Where in the world is Ocracoke? For many mainlanders, the island accessible only by ferry, boat, or plane remains a mystery. For those who live there, it is home to past and present, change and stasis, a tight-knit village and wild woods filled with centuries of secrets.
The village occupies only about four square miles on the southern end of Ocracoke Island. The remaining 13 miles or so are preserved as part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, given over to marsh, beach, and maritime forest. Still, residents have the essentials, including a school, a doctor, fire and police departments, a grocery store — even a radio station and a bookstore. For everything else, they hop on a ferry to Hatteras, Swan Quarter, or Cedar Island. Without the bridges that connect most of North Carolina’s barrier islands to the mainland, Ocracokers depend on the strength of the bonds within their own community.
After the U.S. Navy laid the first paved road in 1942, more roads — and cars — followed. Drivers now follow NC Highway 12 to ferry docks at either end of the island. But the best way to get around Ocracoke is still by bike, golf cart, or your own two feet. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Kayaks and sailboats floating on Pamlico Sound echo seafaring vessels of the past: Centuries ago, Native Americans and colonial pilots found refuge on what is now the 122-acre Springer’s Point Nature Preserve. In the 1700s, the pirate Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) often visited from his home across the sound in Bath — and fought his final battle on nearby waters, known to this day as Teach’s Hole. Now, those who find the near-secret entrance to the preserve — tucked in a neighborhood on Loop Road — follow a sandy path through silvery maritime trees and down to the beach, walking in the footsteps of ponies and pirates.
A stay on Ocracoke is a beach vacation with a historical twist. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
On the coast, places of shelter are precious. The trees at Springer’s Point huddle together for protection against battering storms; within that dome of maritime forest, plants and wildlife flourish. A previous owner of the land, Sam Jones, chose not to develop it, recognizing that he could not improve upon its natural beauty. Today, the Coastal Land Trust ensures that Springer’s Point remains untouched and open to the public. For his part, Jones chose to be buried there with his beloved horse Ikey D, among ancient live oaks twisting their knobby arms toward the sun.
Find ancient live oaks at Springer’s Point. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
The island’s oldest and most famous street remains unpaved, its sandy ruts stabilized by shells and stones and centuries of foot traffic. Howard Street is still home to members of its namesake family, including Philip Howard and his daughter, Amy, and Philip’s store, Village Craftsmen. Philip started the business back in 1970, selling American-made crafts out of a tepee. He also runs a blog to preserve and share Ocracoke history, traditions, and culture. Storytelling runs in the family: Howard lore holds that William Howard, Philip’s fifth great-grandfather, who bought the island in 1759 for 105 pounds sterling, served as Blackbeard’s quartermaster. Entrepreneurship runs in the family, too: On pleasant days, Amy’s 14-year-old son, Lachlan, mans the “Howard Street Shell Shop” in his family’s yard — like a lemonade stand, Ocracoke-style.
Ocracoke’s oldest street, Howard Street, is brimming with history and character. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Ocracoke Seafood Company
Every morning around 7 a.m., boats start pulling up behind the village fish house, sending schools of Spanish mackerel, bluefish, and cobia sliding down a conveyor belt to be sorted. This used to be a common sight in Ocracoke, but a combination of factors — including regulations, fuel costs, and foreign competition — has endangered the 300-year-old tradition. In 2006, a group of about 30 fishermen and -women banded together to save the last fish house on the island. Ocracoke Seafood Company operates as a community-based nonprofit, managed by fisherman Hardy Plyler and his wife, Pattie (below). Customers can buy the day’s catch from Pattie in the retail shop up front, then wander to the back to watch the watermen and -women work. That connection is vital, the Plylers say. When customers can see the boats come in, smell the fish, and hear the stories of folks who work on the water, they understand where their food is coming from, and they know it’s real.
Pick up the catch of the day at Ocracoke Seafood Company. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
1718 Brewing Company
In 2017, nearly 300 years after Blackbeard was killed off the coast of Ocracoke, locals raised a toast to the island’s brand-new craft brewery — named for the year of the pirate’s demise. Garick and Jacqui Kalna opened another island gathering place — Ocracoke Coffee Co. — in 1996, but Garick had dreamed of a different kind of brew since he learned to make beer as a college student. So the couple sold the coffee shop, and now, they serve up popular brews like Pepperberry Saison; Brunch, a coffee kolsch; and Mexican Chocolate Stout alongside bites from the brewery’s in-house restaurant, Plum Pointe Kitchen.
1718 Brewing Company’s Pepperberry Saison; Brunch, a coffee kolsch; and Mexican Chocolate Stout. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
As a boy growing up in Mexico, Eduardo Chávez learned to cook by his mother’s side. He moved to Ocracoke in 2002 and, a decade later, opened Eduardo’s Taco Stand — a little food truck with an outsize following. A steady stream of customers shows what devoted fans and friends already know: Chávez’s dishes — traditional recipes passed down from his mother, prepared with local seafood — are made with love.
Eduardo’s Taco Stand is a favorite stop for island eats. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Over the past two decades, Ocracoke’s Hispanic community has grown to compose about 20 percent of the island’s full-time population. In 2016, the arts organization Ocracoke Alive helped start a new tradition: Each November, Festival Latino de Ocracoke celebrates the 31 states of Mexico with food, music, and performances by groups like Ballet Folklórico de Ocracoke. Left to right: Antonia Ortiz wears a costume adorned with roosters to dance “Pelea de Gallos,” from the State of Aguascalientes. Gisselle Perez’s “china poblana” dress comes from the State of Puebla. Fidelia Villanueva wears her yellow skirt to dance “Las Amarillas,” from the State of Guerrero.
Watch Ballet Folklórico de Ocracoke perform at Festival Latino de Ocracoke in November. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Alton Ballance knows Ocracoke inside and out — like many natives, he can trace his family’s island roots back to the 1700s. He even wrote the book on the area’s history and culture — Ocracokers, published in 1989. For three decades, he’s owned and operated Crews Inn Bed & Breakfast next door to his childhood home. Over the years, a few things have changed — last summer, Ballance transformed the former innkeeper’s cottage into a light, bright, and airy retreat. But for the most part, the simple pleasures of this 1908 home are much the same as they were a century ago: bedsheets line-dried in the sunshine, a cozy sitting room for coffee and conversation, and a wraparound porch to enjoy the island breeze.
After a day of island exploration, retreat to a coastal oasis. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
The Flying Melon Café
The Schramel family has perfected the art of island fine dining: Chef Michael elevates fresh seafood and homegrown produce. His wife, Paula, runs the front of the house. And their son, Nat, a teenager when they opened in 2004, is now a certified sommelier and head of the bar program. When the restaurant moved into a new building in 2013, the family wove together touches of Michael’s native New Orleans — the bar top, a slab of century-old “sinker” cypress, was pulled from Louisiana waters — with elements of coastal North Carolina, like a “tower” inspired by local lifesaving stations. The two locales are linked on the plate, too: Dishes like red drum topped with sautéed crabmeat and lemon beurre blanc, which combine the day’s catch with food traditions from Michael’s youth, make up the menu’s heart.
You can’t go wrong with red drum topped with sautéed crabmeat and lemon beurre blanc at The Flying Melon Café. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
A Taste of Ocracoke
For a fragile fruit, figs fare surprisingly well in Ocracoke’s sandy soil — local fig expert Chester Lynn has counted 14 varieties on the island. Fig trees have grown here almost as long as there have been permanent residents, having likely arrived on the North Carolina coast with 18th-century settlers. But for all their abundance, they’re best during a short summer window, and they don’t keep long, so many cooks dry, can, or bake them into a cake. Most Ocracokers credit the late Margaret Garrish with the creation of the island’s signature dessert: Apparently, while baking a date cake sometime in the 1960s, she used preserved figs that she had on hand instead — and the Ocracoke fig cake was born. Every August at the Ocracoke Fig Festival, bakers pay tribute to Garrish’s invention with a competition based on her recipe. What started as a simple improvisation in a home cook’s kitchen has endured as a symbol of islanders’ independence and ingenuity.
Ocracoke’s signature dessert: a cake made with island-grown figs. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Roads and ferries and the arrival of thousands of tourists each summer mean that Ocracoke is not as isolated as it once was. But traces of the past live on in longtime residents — in the “Ocracoke brogue” that famously makes “high tide” sound like “hoi toide,” and in traditions passed down through generations. Clifton Garrish and his sister, Janie, are native “O’cockers” who cherish their family’s history on the island. Like their grandfather, Clifton works as a carpenter; like their late brother Raymond, his passion is wood carving. A display case in the Garrishes’ living room holds duck decoys and other figurines — some made by Clifton, some by Raymond, and some that they worked on together. “I like traditions,” Janie says, “because traditions bring back good memories.”
Clifton Garrish sands a decoy in his Ocracoke workshop. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
Sand & Stars
Visitors to Ocracoke drive off the ferry and into what feels like a different world — it’s easy to lose track of the time and even the days on what feels like the edge of the earth. One thing’s for sure: When the sun goes down, the island is enveloped in thick, velvety darkness. The lack of light pollution means that clear nights are spectacularly starry. Especially on Lifeguard Beach, where an evening stroll along the crashing surf may offer a view of the Milky Way.
The people who come here, to the edge of North Carolina, are adventurous. They seek a little wildness. On Ocracoke, they find it. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council
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A century has passed since Latta University closed its doors, and generations have come and gone from the Raleigh neighborhood where it once stood. In North Carolina, history is all around us — even when evidence of the past has all but vanished.