If you ever get a chance to travel along the east coast of North Carolina in the fall, you must ride at least one ferry. Here in the 21st century, the North Carolina Department of Transportation still operates a Ferry Division. In fact, one vacation spot along the coast can only be reached by ferry or private boat.
Ferries began operating in Eastern North Carolina in the mid-1920s. In 1934, the state began subsidizing private ferry services, and finally in the 1950s it would take over and operate the systems itself. Today, the NC Ferry Department oversees the operation of over two dozen locations that transport passengers and vehicles to several places along the coast.
Summertime is naturally the peak time for most ferry travelers. We, however, as long time visitors to the area have found that fall is really the best time to ride. While the temperature can be chilly, that crispness in the air really makes the journey over the water even more enjoyable.
Three ferry rides we really enjoy are the: Southport to Fort Fisher (35 minutes), Cedar Island to Ocracoke Island (2 hours 15 minutes), and Ocracoke to Hatteras (1 hour). Each journey offers something completely different to see and experience.
Now before we go further let us tell you about the ferries. The three routes above carry not only people but also automobile. That’s right! Your car travels with you. We confess that when you take your first ride, one of the most unsettling moments is rolling your car up on to the ferry deck, where each vehicle is placed bumper to bumper. It is truly amazing how many cars/trucks one ferry can hold.
The next slight moment of discomfort for the first timer is when that ferry pulls away from the dock loaded down with automobiles. It’s much like that first time you experience take-off aboard a jumbo jet. After that both rides are smooth sailing.
We recently took a weekend trip down south, and enjoyed the most wonderful afternoon journey from Southport to Fort Fisher. This line uses River Class ferries. These boats are double-ended, meaning it doesn’t have to turn around at the docks. Cars drive on at one end of the ferry, and exit on the other. So cool.
Some ferry rides have tolls and some are free. Hours of operation vary based on the season, so it is important to consult the most update Ferry Schedule or the NCDOT Ferry System. I also believe that the Cedar Island to Ocracoke Ferry takes reservations.
A few tips if you plan a ferry ride in the future.
- Always check the length of the trip. While the boats do have bathrooms, they don’t have restaurants. Pack some drinks, snacks, or even sandwiches. We don’t know why, but being on the water seems to make people hungry and thirsty.
- If you do travel in the fall or winter dress in layers, and wear a hat or earmuffs. It can get COLD out there on the water, and if the wind is blowing, well, apply lots of Chapstick.
- Wind makes waves. Waves make the ferry rock. If you are prone to motion sickness, be prepared. Take dramamine or hang your head over the side. (Most trips are very smooth, but it is better to be prepared.)
- Seagulls. Many folks like to throw bread to the birds. I’ve been on rides where hundreds of gulls have flocked overhead as someone threw them food. Gulls are mean and can be very aggressive. In addition, they will poop on you in a heartbeat.
- Explore the view from all points on the boat. There are second floor observation decks, and open ports all the way around.
- Don’t litter. When the wind is up it will grab anything and everything and sweep it away. Hats, scarfs, food wrappers, etc. Be mindful of this at all times.
- Remember you are on a moving vessel in the water. Be smart. Think safe. Don’t do stupid things.
As I said in the beginning, each ride offers its own excitement. On some trips – waterfowl in military formation fly parallel to you, schools of dolphin run alongside the ferry, sailboats with full sails skim nearby in the open water, and sometimes nature provides an incredible alignment with the water, the sun, and the most beautiful clouds above.
To turn you ferry experience into a terrific three-day adventure, then check out Explore the North Carolina Coast by Ferry.