The lifeguarded beach at Ocracoke, the barrier island famous for its connections to Blackbeard, returns to the top of Dr. Beach’s list of 10 Best Beaches in America, a pinnacle it first reached in 2007. Dr. Stephen Leatherman (aka Dr. Beach) officially revealed the 2022 selection at a gathering on the island.
“Ocracoke has what people are looking for,” Leatherman said before the announcement. “It has beautiful sand, soft light, and the water’s clean and clear. The temperature’s in the 70s today, beach-type weather, no jellyfish, no seaweed. Then it has a quaint little village with B&Bs and small, wonderful restaurants.”
Also returning to the list at No. 6: Old Lighthouse Beach at Buxton, the former location of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Buxton and Ocracoke beaches are part of the 75-mile Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Surrounded by the Atlantic and the Pamlico Sound, Ocracoke lies 26 miles from the mainland. Accessible by air and ferry, it boasts 16 miles of pristine coastline, including the lifeguarded Ocracoke Beach near the village. The island beguiles with its untamed beauty, colorful history, fresh catch, and singular inns and shops.
“Islanders refer to the experience here as an ‘Ocracoma,’ ˮ said Wit Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina, which organized the gathering with Ocracoke Township Tourism Development Authority. “It’s a state of mind removed from the concerns and trappings of your elsewhere life, and if you’re lucky, it will stick with you once you return to the mainland. By the way, Howard’s Pub serves a rum drink called the Ocracoma if anyone wants to get there faster.”
Leatherman, who grew up in Charlotte and earned a geosciences degree from N.C. State University, rates 650 public beaches on 50 criteria, including beach width at low tide, water and sand quality, wildlife, cleanliness and public safety. A professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University, he awards bonus points for a smoking prohibition, which weighs in favor of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches.
Favorite getaway beach
Leatherman frequently refers to Ocracoke as his favorite getaway beach, a place where “the main pursuits are swimming and beachcombing.” There’s virtually nothing but nature to the north or south of the village that surrounds Silver Lake, a clam-shaped harbor on the Pamlico Sound. Despite the standing invitation to indulge in subline idle time, discovering the island’s spirits, secrets and singular stories magnifies the rewards. Points of interest:
- The Ocracoke Lighthouse, the nation’s second oldest, which casts a beam that’s visible from 14 miles at sea. The 75-foot tower, which celebrates its 200th birthday in 2023, is a picturesque centerpiece for an island walking tour.
- The pony pens, housing a once-wild herd believed to be descended from Colonial Spanish mustangs brought here by Sir Richard Grenville, whose ship ran aground at Ocracoke in 1585. The horses are now protected by the National Park Service.
- The British Cemetery, the final resting place for four British seamen killed while defending the U.S. coast from German U-boats in 1941. A memorial service is held there every year in early May.
Springer’s Point Preserve merits special notice as Blackbeard’s stomping grounds after he received a royal pardon in nearby Bath in 1718. It was here on Nov. 22 that Royal Navy Lt. Robert Maynard engaged with the pirate in a duel to the death and departed with Blackbeard’s head attached to his bowsprit. The mile-long trail through 120-acre expanse of maritime forest, salt marsh and sound-front beach is also notable for the grave of wealthy island resident Sam Jones, entombed next to equine companion Ikey D in ready-to-mount position.
“It’s impossible to shake Blackbeard’s presence at Springer’s Point and his legacy elsewhere on the island,” Tuttell said. “Blackbeard’s Lodge, 1718 Brewing and other places invoke real pirate history. It’s surprising how many residents trace their family line to William Howard, who served as Blackbeard’s quartermaster and owned the island for a time.”
For surf lovers, Ocracoke’s lifeguarded beach enhances the appeal of its white sands, lofty dunes, clean water and right-size waves with its amenities: parking with a boardwalk and a wheelchair-friendly beach access ramp, outdoor showers and accessible restrooms, a bottle-filling station and interpretive information. Lifeguards are on duty from Memorial Day to Labor Day. And travelers can book a bonfire with s’mores and more from Ocracoke Beach Fires.
Four N.C. Ferry Service routes serve Ocracoke-bound travelers. The newest is the Ocracoke Express, a 70-minute passenger-only ferry that began seasonal service from Hatteras to the village terminal on Silver Lake in 2018. To get around, travelers can bring or rent bikes, book a golf cart, board the free Ocracoke Village Tram or explore on foot. Passengers with or without vehicles can reserve a trip from Cedar Island (2¼ hours) and Swan Quarter (2¾ hours) to the Silver Lake terminal. A free vehicle ferry also runs from Hatteras to a terminal on the island’s northern end (1 hour; no reservations).
Buxton and beyond
The Old Lighthouse Beach at Buxton consistently finds favor with Leatherman, who has ranked it as high as No. 4 on his annual list.
“This lifeguarded beach is the No. 1 surfing spot on the U. S. Atlantic Coast,” Leatherman says. He also enjoys strolling to the south at Cape Point, Cape Hatteras’ easternmost elbow of land, “where a long sand spit often exists, making one feel somewhat like Moses because the waves are coming from both directions as you walk along this narrow string of sand in the ocean.”
Dr. Beach’s list began in 1991 as a Top 50 selection that included Ocracoke at No. 17. The island’s steady ascent led to the summit in 2007, when it became the first beach outside of Hawaii and Florida to make it to the top. No other beach outside those states has earned the crown twice.
Leatherman’s original list included three other remote North Carolina beaches: Hammocks Beach near Swansboro at No. 30; Bald Head Island, home of Cape Fear at the state’s southernmost tip, at No. 44; and Portsmouth Island at Cape Lookout National Seashore at No. 46.
North Carolina owes its coastal wealth to 320 miles along the Atlantic plus the shores of eight sounds, whose shallow waters lie between the barrier islands and the mainland.
“The barrier islands that line our coast are fragile, and development is more sparce than sprawling,” Tuttell said. “Instead of an oceanfront lined by high-rise hotels, North Carolina has dunes topped by sea oats, which beautifully frame the sight of the sea. Hurricanes leave their mark, but our resilient communities have drawn on time-honored ways to restore what makes our coast so precious.”
To enlist travelers in sustainable enjoyment of natural spaces, Visit NC has created the Outdoor NC initiative in partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics and the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. The program’s seven principles, which address safety and courtesy as well as protecting the environment, carry special considerations for the coast. Beachgoers are urged to “make it their nature” to stick to designated trails and durable surfaces on the way to the ocean, to be aware rip currents and other hazards, and to fill in holes they dig on the beach.
“We’re pleased that coastal destinations have joined the cause, which the National Park Service supports through its own relationship with Leave No Trace,” Tuttell said. “As we celebrate the attention Dr. Leatherman brings to Ocracoke and Old Lighthouse Beach, we’re eager to protect the essence of what makes the North Carolina coast such a special place.”
For more inspiration and information for a North Carolina getaway, head to VisitNC.com.
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