If you love islands, visit this one. It is the jewel in North Carolina's crown.
Ocracoke Island is the next island south of Hatteras. But it's very different: no beach houses. None! All of the island's population - the 700 or so year-rounders and the thousands of summer visitors -- are clumped around the picturesque harbor, Silver Lake, on the soundside. The gorgeous Atlantic shore is part of the Hatteras National Seashore. Nothing but dunes, sea oats, and breaking waves for miles and miles. In Ocracoke village there are modern structures alongside old ones but no highrises and no McMansions. And this is the magic: there is NO road access. You take a car ferry to Ocracoke -- or your own boat -- or you don't go. If you take the ferry from Cedar Island or Swan Quarter on the mainland, you'll ride for more than 2 hours and lose all sight of land. When you arrive at Ocracoke on its thin sliver of sand, you know you've reached the end of the New World. Next stop, France! (In fact, there's a famous story of a North Carolina kayaker who capsized in Oregon Inlet farther north; months later his kayak did wash up in France with his wallet still aboard! CKC member Dawn was there; ask her to tell the story!)
The best time to go to Ocracoke is October, in my opinion. We were there the weekend before Hurricane Sandy drove a couple of feet of water up into Ocracoke village. For us, it was all warm water, blue skies, no crowds. We rented a pet-friendly cottage, quaint on the outside, modern enough within.
And here was a piece of yard art that hurt to see -- a beautiful, well-built wooden skiff. It was last registered in 2001. Lovely sheer line. The bottom has some rocker too. On Ocracoke these wooden skiffs have been replaced by flat-bottomed fiberglass Carolina Skiffs -- great commercial fishing platforms for the extremely shallow waters
of Pamlico Sound. But strangely enough, over on the mainland, from Cedar Island down to Harker's Island you still see these wooden skiffs floating on their moorings. They're in use even today. It pains me to see a great old wooden skiff left to rot. Better to give it a Viking funeral, I say, and send it up in flames. But I'm a landlubber and I'm in love with the beauty of wooden boats. Those watermen are not nearly so sentimental about the tools of their trade.
I went kayaking only one day during our 4 days on the island. The soundside was calm as glass on our first day, so that was my window of opportunity. North of the big pine hammock at mid-island, Hwy 12 crosses 5 salt creeks in quick succession.
One of them, Parker's, has a small sand landing by the bridge. That's where I launched. (Note: This is public land, but a commercial fisherman constructed the landing. If you go to Ocracoke, never block any water access, any sand road, with your car. Always park out of the way. We're visitors; the Ocracokers need water access to make their livings.)
It was early morning when I launched my light skin-on-frame kayak and began a slow paddle back down the sound to our cottage. The mirror-like water was light gray and the clouds were the identical color. There was no horizon line. The sound of voices from distant boats floated over the water to me, though I could barely see the boats. It was a great paddle that day. I saw one Peregrine Falcon up close as it flew low over Hwy 12, heading south. Falcons migrate with their prey, the shorebirds. I saw 3 Diamondback Terrapins and 1 sea turtle (species unknown) in the water. I also saw a greenish needlefish and 4 rays -- maybe stingrays but I'm not sure. My kayak floated just inches above the rays but they didn't move. Only their gill covers pulsed open and shut. For much of my paddle the water was barely a foot deep. For large stretches behind Ocracoke Island that's the depth for a mile offshore. You could get out and walk if you wanted. In fact, the Pamlico Sound is shallow overall; the deepest spot is 22 feet. The car ferries have to follow narrow dredged channels in and out of harbors.
Later we walked on the Atlantic beach where large swells crashed in. But the utter tranquility of that soundside paddle stayed with me for the rest of my time on Ocracoke.