Beach bliss on Ocracoke Island

I’m not sure what I was expecting when my husband and I booked a night at a camp site on Ocracoke Island, a stretch of sand on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, during the last weekend in May. I suppose I envisioned something similar to other OBX beaches; soft sand and moderate development with some summer crowds. Maybe going in with these preconceived notions made Ocracoke seem even more extraordinary, or maybe we truly discovered an amazing place.

Ocracoke Island

While we didn’t sleep on the sand, the campsite behind the dunes was well within earshot of the ocean’s dull roar, which I could hear all night. The campsite, run by the National Park Service, was clean and quiet. I regretfully forgot to pack bug spray, so the horseflies and other pesky bugs were interested in us while we set up and took down the tent.

On Ocracoke, the beach is bigger, the wildlife is warier, and the crowds are smaller. I don’t think they could even be called “crowds”; just groups of people clustered together in the village, the ferry, or the campground. It’s incredibly easy to find your own private stretch of sand on Ocracoke, especially if you own a four wheel drive vehicle. The island is about 13 miles long, and most of it is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Protected lands take up a big chunk of the coastline and the village only occupies the island’s southern tip.

Ocracoke Island

One of my favorite activities from this trip was renting bikes in town. We were leisurely riding around by 9 a.m., after watching the sunrise, with a cool breeze in our hair. We were able to see a lot more of Ocracoke comfortably on two wheels. We saw the bay, the lighthouse, several feral cats, the appropriately named “Back Road,” and some of the cutest beach cottages on the Outer Banks. No four-story mansions or luxurious rentals here.

Even the ferry ride (free from Hatteras) was enjoyable. The hour-long journey took us through beautiful blue water under a clear blue sky. Every time we passed a ferry, naturally, everyone waved to each other. (You know you’re in North Carolina when…)

Ocracoke Island

I almost feel bad thinking about it, because I have so many fond memories of Topsail Island, but Ocracoke might be even better. Topsail is wonderful for a big family vacation; however, Ocracoke felt more natural, undeveloped, and local. And that’s even with many of the motels and inns sporting “no vacancy” signs.

Another thing that was painfully obvious to see, when comparing Topsail to Ocracoke, is how much larger and better protected Ocracoke is. The beach is much wider, even during high tide. The dunes are larger and they nearly line the whole island. These towering dunes are covered in waving sea grass, prickly cacti, and warped trees twisted by the constant ocean breeze, all of which help to keep the sand, and the barrier island itself, in place. As North Topsail Beach is currently facing major erosion problems, it’s clear to see the difference between the two islands.

Ocracoke Island

Even though we were only there for a weekend (and technically, we were only on the island for a little over a full day) time seemed to slow down on Ocracoke. Normally my vacation time seems to zoom by like one of those nimble fishing boats passing the ferry, but this weekend was different.

In short, I’m going back to Ocracoke.


Top Dog Cafe in Hatteras: A friendly, chill place to stop for lunch. The porch is screened in and lets in a nice breeze. I had one of the specials, a spicy shrimp wrap.

Buxton Village Books in Buxton: A decent selection of fiction, nonfiction, and used books. I picked up a book about the Outer Banks, which I intend to read before the summer’s finished. The place looks tiny, but it has some funky additions in the back.

Jason’s Restaurant in Ocracoke: We ate dinner here and had a good, filling meal. I had the catch of the day, which comes with sides. Lots of options, including pizza, make this an ideal family restaurant.

The Slushy Stand in Ocracoke: After watching the sunrise, we stopped here for an early coffee Sunday morning and rented bikes to see the rest of the island. There’s a nice porch at one of the village’s “busy” intersections for people-watching.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ocracoke Campground in Ocracoke: A quiet, clean, and inexpensive way to sleep on the island. Camping is just behind the dunes. There is a creek running behind the campground, so bug spray is a must. Facilities include bathrooms, water fountains, showers, dumpsters, recycling, picnic tables, and grills. Rates start at $23.

Words of wisdom:

There may only be a couple of police officers on patrol on Ocracoke, but they make their presence known. Do not speed on the island. The first car off our ferry was pulled over within two minutes. In the village, I would say it’s best to go under the speed limit. The sidewalks in Ocracoke are small or nonexistent, and there are many pedestrians, cyclists, and golf carts using the road too.

Take sunscreen and bug spray. The horseflies and mosquitoes can be nasty. My pale skin needed sunscreen on the ferry over, before we even got to the island!

Enjoy the photos! I’m really happy with how these turned out.


Topsail Island: It’s nothing special

Off the southern coast of North Carolina lies a 26-mile long spit of sand that’s hard to leave. Topsail Island has everything I look for at the coast…luscious, white sand; water, shifting from sea green to bright azure, stretching to the horizon; and the opportunity to find a stretch of beach to call your own. It’s nothing special, but that’s why I love it.

Topsail Island

Unlike a lot of popular beaches, Topsail isn’t very developed. I think there is one stoplight on the entire island. There are rows of beach houses with clever names, boutique stores and surf shops, ice cream shops, and small motels, but not much else. No strip malls, clubs, car dealerships, or anything of that nature. There’s not much to do other than unfold a beach chair, smooth on sunscreen and enjoy some time with the family. It’s nothing special, but that’s what makes it special.

Topsail Island

On the island, time ebbs and flows slowly, like the tide. Maybe I’ll wake up to see the sunrise, or awake later to the sound of waves drumming an endless rhythm on the sand. The biggest event of the day might be a game of bocce ball or finding a perfect black and grey shark’s tooth. The biggest island attractions are fishing – on the pier or the shore – or you can just watch the minnows dart around in the shallows between suntanned legs. I like bird watching. Pelicans glide in pairs or groups above the dunes, parallel to shore, sand pipers’ legs flit quickly across hot sand and a constant, refreshing breeze ruffles the feathers of a lone seagull. It’s nothing special, but that’s the beauty of it.

Topsail Island

I was just there for a week with my husband’s family during their annual vacation. During my time at the ocean-front house I read four books, completed four puzzles, won three games of shuffleboard, and ate entirely too many servings of ice cream. I watched the sun rise over the ocean and set over the sound. I saw a fisherman catch and release a baby stingray. I scanned the ocean for dolphins but didn’t see any this time, although a few other people were lucky and saw some. The vacation as a whole was nothing special, but I know these memories of Topsail will be the ones I cherish for years to come.

Topsail Island

One of the books I read was Topsail Island: Mayberry by the Sea by Ray McAllister. A good beach read, McAllister offers a well-rounded view of the island’s history and what makes it unique through stories and anecdotes from people who have lived or vacationed on Topsail for decades. Some of the stories could be just rumors (Did the pirate Blackbeard hide in the sound waiting to ambush other ships, who soon learned to look for his sails behind the dunes? Is there buried treasure somewhere beneath the sand on the island?) and others focus on Topsail’s future (the north end of the island is eroding, and sand is being deposited on the south end). If you’re a weather nut like me, you’ll like the hurricane chapter. 1996 was a particularly bad summer for the island, with a one-two punch from Bertha and Fran. McAllister also discusses the eight mysterious towers on the island, left over from when the military used the island as a place to develop and test missiles, aka Operation Bumblebee. I found it interesting to learn more about the place I’ve been coming to for years.

Topsail Island

What’s your favorite island or beach for a family vacation?