Ocracoke Island, From an Outsider's Perspective

Ocracoke Island, From an Outsider's Perspective
In the summer of 2012, something monumental occurred in my life: I decided to stay overnight on Ocracoke Island.

By John Soltes

From a local's perspective, this decision to stay a few extra hours off Hatteras Island must seem laughably trivial. But for this lifelong OBX tourist, it was profound.

My family has routinely set up camp in Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras, and we relegated our visits to Ocracoke as day trips, like so many other sunscreen travelers looking for a break from the waves.

It was always the same ...

We headed down Route 12, passed the familiar sights, and waited a seemingly impossible length of time for our passage on the ferry system. My family is the type that likes to conserve gas, so while waiting in those lines, my father would turn off the car and roll down the windows. The beautiful breeze coming off the Pamlico Sound was lost on me as a child. I wanted ice cream, air conditioning and chilled bottle water. I wanted to go back to our rented house and the warm sand of the beach. 

After waiting what seemed like an eternity, we boarded the ferry and headed south to the island. The trip on the boat was always enjoyable. Getting out of the car, squeezing by our vehicular neighbors and taking in the blue view were all necessary. Seagulls followed us, hopeful for a spare potato chip or crumble of bread.

Forty-five minutes later, we docked in Ocracoke. The family was ready to enjoy the island, at least for a few hours. We headed past the ponies, spotted the egrets bobbing their way through the wetlands and typically pulled into Howard's Pub for a few sandwiches and some conch fritters.

Throughout these trips we were definitely part of the "tourist" bunch and not the "local" crowd. It's funny vacationing in the same spot for nearly 20 years. As many times as we've travelled to the Outer Banks, there's always that simultaneous feeling of separation and welcomeness. I suppose we're closer to becoming native than the average tourist, but far from a true islander. 

Inevitably we waited in line at Howard's Pub. Apparently we weren't the only family to make a similar trek. The cool liquids and hot food helped calm the mounting frustration.

Usually, right around 3 p.m., the family would begin the complaints. The traffic in town was getting to be too much. The parking was becoming difficult. Every restaurant and store seemed packed and wanting of our money. Our "lovely day trip" facade began to crumble, and we began to wish for the safety and security of Hatteras Island again.

After touring the usual sights (the lighthouse and British cemetery were required), we shopped at a few stores, bought a couple T-shirts and headed back the same way we came. We passed those same ponies, those same egrets and boarded the ferry, putting a final exclamation point on our day.

That was before, and then 2012 happened. My sister and I decided to break from tradition and head down to the Outer Banks for a few days before the family arrived. We could have easily stayed in any number of OBX towns from Kitty Hawk to Frisco. The hotel options were numerous in our usual stomping grounds, but we decided something different was in order, something exciting and novel. We decided to rediscover the gem of the East Coast.

After booking a few nights at the Ocracoke Harbor Inn, we made the same trek we had been making for 20 years. We headed down Route 12, saying goodbye to reality for several days. We boarded the ferry, but this time with the knowledge that there was no rush to return. Those ponies and egrets, they became more welcoming, almost smiling as we passed. 

We pulled into our hotel's parking lot, checked in, signed the required forms and headed to our second-floor room with a balcony view. Then, my sister and I did something we never imagined doing in our lifetime: With the sun glimmering on Silver Lake, we took a nap on Ocracoke Island. We had arrived, and now we had stayed.

Over the next few days, with memories of the Fourth of July still fresh on the island, we explored areas both new and old. We sat down for a meal at The Back Porch, relishing the chance to enjoy crab beignets and not worrying about running out of the restaurant to catch the ferry. We took in live music at the Jolly Roger Pub & Marina, sipping on a local brew and devouring a basket of beer-battered onion rings. We had the chance to experience Dajio, the new establishment in town. We ventured into Springer's Point Nature Preserve and have the mosquito bites to prove it. We traveled down every road, said hello to most local merchants and tried to understand the fabric of the community.

Most experiences on our Ocracoke bucket list (experiences we didn't even know were necessary) were ticked off: ate some pickled okra, learned the lyrics to "Ocracoma," had too many "Nuts and Jolts" smoothies at the Ocracoke Coffee Company, compared real estate listings and found Howard Street, which seemed to be imaginary on earlier visits.

The pendulum had swung the other way. We were no longer part of that slightly annoying breed of tourists, those who head down Route 12, sunscreen and beach chairs in tow, looking for a day of fun in the sun. We were one step closer to being "local," to being a more permanent part of the community. We weren't fooling ourselves. We were still tourists, just more educated, more experienced.

As we left Ocracoke after spending a few nights in 2012, the ferry ride offered a perfect chance of reflection. There were many thoughts that floated through the minds of my sister and I, but none more profound than our new promise to each other: From here on out, we would stay overnight on Ocracoke Island and bring the family along with us.   Our reservations for a week-long stay in 2013 are already booked. We may only spend one week a year on the island, but we have 51 other weeks to dream about going back.     Editors' note: John wrote to us back in January offering to write a piece on "why vacationers/visitors should consider Ocracoke Island for more than a few hours." We couldn't agree with him more! 
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