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april4homespunweb.jpgBy Eric Sharp

RISMEDIA, April 4, 2008-(MCT)-Located at the extreme southern end of the 100-mile chain of islands called the Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island is 15 miles long and rarely more than a few hundred yards wide, a pile of sand that over the centuries has changed shape and size like an amoeba under the constant assault of the surf along the North Carolina coast.

How do we know that Ocracoke is the No. 1 beach in America? Because Dr. Beach says so.

Dr. Beach is Stephen Leatherman, director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University in Miami. He runs, a website dedicated to preserving and rehabilitating beaches-along with rating them as tourist destinations.

When he crowned Ocracoke for 2007 (he selects a different beach each year), Leatherman’s assessment was that it’s “not the place to go to enjoy a Hilton spa or play a round of golf. Traveling to this remote island on the Outer Banks is like going back in time.”

Selected for its almost unspoiled stretches of golden sands, gentle waters and protective lifeguards, Ocracoke will hold the title until a new beach is selected next summer.

Jane Myers, a Durham, N.C., resident has been coming here since “before I had to wear a top with my bathing suit,” more than 40 years (although she won’t say exactly how many more).

“My grandparents came here when they were young, too. It’s just a nice place to get away from everything. In fact, until about 20 years ago there wasn’t much you could do here except fish and surf and hang out at the beach. There were only a few restaurants, and most of the motels were individual cottages,” Myers says.

The cottages are still there, and they are pretty reasonable. Many go for $500-$1,200 a week, depending on season, for one- and two -bedroom places that will sleep up to six people.

But there’s a lot more to keep people busy today than when Myers was a kid. The island offers all -terrain -vehicle and Jet Ski rentals, parasailing, kayaking, boat tours and even clamming and crabbing excursions.

Those activities are the reason that the permanent winter population of about 800 swells to more than 5,000 at the height of summer.

Ocracoke is separated from the rest of the Outer Banks by a 45-minute ride on a free ferry to a terminal at Hatteras Island.

The ferry offers access to more wonderful beaches and tourist destinations on 60 miles of largely uninhabited stretches of the Outer Banks between Hatteras and Nags Head, including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, with its spiraling black and white stripes, one of the most iconic lighthouses in the country.

Something else that’s different about these beaches is that you can drive on most of them from October through April, if you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and a permit, where required.

The National Park Service occasionally makes noises about limiting beach driving or even eliminating it in some areas, but so far that has been averted largely because of the efforts of a large and passionate group of beach drivers that includes everyone from surfers to surf fishermen to picnickers who would be cut off from favorite spots.

Accommodations ranging from conventional motels to B&Bs to palatial beachfront homes are mostly in towns like Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nag s Head and Roanoke at the northern end of the island chain and a few concentrated locations like Hatteras Village and Ocracoke to the south, within the National Seashore.

In some areas the shore behind the sand dunes is lined with rows of three- story shake-sided summer homes, four- and five- bedroom places that rent for more than $5,000 a week to well-heeled people from Virginia and Washington, D.C., in peak summer months. Because of the threat of hurricanes, which rake the banks every few years, most of the homes are built on stilts or with open bottom stories that serve as garages and storage areas.

We stayed three nights at the Colony IV By The Sea in Kill Devil Hills, a modern facility with wonderful ocean views from the balconies. One morning, I watched in utter fascination for a half-hour as a pod of 25-30 dolphins rolled and swirled through a big school of baitfish 100 yards off the beach, while hundreds of seabirds called gannets came crashing down from above, raising splashes like miniature artillery shells.

We spent an afternoon at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk, where Orville and Wilbur are credited with making the first controlled powered flight amid the sand dunes in 1903. The Wright brothers made several flights that first day, each a little longer than the last. In an era when man has reached the moon and many of us think nothing of flying thousands of miles for a vacation or business, it’s fascinating to walk the quarter-mile path along the primitive runway where they took off and touched down.

The displays at the memorial include full-size replicas of one of the gliders the brothers flew while developing their power aircraft, and that first Wright flyer, a concoction of wooden struts, cotton fabric and wires that looks as incredibly dangerous and unstable as it eventually proved to be. And the visit’s well worth the $4 fee.

We also visited the North Carolina State Aquarium in Roanoke, one of three state-run aquariums that offer an up-close-and-personal look at the denizens of the inland and offshore waters. The aquariums are enormously popular with visitors and would be a great way to while away a rainy afternoon while keeping kids occupied. The entry fee is $8, $7 for seniors and $6 for ages 6-17.

Roanoke is also the home of one of the greatest mysteries in American history-the lost colony.

In 1587, John White established a small colony here, then returned to England to get supplies, planning to return within a few months. But the English were awaiting the arrival of the Spanish Armada, and White was unable to get a ship and return until 1590.

When he stepped onto the beach, the settlers were gone, including his daughter, Eleanor, and his infant granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the new world.

The only hint to their location was the word “CROATAN,” the local Indian name for Hatteras Island, carved on a post and “CRO” carved into a tree. A hurricane damaged White’s second ship and forced him to return to England without locating the colonists, and while later settlers encountered a few Indians with fair hair and light-colored eyes, the fate of the lost colony is only conjecture.

For the past 70 summers, a group of actors has dramatized the story of the lost colony for tourists with daily performances.

If You Go:

Location: Ocracoke Island is 15 miles long and rarely more than a few hundred yards wide. It is located at the southern end of the 100-mile chain of islands called the Outer Banks.

Accomodations: Cottage rentals for $500-$1,200 a week. Other accommodations-ranging from motels to high-end rentals-also available in Duck, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head and Roanoke and Hatteras Village.

For more information, visit

© 2008, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.