With Sunday’s wind and lashing rain behind us, we decided to venture down Route 12 to Ocracoke Island. Saturday’s balmy weather was replaced by Sunday’s almost tantrum-like storm only to be followed by a clear, cold day. It was like having three different seasons on as many consecutive days.
We piled into the car, snacks at the ready, and headed south. Ocracoke Island is a little over 85 miles from Nags Head, but Route 12 isn’t exactly contiguous. Our first stop was Bodie Island Lighthouse, at the start of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
After crossing the Oregon Inlet Bridge the land becomes more sparsely populated, especially in winter. Inspired by the visit to the Outer Banks Beachcomber Museum, we stopped just after the bridge to attempt a bit of beachcombing. There were indeed a great many shells washed ashore, but unfortunately the winds were still blowing and the 20-ish degree temps drove us back to the warmth of the car. Continuing south we passed through Rodanthe, Waves, and Avon, eventually reaching Hatteras and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Patrick, a lover of all things nautical, has told me about the lighthouse for years, perpetually impressed that the lighthouse was physically moved. All 12-stories were shifted 2,900 feet inland in 1999 due to increasing erosion. The Outer Banks are barrier islands and as such, they are subject to the whims of the sea. If the sea decides she wants to reclaim the land as hers she will and as such, the lighthouse was in jeopardy. The lighthouse is open in summer and visitors are invited to climb the 257 steps.
We continued on to the ferry dock and got in line for the 11am ferry to Ocracoke. The ferry is free to the public, transporting locals and tourists daily. In winter the ferries run hourly, weather permitting. During the high season they run more frequently, with locals taking priority. The crossing takes about an hour and even in winter there were a fair number of water birds to watch – including gannets, cormorants, and several kinds of terns and gulls.
Ocracoke was frequented by Native American tribes, explorers, and pirates before being permanently settled in 1750. It was a favorite spot of Blackbeard and it is where he met his end at the hands of Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard. After 250 years, locals are now quite fond of Blackbeard’s tourism dollars.
Once off the ferry there is a long stretch of road with dunes threatening to overtake the blacktop. Our first stop was the pony pens, where the remaining descendants of horses brought to America by Spanish sailors still roam semi-free. The horses have been in the care of the National Parks Service since 1960.
We drove around the small town of Ocracoke. There are homes, vacation spots, hotels, restaurants, and more surrounding the natural harbor of Silver Lake. We found the squat Ocracoke Lighthouse and visited the grounds. Then we found some majestic looking roosters. We stopped at Books to Be Red, a local bookstore with an impressive array of sidelines and local goods. I added to my bird reference guides, Garnet found a Boxcar Children book, and Patrick found two local histories. The store and grounds were welcoming and Garnet played on the tire swing cut into the shape of a shark.
It was warmer than it had been when we attempted to go beachcombing, but was nevertheless January and we walked across the street to The Magic Bean for coffee and hot drinks. Fortified, and with fresh reading material in hand, we headed north again.
It is easy to imagine how much fun it would be to visit the island in summer, but visiting in winter meant no crowds, no waiting to get on a ferry, no sunburn, and no traffic. Then again, the annual Ocracoke Fig Festival is in August and that sounds just weird enough to warrant another visit.