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Below are the three ferries that transport people and goods to Ocracoke from three different directions: North, West and South of Ocracoke Island. All the ferries are owned and operated by the State of NC. Each ferry departure dock has different constraints that can greatly affect your trip to Ocracoke. If you know what each of the ferry departures entail, then you can deal with the travel bumps in a better vacation state of mind:
A. The Hatteras Ferry: It takes longer than you think to drive to the Hatteras dock for the short haul Ocracoke ferry. Officially, the route from Nags Head to Hatteras is 62 miles and 1 ½ hours but Highway 12 is a two-lane blacktop and it is not the interstate. Allow at least 2 hours or more. Anyway, the Hatteras ferry has a lot of departures (32 for each side) so your options are many. It has crossings at 5:00 am to midnight. The wait for the next ferry will only be at most thirty minutes to an hour. There is also a lot of demand for this ferry. Daytrippers and locals use this ferry a lot so it is packed in the summer. The Hatteras ferry is free and serves traffic from the northern Outer Banks of NC to Ocracoke Island across Hatteras Inlet. The Hatteras ferry lands at the north dock which is fourteen miles from Ocracoke.
B. The Swan Quarter Ferry is in the middle of nowhere. Options are limited for food and gas near this departure point. Stop in “Little Washington", NC or Belhaven, NC for provisions before you get to Swan Quarter. The two and a half hour trip is however serene and beautiful across the Pamlico Sound. This ferry has only about four crossings a day during the summer and does not typically run at night after 4:30. Unless you are on the early morning run, you will want a reservation for this SQ ferry which is $15 for a typical family car. This ferry crosses 32 miles of the Pamlico Sound from the western mainland of NC to Ocracoke Island in about 2 ½ hours. Your ferry lands in the heart of Ocracoke.
C. The Cedar Island Ferry is likewise not on the edge of a commercial area and some supplies are not found at Cedar Island but you will want to plan to stop back up the road at Beaufort or Morehead City. The vast wetlands of Carteret County leading to Cedar Island comprise a very beautiful but long drive. You will want to sign up online for this reservation in advance so you do not have to wait for the next ferry. There high demand at these docks with six daily crossings during the summer and you may get bumped if you are tardy getting to the ferry. The last crossing leaving Cedar Island at 8:00 pm. This ferry crosses 24 miles of water in 2 ¼ hours and also a scenic water excursion as well. If you are traveling in the fall, travel earlier when you can enjoy the scenery in daylight. Again this is about $15 for the family car reservation. The CI ferry travels from the southern tidewater mainland of NC to Ocracoke Island. This ferry crosses near Ocracoke Inlet so the ocean currents can occasionally make crossing a bit rougher. Check the weather. This ferry also lands in the heart of Ocracoke.
D. Is there a Fourth Option”? In a word: No. There are no other options (commercial or otherwise) to get your car to Ocracoke besides these three state ferries. Driving to one of the other docks is vacation suicide as the drive time could be four hours or more and THEN you have to wait for the scheduled ferry time. Let’s say you change your mind at the Cedar Island dock and decide to drive to the Hatteras -Ocracoke on the Outer Banks side. Its over 268 miles and six hours to drive overland from the Cedar Island dock to the Hatteras dock side. If you miss your ferry, say at 8 pm, drive back to Morehead CIty, catch your breath, and get a hotel room for the night in order to take the 7:30 ferry north to Ocracoke. Better yet just plan ahead and be ahead of time for your first ferry reservation. Know what the current info is on this website: http://www.ncdot.org/ferry/
Note to the wise on Ocracoke Departures: Know also when you need to depart Ocracoke and plan accordingly with DOT information. There is the story of a couple that was at a leisurely meal at an Ocracoke eatery. Overhearing casual conversation, we (I mean, they) gained the newsworthy item that the 4:00 Swan Quarter ferry was “broken” and the last ferry would leave at the third scheduled departure of the day at … (drum roll please) 12:45 pm. Needless to say, lunch was cut short! That Labor Day daytrip did not leave time for staying the night. And lodging on Ocracoke can be booked solid during peak holidays as well. So this couple scambled to make the last ferry to Swan Quarter after a quick lunch. That day the revised ferry schedule dictated everything. So know your ferry schedule and make advance ferry reservations!!
Lodging and Ferry Schedules: Also before you commit to your lodging reservations, know that you can actually make it to the island via the ferry route that you are planning to take. Map programs don't factor in ferry schedules to your route planning.
What can you do on the ferry? Get some binoculars and peer at the sound. Play cards in the air conditioned passenger lounge. Read. Sleep. Get your head in vacation mode for arrival in Ocracoke. Sleep. Feed the birds with stale bread. Watch for dolphins or other boats. Meditate. Chill. Step on the ferry and you are then on Ocracoke Time.
BREAKING NEWS on ferries to Ocracoke: There is an article today ( Aug 12, 2011)on the Island Free Press ( http://www.islandfreepress.org ) about a new passenger shuttle from Hatteras to Ocracoke called the Soundside Shuttle. This is a private venture that takes paying pedestrian passengers to the heart of Ocracoke where you can walk or bike to your destination. This may be a good option for daytrippers that want to go to Ocracoke from Hatteras. The state vehicle is free while the new alternative service is for profit. You'll have to decide if $40 a head works for you but its great to have an alternative. Some people may note "Hey you can board the state ferry as a pedestrian or cyclist" and you would be right. HOWEVER the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry is the only one of the three ferries that has its own separate dock on the north end of the island. That dock allows for long lines of cars to stack up and is located nearly 14 miles from the Ocracoke village. If you hoof it, take the gallon bug spray and shlep some water with you because that is a long desolate road to hike from the northern dock to the village.