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Lost and Found on Roanoke Island

Story by Carol Sorgen.

Take a dash of real-life Nantucket, mix it with a splash of storybook Mayberry RFD, and you get the charming North Carolina seaside town of Manteo, located on historic Roanoke Island. And if you have a feeling that you could run into Opie or Aunt Bea just around the corner, well, you’re not far wrong. “Sheriff Andy Taylor”, North Carolina’s own Andy Griffith, makes his home in Manteo.

Named for the Algonkian Indian who befriended the English colonists who came to the New World in the 16th century, Manteo is a picturesque town whose streets are lined with tidy homes, well-tended yards, and rows of neatly-pruned crape myrtles and oak trees that were planted in 1984 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Roanoke Voyages that carried the colonists from England.

Connected to the villages of the barrier islands to the east and the mainland villages to the west, Manteo’s central location has always been ideal for commerce, even before there were bridges and the cars to travel over them. The town’s accessibility by boat long ago made it commercially successful. At one time, in fact, every business in Manteo had two doors-one that opened on to the street, and the other that fronted the wharf along the creek.

In the late 1800s, Manteo’s waterfront was thriving, lined with general stores, millinery shops, brokerage houses, a grocery store, post office, café, fish houses and a crab factory, and steamer docks that saw the arrival of both passengers and goods. In 1939 though, a fire devastated the waterfront, destroying 21 stores-a full two-thirds of the business district.

That was the beginning of Manteo’s decline, and by the 1960s there were few businesses remaining on the historic waterfront, and the town’s one-time bustling success was barely remembered.

In 1981, however, the people of Manteo-inspired by the approaching 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first English colonists-decided to revitalize the town. Their 20-year plan, which did indeed take a full 20 years to complete, transformed Manteo into the charming, and once again commercially successful, destination that it was so long ago.

Today, Manteo boasts a performing arts center, representative 16th-century ship, building docks and boardwalks, boat-building center, and revitalized waterfront with new shops, apartments, and a waterfront inn that draw visitors year-round.

But as charming as Manteo is, there’s much more to do on Roanoke Island than enjoy the scenic waterfront village – especially in the summer when the history, and mystery, that mark this tranquil island come alive. It’s in the summer that The Lost Colony, the story of 117 men, women, and children who lived for a short time on Roanoke Island is told.

Written by North Carolina’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green, The Lost Colony, America’s longest-running symphonic play, tells the story of England’s colony of men, women, and children who sailed from Plymouth England, in 1587 and attempted to settle Roanoke Island. Their ultimate disappearance has left historians, archaeologists, and wanna-be sleuths with a mystery that has never been solved.

The Lost Colony was intended to run for just one season when it opened in 1937. But standing room only crowds, a rave review from The New York Times’ noted drama critic of the time, Brooks Atkinson, and a visit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, drew the nation’s attention to this small local production. Except for four years during World War II when the coastline was blacked out, The Lost Colony has played every summer since, and has given a theatrical start to many well-recognized stars – including Andy Griffith.

In addition to attending a performance of The Lost Colony – a must-do while visiting here-take time to visit the island’s other attractions, including Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island Festival Park, and Wanchese Fishing Village.

At the north end of Roanoke Island lies Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, where The Lost Colony is staged. Come early and follow the winding road to the visitor center where you will be transported to 16th-century England. The “Elizabethan Room” features original oak paneling and a stone fireplace from a 16th-century English house, a gallery which showcases artifacts excavated from the Fort Raleigh site, exhibits on the colonists and Elizabethan life, and copies of watercolors painted by John White, governor of the Roanoke colony. A short film depicts the story of England’s ill-fated settlement from the perspective of both the English and the Native Americans.

Outside the visitor center, you can literally walk in the colonists’ footsteps by following the path, lined with loblolly pines and oak trees laden with Spanish moss, to a small earthen fort, reconstructed the way colonists may have built it in 1585. The Thomas Hariot Nature Trail, named for the scientist who accompanied one of the voyages to the New World, leads from this heavily wooded area to the Roanoke Sound. And not far away are the remains of what is thought to be America’s first science center-the site where Joachim Gans, a Czech metallurgist (and also the first Jew to arrive in English America) -is believed to have conducted experiments to test minerals he found on the island.

A short walk from the Fort Raleigh visitor center and The Lost Colony’s Waterside Theatre are the Elizabethan Gardens. Created by The Garden Club of North Carolina as a memorial to the first colonists, the gardens were designed and constructed by two of America’s foremost landscape architects, Umberto Innocenti and Richard Webel. The year-round gardens feature more than 500 varieties of plants, including herbs, gardenias, roses, lilies, hydrangeas, azaleas, crape myrtle and camellias, as well as an ever-changing colorful display of spring bulbs and summer annuals.

Among the site’s many features are the Sunken Garden, the Queen’s Rose Garden, the Woodland and Wildlife Garden, and a beautiful stone fountain surrounded by classical statuary. Look for the statue of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World. During the summer months in the gardens, you can also enjoy a performance of Elizabeth R, a one-woman play about Queen Elizabeth I. The “Queen” even hosts summer tea parties, and each August 18, Fort Raleigh, The Lost Colony, and the Elizabethan Gardens celebrate the “Elizabethan Renaissance Faire” to mark the birth date of Virginia Dare.

Roanoke Island’s history didn’t stop when the Lost Colony vanished. During the Civil War, the north end of the Island was once the site of a Freedmen’s Colony, providing homes, work, and an education for freed slaves. The self-guided “Freedom Trail” commemorates this history. Begin the two-mile trail near the entrance to the Elizabethan Gardens. Exhibits are located at the end of the trail, on the Roanoke Sound.

When you’re ready to step back into the present, leave Fort Raleigh and drive down Interstate 64 East, turn onto Airport Road, and make a stop at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. The Aquarium, which recently unveiled a major expansion that doubled its size, now boasts such new features as a natural habitat area that hosts river otters, alligators, snapping turtles, and fish; a Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit, with a 285,000-gallon tank that is home to a one-third scale model of the Civil War ship, the U.S.S. Monitor; and a touch tank filled with skates and rays (that’s fish talk, not beach talk!) that delights kids and their parents alike.

When you leave the Aquarium, continue on Route 64 East until you get to Sir Walter Raleigh Street (the past is never far away on Roanoke as the street names will tell you) which leads you back to downtown Manteo and the historic waterfront area. At the North Carolina Maritime Museum, watch as volunteers construct and restore historic sailing craft in the George Washington Creef Boathouse, while at the boat ramp, consider joining the paddlers who are launching their kayaks and canoes for a guided eco-tour of the surrounding Roanoke and Croatan sounds.

A short bridge from downtown Manteo will take you to Iceplant Island, home to Roanoke Island Festival Park, a site that interprets Roanoke Island’s past through history, education, and the arts. At the Roanoke Island Adventure Museum you can take an interactive tour that will lead you from the English colonists’ historic 1584 landing to a 1920s general store. Tiny blue hand- and footprints take kids through the many child-friendly, hands-on exhibits. During the summer, young entertainers from the well-known North Carolina School of the Arts stage drama, dance, and musical productions as part of a special residency program. The Elizabeth II, a wooden sailing ship representative of those that sailed to the New World, is docked alongside the Island. You’re invited to climb aboard; just watch your head (ships in those days weren’t made for tall people!). The ship was built to commemorate the 400th anniversary of America’s colonization in 1984.

Finally, take a short drive to the southern tip of the Island to the village of Wanchese, the center of Dare County’s commercial fishing industry and the site of the Seafood Industrial Park. Trawl boats are docked in the harbor and shops and seafood restaurants can be found tucked among the pines off the beaten path.

A visit to Roanoke Island is a blend of the past and the present. In the final scene of The Lost Colony, as the colonists leave the Island in search of a safer haven, the character of John Borden says, “…down the centuries that wait ahead there’ll be some whisper of our name, some mention and devotion to the dream that brought us here.”

On Roanoke Island, that whisper is ever-present.


For more information on the attractions of Roanoke Island, contact:

*The Elizabethan Gardens
Tel: 252-473-3234

*Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Tel: 252-473-5772

*The Lost Colony
Tel: 866-468-7630

*North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
Tel: 252-473-3494

*North Carolina Maritime Museum on Roanoke Island
Tel: 252-475-1750

*Roanoke Island Festival Park
Tel: 252-475-1500


Many of Roanoke’s homes have been remodeled into B&Bs, and a variety of inns and small motels are also “on island”. For bikers, walkers, and runners a 13-mile designated trail that runs the length of the island is a real treat. The well-known Outer Banks’ beaches and lighthouses are just a few minutes’ drive across the Manteo/Nags Head Causeway. And, of course, if you wish to arrive by boat, you can disembark from the Shallowbag Bay boat slips or from Pirate’s Cove Marina.
For accommodations, you may want to try the following inns:

*Tranquil House Inn
405 Queen Elizabeth Avenue 800-458-7069

Located on the waterfront in downtown Manteo, Tranquil House offers complimentary breakfast, bikes, and afternoon wine and cheese. The open decks offers beautiful-and as the name implies-tranquil views of the water and boardwalk. There are 25 individually decorated rooms.

*Roanoke Island Inn
305 Fernando Street

Also overlooking the Manteo waterfront, the historic Roanoke Island Inn, whose original building dates to the mid-19th century, provides rocking chairs on the second-floor porch with a view of the gardens and the bay. Bikes and an innkeeper’s pantry with snacks and beverages are also available. Two of the eight rooms are family suites. In the backyard garden is a bungalow with two bedrooms and a galley kitchen (but no cooking facilities).

*Cameron House Inn
300 Budleigh Street

In the heart of historic Manteo, the Cameron House Inn is housed in a restored 1919 Arts and Crafts bungalow. The seven guestrooms are each wired for Internet access (should you be unable to totally disconnect from reality!). Full breakfast is provided each morning, and snacks and beverages are available throughout the day. Bikes are also provided to guests to explore the island.

When it’s time to eat, try one or more of these Roanoke Island favorites:

*Full Moon Café
Creef’s Corner
Queen Elizabeth Street

This eclectic and colorful café; is a local favorite. When the weather is nice, sit outside and enjoy the people-watching while you wait for your meal. The menu features a blend of cuisines-from Hungarian mushroom soup to that Southern standby, shrimp and grits-that the New York Daily News has called “culinary magic”.

*Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop
Queen Elizabeth Street on the Waterfront

Poor Richard’s is where everyone-tourists and townies alike-meet for a casual breakfast or lunch. Just like shops of yore in downtown Manteo, Poor Richard’s has two doors-one off the main street, the other off the boardwalk. Eat inside at a booth or table or outside on the waterside patio.

*Big Al’s Soda Fountain & Grill
716 S. U.S. Highway 64/264

It’s rock ‘n roll heaven at Big Al’s, a 1950s-themed family-friendly hangout. Choose a few ’50s songs on the juke box, twirl around on the dance floor, or pick up a few pieces of ’50s memorabilia in the gift shop. Old-time American favorites are on the menu, and there’s a real-life soda fountain where you can forget the calories and order ice cream floats, milkshakes, and banana splits.

Save some time, and some money, for a shopping spree

Besides the well-stocked gift shops at the Roanoke Island attractions, downtown Manteo also has its share of interesting shops, including:

*The Blacksmith’s Store
Magnolia Market
corner of Queen Elizabeth and Ananias Dare Streets

Check this store for hand-forged ironworks, from horseshoes to vintage tools, hooks and holders, and decorative accents. Watch the blacksmith at work; he’s usually in front of the shop on the lawn and is happy to answer your questions while he works.

Magnolia Market
402 Queen Elizabeth Avenue

Shop for pottery and gifts handmade by-no surprise-Nancy. If you visit during off-season, sign up for one of Nancy’s pottery classes

*400 Budleigh Street Antiques Mall
400 Budleigh Street

There’s 10,000 square feet of retail space in this antiques mall, with dealers who specialize in furniture, vintage clothing, primitive items, glassware and more.

*Manteo Booksellers
101 Sir Walter Raleigh Street

You just may find Andy Griffith browsing among the books here (his CDs are on display at the front register). Forget the big superstore bookshops. This classic bookstore has a well-chosen selection from all genres, including books on local and regional topics. There are frequent author readings and book-signings as well.

Photos courtesy of Roanoke Island Festival Park website,

1 thought on “Lost and Found on Roanoke Island”

  1. Gallagher's Travels

    Thanks for your comment. To tell the truth the last “tech” we used deleted about 10,000 photos from 20 years of stories. We are now in 2014 trying to do everything ourselves and not make that mistake albeit I m a little slower! Next is to change our wordpress theme to become a responsive design.

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