If you are coasting south along Route 158 on your way to the Outer Banks, chances are you will spot the blue and white signs indicating the Currituck/Knotts Island Ferry. This ferry connects the Currituck County mainland with tiny Knotts Island, a mainly residential community. The 45-minute ferry across the Currituck Sound is free, with picnic areas at both terminals, and 6 departures scheduled from both sides of the route every day of the year. The ferries have passenger lounges and vending machines, as well as observation decks to enable passengers to enjoy soundside sunsets.
Though small, Knotts Island offers an interesting firsthand look at everyday coastal life. The island features two vineyards, excellent hunting and fishing, miles of water for kayaking, and small gift shops featuring local artists. Every summer, Knotts Island hosts its annual Peach Festival to celebrate the local agriculture community, and for two days the community park is full of food and craft vendors, entertainers and visitors.
Further south along the Outer Banks, past the Bonner Bridge and the beaches of Hatteras Island, you will find the Hatteras/Ocracoke Ferry. Running from 5:00 a.m. to midnight, this free ferry departs every half hour during the busy summer season, and every hour in the winter months when the visitor population is low. The free 40-minute ferry ride crosses Hatteras Inlet, and it is not unusual for visitors to spot flocks of seagulls following the back of the boats looking for handouts during the day, or the beam of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 15 miles in the distance at night.
While the Ocracoke Island terminal is deserted with just a couple vending machines, public restrooms and a stretch of quiet beach, the Hatteras Village terminal borders the Hatteras Landing Shopping Center, with plenty of stores and restaurants for a fun travel break before the ferry ride.
The ferry is the only way to reach isolated Ocracoke Island, but visitors swear the trip to visit this secluded southern Outer Banks island is well worth it. With miles of unspoiled beaches which make frequent appearances on "Best Beaches" lists around the world, Ocracoke is famous for its lighthouse, wild ponies, and legends of Blackbeard around every corner. Residents and visitors alike agree that this quaint fishing village has truly remained in a world of its own.
For accessing Ocracoke Island from the south side of the state, visitors can choose from two ferries that depart daily from the mainland: the Ocracoke/Swan Quarter Ferry and the Cedar Island/Ocracoke Ferry.
As the longest of the seven ferry routes at 2 hours and 45 minutes, the Ocracoke/Swan Quarter Ferry travels across a wide stretch of the Pamlico Sound. Leaving only twice a day in the winter months and 4 times a day in the summer months from both terminals, advance reservations are strongly encouraged. The cost ranges from $1 for a pedestrian to $45 for vehicles over 40 feet long, but the majority of passenger cars are changed a $15 fee for crossing.
The large ferry boats are built to accommodate a number of vehicles, and provide many creature comforts for the trip, including a passenger lounge with seating, observation decks, and vending machines.
Swan Quarter, named after the 1700s settlement founder Samuel Swann, is a quaint fishing community that is quickly gaining a reputation along North Carolina's Inner Banks as a charming coastal town. It's also home to "The Church Moved by the Hand of God." According to legend, an 1876 hurricane moved the local Providence United Methodist Church off its brick pilings, and floated it down to Main Street to its current location. Ironically enough, its new home was the spot where the original congregation had intended to build it in the first place.
The Cedar Island/Ocracoke Ferry is similar to the Ocracoke/Swan Quarter Ferry in that it is a long trip at 2 hours and 20 minutes, and the same fee structure applies. It leaves slightly more often, with 6 daily departures in the summer months, and 4 daily departures in the winter months from each terminal, and offers comfortable passenger lounges, vending machines, and multiple sunny decks. If you climb up to the top deck and bring your binoculars, you can spot historic Portsmouth Island in the distance as you leave Ocracoke Island. Portsmouth Island was once home to a thriving port town, but as the inlet filled in and the port closed down, the town became deserted, with the last two elderly residents leaving in the 1970s.
Running parallel to the barrier islands of the coast, as you inch closer to Cedar Island, you will also be able to spot Cape Lookout National Seashore. Cedar Island is home to privately owned passenger and vehicle ferries that travel to the Seashore, as well as the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge and a crop of small coastal towns. The Driftwood Campground, Motel and Restaurant bordering the Cedar Island terminal is the perfect spot for a weary traveler to take a respite from their adventures and spend a day or two kayaking, fishing, or simply exploring the deserted sound beaches.
Terms: NC Ferry System, NC Ferries
Information on the North Carolina Ferry System, including schedules and fees.
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