The search for the road less traveled leads to the end of authenticity.
If you’re sailing from Europe, as the English explorers did in the 16th century, the Outer Banks of North Carolina are just about the first piece of the New World you run into. But if you’re driving from New York City 400 years later, they seem very out of the way Ocracoke, the southernmost inhabited barrier island and our vacation destination this year, is roughly two hours from the middle of nowhere. That, of course, is its charm. What better escape than a quaint fishing village of 600 souls, so isolated that its 20th century inhabitants are said to still speak with the Elizabethan accents of their colonial ancestors?
What we found once we got there was not a quaint fishing village but a Quainte Fishing Village. For centuries, virtually the only visitors to this oceanwracked sandbar were shipwreck survivors; today, about 250,000 people take the ferries to Ocracoke in season. Shops selling T-shirts and sea shells ring the harbor, restaurants with upscale pretensions compete with the beach bars and crab shacks, and the artists, massage therapists and eco-hippies have moved in. One can still see the remains of the old village under the vacation real estate–thanks to the vagaries of geography, transportation and politics, Ocracoke’s touristification is fairly recent–but the island’s culture has turned out to be as fragile as its ecology. Even the famous Ocracoke dialect has disappeared under the influence of top 40 radio and cable TV.