This Beautiful Island in North Carolina Has the Best Beach in the U.S., According to Dr. Beach Himself

It has some of the cleanest sand and water in the country — and was frequented by a notorious pirate.

Aerial view of Ocracoke Island
Photo: Jennifer Blount/Getty Images

With summer around the corner, people are gearing up to hit the beach. And there is certainly no shortage of picturesque stretches of sand in our country. If clean water, sand, and safety are at the top of your list, then you may want to head to North Carolina's Ocracoke Lifeguard Beach on the remote Ocracoke Island. The barrier island is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Lifeguard Beach just topped the annual list of best beaches in the U.S. by Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, who has been ranking the country's top beaches since 1991.

"This is a great beach to relax, communicate with nature, and enjoy the wildlife and the wide sandy beach here," Dr. Leatherman told Travel + Leisure over the phone from Ocracoke. "The wider the beach, the better it is for recreation, and [there is] plenty of space for everybody here."

Access walkway to Ocracoke beach
Anna Mazurek/for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Ocracoke Island is 26 miles from the mainland and is only accessible by boat or a small plane. Lifeguard Beach is located near a small village and is part of the island's pristine 16-mile coastline.

"You don't come here to play golf or stay at the Ritz. There are small [bed-and-breakfasts] and motels, but what I think is the real attraction is the beach itself," Dr. Leatherman added, noting that the area is also his favorite getaway. "[You can go] fishing, swimming, beachcombing. There are wild ponies. And by the way, there is a lot of history here. This was the stomping ground for Blackbeard, and who doesn't like a good pirate story, right? He would go out and raid ships and come back here and throw these big parties."

Seafood lovers will absolutely thrive here, too, as freshly caught fish, scallops, and oysters are always on the menu (Dr. Leatherman recommends checking out the Flying Melon Café).

People walking along the beach at sunset on Ocracoke
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The island's other attractions include the Ocracoke Lighthouse — the nation's second oldest, which is celebrating its 200th birthday in 2023 — as well as Springer's Point Preserve, a 120-acre maritime forest, and a British cemetery.

Four North Carolina Ferry Service routes serve Ocracoke-bound travelers, with the express trip from Hatteras, North Carolina, taking approximately 70 minutes. Once on the island, visitors can rent bikes or golf carts or board the free Ocracoke Village Tram.

If you are headed to North Carolina this summer, you can also check out the waves at Lighthouse Beach in the Outer Banks, which ranks No. 6 on Dr. Leatherman's list. The silver medal goes to Caladesi Island State Park, in Dunedin and Clearwater, Florida, and the bronze to Coopers Beach in Southampton, New York.

Ocracoke lighthouse on a summer morning with green marsh and red-roofed lighthouse keeper's house.
Liz Albro/Getty Images

Each year, Dr. Leatherman, who is the director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, ranks more than 650 beaches across the country based on a thorough set of criteria, including sand softness, water temperature, number of sunny days, size of breaking waves, and wind speeds.

Find Dr. Leatherman's full list of the top 10 beaches in the U.S. here.

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