When you spend most of your time on the east coast of the United States it’s easy to feel like you may be alone in having never been to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s common to see round oval shaped stickers on cars with “OBX” in big black letters in the center as a badge of honor having vacationed there. This elbow-shaped area of islands is full of adventure. But what to expect on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks for a first time trip?
Essential Guide for Your First Visit to Ocracoke Island
How to Get There
Ocracoke is a 16-mile long barrier island that is part of The Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands off the east coast of North Carolina. Since they’re small the easiest way to get there is in a vehicle or private boat, unless you’re able to charter a small “puddle jumper” plane. For purposes of this post I’m going to discuss arriving by car, which is the most popular way to travel there.
We drove from Raleigh, the state’s capitol in central North Carolina, while our friends came from Charleston, South Carolina. We drove a southeastern route coming from northwest that took approximately four hours, excluding our ferry ride. It’s key to understand you’ll have to take a ferry to get to Ocracoke Island after driving on the barrier islands (for instance where Kitty Hawk and Nags Head are) in terms of what to expect on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks. Our friends from Charleston drove a northeast route coming from the south that was about seven hours, to a different ferry (there are three ferry options for Ocracoke).
We input “Hatteras Ferry Terminal, NC” into our GPS at 9:45am and hit the gas. We drove east on Route 64 for about three hours. One of the most notable stops we made was at Roanoke Island, the first island you need to cross to get to the Outer Banks driving from the north. I highly recommend stopping in the visitors center – we got so much great information there and the staff couldn’t have been nicer!
Did you know Roanoke Island was where the first English settlement was, back in the 1580’s?!
Shortly after you cross over Roanoke Island you get to Route 12. To get to Hatteras you head south. You’ll soon be on Outer Banks Scenic Byway, one of only 150 nationally designated byways in the US.
What is a byway, you ask? I was curious too! In the US it’s a minor roadway recognized by the Department of Transportation for its historic qualities.
The Hatteras Ferry to Ocracoke is free. During peak season (which begins mid-May) they run every 30 min from 5:00am to midnight. Ferry schedules are available online here.
You drive your car onto the ferry and you can either stay in your car (with the windows open, engine off) or move about the ferry during the one hour ride to Ocracoke. If you’re curious, as I was, there are bathrooms at the front of the ferry terminal area as well as on the ferry.
Once you arrive to Ocracoke Island you simply drive off the boat. The ride to Ocracoke village is approximately 20 minutes. We ended up on a 2:00pm ferry, arrived at the island at 3:00pm, and were at our weekend house rental by 3:30pm.
Another ferry option a paid one. This option has larger ferries; it’s recommended you reserve your space online ahead of time especially during peak season. Our friends took the Swan Quarter Ferry, which takes about two and a half hours from the ferry terminal to Ocracoke Island. The Cedar Island Ferry, a third similar option, takes the same time.
Where to Stay
We reserved a house with a few friends for Memorial Day holiday weekend, from Friday to Monday, three nights and three days. My friend found our weekend home on VRBO; we stayed in a historic house on Howard Street, the oldest street in Ocracoke that dated back to 1888, called “Elsie’s House.” Luckily it was well maintained and had been updated since the 19th century!
What to expect on Ocracoke Island in terms of accommodations is lots of house rentals and some hotels. It seemed just about every home on the island was available to rent either from VRBO or Ocracoke Island Realty. There are also a few hotels and motels there that looked very cute, especially the ones with balconies. Two that looked great were The Anchorage Inn & Marina and Captain’s Landing. (Though I can’t speak from personally experience being inside – I only viewed the exterior and location.) Some of the hotels had private pools that looked very refreshing! Remember though: the beach is always only a walk or drive away on Ocracoke Island.
Where to Play
Overall this is a relaxing trip. You’re not going to be rushing between tourist attractions or sites. But here’s some things to do that will keep you occupied if you’re craving adventure:
- Fishing is popular on the beach and by charter. We saw a few boats that had posted their available openings for the day even if you don’t make a reservation in advance. You must obtain an “ORV” or Off Road Vehicle permit from the National Park Service (NPS) if you wish to drive your vehicle onto the shore to fish on the beach. It is $50 for 10 days or available by annual pass. Passes can be obtained on the island at the NPS desk at the Ocracoke Island Visitors Center. Driving on the beach without a permit is a federal offense and you’ll face hefty fines if they catch you without the permit so be sure to get one! And don’t forget to print and tape it to your front window if you do.
- Navigate the town with this free audio tour by Ocracoke Navigator. I loved learning more about the area’s history this way.
- Take a walk or run. The village is really cute and stumbling upon houses like the one below made me (and my camera) smile. The morning is the best time of day to walk around during late spring and summer, before high temperatures and humidity reach their peak.
- Rent a bike or golf cart. Both are available to rent by the hour from a variety of locations in town per day or week. It’s an incredibly bicycle friendly and golf-cart accessible community.
- Surf or kayak. You can ride the waves of Pamlico Sound, the largest lagoon in the North American east coast. Ride the Wind surf shop has boards and kayaks to rent and private or group surf lessons are also available.
- There are a few galleries on the island I enjoyed walking around. Down Creek Gallery at 260 Irvin Garrish Highway had an impressive and well curated collection of art.
- Fly a kite. Maybe it sounds odd and a nod to your yesteryear kind of days. Yet we saw a few people flying kites on the beach and we were jealous we didn’t have one.
- Visit Ocracoke Lighthouse. We loved visiting during golden hour, about an hour before sunset, to take some spectacular photos.
- Drive to see the Ocracoke Pony Pen. These horses once roamed freely on the island. Now they can be seen in their fenced-in pony pen. Go during “business hours” during the day because they put the ponies in stables every night. They’re taken out to the small pasture in the morning.
- Listen to live music. Many places, like Dajios and Gaffer’s, often have live solo artists and bands, especially on evenings during the weekend.
- Watch the sunset over the harbor. This was also a highlight for us! Grab a beer at Jolly Roger Pub & Marina and enjoy the view.
Where to Eat
Most of the time we took advantage of the kitchen in our VRBO for meals. However, for what to expect on Ocracoke Island for food is plenty of places to eat! Our friends spoke very highly of a meal they had at The Flying Melon and we loved our happy hour clam box from Ocracoke Bar and Grill. We also really enjoyed grabbing a drink and experiencing the neighborhood view from the patio of Zillie’s Island Pantry, which has wine, beer, various gourmet provisions, and cigars for purchase.
It’s also helpful to know the shops we passed on Route 12 South to Hatteras in case you are unable to grocery shop at home beforehand or need to pick up a few things on the island or just before the ferry. The shops include Dollar General, a few gas stations (for best prices on gas load up before reaching the island as prices start to rise the closer you get to isolation), Ace Hardware, Food Lion, and Subway.
There were also plenty of mom and pop seafood markets, bait shops, restaurants and ice cream and coffee shops on the island, like The Magic Bean, where we purchased a much needed iced coffee one morning. Variety Store Groceries is in Ocracoke Village, open daily from 8:00am-9:00pm. There’s also an ABC Liquor Store next to the grocery shop on the island.
What to Pack
It’s necessary to pack all the usual things for your beach vacation, of course. But here’s some additional things you may not remember or haven’t thought of:
- Bug spray: man, it’s BUGGY out there! I don’t want to brag but bugs love me, so bug spray is essential.
- Sunscreen: you need it. Don’t forget it!
- Aloe gel: in case you forget the above or simply underestimate how many times you need to reapply to avoid sunburns.
- Kite: it’s usually windy on the island (which is part of the reason the Wright Brothers favored traveling to The Outer Banks from Ohio for their famous “first flight”) so flying a kite is ideal here…and a very fun thing to do on the beach.
- Towels and sheets: depending on your VRBO rental or apartment listing you may need to bring your own. (We had to bring sheets and opted to bring pillows to for our VRBO.) Perhaps your accommodations don’t require you to bring all of the above but it’s worth double-checking before you go.
- Your favorite groceries: there is a grocery store on the island (as mentioned above) but if there’s anything special you want, like your favorite specialty cereal for the mornings, you may want to bring it. We packed our car full of groceries and beer before we left our home city.
- Tripod: if you’re into photography at all bring a tripod. If there a clear night sky the stars are beautiful there. I didn’t have my tripod with me and I wish I brought it. I did, however, manage to get this beautiful evening photo with the help of the fence right next to me. You can even see the moon!
Click here for more information on the Outer Banks. For other awesome things to do in North Carolina check out:
- What to do on a Rainy Day in Boone, North Carolina
- Top Spots to Indulge in Asheville’s Brews and Art Views
- 21c Museum Hotel in Durham
Have you been to Ocracoke Island or the Outer Banks?