Roanoke Island, North Carolina

Roanoke Island, NC Travel Guide

If you’re looking for small-town charm while vacationing on the Outer Banks, Roanoke Island is the perfect getaway. Steeped in local history, culture and the arts, this quaint island offers something for everyone.

Whether you want to spend the day on the water on top of a paddleboard or in a sailboat, shop at charming boutiques, or soak up the island’s rich history, Roanoke Island is the perfect place to enjoy small-town coastal living.

Just five minutes from Nags Head beaches, here visitors can escape the hustle and bustle of summer life on the busy barrier islands. Say goodbye to bypass traffic and long lines, and discover all that Roanoke Island has to offer.

Roanoke Island has captivated the hearts of residents and tourists with old-world charm and an easy-going lifestyle centered on enjoying the natural splendor of the area. A magical place, this Croatan Sound island has attracted visitors since the first European colonists landed in the late 16th century.

Visitors to Manteo and Wanchese, two communities that make up Roanoke Island, find that history is still alive and thriving at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, North Carolina Maritime, and the interactive Roanoke Island Festival Park. A truly unique theatrical production that is not to be missed, The Lost Colony narrates the dramatic tale of the original colonists in the spectacular outdoor Waterside Theatre.

Nestled among live oaks is a town where life moves at a slower pace. Your vacation will enter a whole new realm as you become immersed in a community filled with Old World charm, skilled artisans, gorgeous landscapes and plenty to do – whether you are a shopper, thrill-seeker, foodie or history buff. There is something for everyone on Roanoke Island.

Island activities

Aside from history, Roanoke Island is also steeped in natural splendor and many island activities immerse you in the luscious environment of the Outer Banks. Explore the North Carolina Aquarium and the incredible “Graveyard of the Atlantic” exhibit to watch sharks mingle with a replica of the sunken USS Monitor. Kayak along the reedy banks of the Croatan Sound, then bike the 7-mile path to the breathtaking beauty of the Elizabethan Gardens or simply stroll around the Historic Manteo Waterfront. For a real Outer Banks adventure, take a dolphin-watching tour or deep-sea charter from the fishing village of Wanchese.

Historic downtown Manteo

Historic downtown Manteo is a picture-perfect village where visitors can spend a day walking along the waterfront, browsing unique shops and art galleries, and enjoying authentic cuisine. Along these downtown streets and cobblestone paths, visitors will be able to marvel at the work of resident artists, getting a true taste of the island.

Spend some time in a local coffee shop, outdoor café, ice cream parlor or bookstore to truly soak in the downtown Manteo experience. Other popular downtown attractions include the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, the George Washington Creef Boathouse, and Roanoke Island Festival Park.

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

After exploring downtown Manteo, visitors can head west on US 64 to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Home of the world-famous The Lost Colony outdoor drama, a visit to this site easily feels like being on sacred ground. Here, you are able to learn more about the first European settlers to the New World, their voyage, hardships and mysterious fate. A new museum at the site is filled with exhibits and opportunities to see actual excavated artifacts from the colony.

Elizabethan Gardens

At the nearby Elizabethan Gardens, visitors will enjoy strolling 10 acres of gardens on the sound while taking in a breathtaking collection of Renaissance statues, relaxing on a sound-front Elizabethan gazebo, or savoring the colors and scents of seasonal plants and flowers presented in an enticing setting.

North Carolina Aquarium

Thousands of visitors come to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island every year to explore the beautifully constructed exhibits filled with local aquatic and amphibian life. Alligators, snakes and turtles are just a few of the critters that call the aquarium home. You will get a thrill watching experienced divers swim among sharp-toothed sharks at the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” exhibit. A new turtle rehabilitation center walks visitors step-by-step through the efforts of volunteers and staff who care for injured or sick sea turtles that wash up on local shores.

Island Farm

Island Farm is a wonderful place to take the family for an afternoon. Right off US 64, the farm centers around the Etheridge farmstead, which dates back to 1757. Here, guests will feel as if they have stepped back in time to experience life on Roanoke Island as it was in the mid-1800s. The farmstead includes some original furnishings and many items that date back to the 19th century.

Guests can explore several buildings on the farm site, including a reconstructed slave cabin, outhouse, cookhouse, smokehouse, dairy, barns, chicken coop, corn crib, wood shed and blacksmith shop. Also of interest is a family graveyard. Children will delight in seeing chickens roam free, as well as a sheep, cow, ox and two banker ponies that graze on the grounds. A kitchen garden, grape arbor, island figs and a cornfield are also part of the site.


After some time on the farm, take Route 345 to the old fishing village of Wanchese, a quaint working community of commercial fishermen. Looking out over the marinas and fish houses, you are bound to get a glimpse of fishing vessels of all kinds and a real taste of this village tucked away on Roanoke Island.

Roanoke Island Restaurants

After a day on the water, grab the ingredients for a seafood boil at Captain Malc’s Seafood Market or relax with some waterfront dining at the Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant. Roanoke Island hosts a delicious variety of gourmet coffee shops and cafés as well as elegant restaurants serving today’s catch and prime cuts. For dining with ‘50s flair, get ready to do the Twist on the dance floor at Big Al’s Soda Fountain and Grill.

Roanoke Island has an eclectic variety of eateries that are sure to please every palate. Whether you are looking for a burger and craft beer or want to indulge in the freshest seafood straight off the docks in Wanchese, Roanoke Island restaurants are first class and they will quickly become visitor favorites. From a ’50s-style diner and authentic waterfront dining to a handful of gourmet coffee shops and upscale restaurants, there is something to suit every taste.

Shopping in Roanoke Island

Shopping in Roanoke Island is every bit as unique as the island itself. Art galleries and studios displaying local and national artists, craft and antique malls, and eclectic fashion boutiques all invite you to browse their wares. Experience the holidays year-round at the Christmas Shop and Island Gallery or shop for high-flying kites and Outer Banks souvenirs at Kitty Hawk Kites. Whatever you’re searching for, Roanoke Island shops have it!

Friendly shop owners will be happy to share their stories of how they arrived at this place to sell their wares. The smooth glaze of a ceramic pot, the spark and smoky smell of the blacksmith anvil, and the delicate filigree of the finest antique broach are a few examples of how spending a day here can take over your senses.

History of Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island is where the first European colonists landed in the late 16th century. It could easily take a week to explore the island, its historical gems and blooming gardens, but there is no doubt the warm community and friendly residents will lure you back again and again.

The mystery surrounding Roanoke, North Carolina, continues to baffle those who visit and study the site.

North Carolina’s Outerbanks has always been known as hazardous and wildly beautiful. Today, Roanoke, located near Manteo, is a tourist destination featuring an assortment of attractions. Even so, the legend and mystery of what happened in that seemingly quiet town still draw visitors to explore the legend of the lost colony.

Spanish Colonization of Cape Fear, N.C.

Prior to the English exploration, the Spanish had attempted to settle the area of Cape Fear, in 1528. The Spanish were in search of gold and riches, an easier route to the Pacific, and more land. They had already settled St. Augustine and numerous lands in the west. However, the Cape Fear region proved to be nothing more than a place of disease and despair for the Spanish. Anyone who did not die or starve abandoned the place, leaving it open for others to explore and settle.

With the Spanish and French journeying to the Americas, English concern rose and the prospect for colonies in the New World became a focus. Not only was it a focus due to building the British territory, but also due to the fact that the English and Spanish were not on the best of terms. The English were concerned that Spain may gain too much power over territories and waterways, and realized if they wanted to maintain or have control, they needed to look into establishing permanent settlements in the Americas.

English Settle Roanoke Colony

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I to explore and settle the New World. Even though he would not be the one to make the trip to establish settlements, he (along with the help of the Queen) had opened the way for England to claim new territory. After two failed attempts, the 1587 landing on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, seemed promising, but in two years it would become abandoned, with no clues as to what had happened. More than 400 years later, several theories continue to look for an answer to the mystery.

After only a few months of settling the area, colonists found themselves in a love/hate relationship with the natives and suffering from a lack of supplies. The new land was nothing like England, and the only people who could teach the settlers how to live off the land were the natives. On the other hand, Spain was still sailing throughout the coast and the colony was still being landed on by pirates.

With all the problems in the colony and the birth of a baby girl, the appointed Governor, John White, knew the settlers needed supplies from England. Even so, he did not want to leave his new family or the colonists. Indian affairs seemed to be alright, there did not seem to be too much of a threat from the Spanish, and with the plan to simply pick up supplies and return to the colony within three months’ time, White set sail.

Unfortunately, while in England, Spain waged a war against the English. All ships were being used for the war, and what was supposed to be a three-month journey for White, turned into three years of waiting. With no communication between Roanoke and himself, White had no idea what was happening in the colony but was not prepared for the finding on his return trip.

The Lost Colony

In 1590, White stepped onto the shore of Roanoke to find no signs of colonists or a settlement. The only sign of a settlement were parts of the fort that had once surrounded the colonists. The only clue given to White and the men with him was the word “CROTOAN” carved into a post and the letters “CRO” on a tree. Hopeful, he believed that the settlers had sought shelter with the natives. However, storms and other hindrances kept the men from seeking answers, and the first successful British colony would not be until Jamestown, in 1607.

Theories Surrounding the Lost Colony

So, what did happen to the Lost Colony? There are many theories as to what happened, and all seem plausible. The theories include:

  • The colonists took refuge with the Native Americans during an attack by the Spanish, or due to the need for supplies and survival. Thus becoming “the Hatteras Indians.”
  • The colonists were murdered by the Indians, the Spanish, or pirates.
  • The colonists starved, and those who did not, went to Virginia or to live with the Natives.
  • The colony moved to a better location. Most believe the colony moved to settlements in or around Virginia, or in search of other colonists in that area.
  • The colonists attempted to build a ship and sail from the colony after Indian affairs worsened, but were unsuccessful and drowned.
  • The Indians attacked and captured the colonists.
  • The Spanish attacked the colony during the War, knowing their defenses were weak and destroyed the settlement.
  • The Powhatan captured the colonists and adopted the first born girl of the colonies, Virginia Dare, as their own (speculation that she is the famed Pocahontas have been made).

All of these theories, with the exception of the last, are extremely plausible. However, the problem is, there was no one at the colony to confirm or deny the theories. As an outsider, John White would have had every reason to believe that the Croatans or other Indian tribes (with the love/hate relationship between the colonists and the Natives) had attacked, killed, or even captured the settlers. Any survivors may have tried to make their way to Virginia, or they very well may have tried to settle somewhere else. In all likelihood, with the carvings in the fort and a tree, it would seem that someone was leaving a warning message.

Even so, it could also be said that, since the Spanish were at war with England, that they could have attacked the colony during White’s absence, causing the colonists to attempt to seek help from the Croatans, and perhaps hide among them. This seems like a seemingly accurate assumption because it was reported that Spanish weapons were found on Roanoke Island. Seeing as how the Spanish were still roaming and pirating the eastern coast, at war with the English, and competing to establish a new territory, it is a very good possibility that knowing the weakness of the colony, they attacked. This would have sent the colonists fleeing, seeking help, as well as a new area to settle.

In conclusion, unless undeniable evidence or some writings from primary sources that witnessed what happened to turn up, no one will ever know. Roanoke will forever remain a mystery.


Powell, William S. North Carolina Through Four Centuries. The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill and London. 1989.


Best Comfort Food in Winston Salem, NC

Hanging Rock Hiking Trail – NC Mountain Views


Leave a Comment