Vacationers who want to experience a slice of authentic “Down East” culture will want to visit picturesque Harker’s Island. Located just east of the town of Beaufort and the Crystal Coast beaches, this small coastal community has retained its small-town charm throughout the centuries, and is a popular destination for fishermen, mariners, and anyone who appreciates a slower pace of life.
History of Harkers Island
Harkers Island was occupied by Native Americans who stemmed from the Coree tribe for centuries before the first European explorers arrived in the late 1500s. Once the Crystal Coast region became colonized, the island was given to a native of the new Carolina colony, Farnifold Green, in 1707 by the Lord’s Proprietor – the original governing body for the state. The island was in turn sold to Ebenezer Harker in 1730, who settled on the island with his family, and built a boat yard as well as a plantation on the site. After his death, the island, which has been known as Davers Ile and Craney Island, was re-named “Harkers Island,” and remained relatively deserted for more than a century.
It wasn’t until a wave of coastal locals who were fleeing a rash of hurricanes along the Outer Banks arrived in the late 1800s that the population increased. From this point on, the area remained relatively quiet, with a primary population of mariners, fishermen, decoy artists, hunters, and other folks who made their living on the outskirts of the barrier island shoreline. A post office for Harkers Island was officially established in 1904, and paved roads first made an appearance in the area in 1936. Despite these advancements, (and a new wave of interest from second homeowners and retirees in the late 20th century), the island retained its small town feel throughout the generations – an atmosphere that continues today.
Harkers Island Today
Harkers Island retains its original small town appeal – with a year-round population that hovers around 1,200 – but it has certainly become more popular with vacationers who appreciate the quieter side of the Crystal Coast.
The area is home to a famed local museum, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum, as well as a ferry service to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a few restaurants, a post office, a number of churches, and at least one catch-all grocery store that has everything from fishing supplies to fresh veggies.
The island is located just north of Beaufort, and can be accessed via Highway 24 and Harkers Island Road. The island borders the Back Sound to the south and the Core Sound to the east, and is roughly a 20-30 minute cruise across the sound from the famed Cape Lookout National Seashore. (The Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which is lit up at night, can be spotted from the majority of soundfront homes along the region.)
The demographic of Harkers Island varies greatly, and includes second homeowners and retirees, as well as natives and generations-old locals who still carve out a life by the water. The area is especially well known among professional linguists, who have noted that the regional “Down East” dialect is one of the most unusual in the world. Because as many as 500 residents are direct descendants of Outer Banks settlers from centuries ago, it’s theorized that this dialect is one of the closest living examples of the Old English accents from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Where to Stay in Harkers Island
Accommodations are understandably limited on Harkers Island. The local Harker’s Island Fishing Center and Marina has a handful of traditional motel rooms in a basic but clean environment, and there is also a local RV park or two where travelers can anchor for a while to explore the scene.
The primary option for people who want to stay in the area, however, are vacation rentals. Several property management companies have vacation homes in the region which are typically rented by the week, and several owners directly rent their homes to vacationers as well in weekly or nightly increments.
A vacation rental is arguably the best way to enjoy the island, as many of the properties are soundfront with private kitchens, private docks, and incredible views of the Cape Lookout National Seashore and lighthouse.
What to Do in Harkers Island
The Core Sound Waterfowl Museum is one of the most popular destinations for day-trippers, thanks to its focus on local heritage, live demonstrations, and a scenic locale that’s close to nature trails and natural landscapes.
In addition, Harkers Island visitors will be roughly a mile away from a National Park Service mandated passenger ferry service, which departs daily during the spring, summer and fall seasons to the shoreline of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Via this brief 30-45 minute boat ride, visitors can explore the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, as well as the miles of beaches that are famed for exceptional fishing and shelling.
There are also a number of local charter boat and tour companies that are locally owned and which depart from Harkers Island for inshore fishing expeditions, area cruises, offshore charters, and / or all of the above. Because Harkers Island has a rich history as a destination for exceptional hunting and fishing guides, the roughly half dozen charter businesses that call this region home are well-reviewed for their extensive knowledge of the local fishing grounds and landscape.
There are also 3-4 restaurants in Harkers Island, which specialize in local seafood and basic but appealing eats. A local pizza shop, (with free delivery), is also found nearby, and there are a collection of local gift shops that are clustered around Island Road. New visitors will want to stop by Captain Henry’s Gift Store, as the expansive establishment is stocked with locally crafted decoys, regional art works, on-site artists at work, and a cool counter that resembles an authentic boat haul.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Harkers Island
- While the local grocery store, Billy’s, has everything visitors need for a multi-day stay on the island, there are a number of shopping options found roughly 20-30 minutes away in the town of Beaufort.
- Make sure you visit the Cape Lookout National Seashore! The ride to this desolate shoreline from Harkers Island is closer and easier than veritably any other point along the Crystal Coast.
- Get a soundfront home if you can. You can view the Cape Lookout Lighthouse from virtually every spot along the Harkers Island soundfront, and many homes have docks and swimming areas alongside the miles-wide Back Sound.
- Want to retire or move to the Crystal Coast? Harkers Island is an enticing option. Filled with primarily residential neighborhoods and an overall quieter atmosphere, this community it tight-knit but friendly, with plenty of water views to go around.
- Harkers Island and the “Down East” region are part of the recently designated Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. Follow the signs and enjoy a cruise of the area to explore the byway in its entirety.
Harkers Island is a beautiful representation of the Outer Banks culture at its most pure. With a small town feel that’s sprinkled with enticing gift shops, restaurants, and charter fishing services, this destination will appeal to anyone who wants to experience the Crystal Coast at its most authentic best.