So You Want to Live on ... Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

Built around placid Silver Lake Harbor, this Outer Banks village lures escapees from the mainland.

Ocracoke Sunset
Photo: James Nedresky

Tonight, about 50 locals and tourists gather on a screened porch-turned-stage to hear the foot-stomping music of the Ocracoke band Molasses Creek. "Folks move here for the community," says the group's "Fiddler Dave," a.k.a. David Tweedie. "The spirit of the village is wonderful."

You'll recognize people in the audience, even if you arrived earlier today. They'll speak to you, too, because among about 700 residents, newcomers are noticed. Pamlico Sound separates this North Carolina barrier island from the mainland. For many, isolation is its best feature. Once on Ocracoke, however, hardly anyone keeps to himself.

Longtime islander Al Scarborough says, "The best thing is that you essentially know everybody, and the worst thing is that you know everybody." He laughs, divulging the unofficial Ocracoke motto: "We don't care what you do, but we want to know about it in intimate detail."

Small towns are known for gossip, but residents here are genuinely interested in neighbors' ups and downs. "Everyone takes care of each other," says Lou Ann Homan, a storyteller who extended a work trip here into a vacation. She's bicycled over for the concert. Standing by the bike rack, where only tourists use padlocks, she says, "When someone comes here, they do what they can to stay."

Interior designer Sally Newell and husband Guy are raising two sons to appreciate island life. "Kids have a lot of freedom here," she says. They bike, fish, surf, explore the 1823 lighthouse, and watch the island's Banker ponies in their protective pens.

But kids learn the local work ethic, too. Sally and Guy's teenage son has a hot dog stand that caters to tourists who drive in on the 13-mile road from the Hatteras ferry. He hopes they arrive hungry. Working or playing, islanders are nurtured by the constancy of this place.

Some things haven't altered in centuries--such as the way a handful still speak the "Ocracoke brogue," a Cockney-like dialect developed because of the island's isolation. Another constant: Ocracoke's sense of community. As she pedals away from the concert, Lou Ann pledges to carry it back to Indiana: "I can't move here, but I'm gonna take the community home with me."

(published 2003)

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