Ocracoke Update:  Life without a highway
February 7, 2008

For some, it’s business as usual on Ocracoke


When I communicate with friends who live in big places and even small places, there’s always something that comes up about winter on Ocracoke. They say movie theater, and I say NetFlix. They say new Japanese restaurant opening, and I say sushi at Jason’s. They say Harris Teeter, and I say Variety Store. They say a quick run to Wal-Mart, and I say Variety Store.
For Ocracoke residents, this is just what you know. For some visitors, life on the island in the winter can be frustrating and primitive.
However, for some tourists, life on Ocracoke in the off-season can be appealing. It’s a retreat, a haven, a chance for solitude. And after the Lifeguarded Beach on the island was named the No. 1 beach in the U.S. by Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, last summer, the change of pace is a blessing for many residents.
And the slow pace of life on Ocracoke has been slower this winter since Highway 12 has been closed between the village and the Hatteras Inlet ferry docks for the replacement of seven bridges over the island creeks.  The highway detour takes travelers onto 3 miles of the island beach, which is restricted to four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Even the detour, however, is appealing to some visitors.
“This will be the first time after getting off the ferry from Hatteras that I won’t have to try and remember where the dunes part just wide enough to see the beautiful ocean break,” said Russell Craig, who has reservations to stay on the island in mid-February. “Detour? I think not… more like the “yellow-brick road.”

Most businesses close down to take inventory, spring clean, vacation, and prepare for the upcoming season. If you visit now, you will see lots of construction projects, carpet cleaning, and empty parking lots as you drive around the village.
For others, it’s almost business as usual. The Pony Island Motel is one of few lodging accommodations open year-round.
“We’re just as busy as any other time,” said Melinda Esham, proprietor. “Because we are one of the only ones open and we offer a ‘state’ rate, we get a lot of county and state employees, but there some people here who just enjoy Ocracoke any time they can get here.”
Esham also comments that the motel’s January occupancy included as many duck hunters as past years.
“The only thing about coming this year is there is nowhere for people to eat on Sunday or any morning,” said Esham.
Jason’s is about the only eating establishment open this winter. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday.
“When people call to ask about a reservation this time of year and you tell them that,” Esham added, “if the road closure didn’t stop them, that usually does.”
Some other lodging accommodations are open, but the owners say that numbers are definitely down for January and February. 
Rusty Purser, who is working at the Island Inn, says that having someone in the office all winter helps with catching walk-ins and tourists who have missed ferries on either end. But reservations are down, which is basically what was expected with the beach detour project
Although some gift shops have been open on weekends, the Pirate’s Chest on Highway 12 has been open consistently this winter.  The shop’s business has been mostly from the teachers attending the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching seminars on the island.
“We have some people come in that have just come down here for the thrill of driving on the beach,” said Promise Rollison, employee at the Pirate’s Chest Gift Shop.
According to a local blog, a woman in the post office said that some off-island friends had asked if she didn't feel "isolated" with Highway 12 virtually closed. Her answer: "Yes, and it feels wonderful!"
Several lodging businesses were opposed when a decision was made to close the road for several months the winter. It meant a potential decrease in income, and the potential that even after the roads are open, the public will think that the island is still closed into the spring season.

"The citizens and businesses of Ocracoke should increase their efforts to increase cooperation within the community and businesses so as to maximize tourist activities throughout the year," said George Chamberlin, proprietor of The Captain’s Landing. “They should work towards being in control of situations instead of having to react to policies and events created by uncaring government agencies.”

So far, with the weather cooperating and smooth operations, it looks as if the roads will be open before the original March 15 deadline. For progress, see www.ocracokebridges.com. If you have reservations or are coming for a day trip, call the ferry office to check on the schedule. Winter weather often brings fog and high winds that affect the schedules.
(Jamie Tunnell is the editor of The Ocracoke Observer and a freelance writer for The Island Free Press.)

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