Roanoke Island is a great place to head for a day trip – just make sure you have more than one day. No worries, though, as the island has several bed and breakfast inns in the towns of Manteo and Wanchese, along with a few hotels.
Roanoke Island is the home port of Elizabeth II. She's docked for tours across from the Manteo waterfront at the Roanoke Island Festival Park.
From the Outer Banks, the island is a short jaunt over the Washington Baum Bridge, so if you like history, mystery, floriculture, family adventure or sea life, take a break from the beach and visit Roanoke Island. You can also get there by way of U.S. 64, crossing the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge over the Croatan Sound from Mann's Harbor. Or, travel north from Mann's Harbor on U.S. 264, and cross the sound by way of the old William B. Umstead Memorial bridge.
Roanoke Island is best known as the site of the first attempted settlements of English colonists in the New World, including the settlers of the "Lost Colony." Among the these "lost" colonists was Virginia Dare, the first child born to English-speaking parents in the New World.
However, the island also has a rich history that includes Burnside's Expedition during the Civil War and The Freedman's Colony, a safe haven for African Americans during and after the Civil War.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, located on the northern end of Roanoke Island, gives visitors a chance to learn all about the island's early English setters, and learn about the Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans who have called the island home. Take a walk around the grounds, which encompass part of the site of the first attempted settlements in the New World.
While you're there, make plans to visit Waterside Theatre and attend "The Lost Colony," which blends history and fiction to tell the story of the mysterious disappearance of more than 100 English colonists. Written by Paul Green, a North Carolina native and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, the play is America's first and longest running historical drama. Andy Griffith began his acting career on the stage of Waterside Theatre, the home of the production, as did other notable actors and directors.
The Elizabethan Gardens, adjacent to Fort Raleigh, pay tribute to the island's early English settlers, who arrived under the rule of England's Queen Elizabeth I. Established by the Garden Club of North Carolina in 1953, this living memorial to the lost colonists covers 10.5 acres and offers year-round displays of seasonal blooms and colorful foliage, along with a 16th-century-style gatehouse furnished with period antiques, a gift shop, flower-bordered walkways and paths, a sunken garden, a Shakespearean herb garden and antique garden fountains and statuary. The gardens also offer seasonal events and activities year-round.
Fort Raleigh also honors the African Americans who lived in the Roanoke Island Freedman's Colony, which is a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site. In 1862, slaves escaping the mainland fled to Roanoke Island, seeking the protection of the Federal troops that captured the island during the Civil War. By 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the population of the colony surpassed 3,000, and homes, schools and businesses were built. A path through the woods at Fort Raleigh leads visitors to a park along the Croatan Sound that commemorates the Freedman's Colony.
Kids and adults alike can learn more about the history of the island at Roanoke Island Festival Park, which combines art, history and fun on a 25-acre island across from the Manteo Waterfront. The park is home to the Elizabeth II, a representative 16th-century ship, where interpreters dressed in the garb of 16-century sailors bring the history of England's early voyages to the New World to life. History is also reenacted at the park's Settlement Site, and the park's Adventure Museum offers hands-on learning experiences and special programs. Special performances are held in the park's theatre, and a variety of changing exhibits are featured in the park's Art Gallery.
While you're in Manteo, take a walk over to the NC Maritime Museum on Roanoke Island, which features a working boathouse and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. The screwpile light is a reproduction on one that stood near the site. Take time to view the permanent display on the history of the structure.
Had enough history? Then go see the fish at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Don't miss the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit, a 285,000-gallon tank that is home to more than 450 fish and a number of sharks. The Aquarium offers a wide variety of free programs and activities year-round. Daily programs include live animal programs, demonstrations and more. Fish in selected tanks are fed daily.
Of course, a trip to the Outer Banks isn't complete until you've taken time to explore the towns of Manteo and Wanchese. So go ahead, make those reservations.