This North Carolina Island Is the Ultimate Secluded Family Vacation Destination
Looking to escape the crowds? Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks region might be your ticket.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
After months of working from home due shutdowns caused by the coronavirus, my family was eager to find a secluded beach destination to safely get away for the summer. We settled on Ocracoke Island, a relatively remote spot along the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
Located on the southernmost point of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Ocracoke is only accessible by a free ferry, or by private plane or boat. With 90 percent of the island owned by the National Park Service (NPS), visitors will find pristine beaches with little human influence or development. The 16 miles of untouched beach is the island’s main attraction, making it perfect for a summer outside and away from crowds. In fact, it was ranked the second-best beach in the nation for 2020 by one of the world’s most foremost beach experts, besting destinations like San Diego, Oahu, and Miami.
We were inspired to go after recalling a quick day trip we took to the island during a family vacation in Kitty Hawk last year. Due to its limited accessibility and long stretches of sand, we knew we could safely maintain our distance from others and avoid crowded beaches, unlike those making frontline news in places like Florida and California. So, we packed our car with beach essentials and a cooler full of easy-to-make meals, and drove 350 miles from the Washington, D.C. area toward North Carolina. On our way, we listened to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale, "Treasure Island," about pirates, treasure maps, and buried treasure.
Five hours into our journey, we made it to the Cape Hatteras ferry terminal, where we parked our car among the line of others waiting to travel south toward Ocracoke. We grabbed a quick bite to eat before driving onto the ferry and enjoying the ride (less than an hour).
Once we arrived at the Ocracoke terminal, we drove for 15 minutes along the scenic, but barren highway toward the island’s village, which is still recovering from the 2019 wrath unleashed by Hurricane Dorian. Regardless, there are many homes available for rent and the town has rallied together to warmly welcome tourists. Our family opted to stay at a charming sound side Airbnb, which provided extra space to stretch out during rainy days as well as a kitchen where we cooked simple meals together (visitors can shop at one of two grocery stores located in the village on the island). For those with RVs or a more adventurous spirit, the NPS Ocracoke campground costs $28 a night, and visitors can watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean here.
Looking at the forecast, we knew the first two days of our stay were going to be filled with thunderstorms and rain showers. Undaunted, we brought puzzles, books, movies, and games to entertain ourselves.
On sunny days, we made our way to the beach. There are six parking areas along the main road where you can access the beach. Those who have a 4x4 vehicle can take the off-road vehicle (ORV) ramps to drive along the beach (you will need to purchase either a $120 annual or $50 10-day permit first). If you don’t have an off-road vehicle, but would like to drive along the beach, you can rent one for a few hours or a few days (the permit is included in the price). You can also rent bikes and explore the village or ride the paths along the main road to the beach.
To fully enjoy our time on the beach, we packed towels, sunscreen, a Neso tent, a cooler full of snacks and water (remember to pack out what you pack in!), a bag of entertainment (sandcastle molds, frisbees, kites, and books), and bug spray — since Ocracoke is a national park, you’ll want to bring spray to repel the biting flies and mosquitoes.
On the occasions we found ourselves needing a break from the beach, we enjoyed these charming island experiences:
- Ocracoke Lighthouse: Visit North Carolina’s oldest operating lighthouse, built in 1823. It is the second-oldest operational lighthouse in the nation; the first being the Sandy Hook, New Jersey lighthouse, built in 1764.
- Ocracoke Ponies: Make a quick stop to view these descendants of Spanish mustangs, shipwrecked offshore several hundred years ago.
- Ocracoke Harbor: Located at the heart of the town’s village, you can walk around Silver lake, kayak or stand-up paddleboard in the calm water, or join a boat tour to fish or check out neighboring Portsmouth Island.
- Springer’s Point Preserve: This 120-acre preserve encompasses a maritime forest, wet grasslands, salt marshes, and a beach facing the Pamlico Sound (also known as the pirate Blackbeard’s favorite hangout).
- Stargazing: There is very little light pollution on Ocracoke, which is located 24 miles from the mainland, making it the perfect place to view constellations, planets, and the Milky Way on moonless nights.
On days when we didn’t feel like cooking, we opted to dine at several village restaurants. While a few are recovering from Hurricane Dorian and shutdowns caused by COVID-19, many are open and encouraging masks in public spaces, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing. For a wonderful alfresco ambience, check out Eduardo’s Taco Stand (open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.). If you’re looking for craft beer and classic bar food, visit 1718 Brewing Ocracoke (open daily noon to 10 p.m.). Another great option is SmacNally’s Waterfront Bar and Grill (open for takeout and dine-in 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.), where you can enjoy local seafood while watching kayakers and boaters in the marina. For a quick breakfast treat, pop into Ocracoke Coffee Company (open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for coffee, smoothies, and pastries. And what’s a beach vacation without ice cream? Be sure to visit Sweet Tooth and Fig Tree Bakery & Deli (open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) for local sweets and treats.