Outer Banks: Sky, Sea & Sand

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The coast line state of mind. Ocracoke is a perfect snapshot of all that is remarkable about North Carolina’s Outer Banks

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

PHILIP HOWARD KNOWS where the bodies are buried. Truly. He has only to step out the front door of his 19th-century cottage, stride across a dirt laneway and he’s looking straight into a small, fenced enclosure where headstones mark the remains of several relatives. It’s the same up and down many narrow streets on the island of Ocracoke, where it’s commonplace for backyards to be hallowed ground.

On Ocracoke, they still bury ’em in the yard. The small Outer Banks island of 850 people has more than 80 cemeteries, many of them tagged onto grassy strips where kids play on swing sets and gardens hold neatly staked tomatoes.

Philip waves his arms in both directions. “My grandparents are buried there. And my aunt and uncle over there.”

The custom dates back to colonial times. Even these days, there is no Ocracoke ordinance against burying the dearly departed close to home. The island has developed a conventional cemetery, but the tradition of the small, fenced backyard cemetery lives on.

Ferry is the only way on or off Ocracoke, so many people visiting the Outer Banks don’t bother to take the extra step. We had no intention of being so foolish.

As we discovered, Ocracoke is a perfect snapshot of all that is remarkable about North Carolina’s Outer Banks: buying seafood right off the dock, grand sweeps of secluded beach, a great fishing hole called the Atlantic Ocean, unique artisan shops, locals who have the time and interest to sit and chat, and a jet-black nighttime sky splashed with the Milky Way. There isn’t a single stoplight. The historic lighthouse still flashes a warning to ships. And the one gas station does double duty with live music on weekends.

AND THEN THERE’S THE OCRACOKE HISTORIC CLAIM TO FAME that comes up over and over again – this is the spot where the infamous pirate Blackbeard succumbed to no less than five bullet and 20 sword wounds before being beheaded. Legend has it that the pirate’s headless body swam seven times around the ship. But the locals doubt he could have managed more than two.

Blackbeard cut a swath along the shoal-infested North Carolina coast that resonates in story and legend to this day. He met his demise at Ocracoke but the tales of piracy echoes up and down the entire coastline. In the historic mainland town of Beaufort (south of Ocracoke), the North Carolina Maritime Museum tells of how the state’s economy, geography and politics created a golden opportunity for piracy. Merchant ships sailing the north-south current of the Gulf Stream were easy targets.

No piracy these days, but there’s plenty to see in Beaufort.

“Lots of OPALs here,” says Dave Cartier of Hungry Town Bike Tours as we pedal along quiet St. Ann Street in Beaufort’s Historic District. “Older people, active lifestyles.”

Lampposts are plastered with posters announcing community events. Plaques mark dozens of homes dating back to 1709. Shops along the main street house independent artisans and small seafood restaurants. Not a whiff of a chain store within miles.

“These houses were built by shipbuilders, so they can withstand any storm. The village has been isolated, so it’s kept its charm. People come for the biking, walking and gardening,” says Dave. The town of 4,000 has a platoon – 160 at last count – of ladies in the local garden club. There’s a hierarchy: new members cut their teeth on soil prep, working their way up to flowerbed displays.


ALONG THE COASTLINE THERE’S A STRETCH KNOWN AS DOWN EAST, a cluster of 13 coastal communities clinging tight to the traditions of decoy carving, quilting and fishing. On Harkers Island, next to the Cape Lookout Visitor Center, they preserve this seafaring life at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center.

Walter “Brother” Gaskill hunts among a table strewn with blocks of wood and all manner of carving tools until he finds just the right piece of juniper. He’s part of the local decoy carvers guild, and an accomplished carver whose pieces command top price from collectors around the world.

He holds up a piece of wood. “We start out with a square block and make patterns.” Then out comes an arsenal of hatchets, whittling knives and blades of all sizes. It’s a coin toss of what’s more challenging to follow: how quickly he begins to shape the wood or his instructions in the Old World brogue characteristic of Down East. “What don’t look like a duck, you whittle off.”

Travelling this coastline has a payoff: it’s like whittling away at that piece of wood to create the right curve. It may take a little longer and you’ll need to look past the rough edges. But underneath – not far below the surface – you’ll find the real thing.

NEXT: More stops to get in the coast line frame of mind


  • This shoreline is strewn with lighthouses: Bodie Island Lighthouse, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Ocracoke Light Station. Views from the top are over long dunes and salt marshes, popular stopovers for birds migrating north-south along the Atlantic Flyway.
  • Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has spectacular dunes and beach. Take a chair, hat, sunscreen, fishing rod and a good book.
  • Cape Lookout National Seashore stretches south of Ocracoke. A ferry crosses to the uninhabited park at Cape Lookout, a sea turtle and shorebird nesting area. Roam the dunes and undeveloped beachfront (pedestrian traffic only; take water and food).

  • We gorged on seafood. It’s not that we couldn’t be creative, but identical dishes called to us at both the Breakwater Restaurant in Hatteras Village and the Front Street Grill at Stillwater in Beaufort: Shrimp & Grits and the yellowfin tuna Fish Tacos. It’s a toss up for the best meals of our travels.


Who’s writing

Our travel horizons keep expanding. For fall 2014, we’ve packed the camper van, taken along our easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and are exploring the Carolinas and Georgia. On the way down we’re looking for everything unique about life along the ocean coastline. And on our travels back north we’re taking the inland route, looking for food, culture and roots music. We’ve added a new website devoted to our travels: www.travelswithrigby.com with info on RV travel, pooch-friendly travel, food and music destinations.