It didn’t take me long to connect to the Ocracoke Island vibe on our recent spring getaway from Raleigh.
“Gosh I really like it here,” I said as we pulled up to our vacation rental and saw the golf cart parked in the drive, the bikes leaning against the house, and the huge property on the marsh covered in live oaks.
“I like it here a lot” I said an hour later as we sat on the deck of Zillie’s Island Pantry next to a few locals swapping stories of their day, a bottle of wine on the table and pints of ale in front of them.
The warped trunks of those live oaks covered the deck in shade taking up the periphery of my view quietly whispering, “let it all go, you’re on island time now.”
True island time. Not one separated by a small channel in the sound and a bridge you can drive across, like the rest of the barrier islands along the North Carolina coast, but one where bridges don’t exist, and your only entry and exit is by way of car ferry. Once you’re here, you’re here. Let yourself be at its mercy and guidance.
Island life removes all temptation or escape to that other life – the one that demands your attention and constant movement from one appointment to obligation, to the thing you need to do to keep the chaos in order, while only stripping away all the ease, simplicity, and joy at a place like Ocracoke gifts you.
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.
Calling your soul home
You don’t understand how a simple life immersed in the beauty of nature can transform your life until you’ve lived it.
I lived it for years as a backpacker roaming through Southeast Asia and Africa where the biggest decision of the day was which hammock I would swing in at sunset, and what happy hour drink I would pair it with.
No. Not Peter Pan irresponsible, simply understanding that life does not need to be full of striving to be fulfilled. All it needs mostly is a good sunset, a cool ocean breeze, and your favorite tunes in the background.
That’s why I can so quickly and easily fall in love with places like Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.
My soul recognizes it, breathes a sigh of relief as it says, “Thank God, she bought us back. Why did it take her so long?”
And in the moments between that recognition and the deck of Zillie’s with a glass of French chardonnay in my hand and a platter of cheese and crackers, I had the plans laid out to buy a summer house in Ocracoke and spend the rest of the year just roaming the world again.
The Soul really doesn’t want for much. It doesn’t need the mansion on the hill, or the flashy sports car and Gucci handbag, it just wants to breathe with the pulse of life and the rhythm of nature, slowly and effortlessly.
All of this within the first few hours of our four-day trip to Ocracoke, NC.
It’s a good thing that it takes a little bit more of an effort to get out here. It means there’s less chance of that mainland encroachment coming in to overshadow what makes this island Ocracoke.
I’m going to map out our Ocracoke adventures in an upcoming blog post so you can have an even more relaxing experience and connect more deeply to island time.
First let’s share more reasons why Ocracoke, on the southern tip of the Outer Banks, is the perfect choice for your next beach vacation.
Best Beach in the USA
Ever wanted to step foot on the best beach in the USA? Cycle less than 10-minutes from Ocracoke Village and you’ll be on it. Lifeguarded Beach was voted best beach in America in 2022 by coastal scientist Dr Beach.
With a name like that you can feel confident in his choice. It is science after all, and he uses a list of 50 criteria to rank the beaches.
He releases his list each year, and Lifeguarded Beach won it mostly because it has three things that you must have to make a great beach: clean sand, clean water, and beach safety.
To be honest, head a little further south from Lifeguarded Beach towards South Point and the beach will be even better, with less people!
You’ll need a 4WD drive to get down here, and it’s closed at certain times of the year due to nesting turtles and birds. Time it right and you’ll have perfection!
If you need a ride, phone Ray Stallings – he was our 4WD tour guide who took us down there! It was possibly the widest beach I’ve ever seen. It felt like we were driving through a desert.
Phone or text Ray: 252-908-2994 for a beach driving tour or beach and ferry shuttle services.
The Pristine Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the country’s first coastal preservation area. It includes the important barrier islands along a 70-mile stretch of the North Carolina’s coast in the Outer Banks region.
People visit for its wild natural habitats and endless activities such as beach fishing, kiteboarding, surfing, swimming, windsurfing, crabbing, shell-collecting, kayaking and paddle boarding, camping, and beach driving. It’s one of the most unique places in North Carolina.
Most of Ocracoke Island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, publicly owned and administered by the National Park Service.
This means the outstanding natural beauty and wildlife is protected and will forever be wild and pristine. It’s yours to enjoy with honor and reverence.
A Great Base in Ocracoke Village
The elbow-shaped Ocracoke Village is also picturesque with its location on Silver Lake and Pamlico Sound. The village is dominated by Southern Live Oaks lining the narrow lanes and streets, many of them hundreds of years old.
From grocery stores to restaurants, a brewery and a marina, Ocracoke has everything you need and nothing more. Excess doesn’t belong here.
Sunrise and Sunset
On Ocracoke, you also have time to appreciate the magnificence of a sunrise and sunset over the water.
Whether you choose to view it over the ocean or sound, it will be vibrant and quiet. Then you can slip down unnoticed at night to Lifeguarded Beach to view the Milky Way. We’re saving that for our next visit.
What do you want to do? Kayak, paddle board, surf fishing, hiking, bike riding, kite surfing, shelling, parasailing, even surfing?
You can do it all here on Ocracoke Island. And like all the barrier islands in North Carolina you get the choice of the wild Atlantic Ocean surf or the quieter waters and salt marshes of the Intracoastal Waterways and Pamlico Sound.
Getting around on bikes
I’ve said it repeatedly on our travel blog for 13 years now; our favorite destinations are always the ones where you can trade the car for the open-air breeze on a bike. There’s something about it that instantly relaxes you and changes your perspective. I guess I should clarify that this happens mostly in flat destinations!
You’re on a barrier island, it’s all flat, so hire a bike and enjoy getting around the island on it. It’s so easy and you’ll feel like an outcast if you don’t. I love how every single business and point of interest had bike racks out the front, and cruising around on two wheels was one of our favorite things to do on Ocracoke Island.
We even cycled 20-minutes on the Highway 12 paved bike path to take a hike at Hammock Hill (no not really a hill!). You can easily bike to Lifeguarded Beach!
And of course, the golf carts are fun too. Our girls preferred getting around on the back of that, while I preferred the bikes. Although our teen did enjoy the biking part! And yes, you can rent bikes and golf carts on the island – ours came via our vacation home from Blue Heron Realty.
I know you’ll be distracted by beaches, marshes, and radiant sunshine, but gift yourself time to learn about the fascinating history of Ocracoke and the Outer Banks.
Springer’s Point on Ocracoke was Blackbeard’s favorite anchorage, where he held the biggest pirate party known, and where he eventually met his end. Privateering and piracy were big in the Outer Banks. (We had previously learned a lot about Blackbeard on a visit to Manteo and Beaufort, NC).
As was shipping. Portsmouth Island just off Ocracoke used to be the biggest port until ships found an easier passage to navigate up near Nags Head and it became a ghost town. You can jump on a transfer boat to explore the island and abandoned village.
Did you know that German submarines during World War II were just offshore here in Ocracoke and the Outer Banks? No. That’s okay because at the time, the US military didn’t want you to know for fear of the panic that could set in.
Well one was destroyed, and some British soldiers who died helping protect the US borders now lie buried with honor in a British Cemetery in the village and a special ceremony is conducted each May for them. I’ll let Ray from our 4WD tour tell you what happened to the German soldiers!
Then there is the recent history – Hurricane Dorian, Ocracoke’s most destructive storm that damaged 40% of the buildings in town in September of 2018. You will frequently hear stories of before and after Dorian and still see the aftereffects with buildings still being raised and certain businesses still closed or gone.
Slow, Local and Simple
As mentioned, you won’t find a single chain on Ocracoke, or high-rise building.
Ocracoke tells only a local story of simplicity and slow living. There’ll be traffic, but it will mostly be bikes weaving in between the golf carts and walkers. And it’s only really at peak during the three times each day the ferry comes in and out.
Surprisingly, by 9pm most of the restaurants and bars are closed and the night quietly slips into the serenity of starry skies. Well at least that’s how it was when we visited on Spring Break – not quite summer peaks.
We loved our vacation rental, Mr. Billy’s Cottage through Blue Heron Realty, in a lane off Back Road in the village. We could access everywhere within five minutes of biking, golf carting, or walking.
You can use the map below to help you find more accommodation on Ocracoke.
Bohemian Pirate Vibe
I’m still trying to find the right words to describe the personality of Ocracoke. It’s very different from the rest of the Outer Banks and feels like an emerging bohemian vibe, but not like Boho-California – it’s more grounded, earthy, and organic with a touch of the untamed pirate. Kinda more like Bohemian Australia.
It’s fully tuned into nature, because it has to deal with the shifting sands of the barrier island that decide if it wants to stay or go, along with the hurricanes that dictate what stays and goes.
There’s a long-standing tradition mixed in with the natives and the locals (those welcomed as locals by the natives and generally need a few years of settling in before so claimed!) But the new energy of transients and visitors is here too.
You can see it through the incredible original artwork, jewelry (I couldn’t resist Sea Break in the Community square!), and clothes on display in the various boutique stores and art galleries.
And you can feel it in the Ocracoke Island yoga classes that invite you to stretch out, relax and slip into Zen. It was Savannah’s first time doing yoga and she loved it.
I think the yoga quote on their website sums up the spirit of an Ocracoke Island vacation, “to open up our hearts and focus our awareness so that we can know what we already know and be who we already are.” Rolf Gates
I felt more at home here in Ocracoke than any other place in the Outer Banks so far (even though I love them all!)
Great Food + Drink
You’ll be surprised by the quality of the food on Ocracoke Island and the wide variety of cuisines from Greek to Thai.
Of course, seafood shines on a barrier island and on Ocracoke you’ll find plenty of blackened fish of the day from mahi mahi to tuna and drum. It all depends on what is seasonally running – just ask the locals and watch the fisherman haul them to shore at the marina.
This area is part of the North Carolina oyster trail – bucket list time check. We enjoyed some delicious oysters from Cedar Island at Ocracoke Oyster Company.
Any Californian or Texan visiting Ocracoke will be delighted to know they can get delicious breakfast burritos from the colorful Eduardo’s Taco Stand food truck.
While the coffee did not meet our Australian coffee snob high standards, it wasn’t too bad and none took an early exit to the trash, which does happen way too frequently on our travels in the USA.
Beer lovers will be stoked with the local brews on offer at the 1718 Brewing on their outside deck with sunset views. Grab a flight like Craig did to sample a few.
I was thrilled with their Wild Pony White which was a dry Chardonnay and Pinot Gris-based blend from Sanctuary Vineyards up on the Northern Outer Banks.
Who’d have thought OBX would have seriously good white wine. (Fun fact, the brewery is named after the year Blackbeard died!)
Don’t leave the island before having a passionfruit – or mango if you prefer- mimosa from SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar & Grill with marina and sunset views.
Cool Locals with Stories to Tell
Take time to chat with the locals – whether that’s a native o’Cocker or someone who’s lived on the island for several years. They are what help make up the spirit of Ocracoke Island NC and listening to their stories is how you can feel more deeply connected to it.
It’s from the sommelier at Zillie’s wine bar that I learned what the sign in their store “no pickum the figums‘ ‘ meant. It’s for tourists who don’t understand their boundaries and pick the fruit from the native fig trees growing all over the island.
It’s how we learned all about Blackbeard’s pewter plates and the Spanish revolver from the late 1600s from Chester Lynn as he sat in his living room and told us stories of his antique collection.
His store, Annabelle’s Florist and Antiques on Back Road is also the home in which he was born and raised. In his thick Ocracoke brogue, he told us he finds them because “most people don’t know the treasures they hold” and he’s prepared to do “the hard research to uncover the stories.”
Captain Rob told us not just the history and stories of Portsmouth Island and Blackbeard as we navigated the high winds aboard his schooner, Windfall II, but also about his life and adventures as a sailor coming in and out of his Ocracoke Island home, where he first came as a young boy on vacation catching the old mailboat in.
Helena from Visit Ocracoke shared many stories and insights of life on Ocracoke – one that has kept her here for 17 years running the famous Blackbeard’s Lodge to now sharing the beauty of their small island with the world!
And Ray, a local who earned that title after a few years, brought Ocracoke alive with his stories of history and folklore in the three hours we spent with him cruising up and down the beach and through the village on his 4WD tour. I could have listened to Ray and his gentle, grounded spirit all day!
Ocracoke is more than just a 16-mile-long stretch of paradise, this tiny village made up of less than a thousand people in an area you can bike ride around in less than 10-minutes, is rich with fascinating history and stories!
Let your Soul be called
Take the time to be a traveler, not a tourist on Ocracoke Island. Make the journey more than just checking off those souvenir photos. It’s about letting the destination you’re in seep into your soul, make it richer, and give you a deeper sense of belonging, even though it’s a community you’re passing through. These are the memories that will stay with you for a lifetime!
I’m pretty sure this tiny barrier island in the Outer Banks will continue to call our wild traveler spirits back again and again.
Now you have time to figure out if it’s an island that calls your soul, home. If so, stay tuned as very soon we’ll have our other Ocracoke guides published, which will help you plan your days on the island and figure out logistics like how to get there and where to stay!