OCRACOKE ISLAND — At the risk of sounding like a dingbatter, I couldn't resist stopping when I overheard a difficult-to-decipher conversation between two O'Cockers as they stood in the front yard of a shingled cottage in Ocracoke Village.
"I know this is a totally tourist [a.k.a. dingbatter] question, but are you speaking in the Ocracoke brogue?" I asked the men. The dialect and its insular vocabulary make up the unique language developed on this once-isolated island and still spoken by some native islanders, or O'Cockers. Their version of "park the car in Harvard yard" is "high tide," pronounced as "hoi toide."
"I expect I am," said one. "I've lived here all my life."
"How many natives do you think are left?" I said.
"Fewer and fewer."
"I can't imagine what it was like here 50 years ago," I said, thinking how the first paved roads and regular ferry service didn't arrive on the island until the 1950s.
"Come in the winter and you'll get an idea."
Sensing they'd had enough questions, I thanked them and pedaled away, happy to have had heard even a bit of the lilting tongue.
That brief exchange, among the memorable encounters I had during a weekend on the southernmost barrier island on the Outer Banks, illuminated what I was most interested in — how the year-round community of 950 residents manages to preserve pieces of its past as a small fishing village while tending to tens of thousands of tourists.
My partner, Lina, and I had waited until early October to visit, after the crowds and most-persistent mosquitoes had checked out. But don't feel you should avoid the summer months. No matter how clogged the narrow streets of the square-mile village might be with cars, golf carts, pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional duck crossings, you'll always find room at the beach. There are 16 miles of undeveloped dunes and shoreline, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
We arrived on Ocracoke, reachable only by boat or private airplane, on the state-run ferry departing from Hatteras, the most popular route and the only one convenient to day-trippers. The 40-minute ride — with car — is free. During the short cruise we strolled the deck, enjoying the warm breeze and taking in wide views of the Pamlico Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, waters that beckon anglers from spring to fall.
From the boat, there's only one route into town, Highway 12, a ribbon of a road flanked by dunes that in fall are blanketed with goldenrod amid dancing sea oats. We stopped at the Pony Pasture to admire the Ocracoke "Banker ponies," descendants of Spanish mustangs possibly left by explorers in the 1500s. The dozen-plus horses, once free roaming, are kept in a large pen and cared for by the National Park Service. Across the street is one of several beach access points with parking lots.
The highway leads to the village and Silver Lake, a sheltered harbor ringed with motels, restaurants, and docks. Spread around the village are more than 200 homes and buildings that make up the historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Ocracoke's personality is refreshingly unpretentious; even a newer residential area is nearly devoid of ostentatious homes. It's the perfect place for poking around, either on foot or by golf cart or bicycle (both can be readily rented).
We started our two-wheeled tour at the still-working Ocracoke Light, a 75-foot-tall whitewashed lighthouse constructed in 1823 (to replace an earlier one) by Massachusetts builder Noah Porter. On the way we passed the 1920 Styron's General Store, now selling souvenirs and sundries. As we left the lighthouse, Lina spied a tiny fenced-in cemetery for the Styron family. After that find, we noticed grave markers near many historic houses, and I later learned that more than 80 family graveyards are scattered throughout the village.
Had I not followed signs to the splendid Village Craftsman, one of several high-quality shops selling artisans' wares, I wouldn't have discovered Howard Street. Just off the main road around the harbor, the half-mile sandy lane shaded with live oaks passes some of the village's oldest houses, from the 1800s.
Later in the day, at the sweet David Williams House Museum run by the Ocracoke Preservation Society (I especially enjoyed the video about the brogue), I chatted with the woman running the gift shop and mentioned how much I had loved Howard Street.
"Actually, I live there," she said. Her name turned out to be Amy Howard, so I coaxed out her story, which she clearly wasn't going to boast about.
"My great-, great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather purchased Ocracoke in 1759. Yes, that's six greats," she said with a laugh. The land was eventually parceled out, but several Howards remain. Her father owns the Village Craftsmen, and ancestors are buried in family plots across the street. She left the island for many years for college, work, and travel, but now she's back to stay and is raising a family of her own.
The past and present also overlap at Ocracoke Seafood Co., the only fish house remaining on the island and the base of operations for more than 30 watermen. When villagers learned it was for sale in 2006, the community, local nonprofits, and fishermen joined forces to save it. Restaurants and home cooks rely on the fish house for fresh-off-the-boat seafood.
For a look at the fishing life of yore, visit the nearby Ocracoke Working Watermen's Exhibit on historic Community Square (also the site of a local food and craft market). Housed in the 1930 Will Willis Store and Fish House, the exhibit displays vintage photos, decoys, and antique fishing tools, along with present-day equipment. In the summer, the group hosts informational oyster talks on the back dock.
We did a little impromptu shell fishing of our own when we rented kayaks for a couple of hours. After crossing Silver Lake, we paddled upshore, heading for a marshy creek. On the way, we came upon Brannon Helms, a frequent visitor to Ocracoke, walking the shallow sound in search of something.
"What are you doing?" I said.
"Digging for clams. Y'all want to try?"
He handed me his rake with instructions to softly scrape the bottom to feel for shells, then pull the tool until the mollusk was unearthed. We donated our bounty — one clam each — not that Helms needed them. He and his family had collected 70 in half an hour.
That evening, we watched the sunset from Springer's Point Preserve, a 122-acre swath of conserved land where a dirt path winds through maritime forest of gnarled live oaks and red bay trees to a sandy beach on the sound. The site was the reputed haunt of legendary pirate Blackbeard, who was finally captured and killed at nearby Teach's Hole. We were delighted to spot the skipjack Wilma Lee pass by in the distance, its silhouette majestic against the orange sky. The nonprofit group Ocracoke Alive owns and maintains the 47-foot wooden sailboat, built in 1940 and recently made available for recreational sails. In the summer, the group hosts free tours and talks on the history of the boat, local sailing traditions, and pirate lore, sharing the rich O'Cocker history with lucky dingbatters.