Roanoke Island is one of the most unique destinations along the Outer Banks. Unlike other regions of coastal North Carolina, Roanoke Island is not bordered by miles of shorelines adjacent to the Atlantic waves. But what the area lacks in ocean beaches, it more than makes up for in history, culture, attractions, dining and scenery, and visitors are charmed with the picturesque small town that is most certainly more than meets the eye.
As the stepping stone for European exploration of Northern America, and home to the largest concentration of Outer Banks attractions, Roanoke Island is a vacation destination that is definitely worthy of a day trip, a weekend, or a full, relaxing vacation that's just a few miles away from the beach, but feels completely worlds away from the rest of the OBX.
Geography of Roanoke Island
Right away, newcomers to Roanoke Island will note the remarkable differences between Roanoke Island and its coastal neighbors. Unlike the other central beach towns of Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk, Roanoke Island has no crashing ocean waves, and instead has rustic sound beaches and miles of wooded terrain that would look more appropriate in a forest than in a beach destination. These major distinctions are all due to geography.
Roanoke Island is technically not tied to the chain of barrier islands that wind down the coastline and comprise the Outer Banks. Instead, it is buffered from the Atlantic Ocean by the central Outer Banks region, (or Bodie Island), which is located approximately 4-5 miles away. Make no mistake, though - Roanoke Island is still an island, and is surrounded by water in every direction. The Roanoke Sound hugs its eastern borders and connects to the Croatan Sound on the western side of the island, which separates it from the mainland. As such, the only way to get to the island is by bridge, from either the Manns Harbour Bridge or Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge that crosses the Croatan Sound from mainland North Carolina, or via the Nags Head / Manteo Causeway which connects Roanoke Island to its Nags Head neighbors.
Though driving through the island may seem expansive with plenty of small, hidden side roads that lead deep into the maritime forest, Roanoke Island is actually quite small. At approximately just 8 miles long and 2 miles wide, the island is actually one of the smaller islands that comprise the Outer Banks, despite being home to plenty of residents, businesses, and area attractions. There are two towns located on the island, Wanchese and Manteo, and Manteo serves as the home base for the majority of government and statewide offices. The court offices and buildings, the DMV, and the government administrative buildings are all located here, in addition to a number of other services that are instrumental to the daily operations of Dare County.
There are also over 6,000 residents that call Roanoke Island home, and who are spread out between the towns of Wanchese and Manteo. Wanchese is a dominantly residential village, with few accommodations for visitors, however it is a picturesque small fishing town that is definitely worthy of a road trip exploration. In Wanchese, visitors will spot classic island homes, tidy neighborhoods, and acres of waterfront docks, harbors and marinas that serve both the commercial and recreational fishing industries. The majority of seafood for the Outer Banks businesses and restaurants comes through Wanchese, and visitors are welcome to take a look around at a fishing village that's always hard at work.
Manteo, on the other hand, is far more geared towards tourism, and is home to a number of attractions that span the island from Shallowbag Bay, (a small Roanoke Sound bay that cuts into the eastern side of the island), to the Croatan Sound. One main two-lane road runs the expanse of the island, US 64 Business, although visitors will spot dozens of side roads that venture out away from the main drag and lead to picturesque residential neighborhoods and attractive and highly visited waterfront communities.
As for landscape, be prepared to be surprised by the number of towering pine trees, hidden marshlands, and scenery that belies its island location. Roanoke Island comprises of a thriving and ancient maritime forest, with trees that have been around since the English explorers first set foot on these shores well over 400 years ago, and the landscape is shaded, peaceful, and unlike any other region of the Outer Banks.
Take your time and explore the expanse of the island, (it won't take more than an afternoon), and pinpoint the areas and attractions you want to explore the most. With one of the highest concentrations of attractions located in one small island community, it's often surprising to newcomers that there is so much to do in such a small, charming island.
History of Roanoke Island
One of the main reasons for the wealth of historical attractions along Roanoke Island is its stature as the birthplace of English settlements in North America. Roanoke Island was home to the first "trial settlements" sent by Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, and these early explorations would eventually lead to greater colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth, and development of the country as a whole.
The very first colony on North American ground was established on Roanoke Island in 1584. A military settlement, this initial colony comprised only of male soldiers, builders and sailors, who set to work building a home and conferring with the local Native American tribes. Many of the names that swirl around Roanoke Island are attributed to these original natives. For example, "Roanoke" stemmed from the original Roanoke Carolina Algonquian tribe who lived in the area during the beginning of the 16th century explorations, while Manteo and Wanchese were both derived from two local Native American chiefs who acted as ambassadors to the new arrivals. Though the area was new to the settlers, Roanoke Island was certainly old news to the native residents who already lived there, and many historians and archeologists believe that Roanoke Island has been populated since 8000 B.C. or even earlier.
It was this late 1500s exploration, however, that put Roanoke Island on the international map, and after some conflicts with the local Native Americans, the military colonists were sent back to England, and a new colony was shipped off to Roanoke Island, this time with regular English citizens including women and children.
One of the new settlement members and the captain's daughter, Elizabeth Dare, was pregnant during the voyage, and ending up giving birth on Roanoke Island to America's first English born child, Virginia Dare. Though this was a promising sign of the settlement's potential success, unfortunately, this settlement would go down in the history books as one of the country's most enduring and perplexing mysteries. Just two years after landing, all 200+ members of the colony had completely disappeared, leaving no trace of their fate except for two words carved into two trees: "Cro" and "Croatan." The colonists were never heard from again, and even today over four centuries later, historians still debate their disappearance and possible fate.
Despite these early setbacks, the English continued to send colonists, settlements and explorations to Roanoke Island's shores for its fantastic geography and location. The island had miles of timber to serve as building supplies, and the island was easy to get through via a quick trip through the Roanoke Sound.
Over the centuries, the small island would become an established settlement, a farming community, and later a military base during the Civil War that started off the battle as a confederate base, and ended up a Union Stronghold. Roanoke Island would prove to be a detrimental loss for the Confederates, as by capturing and holding Manteo, the Union could effectively cut off service to ports all along Eastern North Carolina that were accessed via the Roanoke, Albemarle and Croatan Sounds.
During the Civil War, Roanoke Island also found a new use as one of the largest Freedmen's Colonies in the states, a government sanctioned sanctuary for former slaves. Thousands of newly freed Americans flocked to Roanoke Island to build and create a thriving community. Many of these new residents had escaped from mainland North Carolina, and on Roanoke Island they built schools, churches, homes and a new life where they could live in peace and prosper. The colony was eventually disbanded by the government after property ownership disputes by the original owners, but despite its short lifespan of just five years, (from 1862-1867), the colony is still celebrated today as one of the most remarkable and successful social experiments of the Civil War.
By the 1900s, decades after the war had passed, Roanoke Island had turned into a thriving small town with a waterfront community filled with businesses, government offices, and even a movie theater. (This area is now distinguished as Historic Downtown Manteo.) The town remained quietly busy and stocked with year-round residents, with little tourism activity, until slowly and steadily a number of historic attractions began to pop up along the island, honoring the region's place in history as the birthplace of America. In the 1980s, Roanoke Island officially stepped into the spotlight as the country celebrated its 400 year anniversary, and with the launching of several attractions designed specifically for the event, like the 16th Century Sailing Vessel the Elizabeth II, Roanoke Island became one of the Outer Banks most popular unofficial tourist attractions.
Today, modern vacationers can still marvel at the wooded landscapes and rough terrain that once greeted the 1580s colonists, and trace their steps through local historic regions such as the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site or the Roanoke Island Festival Park. Roanoke Island has a long memory, but with a history as rich as this tiny island possesses, it's easy to see why there are so many incredible reminders of the island's incredible past.
Things to see on Roanoke Island
A vacationer could spend a weekend on Roanoke Island and still not be able to take in all the historic sites and fun attractions that this tiny portion of the Outer Banks has to offer.
One of the most popular attractions for visitors of all ages is the North Carolina Aquarium. This sprawling complex bordering the sound features hundreds of tanks showcasing some of North Carolina's most fascinating local species. Alligators, river otters, horseshoe crabs, manta rays, and even sea turtles can all be found here, in addition to fascinating and ever-changing exhibits on marine biology, local hurricanes, and lifesaving station history. Perhaps most impressive of all, the aquarium is home to the largest saltwater tank in North Carolina, where sharks lazily swim in circles just inches away from browsing visitors. Open daily year-round, the aquarium is generally a must-see for visitors in all regions of the Outer Banks.
Roanoke Island's rich past can be explored via a number of historical attractions clustered together and more or less in the same vicinity as the original 1580s settlement sites. The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the exact locale of the original colonists, while the Roanoke Island Festival Park brings their story to life with interactive exhibits and replicas of a thriving 16th century English or Native American Roanoke Island community, complete with costumed interpreters. Take a stroll over to the Elizabeth II, and hop on board for an in-depth tour of a 16th century sailing vessel much like the ship that first transported the original colonists, or stroll over to the museum to see artifacts and exhibits covering centuries of Roanoke Island history. Both of these attractions are essential stops for history lovers ad curious visitors who want an inside look into the earliest roots of American life.
Close to Fort Raleigh, visitors can take a self-guided tour through the tranquil and beautiful Elizabethan Gardens. This sprawling attraction that borders the Roanoke Sound features acres of well-manicured paths that are filled with gorgeous plants, trees, bushes, and flowers which seasonally bloom to the delight of visitors. Every season is different at the gardens, and the display changes daily, although visitors can expect to spot gorgeous camellias, crepe myrtles, hydrangeas, magnolias, roses, bulb and wild flowers, and a number of other local and regional species. Exquisite statues are located throughout, and a formal garden complete with an Italian fountain stands as the centerpiece of this beautiful display. Open year round, visitors are encouraged to visit the gardens in every season, and stop at the small gift shop and plant store to pick up a few local blooms to bring home and admire in their own garden.
One of the most celebrated attractions on Roanoke Island is the Lost Colony outdoor drama, the country's oldest running outdoor drama, and a spectacular show that is held every night in the summertime. Visitors of all ages can watch the story of the Lost Colonists unfold as costumed performers act, dance, sing, and even throw fire to the audience's surprise and delight. Performed at the Waterside Theater, a gorgeous outdoor auditorium that borders the Roanoke Sound, the Lost Colony is an annual tradition for many Outer Banks families and long-time vacationers, as even though the story is a familiar one, the show itself is never anything less than stunning.
Flash forward a couple centuries, and take a tour through Manteo's newest attraction, the Island Farm. This site located along US 64 Business portrays an active 1800s Manteo farm, and is a fun interactive exhibit for visitors of all ages. Pay a visit to all the farm animals that call the site home, or interact with costumed interpreters who explain the day to day 1800s routine. For a different perspective of Roanoke Island history, a trip to the farm will definitely take you back to a different time.
If you family is in the mood for a movie night, then consider combining your entertainment and history with a trip to the Pioneer Theater. The one room movie house is tucked away along a small downtown Manteo side street and is the oldest family owned movie theater in the country. Downtown Manteo has also become a popular attraction all its own, as the acres of waterfront docks, locally owned gift shops and restaurants, and miles of views across the Shallowbag Bay provide the perfect setting for an afternoon or evening tour. Stop by the local antique shops, galleries and boutiques to stock up on artifacts to take home, or just pull up a dockside chair at a local restaurant and enjoy the waterfront. With plenty to discover around every corner, downtown Manteo is an attraction that's sure to please everyone in the family.
Naturally, there are plenty of other smaller-scale attractions that can be found throughout Roanoke Island, like the selection of art galleries, the visitor and history centers, and even the small but active town of Wanchese. Visitors are advised to try to cover as much ground as they can in a day-trip or two, but to enjoy the full effect, consider planning a weekend escape or full vacation exploring the scene. With centuries of history to uncover, Roanoke Island has more than enough attractions to keep everyone in the family completely entertained.
Things to do on Roanoke Island
While a full day on Roanoke Island will likely revolve around the incredible historical sites and attractions that the region is best known for, visitors will also find plenty of fun activities on and off the water, and away from the island's most popular sites.
The town of Wanchese, though generally overshadowed by its Manteo neighbor, is an incredibly popular spot with charter fishermen, and dozens of boats launch from its docks out to the Gulf Stream daily. If you are planning on taking an offshore fishing adventure from the central or northern Outer Banks during your stay, chances are you'll use one of the experienced and established fishing vessels that launch off the coast of Roanoke Island, and call the harbors of Wanchese home.
There are also a handful of private marinas and boat slips located throughout the island, making Roanoke Island a boater's paradise. With easy proximity to both the Gulf Stream and the Intercoastal Waterway, Manteo is exceptionally popular with the mariner set, and as a result, dozens of seasonal fishing tournaments launch from this Outer Banks port o' call.
Fishermen who like to stay a little closer to land can also enjoy exceptional casting into the Roanoke and Croatan Sound waters from a number of parks and public parking areas. For a real thrill and a great vantage point, head over to the Manteo / Nags Head Causeway, and dip you lines in from the heights of the pedestrian bridge, or from the grassy areas located along either side. This area is also popular with crabbers, who hand line and scoop out dozens of blue crabs from this coastal area daily.
Watersports lovers will find there's a lot to do in this area as well, as both the ships along the causeway and around downtown Manteo offer parasailing, jet ski rentals, and kayak rentals or tours. Take the family out for a fun waterfront adventure they will never forget, and enjoy an eco-kayak tour along the borders of Roanoke Island. Especially striking at sunset, this is an easy waterfront adventure that visitors of all ages and skill levels will adore.
Wildlife lovers can also check out the handful of nature trails and birding platforms that are located throughout the island, just off the beaten path. Take a jog through town on the well-maintained pedestrian path that's lined with Crepe Myrtles, or head to the outskirts of Wanchese for small, rugged trails that lead out to the saltwater marshes and the Croatan Sound. Popular with hikers and bird watchers like, Roanoke Island is a natural paradise for anyone who loves a good walk through the woods.
For a little less-active entertainment, hit the Manteo downtown shops and restaurants and give your credit card a workout as you explore some of the most unique boutiques and galleries on the Outer Banks. The area has one of the highest concentrations of antique stores and art galleries along the coastline, with most of these eclectic shops located within a 4-5 block radius for easy exploring. Roanoke Island is also home to some of the best restaurants on the beach, with stunning waterfront views, incredible fresh seafood, and unique menus that take creative liberties with southern favorites. Several restaurants in Manteo have been featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which is one of the many reasons why the island has become a popular destination for visitors with very good taste.
Whether your vacation preferences tend to run towards the sporty and outdoors activities, or relaxing shopping and dining excursions, you'll find exactly what you're looking for on Roanoke Island. With miles of waterfront providing an ideal backdrop for shopping, dining, fishing, boating, and just playing in the water, Roanoke island allows vacationers to explore the very best "things to do" the Outer Banks has to offer, in an incredibly unique and completely scenic setting.
Places to stay on Roanoke Island
Visitors who want to stay a night, a weekend, or even a week or two will find plenty of inviting accommodations on Roanoke Island.
There are a number of locally owned hotels and motels along US 64 Business, which are close to the historic downtown and the main Manteo attractions. Unlike other regions of the Outer Banks, the majority of these hotels and motels stay open year round to accommodate guests of all season.
Manteo may be best known, however, for its wide selection of charming bed and breakfasts that are located throughout the island, and especially concentrated within the downtown area. These B&Bs are converted historic homes and mansions, with gorgeous gardens, wide shaded porches, and plenty of on-site amenities (like bicycles, hammocks, and book or DVD libraries), for guests to enjoy. For a romantic stay that's within walking distance of all the cool shops and restaurants, a stay at a local B&B will provide the perfect dreamy atmosphere.
Visitors who are thinking about staying a week or more will also find a wide range of vacation homes and condos, located slightly off the island near the Manteo / Nags Head Causeway. These rental homes often come with plenty of extras, including community or private pools, hot tubs, and even boat slip access, and are located adjacent or close to the Roanoke Sound for absolutely incredible water views and sound sunsets. For a relaxing vacation that's just several miles away from the beaches and the collection of Roanoke Island attractions, a vacation rental in this region can serve as a perfect getaway.
Whether you're staying for a night or two or a full week, the accommodations available on Roanoke Island are among some of the most charming on the Outer Banks. Filled with southern hospitality and fantastic locations, these homes, hotels, condos and B&Bs are definitely worth a look for vacationers who want to explore the Outer Banks in its entirety, both on and off the beach.
Tips and Tricks for Visiting Roanoke Island
- Roanoke Island has arguably more events than any other region of the Outer Banks, and visitors are advised to check out the local calendars to see what fun happenings are occurring during their vacation stay. Events can range from big-name festivals like the annual Bluegrass Festival, or small recurring celebrations, like the First Night event in downtown Manteo, or the summer concert series at Roanoke Island Festival Park. From farmer's markets to art fairs, there's always something going on in Roanoke Island, and visitors are encouraged to enhance their experience by popping by a local, (and often free), celebration.
- Planning an extensive visit to the Roanoke Island attractions? Check out their websites before you plan. Some sites, like the North Carolina Aquarium's site, allows you to book your tickets for a specific day in advance, while others, like the Roanoke Island Festival park site, may even offer special discounts and coupons that are only available online. With a little advance planning, you can save money and make sure your tickets are lined up for all your favorite Manteo attractions.
- Every region of the Outer Banks has a secretive season where the visitor population is down, but the landscape and activities are at their best. On Roanoke Island, that season is the Holiday Season. As December rolls around, the area is lit up by thousands of Christmas lights and décor scattered throughout the town and along the downtown waterfront docks. The majority of local shops and restaurants have special Christmas shopping sales and tastings, while a number of events commence at the local attractions to celebrate the holiday. Perhaps the most popular is the Winter Lights display at the Elizabethan Gardens, a month long celebration where the entire gardens are illuminated by hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights. For an old world holiday that will surely put you in the festive spirit, plan a winter escape to Roanoke Island.
- Thinking of making a permanent move to the Outer Banks? Consider checking out the homes available for long-term rent or for sale on Roanoke Island. Close enough to the beaches but miles away from the busy summer traffic, Roanoke Island is an ideal locale for year-round living. The community is active with plenty of events and activities to enjoy, and the island is filled with family-friendly neighborhoods and convenient services and businesses. For small town living that's remarkably close to the seashore, Roanoke Island is hard to beat.
Roanoke Island is a distinctive portion of the Outer Banks, and despite its small size, has remained one of the most visited North Carolina coastal regions for well over 400 years.
Today, visitors from all over the barrier islands still flock to the area for a fun day trip that revolves around some the Outer Banks' best loved attractions, including the NC Aquarium, the Elizabethan Gardens and the Lost Colony outdoor drama.
Filled with eclectic shops, fabulous restaurants, and miles of scenic waterfront, this small community is certainly a lot more than meets the eye. On your next vacation, consider spending a day exploring the town, from the big name attractions to the small waterfront side streets, and chances are you'll be eager to plan a new getaway to this historic, unique and simply charming Outer Banks destination.