Roanoke Island & Dare County Mainland
Across Roanoke Sound from Nags Head sits Roanoke Island, a small island with two towns – Wanchese at the south end and Manteo in the center – and some of North Carolina’s oldest colonial history. At the north end, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site tells the story of the first attempt at a permanent English settlement in the New World. This ill-fated colony disappeared between 1587 and 1590, leaving a carving on a pole as the only clue to their whereabouts; to this day the mystery around their disappearance intrigues visitors and history lovers. You can walk the ground where they lived and look out on the waters where they dropped anchor, and next door you can sit for the long-running outdoor drama The Lost Colony where you’ll learn more about their time here. Elizabethan Gardens, a 10-acre botanical garden adjacent to Fort Raleigh, is laced with gardens and plantings and a statue dedicated to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World.
Recreation & Outer Banks Icons
On Roanoke Island, there are a slew of Outer Banks icons. First, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the place where the ill-fated Lost Colony attempted to establish the first permanent English settlement in the New World. See if you can uncover any clues to their whereabouts (if you don’t know the story, they disappeared and it’s been a mystery since the late 1500s) as you check out the exhibits in the visitors center and as you walk the grounds. Within walking distance of the very site where Fort Raleigh was built, the longest-running outdoor drama in the nation tells their story. The Lost Colony runs throughout summer and lays out the story of the colony, of the assistance they received from nearby Native Tribes, and of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. It’s an amazing play and actors like Andy Griffith have taken the stage as Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, he’s the namesake of our state capitol even though he never actually visited!) and other characters. You’ll find a statue devoted to Virginia Dare in Elizabethan Gardens, a 10-acre botanical garden next door. The statue of Dare stands under a stately spread of live oaks and has been the focal point of many a photo (and we want to see yours. Use the hashtag #OBXnow and don’t forget to tag @TheOuterBanksNC when you do), but there’s more to see and shoot here than just her statue. Take in the views of the Roanoke and Croatan Sounds, explore the symmetrical plantings in the traditional English garden, and see if you can find a favorite flower among the thousands of blooms.
In Manteo, the biggest of the two communities on Roanoke Island – the other being the fishing village of Wanchese – there’s Roanoke Island Festival Park, a history center and gathering place where several festivals take place throughout the year and where you’ll find costumed interpreters showing you the ways of life for those original colonists. Climb aboard the Elizabeth II, a full-scale replica of the ships those lost colonists took from England to our fair waters – floats across the town marina in Shallowbag Bay. Cross the bridge to and you can visit it, climb the top and lower deck accompanied by a costumed interpreter who’ll fill you in on daily life on the ship and detailing the difficulties faced by the sailors and landlubbers on their journey to the New World. Near the center of the island you’ll find The Mothervine – the oldest cultivated grapevine in the U.S. Now grapevines aren’t much to look at- they’re gnarled, barky things – but The Mothervine is impressive. Growing here since around 1584 (the records are a little fuzzy that far back, so we could be a couple of years off on that), this muscadine vine stands in the front yard of a home and an extensive set of trellises support its thick, heavy trunk and what looks like a quarter-acre of vines and leaves. There’s no wine made from The Mothervine’s grapes, instead it’s all alcohol-free juice, but that juice is packed in antioxidants and with just a sip you can say you have a tie back to the very roots of our nation.
Near The Mothervine, Island Farm’s collection of historic buildings that once belonged to the prominent and prolific Etheridge family offer a glimpse at life on the Banks in the 1850s. The Etheridge family was granted a tenant’s lease for a huge swathe of Roanoke Island back in 1757, and in 1783, they’d become the landowners here. Around 1850, the farmhouse and many of the outbuildings here were built and in daily use for the Etheridge family and the enslaved people who worked their farm and fields; this is what Island Farm’s curators and interpreters (in period costume) show us today. Highlights here include the demonstrations – from blacksmithing to feeding the livestock to spinning wool – and the historic structures, especially the most eye-catching feature: a windmill. More accurately it’s a post windmill, one of two on Roanoke Island in the mid-1800s but a fairly common sight along the Outer Banks for decades (with no streams to turn a water-powered grist mill, Bankers used their most abundant resource – the wind – to do the work for them). One more thing to see here: a pair of Banker Ponies, wild horses descended from shipwrecked Spanish Mustangs that have lived in the dunes and scrub forests of the Outer Banks for hundreds of years.
The Etheridge family name will pop up again when you visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island. Out front, the gravesite and a memorial to Richard Etheridge, a Black descendant of the family and one of the most heroic figures of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (which later became the Coast Guard), gives a little context to his accomplishments. Inside the Aquarium you’ll be led through the story of our waters. At the North Carolina Aquarium Roanoke Island, the centerpiece is the 285,000-gallon Graveyard of the Atlantic tank where a replica wreck (like the ones offshore here, on this stretch of coast where more than a hundred ships have sunk) sits amid sharks, eel, and dozens of other fish. There are interactive touch tanks, exhibits on sea turtles and coastal ecology, and as you move through the aquarium, you’ll follow the flow of water from inland to the ocean, and tanks representing each environment will show you everything from otters to alligators to seahorses to sharks.
Continuing the story of water, the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum has exhibits of boats designed here specifically for use in the sounds and seas around the Island and the Outer Banks. The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse stands at the end of a short pier, and this reproduction is nearly identical to the lighthouses that helped commercial fishermen navigate the shallow and often shoal-filled waters around the island. Nearby, Island Farm serves as a living-history museum showing how Roanoke Islanders and Outer Bankers lived in the mid-1800s. A collection of original and restored buildings and a dedicated group of costumed historians and subject matter experts make the place come alive.
Hiking, Biking, & More
You can head over to Roanoke Island for a ride or walk. On the Island, a mixed-used path parallels the highway and spends most of its time in the shade (you’ll be glad of this if you’re riding in summer). Once you’ve explored the commercial and residential streets of Manteo (be careful as you might be riding on streets, not paths, in areas), take the bike path north toward the Aquarium, Island Farm, the Fort Raleigh-Elizabethan Gardens area, and the views at the foot of the Washington Baum Bridge. Bring your bikes or connect with one of the bike rental shops on the Outer Banks and pick up a set of wheels for the day, the week, or anything in between.
Many visitors like to take things a little slower, and for that we’ve got a fleet of boats ready to take you on sunset cruises, dolphin tours, and on sightseeing jaunts on the Sound and in the Atlantic. Several boats sail out of the Manteo harbor, including Captain Johnny’s Outer Banks Dolphin Tours, the Downeast Rover (a beautiful 55’ topsail schooner), Sail Outer Banks, Outer Banks Adventures, and others. From Wanchese, at the south end of Roanoke Island, Paradise Dolphin Cruises specializes in spotting these magnificent mammals in the wild. There are just as many sunset cruises, dolphin tours, and pleasure cruises to join on the Outer Banks proper.
On Roanoke Island, you can hunt on private property (with permission from the property owner) and in the 1,847-acre Roanoke Island Marshes Game Land, south of Highway 64. Game includes white-tailed deer, black bear, turkey, feral pigs, small game, and waterfowl. To hunt here you’ll need your North Carolina hunting license and the proper tags or stamps (for deer, hogs, or waterfowl).
The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge has a wide array of game available. Here you can hunt a range of waterfowl, quail, mourning dove, woodcock, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and white-tailed deer. Most of the Refuge’s 154,000 acres are open to hunting, with clear signs and maps denoting where hunting is and isn’t permitted. To hunt here you’ll need a valid North Carolina hunting license and a permit from the Refuge. The permit, and the Refuge’s hunting regulations, are available online here.
There are guides and outfitters who lead hunts for waterfowl, deer, and more. Dare to Hyde Outdoor Adventure leads trips in Dare County and neighboring Hyde County. Eastern OBX Guide Service, Parkers Waterfowl Guide Service, Duck Hunter OBX, and Outer Banks Waterfowl Guide Service are a few of the local guides who can help you have a successful day.
- The Old Swimming Hole near the Dare County Airport
- Washington Baum Bridge
- Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge
- Manteo at the bridge leading to Roanoke Island Festival Park
Mainland Dare County