Paradise Found

Paradise Found

Sixteen miles of pristine beaches and a charming little village make Ocracoke the perfect place to spend a long weekend.

-Tom Robotham

When I was growing up, I never cared for the beach. That’s sort of ironic, since I lived on an island—Staten Island, to be precise. Then again, if you’d seen Staten Island’s beaches back in the 1960s and ’70s, you might understand how I feel. Let’s just say there were more broken bottles than seashells. The Jersey Shore was just an hour away. Most of its beaches were clean, but they were also crowded. The prospect of finding a spot barely big enough for my beach towel, sandwiched between a rambunctious family of seven and a group of 20-somethings right out of an MTV reality show, held little appeal.

To this day, I prefer the mountains to the beach—with one major exception: the beach on Ocracoke Island. It’s paradise on earth. And it’s only four hours from Norfolk. Indeed, Norfolk’s proximity to Ocracoke is one of the reasons I wanted to move here back in 1991.

I first went to Ocracoke 25 years ago this summer while visiting my future in-laws on the Outer Banks. I’d never even heard of it and had no idea what to expect. But from the moment I drove off the ferry from Hatteras (it’s accessible only by boat) I was impressed by its windswept isolation. After driving the 16 miles to the village on the island’s southern tip and checking into our motel room, we climbed back into our car and headed to the closest beach access point, not far from town. It was a mid-summer weekend, so I expected that the beach would be at least somewhat crowded. When I reached the crest of the dunes I was more than pleasantly surprised— shocked might be a better word. There were perhaps a dozen people as far as the eye could see. For the next three hours or so, we lounged on the sand, swam in the ocean and looked for shells.

That night we had a few beers at Howard’s Pub, a warm and friendly establishment popular with locals and tourists alike, and a magnificent seafood dinner at the Island Inn restaurant. Heading back on the ferry two days
later, I noticed something odd. My jaw muscles, which were often tense in those days from excessive teeth clinching (I suffered from TMJ or something similar), were completely relaxed for the first time
in ages. In retrospect, I can say without reservation or sense of exaggeration that Ocracoke was the most relaxing place I’d ever been in my life. For this reason, and many others, I’ve gone back at least once a year ever since.

Ocracoke has changed over the years—but not dramatically. Its 16 miles of beaches, marshes and maritime forests are part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, so they’ve remained entirely undeveloped.

The village is another matter. To this day only about 800 people live there full time. But over the last two decades, affluent East Coast residents have built dozens of new houses as vacation getaways and rental properties. A number of new inns, motels, restaurants and shops have sprouted up as well. But this development hasn’t changed the fundamental character of the place. To my mind, in fact, it’s mostly an enhancement. Take the accommodations, for example. For years I stayed at the Island Inn, which dates back to 1904. About a decade ago, however, I found a new favorite—the Ocracoke Harbor Inn. While I’m still fond of the Island Inn, its restaurant closed several years ago; and it never offered the views that the Harbor Inn does. Situated on Silver Lake—a lovely harbor dotted with commercial fishing boats and recreational vessels—the inn has spacious rooms with private balconies overlooking the water and a harbor-side deck equipped with Adirondack chairs.

Other nice additions to the village include a charming coffee shop, where you can lounge inside and read in comfortable easy chairs or sit outside on the front porch and strike up a conversation with fellow tourists; a small bookstore; a variety of tasteful gift shops, and an excellent takeout Thai restaurant.

Meanwhile, many of the older establishments continue to thrive. The Back Porch restaurant, which opened in 1975, remains the place to go if you want a fine-dining experience. I generally prefer simpler fare and favor Howard’s Pub, which has doubled in size over the years but retains its distinctive local flavor (and unbelievably extensive beer selection) or the Jolly Roger, which offers outdoor dining and live music on a covered deck. Locals and tourists gather there each night to watch the sunset, much as folks do in Key West.

Ocracoke isn’t for everyone, of course. I know some people who think it’s boring— the sort of people who want to be in close proximity to waterslides, miniature golf courses, movie multiplexes and fast-food restaurants while on vacation. You won’t find any of that here. Indeed, there’s not a single national chain of any kind represented on the island.

But there’s plenty to do. Over the years I’ve kayaked on the Pamlico Sound, tooled around the island on rented bicycles, watched the sunrise over the Atlantic on my 40th birthday, fished in the surf and on charter boats, strolled along its nature trails and taken countless photographs of the island’s many historic features, such as the 75-foot lighthouse, which dates back to 1822. If you’re a history buff, in fact, you’ll love this island. It is perhaps best known as the place where the infamous pirate Blackbeard was killed in 1718.

What I like best about Ocracoke, however, is that it’s the perfect place to do nothing at all. My favorite pastime during the day is to grab a beach chair, a book and a cooler of beer and nestle into the sand for a few hours of meditation in the sun.

The funny thing is, thanks to Ocracoke, I’ve come to appreciate beaches in general. I’ve visited the Caribbean a few times and have been struck by its beauty. Closer to home, I enjoy strolling along the bay in Ocean View or Cape Charles—and I’ve come to realize how beautiful our own Virginia Beach is, especially at the North End. Who knows—I might even like the beaches in Staten Island if I ever revisit them. (I’m told they’re considerably cleaner these days.) But the truth is, when I’m in need of a few days at a seaside sanctuary, there’s nowhere I’d rather go than Ocracoke. If you decide to check it out this summer, I suspect you’ll agree. Just don’t tell too many friends about it. The beach is still very sparsely populated, even at the height of the tourist season. And I like it that way.

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