People have a habit of leaving things on Ocracoke.
For an example of this, head to the Ocracoke Pony Pen, about a 13-minute drive from the village. Feel free to check out the ponies – they are believed to be the descendants of European horses that were tossed overboard when ships ran aground on the Diamond Shoals around the island.
But that’s not my point. Opposite the pen is a beach access, where a wooden walkway crosses over protected dunes. Scores of visitors have carved their names and initials into the railing at the end of the walkway, and despite the best efforts of blasting sand and sea,
“Jeannie,” “Wally” and “GMA,” to name just a few, are still there.
Sure, people leave graffiti all over the place, but on Ocracoke, it isn’t done to share words of wisdom, or to display any artistic talent, or to share a witticism. Instead, it’s more of a declaration. It’s the same reason European adventurers left their cozy villas, hopped on ships, and stuck their flags on new land. Being accessible by sea or air only, Ocracoke gives visitors the impression that everything here is a secret, and that they are one of the few lucky enough to have discovered it.
Others, such as the infamous pirate Blackbeard, left something a little more significant than a name behind, but we’ll get to that later.
The island is basically a 16-mile strip of pristine beach protected by the National Park Service, with the Pamlico Sound on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other, and Highway 12 balancing precariously through the middle. The NPS issues both weeklong and annual passes for those who have a four-wheel-drive vehicle and wish to drive on the beach – perfect for surfers or fishermen looking for their own private spot.
The NPS also operates a 131-site campground for guests willing to sacrifice some creature comforts for the chance to see an astonishing night sky with almost no light pollution.
But don’t let all this emptiness fool you. While the island’s village has a year-round population less than 1,000, the population swells during the summer months, and the village has a thriving art scene, food scene and bar scene to fit just about anyone’s taste.
One of the newest businesses coming to the island is 1718 Brewery, a hybrid brewpub/brewery that opens June 2016. On a surprisingly temperate February afternoon, Garrick Kalna, who co-owns the business with his wife Jacqui, was surrounded by shiny metal tanks partially covered by tarps, trying to get the brewery ready for its opening. The business is located on the site of the former Atlantic Restaurant next to Howard’s Pub, one of the most recognizable restaurants on the island.
Garrick learned to brew beer at college in 1992, and while he has always wanted to start a brewery, he decided to first open Ocracoke Coffee Co. on the island with Jacqui – his business partner before they married.
The coffee shop was to be the first stepping-stone in a three-year plan that would eventually end with the brewery. Then 18 years went by. “It just turned into a really large stone we had to step over,” Garrick said.
However, they finally sold the coffee shop in 2012. Since then, Garrick has learned how to brew on a large scale. While they plan on brewing an assortment of beers – from summer beers made with local figs to sour beers – there will be no shortage of IPAs. Jacqui, Garrick said, is a big fan. “Every third beer I make has to be an IPA,” he said. Along with the beers, the brewpub will feature a small, revolving menu, akin to a food truck. Garrick hopes to start a bottling and canning operation the following year. The beer will carry the image of a heart with a spear through it – a pirate symbol that represents a merciless death.
That symbol is a fitting one for 1718 Brewery; the business is named for the year Blackbeard was killed off the shore of Ocracoke.
Blackbeard – real name Edward Teach – is a big deal on Ocracoke. Yes, he once made a cozy home for himself in the town of Bath. And yes, he intentionally sunk his ship, the Queen Ann’s Revenge, just off the coast of Beaufort. But Ocracoke is where this most famous of all pirates met his brutal end.
Sadly, it was at a time when Blackbeard was reconsidering his involvement with the whole pirating business.
After pillaging Charleston, S.C., Blackbeard decided it was time to put his pirating ways behind him, according to the N.C. History Project. He surrendered to North Carolina’s governor, Charles Eden, promised to give up his wicked ways, and moved to Bath, settling down with his 14th wife.
Things were going swimmingly until the itch returned, and he set back out on the seas, hiding out in the inlets of the Outer Banks. North Carolinians loved him. They got to buy his stolen goods at bargain basement prices; however, the residents of other colonies, such as Virginia, were horrified by all the stealing, the killing, and, presumably, the swilling of grog. In 1718, Virginia’s governor sent Lt. Robert Maynard to hunt Blackbeard down. Maynard found his pirate in Ocracoke Inlet on Nov. 22 of that year, and after some ship maneuvering, rope swinging and cutlass rattling, Blackbeard and his crew were captured. Maynard cut Blackbeard’s head off and suspended it from the bow of his ship, supposedly to teach other pirates a lesson. Maynard’s crew threw the body into the water.
The area of the Pamlico Sound where Blackbeard died is known as Teach’s Hole, and the best way to visit it is by hiking through Springer’s Point Preserve, a 120-acre section of the island filled with gnarled live oaks, wax myrtle, wild olive, salt marsh, and even an overgrown cemetery. There is no parking at the entrance of Springer’s Point, located off Loop Road, but the walk – or bike ride – is well worth it.
But that’s not all Ocracoke has to offer nature lovers. For those who want to keep hiking, Hammock Hills Nature Trail is just three miles outside of the village, opposite the NPS campground, and features a .8-mile path through a pine forest with sweeping views of golden wetlands. These trails are available year-round, though the campground is only open from the third Friday in April through the last weekend in November.
Many of the businesses here are also seasonal, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to do in the winter. Gaffer’s Sports Pub is open year round and offers weekly (legal) poker nights through the Hatteras Island Poker League. It’s also hard to beat sitting on the porch of Zillies, on Back Road, drinking a glass of wine by one of the gas fires as the sun goes down.
Of course, the island comes fully to life as the warmer months approach, when there are any number of activities to pursue, from deep-sea fishing, to surfing, to kayaking, to parasailing, to visiting nearby Portsmouth Island. When you’re ready for a break, stop by SmacNally’s Raw Bar and Grill between 3-4pm and watch the fishermen come into Silver Lake harbor with their daily catch.
And of course it’s hard to leave the island without first stopping by the Ocracoke Lighthouse, the second oldest lighthouse in the nation that’s still in use. While it isn’t open to the public, it’s a must stop for anyone with a camera.
For those who intend to stay in the village, the best way to get around is by bicycle or golf cart, and both are readily available to rent. If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of places to stay, including Blackbeard’s Lodge, Pony Island Motel, The Anchorage Inn and Marina and Silver Lake Motel and Inn. There are also a number of houses available for rent; just make sure to book ahead.
So go ahead: do your best to leave your mark on this island. However, you’ll likely find, as you sit on the ferry, watching the lighthouse recede from view and the gulls squawk for scraps, that the island is the one that has left its mark on you.