Explore the North Carolina Coast by Ferry

Explore the North Carolina Coast by Ferry

North Carolina’s ferries offer a convenient and enjoyable way to spend a weekend traveling along the coast

Since the mid-1920s, ferries have carried people and cars around eastern North Carolina. From Southport in the Brunswick Islands all the way up through the Outer Banks towns of Ocracoke, Hatteras and Knotts Island, North Carolina’s ferries offer a convenient and enjoyable way to spend a weekend traveling along the coast.

Originally created to provide transportation for travelers, food, medicine and other goods and services, today’s ferry system has expanded to become one of the largest ferry operations in North America, with seven routes crossing five bodies of North Carolina waters, including the Currituck and Pamlico sounds and the Neuse, Pamlico and Cape Fear rivers.

3-day Itinerary

Day 1: Start your ferry odyssey from the quaint Cape Fear River town of Southport. Then spend a leisurely afternoon driving along the coast to Beaufort and the beaches of the Crystal Coast.

Day 2: After a morning drive to the Cedar Island ferry, settle in for a stunning cruise filled with wildlife and scenic coastal views before arriving in the charming village of Ocracoke.

Day 3: Enjoy the short ferry from Ocracoke to Hatteras and spend the day exploring the Outer Banks.

Day 1: Southport to Beaufort

After a morning visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport, or exploring the charming architecture, shops and eateries of the waterfront downtown, make your way to the Southport Ferry Terminal and enjoy the 35-minute Southport-Fort Fisher ferry crossing across the Cape Fear River, with views of the Oak Island, Bald Head and Price’s Creek lighthouses.

Once you arrive at Fort Fisher, commune with the underwater world at the excellent North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Then get lost amidst the ruins of the Civil War Confederate stronghold of Fort Fisher, which will be celebrating the end of the Civil War at its 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Fisher in January 2015 with reenactments, cannon demonstrations, period music, candlelight tours and the unveiling of a new Civil War exhibit.

Make a pit stop at the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, featuring family-friendly shops, varied eateries (beloved Britt’s Donut Shop has been a Carolina Beach favorite for 75 years), arcades, seaside amusement rides and nightlife, as well as easy access to the beach. Or make a detour to downtown Wilmington and relive history at the Bellamy Mansion Museum or stroll along the active Riverwalk on the Cape Fear River.

Continue north on U.S. 17 along the coast toward Beaufort. Visit the quaint shops and restaurants in Swansboro, the “Friendly City by the Sea,” explore the beaches of the Crystal Coast, tour historic Fort Macon State Park, and plan to spend the night beachside at Atlantic Beach or riverside in Beaufort.

Day 2: Cedar Island to Ocracoke

A morning stroll along the beach or a visit to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort is a great way to prepare you for the anticipation of your ferry ride to Ocracoke. After an hour or so drive north to Cedar Island, board the ferry and settle in for a scenic two hour and 15 minute trip to Ocracoke. Although it’s a bit lengthy, the trip can be a real time- and gas-saver for those traveling along the coast. Plus, the opportunity for aquatic wildlife watching, talking to fellow passengers or crew members, and thoroughly exploring your chosen mode of transportation makes it all worthwhile.

The Cedar Island-Ocracoke ferry arrives and departs right in downtown Ocracoke Village, making it convenient for afternoon and evening exploration and accommodations. Ocracoke Village is ideally explored on foot, so there is no real need to get back in your car until it’s time to catch the next ferry north. The options in Ocracoke include fishing, kayaking, a couple of small museums, the 75-foot Ocracoke Lighthouse, shopping in the many shops and galleries, dining at one of many restaurants and more. Ocracoke offers a wide range of options for the night, including inns, motels, B&Bs, campgrounds and rental cottages.

Day 3: Ocracoke to Hatteras

A 16-mile drive along the Atlantic Ocean through Cape Hatteras National Seashore takes you to the popular Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry. This 40-minute crossing is unique in that it is one of four Ferry Division offerings that’s free of charge. The other three are Currituck-Knotts Island, Bayview-Aurora and Cherry Branch-Minnesott.

From the fishing village of Hatteras, head along the coastline stopping at the Cape Hatteras or Bodie Island lighthouses or enjoy lots of protected wildlife and scenery along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore or Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Head to Manteo for a fun waterfront lunch or explore the grounds of the Elizabethan Gardens.

From Manteo, take the “slow” road along the beach, marveling at many houses precariously perched above the sand (and sometimes waves). The Wright Brothers National Memorial marks the brothers’ manned 1903 flight and is a fascinating diversion.

If you have the time, continue north on scenic Route 12 through the seaside village of Duck for stunning views of the Pamlico Sound on one side and miles-long views of the Atlantic on the other. From there, continue on to the Currituck Outer Banks and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, the northernmost lighthouse in North Carolina.

For more information about the North Carolina ferry system, days and hours of operation, schedules, rates and reservations, visit www.ncdot.gov/ferry/.

Enjoy all the area has to offer by mixing and matching activities and events to your particular interest. Be sure to check days and hours of operation for each venue.

Lynn and Cele Seldon are an Oak Island-based travel writers who love covering their home state.

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