It may only be accessible by boat or by air, but Ocracoke Island is a special place in the southernmost part of the Outer Banks that is definitely worth exploring. Most visitors take their car onto the ferry that runs between Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands. Once here, Ocracoke Island offers 12 miles of wide, tranquil beaches, quaint shopping and dining in Ocracoke Village, and stimulating folklore involving one of history’s most storied pirates.
Enjoy Yourself in Ocracoke Village
Welcome to the laid-back lifestyle of Ocracoke Village. This quaint harbor town is home to eclectic shops, restaurants and activities. The village is only about a mile long, so it is really easy to get around by walking, biking or even by cruising in a golf cart! Museums and exhibits that are worth exploring are located in and around the village. Stop by the Ocracoke Preservation Museum and see the Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Exhibit to learn more about the history of the island and its people. Pirate-themed gifts and stories of the notorious pirate Blackbeard can be discovered at Teach’s Hole Blackbeard Exhibit. There is even a little plot of land that is leased to England. The British Cemetery honors our fallen allies who helped defend the American coast from German U-boats during WWII.
Walk the Grounds of the Ocracoke Lighthouse
While in town, don’t forget to stop by the Ocracoke Lighthouse to stroll around its picturesque grounds. Built in 1823, it is the second oldest lighthouse on the East Coast that has been continually operated. (The oldest is in Sandy Hook, New Jersey.) With its distinctive solid white tower and fixed beam that can be seen 14 miles out to sea, it has been guiding ships into Silver Lake, the scenic harbor surrounded by the village of Ocracoke, for nearly 200 years. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is not open for climbing, but the grounds are beautiful, so bring your camera and take a few photos while you’re there.
Visit With Ponies
The Banker ponies are likely the island’s most popular residents. It’s believed that their ancestors came to this area with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Over time, the Ocracoke Banker ponies evolved to become a breed unto themselves. They are unique in that their bone structure, specifically their vertebrae and ribs and therefore their outward appearance, is different from any other breed. They were once a free-roaming herd but in the 1950s, the need to pen them became apparent for their own well-being and to prevent overgrazing. These beautiful creatures can be seen in the Pony Pen off Highway 12 on the outskirts of Ocracoke Village.
If you’re interested in helping to support the Ocracoke pony herd, you can adopt a pony in person at the NPS Ocracoke Island Visitor Center located in the village of Ocracoke, or by mail. Donations are used exclusively to help defray the costs of veterinary care, feed and hay, and the repair of the pony pasture and facilities.
Explore Teach’s Hole
While on Ocracoke, visit the former stomping grounds of the infamous pirate, Edward Teach—better known as Blackbeard. During his brief career of piracy in the Carolinas, one of Blackbeard’s favorite anchorages was in a channel now called “Teach’s Hole” on the south end of Ocracoke Island. It’s a stretch of water that connects the Atlantic Ocean and Ocracoke Inlet with the deeper waters of the Pamlico Sound—the perfect deep-water anchorage in the midst of a commercial shipping lane. And the land adjacent to Teach’s Hole is high-ground, covered with thick, tall trees—the perfect place for pirates to keep a lookout for approaching vessels.
In the early 1700s, Blackbeard and his crew ferociously plundered ships traversing the colonies. He was an intimidating character with a deplorable reputation who could easily scare his opponents into surrendering. Nowadays, visitors can walk through Springer’s Point Nature Preserve and imagine themselves among the pirates who once walked this land, drinking their rum and maybe even burying their treasure.
Portsmouth IslandTo take a tour of a ghost town from the turn of the 20th century, visit Portsmouth Island south of Ocracoke. Accessible only by boat, visitors can walk around the town that has been abandoned for nearly 50 years. Back in the late 1800s, it was a thriving town of 700 people. They worked to help incoming ships pass through the shallow inlet by “lightering” the boats (taking cargo off to lighten the ship and reloading it when the ship cleared the inlet). In 1894, a U.S. Life-Saving Station was established but only lasted 43 years. While the island was inhabited in its later years, it never had paved roads, nor did it have electricity—unlike neighboring Ocracoke. Eventually, residents of Portsmouth Island left their homes due to threats of weather and poor access to the modern world. The last two residents left in 1971, leaving behind a trace of the town that was. Now, it is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and the village is being preserved. Several buildings are open to the public and a Visitors Center was built for the comfort of the island’s visitors. If you visit, be sure to bring water, sunblock and bug-spray.
To find out more about Ocracoke Island, be sure to check out Sunny Day's Guide to Hatteras & Ocracoke.