The #1 Beach in America by Jamie Tunnell
Discover the beauty of Ocracoke Island on North Carolina’s historic Outer Banks. Infamous beach aficionado Stephen Leatherman (aka “Dr. Beach”) did in 2007 and named the remote island the number 1 beach in America. Conde Naste Traveler magazine followed suit and recognized tiny Ocracoke as the number 5 beach in the world!
The pristine unspoiled seaside beaches stretch along 16 miles of the island. Owned by the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and maintained by the National Park Service, this pristine environment provides the perfect summer venue for swimming, surf fishing, surfing and boating. Because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream, Ocracoke’s temperate weather also welcomes vacationers the rest of the year. World-class shelling, biking, bird-watching and kayaking are just a few of the activities that await “off-season” visitors.
The village of Ocracoke at the southern tip of the island is accessible only by private plane, private boat, or one of the state-run ferries from Cedar Island, Swan Quarter, and Hatteras Village. These limited modes of access have helped preserve the prominent Old English-inspired brogue of the local residents and the old-time island way of life.
Until the 1950s, the island’s residents lived in relative isolation. Their contact with the mainland was from daily trips by the mail boat. They made their living from fishing and hunting and as guides. Ocracoke had long been the destination of wealthy hunters and fishermen and of mainland families who could afford to summer in the cool breezes that the island offered, but it was not until Highway 12 was paved and scheduled ferry service was offered in 1957 that Ocracoke Island was truly discovered.
For a brief period during World War II, the Coast Guard station was transformed into a US Navy base. Beaches were closed, fishing was curtailed, homes and businesses were requisitioned, and the island’s lifestyle was interrupted. The war was witnessed firsthand offshore where “Torpedo Junction” claimed more than 60 ships during the first 6 months of 1942. The British Cemetery on Ocracoke serves as a reminder of this period and of the generosity of Ocracoke people. It holds the bodies of four young British soldiers who lost their lives when the HMC Bedfordshire was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Ocracoke coast. Island residents found and buried the bodies on donated land and maintained the graves.
The history of Ocracoke is rich in sea lore. Blackbeard, the infamous pirate who plundered the Carolina coast in the early 1700s, fought his last battle just off the island at Teach’s Hole, where he lost his head. Legend hints that his vast treasure may still be buried here. Ocracoke Inlet served as the main waterway at one time, forming port towns on Ocracoke and Portsmouth islands and spurring the growth of these coastal villages. Portsmouth Village, now a ghost town, is maintained by the Cape Lookout Park Service and can be toured. The oldest working lighthouse in North Carolina and one of the oldest on the East Coast has stood tall on Ocracoke since 1823, guiding ships along the treacherous Graveyard of the Atlantic.
The small community of 800 year-round residents works together to preserve the island’s culture and history. Learn about some of the first families of Ocracoke, its place in the Civil and World Wars, and island traditions at the Ocracoke Preservation Museum near the ferry docks. Local volunteers aid the National Park Service in the care of the famous Banker Ponies that once roamed free and numbered near 200. Today, the descendants are penned on a large track just off Highway 12 and can be observed in their natural habitat.
Over the years, Ocracoke has been transformed from an isolated fishing village into the perfect vacation spot. While enjoying the simplicity of island life at the speed of a stroll, visitors can sample gourmet food and local shops featuring distinctive retail, fine art, exquisite jewelry, and island-inspired clothing. Lodging accommodations range from simply appointed motels and homey bed and breakfasts to refined inns and luxurious suites. Rental cottages are also a popular choice for families and large groups. Reasonable rentals of bikes, boats, fishing gear, and beach gear are plentiful. Sunset cruises, musical performances, lectures, quilting, and even ghost walks are offered.
Come and experience island time at any time of the year.