Ocracoke: a ferry ride away

ONE thing about Ocracoke Island hasn't changed since the pirate Blackbeard headquartered here in 1718. Ocracoke - the island and the village - is still a secluded, naturally beautiful place, its wide sandy beaches caressed or pounded by an unpredictable, relentless ocean. We landed in Ocracoke's Silver Lake harbor after a relaxing, surprisingly smooth 135-minute ferry ride from Cedar Island ($10 per car and occupants). Passengers can leave their cars to feed the greedy sea gulls chunks of bread. The gulls swoop close to catch the food in midair, as many as two dozen birds hovering uncomfortably close. The trip is an outstanding travel bargain, with such extras as pelicans perched on sand bars, and the shiny black flashes of playful dolphins.

Ocracoke was, for me, a boyhood dream from ``Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates'' come true after five decades. Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, was my antihero, a bigger-than-life villainous pirate who plundered and sank early 18th-century colonial and foreign ships without quarter.

Here, just outside the Ocracoke harbor, Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard and his crew trapped Blackbeard in November 1718. Lieutenant Maynard boarded the ship and after a movie-worthy hand-to-hand fight, killed the pirate. Even today, Ocracoke natives speak of Blackbeard as if he had met his violent end just a few years ago.

We had made reservations at the Berkeley Center Country Inn, a delightful old home completely renovated and a few steps from the harbor. Our guesthouse room was large and comfortable, paneled in juniper wood.

The owner of the inn, retired Air Force Col. Wesley Egan, was a friendly source of a wealth of information about the village, the island, and its early history.

At breakfast in the main house, Colonel Egan told us that Portuguese explorers first came to the island in 1532, and that other pirates besides Blackbeard hid out here. Today, he explained, although fishing is still a brisk business for restaurants and tourist charters, its three centuries of economic dominance have been replaced by tourism.

But along with more tourists' discovering the peaceful island has come the problem of commercial and residential growth.

``As a small-business man, I feel the island is developing perhaps too rapidly,'' Egan said. Admitting that tourist money improves the islanders' living standard, Egan said, ``I'd like to see motel and private house-building slow down voluntarily, rather than by zoning legislation.

``But the village has a powerful charm, and we are a friendly, proud people who live by the ferry schedules,'' he added.

We heard a more extreme view of Ocracoke's tourist-linked development from Ricky Tillett, a native islander and manager of the Community Store. His voice reflecting strong traces of the 17th-century Dover accent brought by early settlers and still preserved, Mr. Tillett is both worried and angry about the quick growth of the little settlement. ``I tell you, we're growing too fast for our own good, and the big motels are overtaxing our water and sewer facilities and could pollute Silver Lake,'' Tillett said.

He explained that Ocracoke's recent zoning law was passed to specify building heights and setbacks only after much commercial and residential building had already been done.

``We go to all the village meetings and watch who's running for office and what their stand is on development,'' Tillett said. Despite some tension between native and non-native residents and rising taxes, Tillett is optimistic that the island ``will continue to be a place to live we can all enjoy.''

But to us as first-time visitors, the problems seemed very remote as we explored Ocracoke village. The island's trees are dwarfed, as are those throughout the Outer Banks, shaped by the winds where land and sea coexist in an uneasy, sometimes tempestuous relationship.

Across the harbor is the gleaming white Ocracoke lighthouse, built in 1823 and the oldest operating light on the Atlantic coast. Its beam can be seen 20 miles out at sea, warning shipping of the treacherous shoals, which have claimed at least 600 ships along the Banks.

A few minutes' drive from the village on Route 12 is a turnoff to a stretch of wide, soft sand beach, where a lone red and silver telephone booth stands in the sand like a surrealistic sentinel.

Our little station wagon couldn't negotiate the deep sand, so we parked and walked along the almost deserted morning beach to pick up shells and watch a school of dolphins cavort near the shore.

The next morning we left Ocracoke and headed north into the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a collection of three islands linked by ferry or long causeways. A free car ferry makes the crossing from Ocracoke Island to Hatteras in 40 minutes, loading on a first-come, first-served schedule.

We stopped at the towering black and white barber-pole-striped Cape Hatteras lighthouse, at 208 feet rated the nation's tallest light. Even in off-season, a dozen avid young surfers in wet suits were skimming the cold waves offshore.

Route 12 then turns north, past miles of summer houses bleached silver gray by the sun and perched on stilts, probably for protection from wind-driven flooding. Past the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and across a long causeway is the black-and-white-striped Bodie Island lighthouse, built in 1872.

Our all-too-short Outer Banks trip included a quick stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills. Here, after two years and hundreds of glider flights, Wilbur and Orville made the world's first powered flight in December 1903.

We spent a day at Manteo on Roanoke Island, the site of Sir Walter Raleigh's first New World English colony. The Elizabethan Gardens are magnificent, a careful re-creation by North Carolina garden clubs of a late-16th-century English formal garden. Along the shaded paths are roses and tulips, wildflowers in season, fountains, a sunken garden, huge hedges, and an ancient live oak, growing when Raleigh and his colonists landed in 1575.

Manteo's North Carolina Aquarium is also worth a visit. There are a shark gallery, interesting Outer Banks exhibits, and a large tabletop shallow tank where visitors so inclined can touch or pick up live crabs.

Among major summer events on the Outer Banks are the nationally acclaimed pageant play ``The Lost Colony'' at Manteo from June through August; the annual Kite Festival at Nags Head in June; and the National Aviation Day celebration Aug. 19 at the Wright Brothers Memorial.

Practical information

Reservations on the Ocracoke ferry from Cedar Island or Swanquarter are a must. For Cedar Island phone (919) 928-3841; for Swanquarter phone (919) 926-1111.

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