Happy Wanderer: Ocracoke Island off North Carolina a hidden gem


HILLS NEWSPAPERS: MAY 14, 2010

As we head toward Memorial Day and the advent of summer, it’s not too early to plan an island vacation. And while most Californians think San Diego or Hawaii, one of America’s best beach destinations is worth a trip east.

Ocracoke Island is a vacationer’s paradise – rich in history and mystery and natural wonders. Even a scoundrel like Blackbeard knew a good thing when he saw it.

Accessible only by ferry, Ocracoke is the southernmost tip of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In the 2008 movie Nights in Rodanthe, Richard Gere rides the Ocracoke ferry – wind whipping his peppered mane as he surveys the sand dunes and sun-splashed sea.

But I digress. There is certainly more to this island than the dream of a romantic interlude with Richard Gere. Ocracoke has a fascinating, if not dark history.

For two long years, (1716-1718) the most villainous pirate on record roamed the waters off Ocracoke, plundering ships as they sailed, unsuspectingly, past his deadly lair. By all accounts he was the devil incarnate – he hissed through his teeth and set fire to pieces of hemp in his long, braided beard as he slashed the air with his axes and swords. He met his demise, not a moment too soon, in a battle with a British naval captain in a slough off of Ocracoke, but his legend – perhaps even his descendents – lives on.

For a variety of reasons, Ocracoke still embodies a rebellious spirit. Severed from the mainland, (a 45 minute ferry ride from Hatteras and a 2.25 hour ride from Cedar Island) it’s a remote spit of land where a bicycle can get you to most everything in town, including the beaches.

On the day I was there, my friend Jill and I stayed at The Castle at Silver Lake – an architecturally pleasing B & B that – you guessed it – resembles a castle. The innkeeper had complimentary bikes, so we grabbed a map and headed out with our purses in little baskets on thehandlebars.

Purses were necessary because of the charming and eclectic shops on the island – many of them in old Ocracoke homes on Howard Street (named after Blackbeard’s quartermaster who survived and actually owned the island after his boss’s be-heading).

We pedaled lazily through town, from the old British Cemetery to the conical white lighthouse, the oldest in North Carolina. We stopped at two museums, including Teach’s Hole, where the amiable owner showed us her extensive exhibit on Blackbeard – aka Edward Teach.

Much of Ocracoke’s character comes from the fact that it remains, to this day, an old-fashioned village. Since the 1940’s, all but 1000 acres of the original settlement are owned by the National Park Service.  This explains why the beaches are still pristine and why you don’t see the kind of sprawling resort settlement you see on many other islands.

We wrapped up our tour with a drive to the beach, down a dusty dirt road that promised to take us to paradise. It did not disappoint. There, the waves lapped the shores over what seemed like an endless stretch of azure blue water and golden sand. You can drive on the beach here, and some people do, but I just stood in gaping awe. The wind blowing through my peppered mane – I imagined myself on that ferry with Richard Gere – traveling through time to an island immersed in romance and history and steadfastly resisting change.

If you go: The Castle at Silver Lake http://www.thecastlebb.com/

Teach’s Hole http://www.teachshole.com/

Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau http://www.outerbanks.org

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