Our recent trip to Portsmouth Island was so full of new things to learn! NC Culture felt the need to break this particular trip down to two posts..one on what you personally might need to know, and another on the history of this slice of our Heaven. For our trip, I had rented at Long Point cabins for my husband and myself. However, my two sons and others opted for the beach camping, so we can tell you a little about both.
Portsmouth Island is part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, as is Portsmouth Village. Although no reservations are needed for beach camping, you will need reservations for Long Point Cabins. These are made thru the National Parks website.
Reservation phone number: 877-444-6777
Mail and direct address and phone number for the Park:
131 Charles St
Harkers Island, NC 28531
252 728 2250
Ferry reservations out of Atlantic are made directly thru Morris Marina.
Be sure to note this, as we were told that often people have made reservations at other islands or camps, and then made reservations with Morris Marina for the ferry, only to find they were in the wrong place. Morris Marina is for Portsmouth Island, and you can also ferry over from Ocracoke to Portsmouth Village. For the purposes of this post, we are staying with the mainland approach.
Portsmouth Island is only accessable by ferry or personal boat.
To make reservations, please use this link for details: Morris Marina in Atlantic, NC. Most of us are used to using the state ferries, where you pay for the vehicle and it’s a set price. This is a private organization and you will pay not only for your vehicle, but also per person, so please take that into account when calculating costs. Full prices are available at this link:
By phone or email, please use the following information:
Note of caution: if coming in via GPS from the mainland, you will see an “”Atlantic” sign before GPS tells you to turn. Do NOT take that turn. We did, and ended up across the water from where we wanted to be, and were almost late for the ferry. Also, be prepared for seeming like you are coming to a dead end when nearing the marina and take heart..the ferry landing is there, although slightly out of sight from the approach.
Kari and Rick Martin (ferry boat captain) operate the ferry operation, and we found them very easy to work with: here’s what to expect: you will make a $50 reservation deposit. The marina has both bait (depending on local catch, etc) and ice available, along with gas, air, and diesel. If you need to load up on bait or refresh the ice, this can be done at the ferry dock. It will be added to your bill, and the total will be paid upon your return trip. At the time we were there, they had some absolutely beautiful, huge shrimp..more suited for eating than fishing, and at that time, it was only $8 a lb…excellent price for that size!
The two ferries, Donza Lee and Green Grass, dock directly at Long Point Cabins, and your crossing will be roughly 45 minutes. After speaking with the ferry folks, I learned that most (not all, but most) of the sound is around 2 1/2 feet, hence the winding channel for the ferries.
You should only expect to get around on the island by four-wheel drive, although at the time we were there, we were able to use two wheel on the Dune Road. Reduce your air to around 17 to 20 lbs for standard tires, and do this before you even attempt to drive an inch on the island. The reason for this is that right off the bat, before you even access the cabins, is that you will go thru the most popular point for getting stuck in the sand. The Park Service does NOT allow their tractor to be used for pulling vehicles out, due to liability issues, so do not expect help there. If you get stuck, you are looking at a tow that must come from the mainland (ferry costs), and the price can rise quickly, depending on where you are at the time on the island. You will be able to use the air compressor back at the marina when exiting the ferry upon your return.
At the marina, there is also a very nice grill if you need a quick bite, with a deck overlooking the sound, too. The food and service were excellent, and we were very pleased with it. Unfortunately, we left the island on a Monday, and the grill was out of seafood at that time, but generally you can get the standard fare (hamburgers, etc), along with shrimp burgers, crab cakes, and other seafood favorites.
The cabins are rustic duplex styles. Depending on your reservation, you will either be on the ocean or the sound. This matters very little as it is so narrow thru there, a few steps puts you in view of either one for sunrises and sunsets, and you can see the water at any time. Our particular cabin had electricity, so no need for a generator. However, since power is supplied on the island, a refrigerator is a little too much, so coolers are necessary. The camp office also supplies ice, if you run low. At the time we were there, the camp office, run by Mary C., was only open for a few hours a day, so keep that in mind. Once the park staff leave, you are on your own completely. The cabins do have six bunks and ours had a stove. There are several power outlets, so you should be okay on that for small lamps, etc. There is a bathroom and shower stall, also.
You will need to bring any cookware you intend to use. One thing that is not clear on the website is that there is a trash dumpster on site at the cabins, so you do not have to haul your waste back off the island. I would also like to mention that if you do run into a problem with ice, and miss the office hours, my understanding is that you can place an order with the ferry folks, and they will bring you ice on the next trip and add the charge to your tally at the office.
“Pedro”, the rescue helicopter for this area, was retired recently. Any medical emergencies may take quite a while for a response, due to this. This area is part of the 911 emergency system, but any response will be by boat, and then met by ambulance on the mainline. If you are diabetic, or have any other life threatening problems, double check that you have ample medication to enjoy your trip without a problem.
Which brings us to internet service..of which there is very little. Although we were able to access the phone and internet service down by the cabins, about halfway up the island, we lost all service, including phone, completely. I do not know if this is just our particular carrier (Verizon), but do be aware of this.
Our particular cabins were in the rectangular style, and here’s two pics of the interiors. On the front, there is a porch that runs the length of the duplex with rocking chairs to enjoy the view. There are grills, and a hose for washing off the sand.
Portsmouth Village is on the other end (north) of the island, and there are only two ways to get around…either the Dune Road or the beach. The park office has a flyer showing the mileposts and beach access. You will see a small permanent parking lot (permit only), and the Dune Road starts at the far end of that parking lot, although you can pick it up from any of the “ramps” (insert beach access here) on the shoreline. To get to the village, you will have to do a combination of both beach and Dune Road or else all beach driving, until you reach the famous “Water Road” access to the village.
Some words of caution here: on the beach, you will drive thru a few posted areas. You are not allowed to stop in these areas, as there are nesting birds located there. We were told by quite a few to be very careful, as so many birds nest directly on the sand, and since vehicles are not a natural prey for them, they are very, very slow to move out of the way, and some have been hit.
Also: do NOT forget your bug spray. And in case you didn’t get that the first time, make SURE you have the bug spray! You’ll find out why in just a second.
Our third warning is overheating. On our first attempt to reach the village, two of our three vehicles overheated, and we ended up with an impromptu fishing session while they cooled. So be sure to keep an eye on your gauges. Driving in the sand is demanding both on fuel and on the vehicle, and it’s a good idea to have a back-up option. As for the fishing, although two of the days we did not do so well, on one day we caught blues, pigfish, skates, two sharks (I believe they were “lemon sharks” but did not see them myself), one flounder, and also enjoyed watching the dolphins several times.
Our unexpected fishing stop after overheating the vehicles:
Although we knew, from doing our Facebook page, that shelling was a popular pastime on Portsmouth Island, we truly did not anticipate the amount of shells. If you visit the Carolina Shelling page on Facebook, it is amazing to see the variety and amount of shells they often feature from this area. In fact, at this time, their cover photo is of a recent trip to Portsmouth Island.
When you see the sign for the village, don’t think you are home-free yet. You have two more things to deal with..Water Road and mosquitos! And neither is anything to take lightly, trust me.
You will hear differing versions of Water Road, depending on who you speak with, so here’s the skinny.
When you approach this section, you will see a sign that says “stay between the posts”. What it neglects to take into account is that there are THREE rows of posts! Now, what you want is the hardtop version, so keep to your right on the village approach, okay? The other one will get you there, but it’s risky and unless you are into four-wheeling, you might regret it. You are in and out of some mighty deep mud and water, and that fifty second ride can seem like a half-hour. We unfortunately picked the wrong side on our approach, and it was touch and go several times. And as mentioned before, unless you are willing to pay a mighty big tow bill, it might be best to stick to the right.
Of course, on the return, stick to that side, too. On the far side, you will quickly reach a small parking area. It was here that the bugs showed up, and let me tell you, these bugs do not mess around! We were in my son’s black vehicle, and before we even opened the doors, the mosquitoes were swarming on the side doors…in the switching around of vehicles to get the best four wheel drive options, we had all forgotten our bug spray and it was rough! My husband and I were in long pants and jackets, so we did not suffer that much..some bites on the face, hands, and ankles, but the others were in shorts and t-shirts, and were covered in welts quickly.
Unfortunately, I was unable to upload our personal video of the Water Road experience, but did find this on YouTube:
The village itself more than made up for any inconvenience. It is much more spread out than internet photos might lead you to believe, so be prepared to walk. I understand that tours are offered at certain times, and some buildings are open, such as the Visitor’s Center. At the time we were there, though, no one was about and it was very isolated. The signage helps tremendously, and you can also learn a little about the village history on our other post, coming in our next issue, along with photos.
There are mileposts on the beach side, and if camping, be sure to visually mark which beach access you are near, so you don’t waste gas driving on the beach looking for your spot when you can use the Dune Road, which uses much less fuel. Ramp (beach access points) are marked on the Dune Road, but not the mileposts.
For the novice, do not forget the tides if you are beach camping, and be sure to place your camping gear with this in mind. Although most of the people we saw were camped in the first dune line on the beach side, several were also camped on the far side of the dunes. Just make sure you are above the water line, to avoid unexpected surprises. The wind can be rough at times, also, and my son’s windbreak was very handy, as was my lightweight waterproof fishing jacket. To grab a shower, there is a beach bathhouse located near the beach access for Long Point cabins that is for anyone to use. Just remember, of course, to bring your personal hygiene, soap, towels, etc, as the facilities are very basic.
Check out of the cabins is at 10 AM, and the only request is to leave it neat, and sweep up any sand. Do not forget, upon your return to the marina, to stop in and settle your bill, too.
We’ll see you in the next issue with information about the history of Portsmouth Village, and more of what to expect from a trip to the island.