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From Hatteras, a free car ferry crosses the inlet to Ocracoke Island in 40 minutes; during the peak summer tourist season, the line may be long, so you'll need to get there early to get a place.

Ocracoke has shown up on maps as far back as the late 1500s, when Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Island party landed here. It's rumored to have been the last headquarters of Blackbeard, who died here. The wily pirate, after years of terrorizing merchant ships along the Atlantic coast, made his peace with the British crown in 1712 and received a full pardon from the king. Soon thereafter, however, he came out of retirement and resumed preying on ships from the Caribbean to the Virginia capes, working hand in glove with the colonial governor, Charles Eden, and colonial secretary Tobias Knight.

When Ocracoke Island was isolated from the mainland and few visitors came by boat, as many as 1,000 wild ponies roamed its dunes. Where they came from -- shipwrecks, early Spanish explorers, or English settlers -- is uncertain. Eventually, as more and more people traveled to and from the island, many ponies were rounded up and shipped to the mainland. The remnants of the herd (about two dozen) now live at the Ocracoke Pony Pens, a range 7 miles north of Ocracoke village, where the National Park Service looks after them.

In a quiet little corner of Ocracoke Island, you'll find a bit of England: the British Graveyard, where four British seamen are buried. Their bodies washed ashore after the HMS Bedfordshire was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942. The graveyard is leased by the British government but is lovingly tended by townspeople.

Ocracoke village has seen some changes since World War II, when the U.S. Navy dredged out Silver Lake Harbor (still called "Cockle Creek" by many natives) and built a base here. They also brought the first public telephones and paved roads. In spite of the invasion of 20th-century improvements and the influx of tourist-oriented businesses, Ocracoke is essentially what it has always been: a fishing village whose manners and speech reflect its 17th-century ancestry.