards, and bikes be sure to bring them with you. You can always hire on the island if not!
- Make sure you reserve your accommodation and ferry tickets in advance. You don’t want to show up on the island without accommodation booked during the peak summer season.
- There is a grocery store on the island if you need supplies. You may also want to bring your own!
Whether you’re seeking a romantic escape, a family vacation, or a solo adventure, Ocracoke Island is a destination that won’t disappoint.
This may be your first-time visiting Ocracoke Island – and now you’re fully prepared for a wonderful experience – but I am pretty sure it will not be your last!
With its natural beauty, rich history, friendly community, and laid-back atmosphere, it’s a place that will leave you with lasting memories and a longing to return.
So, pack your bags, set sail to this island paradise, and let Ocracoke work its magic on you!