Roanoke Island

A trip to Roanoke Island is an essential part of any Outer Banks vacation. This small island is home to several of the Outer Banks’ most popular attractions and activities as well as the Town of Manteo, with its picture-perfect waterfront setting full of shops, restaurants and things to do.

Whether you’re looking for a full day’s worth of activities for a family or a leisurely afternoon of touring for just the two of you, Roanoke Island is the perfect daytrip destination.

Access to Roanoke Island is via the short length of a causeway and bridge from Nags Head, but once you find yourself there, you could very well imagine it located much farther away. With its lush landscape and slower pace, Roanoke Island feels a world apart from the beach, but really it’s only a five minutes’ drive from Nags Head.

This island is rich in history, and it’s important to understand that history before you can understand Roanoke Island. The first attempts at English settlements in the New World took place on Roanoke Island between 1585 and 1587. That’s 20 years before the Jamestown settlement of 1607. Though the Roanoke Island colonies didn’t prove successful as far as longevity, they were the foundations of English-speaking life in America and provided much-needed information about the New World that helped the later colonies succeed. You can learn more about the early Roanoke Island colonies at these attractions: Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, The Lost Colony and Roanoke Island Festival Park.

Roanoke Island Festival Park, just across the water from Downtown Manteo, is a tribute to the first English colonies established here. The centerpiece of the park is the 69-foot Elizabeth II, a representation of a 16th-century sailing ship, which you can climb aboard to explore and meet costumed interpreters. The Settlement Site features demonstrations and activities of everyday colonial life. New to the park is the American Indian Town and Cultural Center, an interactive center that teaches about the culture, heritage and traditions of the American Indians in the region. It also includes a wide variety of true-to-scale structures, role-play environments and places to explore and play. The Roanoke Adventure Museum features hands-on exhibits on 400 years of Outer Banks history. The park also features a fossil search, an art gallery, a film called The Legend of Two Path, a theatre and outdoor pavilion where many special events are held throughout the year.

On the north end of Roanoke Island, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes three attractions. The Fort Raleigh Visitor Center lets you learn more about the early colonists. You’ll see actual excavated artifacts from the colonies, a reconstructed fort and learn about the Elizabethan era. There’s also a nature trail through woods that look much like the Roanoke Island that the colonists explored. Next door, in the summer months, you can see The Lost Colony, America’s number one outdoor drama, and ponder the fate of the 1587 colony that mysteriously disappeared from its Roanoke Island base. Also on the historic site grounds is The Elizabethan Gardens, designed by two of America’s foremost landscape architects to pay tribute to America’s first English colonists. Explore a peaceful wonderland of beautiful plants, landscaping and statuary, and ask about the many special events they offer in the summer months.

The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is also on the north end of island. One of three state-operated aquariums on the North Carolina coast, the aquarium features numerous tanks of fish, including the 285,000-gallon, shark-filled “Graveyard of the Atlantic” saltwater tank. You’ll also find otters, alligators, snakes, frogs and turtles, interactive exhibits, two touch tanks, a theater and a new exhibit, “Oceans Revealed: Power of the Planet,” an interactive way of viewing Earth and its oceans.

Historic Downtown Manteo is an attraction in itself. On the waterfront and entirely walkable, the Downtown area includes a fabulous boardwalk, a marina, restaurants, shops, a great bookstore, art galleries, a waterfront playground, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum. On the waterfront, several tour boats are ready and waiting to take you sailing, parasailing, kayaking or dolphin-watching.

On the other side of the island, Wanchese is a working community of commercial fishermen and boat builders. This is much more than a vacation spot, it’s the year-round home of many people. If you’re curious, drive down to Wanchese and see the way the islanders live, work and play. You’ll find a working waterfront, a couple of restaurants and shops, and some seafood markets offering the freshest seafood around.

Roanoke Island may afford some the opportunity to relax away from the beach scene, but for those willing, there are adventures around every turn. Whether on foot, bike, boat or kayak, opportunities to explore the natural beauty of the island abound. Get a bird’s-eye view of the island in an airplane or swinging from under the parachute of a parasail. Take a sailing tour or kayak through the marshes and get a glimpse of the glistening Roanoke Sound or Shallowbag Bay. Create a tour group of your own – rent a couple of bikes at the waterfront and explore the seven miles of bike paths.

Exploring an island is hungry work. Luckily, there is a taste of everything on Roanoke Island. From a ‘50s-style diner to seafood restaurants to outdoor cafes to fine dining, there’s an opportunity to indulge taste. Stop at a fresh produce stand and bring home some sun-ripened fruits and vegetables. Keep cool on the waterfront boardwalk with a sweetly dripping ice cream cone. Read the morning paper with a cappuccino and some buttered scones on a coffee house couch as comfortable as your own living room’s.

Roanoke Island is the vacation from your vacation – a complex, but uncomplicated piece of paradise that is as close as the rest of the Outer Banks, but feels so much farther away. Come explore everything this island has to offer, although you may need more than one trip to accomplish it all. That’s OK, because once you’ve had a nibble, you’ll be back for the whole meal.

 
Roanoke Island
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Sunrise on Roanoke Island in North Carolina

Sunrise in Manteo, North Carolina

 

Roanoke Island is the daytrip capital of the Outer Banks. That’s because the island is home to four of the Outer Banks’ most popular attractions, and not a summer day goes by when there isn’t some kind of special event going on here.

Everybody who vacations on the Outer Banks should make it a point to come to Roanoke Island at least once during their visit. But be forewarned; one visit is not enough—you just can’t see it all it one day. The island is overflowing with things to see and do. Be sure to see the Roanoke Island Tabloid in this newspaper for specific details about Roanoke Island’s shops, restaurants, accommodations, attractions and recreation.

Roanoke Island is floating in the sound between the Outer Banks and the mainland and is accessible by three bridges. Right across the Roanoke Sound from lower Nags Head, the island is small, only about 12 miles long and 3 miles wide. The island’s watery views and lush vegetation make it one of the most beautiful places on the Outer Banks.

Roanoke Island has three distinct areas – lively Manteo, the Dare County seat and the only incorporated town on the island; Wanchese, a quiet fishing community; and the verdant “North End,” home to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, The Elizabethan Gardens, The Lost Colony and the North Carolina Aquarium, along with the airport and residential housing.

Manteo is a busy little town. Its waterfront/downtown area is an attraction in itself, with shops, art galleries, eateries, a lighthouse, a waterfront boardwalk and boats sitting in the harbor of Shallowbag Bay. The historic district of Manteo, which fans out from the waterfront, is full of restored homes and inns that make for great sightseeing or overnight stays. The historic district and waterfront area are perfect for exploring on foot or by bicycle.

The main corridor of Manteo is U.S. Highway 64. This road is lined with more shops, galleries, restaurants, service businesses and places to stay. A bicycle/multi-use path runs parallel to Highway 64 from the Nags Head Causeway to the North End. If you have a bicycle handy, we highly recommend using this path to explore Roanoke Island. Find somewhere to park the car (downtown or at Roanoke Island Festival Park are good places), then pedal away. The path leads all the way out to the attractions of Fort Raleigh and ends at a beautiful soundfront park.

The North End of Roanoke Island is incredibly scenic, with linear plantings of live oaks and crepe myrtles and a lush green setting you won’t find anywhere else on the Outer Banks. Since the new Virginia Dare Bridge has diverted vacation traffic to more of the middle of Roanoke Island, you’ll find the North End to be a very peaceful place.

Wanchese does not have much for tourists. It’s really the only area of the Outer Banks that does not revolve around tourism. This is a small village where people live and work, in the fishing and boat-building industries mainly. But it’s a nice place to take a slow drive and see what an old-fashioned island community is like. Check out the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park to see the thriving boat-building and boat service industry operations; walk the docks at the marinas and look at the boats, many of which were locally built; buy some fresh seafood at a seafood market; then have lunch at Thicket Lump Marina or dinner at Queen Anne’s Revenge. Charter fishing trips are available out of two marinas in Wanchese, so that might be another reason to come back.

 

History

 

You cannot appreciate Roanoke Island and its attractions unless you know some of the island’s history. Long before Jamestown and Plymouth were settled, Roanoke Island played host to the first English-speaking colonists in the New World. Sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, English colonists made two attempts to settle on Roanoke Island and claim the land for Queen Elizabeth, but the colonies failed. Even so, the first English-speaking child born in the New World, Virginia Dare, began life on Roanoke Island.

In 1585, an English fort and settlement with more than 100 men was established on the north end of the island. That same year, two Native Americans from the island, chiefs Manteo and Wanchese, visited England with some of the Englishmen. (Now you know where the island’s communities got their unusual names.) The English hoped this would help them establish good relationships with the natives, but the relationships were later strained. This first colony was eventually abandoned due to weather, lack of supplies and poor relations with the natives.

In 1587, another party of more than a hundred English colonists, including women and children, reached Roanoke Island in July. A month later, on August 18, Virginia Dare was born to Eleanor and Ananias Dare. This is the colony that disappeared and would become known as “the lost colony.” The colony’s governor and baby Virginia’s grandfather, John White, who had been sent back to England to get supplies in August of 1587, was delayed for three years. When he came back to Roanoke Island in 1590, there was no sign of the colony he left behind, only the words CRO and CROATAN carved into a tree. No one knows what happened to these people, and this is the subject of the play The Lost Colony, which has been running on Roanoke Island for more than 60 years. You’ll notice that many of the street names and place names on the island stem from this history.

Roanoke Island also has a fascinating Civil War history. The island was the location of an early battle and was controlled by the Union Army for the duration of the war. Roanoke Island housed a Freedmen’s Colony, where escaped slaves found a safe haven for several years.

 

Attractions

 

Many of Roanoke Island’s attractions center around the early colonization attempts and the Elizabethan era in which they occurred. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site commemorates the first English settlement attempts in the New World and incorporates part of the land where the English tried to settle. The museum also tells the story of other historic events that happened on Roanoke Island – Civil War history, the Freedmen’s Colony and Reginald Fessenden’s experiments with radio. The park is also home to Waterside Theatre and the outdoor symphonic drama The Lost Colony. The drama, written by Paul Green, has been running on Roanoke Island since 1937. It tells the story of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh’s desire to establish a colony in the New World as well as the stories of the colonists who went seeking a new life and the Native Americans who were adversely affected by their arrival. The play leaves its audiences pondering the mystery of what happened. Also on the site of Fort Raleigh is The Elizabethan Gardens, an accurately reproduced and quite lovely English garden that is a living memorial to American’s first English colonists.

Another site that honors the birthplace of English-speaking America is Roanoke Island Festival Park, which is located just across from the Manteo waterfront on its own small island. This park features a representative 16th-century sailing ship; a Settlement Site with re-enactors; a film told from the perspective of the natives on Roanoke Island; an Adventure Museum with interactive exhibits exploring the history of the island; plus arts exhibits and events. A waterfront boardwalk encircles part of the island and provides a shady and pretty nature walk.

Other attractions on Roanoke Island include the very popular North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, which features amazing fish tanks, animal exhibits and stand-out programs; the North Carolina Maritime Museum, which features a boat-building shop and museum along with sailing and boating-related classes; and Roanoke Marshes Light, a reproduction lighthouse on the Manteo waterfront.

 

Other Things To Do

 

One of the best things to do in Manteo is to explore the waterfront and historic area. Park the car and walk around; the town is quite pedestrian friendly. You can explore the maritime museum and lighthouse, pop in and out of antiques shops, art galleries, boutiques and a legendary bookstore; have lunch or dinner; sip a latte or eat ice cream; look at boats in the harbor; walk over the bridge to Festival Park; or walk around town and look at the homes. Better yet, pick up a copy of the Manteo Walking Tour, published by One Boat Guides. This 1.8-mile tour takes you through the streets of Manteo past 45 sites of historic interest or local significance. Along the way you’ll read stories and see old photographs of the way Manteo was in days gone by.

But that’s not all there is to do on Roanoke Island. There are dolphin tours, sailing tours, sightseeing tours, kayaking tours and even fishing and shrimping tours that leave from the waterfront docks in the summer. More serious anglers may want to book an inshore or offshore charter boat from Pirate’s Cove or Broad Creek marinas. There’s also a fishing head boat at Pirate’s Cove. You may want to take a course at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. You can enroll the kids in a sailing camp, take a course in knot-tying or even build a boat in a day!

Finally, Roanoke Island offers numerous special events, festivals, programs, performing arts, summer camps, children’s programs and more all summer long.

The Roanoke Island Secret

 

Here’s a little tip: In the summer months when every restaurant on the beach has a wait list every night, it’s easy to breeze right in to a Roanoke Island restaurant. For some reason, the beach visitors don’t often think to make a special trip to Roanoke Island for dinner, but they should! It’s only 5 or 10 minutes from Nags Head, and there’s not as much of a frantic dinner rush over here. For an especially quiet dinner on Roanoke Island, try to eat a little later, about 7:30 or 8. By then everyone who is trying to make it to The Lost Colony, the North Carolina School of the Arts’ Summer Performance Festival or The Pioneer Theater will have cleared out and you can have your dinner in peace.

 

Staying Over

 

The best way to really get to know Manteo is to stay the night. The town is perfectly quiet and even more special at night and in the early morning, and that’s a side of the town day-trippers don’t get to see. Manteo has two waterfront inns plus a couple of bed and breakfast inns and guesthouses that provide the ultimate accommodations. There are also two nice bed and breakfast inns in Wanchese. And here’s another tip: Roanoke Island has a few hotels on the main highway that offer less expensive rates than the beach hotels. And remember, this island is only about 10 minutes from the beach.

 

Every Outer Banks vacation should include a trip to Roanoke Island and Manteo at least once. But be forewarned: One visit is not enough — you just can’t see it all in one day. The island is overflowing with things to see and do. And more and more each year, people are opting to make Roanoke Island their home base then daytrip out to the other Outer Banks areas of interest.

Roanoke Island is still the daytrip capital of the Outer Banks. That’s because the island is home to four of the Outer Banks’ most popular attractions, many of which focus on Roanoke Island’s history as the first attempted English colonization of America, and other attractions too, like the North Carolina Aquarium and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, that you won’t want to miss.

Yet the island is small, only about 12 miles long and 3 miles wide, with watery views and lush vegetation that make it one of the most beautiful places on the Outer Banks. And it is just across the Nags Head Causeway making it quick and easy to get to.

Roanoke Island has three distinct areas – historic Manteo, the Dare County seat and the only incorporated town on the island; Wanchese, a quiet fishing and boat-building community; and the verdant “North End,” home to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, The Elizabethan Gardens, The Lost Colony and the North Carolina Aquarium.

Manteo with its waterfront/downtown area is an attraction in itself, with shops, art galleries, eateries, a lighthouse, a waterfront boardwalk and boats sitting in the harbor of Shallowbag Bay. The Manteo historic district is full of restored homes and inns that make for great sightseeing or overnight stays. It is perfect for exploring on foot or by bicycle. Park the car and walk around; the town is quite pedestrian friendly. Pick up a copy of our Manteo Walking Tour (available here.) This 1.8-mile tour takes you through the streets of Manteo past 45 sites of historic interest or local significance. Along the way you’ll read stories and see old photographs of the way Manteo was in days gone by. Read more about Roanoke Island history.

The main corridor of Manteo is U.S. Highway 64. This road is lined with shops, galleries, restaurants, service businesses and places to stay. A bicycle/multi-use path runs parallel to Highway 64 from the Nags Head Causeway to the North End. If you have a bicycle handy, we highly recommend using this path to explore Roanoke Island. Find somewhere to park the car (downtown Manteo or at Roanoke Island Festival Park are good places), then pedal away. The path leads all the way out to the attractions of Fort Raleigh and ends at a beautiful soundfront park.

The North End of Roanoke Island is incredibly scenic, with linear plantings of live oaks and crepe myrtles and a lush green setting you won’t find anywhere else on the Outer Banks. Since the new Virginia Dare Bridge has diverted vacation traffic to more of the middle of Roanoke Island, you’ll find the North End to be a very peaceful place.

Wanchese does not have much for tourists. It’s really the only area of the Outer Banks that does not revolve around tourism. This is a small village where people live and work, in the fishing and boat-building industries mainly. But it’s a nice place to take a slow drive and see what an old-fashioned island community is like. Check out the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park to see the thriving boat-building and boat service industry operations; walk the docks at the marinas and look at the boats, many of which were locally built; buy some fresh seafood at a seafood market; then have lunch at Thicket Lump Marina or Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant. Charter fishing trips are available out of two marinas in Wanchese, so that might be another reason to come back.

Roanokeisland.net, which mirrors the guidebook section of the Roanoke Island Walking Tour and Guidebook, gives you all the info you need to plan your vacation here and feel welcome and at ease. You can order the Roanoke Island Guidebook and Walking Tour online. In addition to the complete guidebook of Roanoke Island, the book includes a specially mapped out and well-planned walking tour of the historic homes, building and sites of Manteo.

 

 

Roanoke Island History

Roanoke Island’s history is legendary. Long before Jamestown and Plymouth were settled, the island played host to the first English-speaking colonists in America.

In 1584, an English fort and settlement with more than 100 men was established on the north end of the island, but it was abandoned the following year due to weather, lack of supplies and poor relations with the Native Americans. The colonists and natives didn’t get along despite the fact that the two local chiefs, Manteo and Wanchese, had been taken to England in hopes of forming good relations.

In 1587 another party of 110 English colonists, including women and children, set sail for the New World, reaching Roanoke Island in July of that year. On August 18, one of the colonists, Eleanor Dare, gave birth to the first English-speaking child in the New World, Virginia Dare. A week later, the baby’s grandfather, Capt. John White, was forced to return to England for badly needed supplies. Due to Spanish attacks on England, White was waylayed in England for three years, and when he returned to Roanoke Island in 1590 there was no sign of his granddaughter or the other colonists. Their houses were gone, and the only sign of human presence was the letters “CRO” and “CROATOAN” carved on two trees. This led some people to believe that the colonists had sought the help of the Croatoan Indians on Hatteras Island, but they were not there. The fate of the lost colonists is as much a mystery today as it was then, and their story has been retold in the outdoor drama The Lost Colony since 1937.

Roanoke Island was permanently settled in the mid-1600s, and many of the original family names — Etheridge, Baum, Daniels and others — are still very much alive on the island. In 1870 Dare County was formed, with the county seat and courthouse established on Roanoke Island at a site along Shallowbag Bay, now Manteo. The government center became known as Manteo in 1873 when the post office was established, but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1899. By then it had become a bustling center for business and trade as well.

Between 1984 and 1987, Roanoke Island and Manteo played a large part in America’s 400th anniversary celebration. Manteo’s downtown area was renovated and revitalized, and the centerpiece of the celebration, the Elizabeth II, a representative 16th-century sailing ship similar to what the colonists arrived in 400 years before, was constructed on a site at the Manteo waterfront. On July 13, 1984, Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne attended the dedication of the ship, which is now berthed in Shallowbag Bay at Roanoke Island Festival Park.

In 1999 the Town of Manteo celebrated its centennial birthday with many events, the publication of a coffee-table history book, Manteo, A Roanoke Island Town by Angel Ellis Khoury, and the establishment of a centennial clock on the corner of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh streets downtown.

For a town that preserves its history and charm so well, Manteo has changed exponentially in the past couple of years. More shops, galleries and restaurants fill the downtown area than ever before, and Manteo has evolved into a destination for overnight stays and daytrips from the beaches. Some of the most popular Outer Banks attractions are found in Manteo and on Roanoke Island—the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Roanoke Island Festival Park and the Elizabeth II, the NC Aquarium, the Elizabethan Gardens and, of course, The Lost Colony outdoor drama.

Boats docked at the waterfront, sailing and kayak tours leaving the docks, tourists dining on a patio or sipping a latte as they poke in and out of shops, kids licking ice cream cones at the waterfront park, bicyclists leisurely pedaling along side streets, quaint inns, restored historic homes with flourishing gardens, crabbers tending to their daily operations — all this and more is seen on a daily basis in Manteo.

Yet the small-town flavor of the town has remained. City folk often find it unsettling, but here nearly everyone says hello as they pass you on the street and asks about your health and chats about the weather before they get down to any business, like taking your lunch order or selling you a stamp. Manteo residents are all on a first-name basis, and visitors get the feeling that if they stayed a couple of days, they’d all be on a first-name basis too.

Enjoy your visit to Manteo and Roanoke Island. We hope you will use this guide to learn more about the history and present-day offerings of this wonderful place we call home.