The Secret Is Out

By Eve Zibart
Friday, August 17, 2007

For decades, Ocracoke Island was the Assateague of the Outer Banks, complete with 15 miles of beach, clamming and crabbing, its own herd of wild ponies and, even wilder, the headless ghost of Blackbeard the pirate. But these days, it's also the Chincoteague, the town's narrow streets filled with condos, sweet shops, craft boutiques, Wi-Fi coffee shops, scooters and water-bike rentals, even a Thai restaurant.

Only the original village of Ocracoke is developed; all the rest is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore preserve. Traditionally, visitors rented cottages or guest houses or camped out. There were a few motels, all of which had to be locally owned; "no chains" was a local slogan.

But in recent years, Ocracoke's quaint village and sweeping beaches have been discovered. Starting several years ago, it appeared on Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman's list of America's best beaches, moving in the last three years from No. 3 to 2 to this year's top pick. By the Fourth of July, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry had carried 8,000 more vehicles -- most bearing several passengers -- across to the island than at the same time last year. (There's also a small airstrip.) Multi-story hotels and inns, condo developments, B&Bs and day spas have sprouted up, although at least the "no franchise" rule still applies. RV lots are full, and Park Service campsites are in such demand that they are the only ones on the Cape Hatteras seashore that require reservations. What is in the off-season a town of fewer than 800 self-styled "O'cockers" swells to as many as 8,000 "dingbatters" -- the local term for off-islanders. It's so crowded now that some locals have taken to boating over to the sandfill island in Hatteras Inlet nicknamed Dredge Island instead.

Tourists jam the village's narrow lanes, some of which are still mostly sand or paved only with crushed oyster shells. Development has so driven up property values that some residents are moving into their own RVs and renting out their houses, and many of the smaller shops have been replaced by upscale ones. (When the wholesale fish house and market on Silver Lake closed in 2005, local fishermen, long the mainstay of the Ocracoke economy, feared for their livelihood; it took a nonprofit group to rescue and reopen it.)

Still, once free of the madding crowd, visitors to the island must concede the attractions -- beginning with the beach. On either side of Highway 12, which runs directly from the ferry to the village, surfers, kayakers, shellers and old-fashioned sun lovers park their cars and head for the water. (Driving is allowed on the beaches here, and there are ramps for four-wheel-drive vehicles.) Fishing is so popular that the ferry is packed with vehicles whose grills bristle with rods.

On the west side of the village is Silver Lake, the natural harbor and heart of town; on the other side of town is Oyster Creek. The National Park Service visitors center (252-928-4531), where you can pick up a walking tour of town or "buy" a wild pony for $25; the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum (252-928-7375), a late 19th-century home moved from the waterfront in 1989 and furnished in 1930s and '40s style; and the old Coast Guard station are at the end of Route 12 on the north side of Silver Lake, and the harbor is ringed with charter boats, parasailing and water sports outlets and souvenir shops.

The village was originally known as Pilot Town, because the shoals and shallows of the area were so tricky that in the early to mid-18th century, a handful of pilots who could navigate them were encouraged to settle there. Later pilots (many direct descendants and with names still common in town) proved crucial to supplying Washington's Revolutionary army.

Even so, more than 1,000 ships lie wrecked off the island. Not a few of them were victims of pirates and mercenary privateers whose marauding from the Carolinas to the Caribbean obliged the squabbling crowns of Britain, France and Spain, who were happy to see their rivals' wealthy merchant ships emptied or military vessels disabled.

Edward Drummond, a.k.a. Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, was the most notorious of the buccaneers, and perhaps one of the first great beach barbecuers: In 1718, Blackbeard, who had a home on Ocracoke (and may have buried his treasure here), held a legendary pig roast and rum rumble for his fellow pirate captains and crews. Only a month later, he was killed in a duel with British Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard, who cut off his head, hung it from the bowsprit and tossed the body overboard -- whereupon the vengeful and unrepentant corpse, which had survived two dozen wounds, including five gunshots, reportedly swam seven times around the ship. The area where he died, just off the lighthouse, is now called Teach's Hole. The Blackbeard exhibit and pirate shop is also called Teach's Hole (Highway 12 at West End Road; 252-928-1718).

The first lighthouse on Ocracoke was completed in 1798, but survived only 20 years before being struck by lightning. The one that stands now dates to 1823, making it the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country; it's only 75 feet tall and visible for only 14 miles. (It's not open to the public.)

Ocracoke's wild horses, known as Banker ponies, may be descendants of the only survivors of the Lost Colony, but development has caught up to them, and they no longer roam free as they do in Assateague or Corolla. Instead, they're in a protective pen on the road between the ferry and town, where they can be observed without danger.

A 20-minute boat ride south of Ocracoke is Portsmouth Island, home to a ghost town of a museum. In the mid-18th century, Portsmouth was a major marine settlement, where large ships unloaded their cargo onto flatboats so they could pass through Ocracoke Inlet. But once a hurricane opened the deeper Hatteras Inlet, Portsmouth began to decline, and the last two residents departed in 1971. You can walk through the restored church, schoolhouse, visitors center, Coast Guard station and post office. Charters go to Portsmouth, or you can rent a kayak. Shell collectors, note: This is prime territory, where rare Scotch bonnets, the state shell, may turn up intact. Deepwater Theater (off School Road; 252-928-4280) is a music club and sometimes yoga studio belonging to Molasses Creek, a bluegrass-folk-fusion trio that came in second in the 2000 "Prairie Home Companion's" Towns Under 2000 talent competition; the band plays Thursdays. Although only a few restaurants in town have taken advantage of new liquor-by-the-drink regulations, the upscale Back Porch has added a wine bar (110 Back Rd.; 252-928-6401), Howard's Pub & Raw Bar (1175 Hwy. 12; 252-928-4441) has a list of more than 200 beers and the new Mango Loco's (1050 Hwy. 12; 252-928-2874) Mexican-Caribbean restaurant is Ocracoke's version of Margaritaville.

HOT TIP: Sunday brunch with marsh views at Cafe Atlantic (1129 Hwy. 12; 252-928-4861); crab beignets at the Back Porch.

Staff writer Eve Zibart recently adopted Ocracoke Banker pony Luna.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company