To continue my review series on the North Carolina Outer Banks, I’m going to start with Roanoke Island, of Lost Colony fame. I know it’s fall right now and not “beach season” per se, but I think it’s actually a great time to visit Roanoke Island. (Actually, I love the beach so much that I enjoy experiencing it in all the seasons because each one has it’s own, distinct beauty.) But there’s so much to do here that doesn’t involve you getting into the water and right now is the perfect weather for walking around the sites and not burning up.
Technically considered part of the OBX, Roanoke Island is situated between the mainland and Bodie Island, so it is surrounded by sound waters and has no ocean coastline. In addition to it’s natural beauty, this place is reeking with history. I’m sure everyone who knows their US history has heard of the lost colony of Roanoke Island, the first English colony in the New World. This is the birthplace of Virginia Dare, after whom Dare County is named, the first English baby born in the Americas. There’s way too much to this story to recount it here, and that’s why you need to visit this island and experience it for yourself! I wanted the kids to be prepared with knowing the events that took place before our visit so we took time off from our regularly scheduled science and history and did a unit study of OBX history and barrier island ecology. This book in particular, Roanoke, The Mystery of the Lost Colony, by Lee Miller was a great resource we checked out from the library. (In a future post I’ll provide a list of useful topics to consider in preparation for an educational trip to the beach.)
We had driven through Roanoke Island last year on our way to Nags Head, but did not stop to explore as we were so close to our destination and so ready to be there and unload. This year, we planned on visiting it on our way back home, cause, you know, we just have to pack in as much as possible. So after packing up the rental house in Corolla we made the hour drive down Currituck and Bodie Islands and onto Roanoke Island. Here you will find two towns: Manteo and Wanchese (both named after Native Americans who played an important role in the lives of the early colonists). Manteo claims the upper two-thirds of the Island and Wanchese the remaining southern area. The small town of Wanchese (5.5 sq miles), which first became a fishing village when occupied by indigenous tribes 1500 years ago, continues with fishing being its main commodity. Serving as a huge commercial fishing supply, the town also boasts charter boats that will take visitors out on fishing excursions in the sound or out into the Atlantic. We just noticed last night, that the show “Wicked Tuna: North vs South” features Wanchese and a crew of it’s local fishermen. This is a quiet town that offers no chain stores or hotels, but does have a scenic campground as well as a picturesque section of the North Carolina Birding Trail.
Manteo is a hotbed of preserved history. As you approach the town center, you will notice even the street names, like Ananias Dare St. and Sir Walter Raleigh St, memorialize those whose tragic history is entwined with the current vibrancy of the town. The historic downtown is best taken in on foot, with sidewalks lined with cafes, antique stores and ice cream shops, many of which are housed in historic buildings. We stopped in at the Full Moon Cafe and Brewery where we enjoyed our lunch outside on the patio with the neighborhood cat curled up under the table, much to the kid’s delight. Their Shrimp and Crab Enchilada was probably the best dish I’ve had on the Outer Banks. Really. It’s so good.
After lunch, we walked north on Queen Elizabeth Drive (prompting my son to remark, “This place is really Englishy.”), and crossed the bridge over Doughs Creek and onto Roanoke Island Festival Park, the main reason for our stop in Manteo. The park, covering 25 acres and basically it’s own little island, is an interactive historic site displaying the life and times of Roanoke Island at the outset of English colonization of North America.
Here’s the specs:
Quality Rating (1-10): 9 -Very well done. Some interactive elements were missing on the outdoor displays, most likely because we were there in the off-season.
Child-Friendly: Yes. They can climb on almost everything.
Length of Visit: 1/2 Day – A full afternoon was about perfect for us. The tickets are good for two consecutive days and if there were going to be any shows, movies, presentations, etc. I can see how that would be necessary.
Cost: Adult $10, Youth (6-17) $7, Child (5 & under) Free. There’s a $1 off printable coupon on the website.
Amenities: Nice, clean bathrooms with diaper changing stations, water fountains, vending machines.
Popularity: Very, but low volume in off-season. We almost had the place to ourselves.
Helpful Tips: Talk a little about the Roanoke Island/Lost Colony History before you arrive. It really helped the kids to know what they were looking at, already having the story in their heads, because there’s already so much info to absorb on the spot.
The Park consists of several outdoor sites: The American Indian Town, The English Settlement Site, and the Elizabeth II, an actual representative of an English merchant ship that carried the colonists to the Island in 1585. All of these sites are very well done, have hands-on activities and staff in character to provide a plethora of information. An added amusement was rating the staff on who pulled off the best British accent (hey girl in the blacksmith shop, you came in at #1, beating out the Scottish-sounding sailor below deck on the ship, so congrats). If you don’t have time to do all the outdoor sites, don’t miss the ship, it could stand alone as an attraction.
Last of all we toured the Adventure Museum. I’d save this indoor, fully air-conditioned part for last if you arrive with good weather, because you want to see the outdoor sites before any afternoon storms or heat waves come through. This museum is polished and full of well done and interactive displays. It covers many topics beyond the English colonization including piracy, the Civil War, the Freedman’s Colony, shipwrecks, boat building and the fishing and birding history of the island. The Park also offers several short films, live presentations, musical events and various shows as they have a film theatre, indoor theatre and outdoor pavilion. We spent less than 5 min in the gift shop, noticing that in addition to cute stuffed animals and vintage toys, they also offer very expensive and very breakable pieces of local art. So with a let’s-get-out-of-here-before-we-have-to-pay-these-people-even-more-money-when-something-gets-broken attitude we left the Park, strolled down the marina boardwalk to look at the yachts and stopped in at Big Bucks Homemade Ice Cream for a last treat before the 6 hours back home.
Since we only reserved one day of our trip to experience Roanoke Island, we didn’t have time to visit the other attractions that Manteo offers. The Elizabethan Gardens, Fort Raleigh National Park and The North Carolina Aquarium are all waiting to be seen. Maybe next year I’ll run the half-marathon that courses down Bodie Island, crosses the Roanoke Sound and terminates in downtown Manteo. Mid-November would be a great time revisit this charming, memorable town.
Have you visited Roanoke and have any restaurant or lodging recommendations? Give us the scoop in the comments.