We fell in love with Manteo the minute we arrived in the quaint coastal town on Shallowbag Bay. On a recent trip home from the Outer Banks, my husband and I stopped on Roanoke Island just across the sound from Nags Head on United States Route 64. We were surprised to find a picture-perfect seaside town. We didn’t realize until a later trip that Manteo is also filled with amazing history and lots to do.
Boasting the Outer Banks’ most concentrated area of attractions, Manteo is truly a hidden gem. It is a fantastic weekend getaway destination. It also offers the perfect great escape for Outer Banks vacationers looking to get out of the sun and off the beach for a bit.
There are plenty of water activities to be had in Manteo. At the Manteo Waterfront Marina, there are several boat tours — sailing, dolphin and whale watching, bay cruises, etc. Fishing charters leave from Pirate’s Cove Marina or the nearby Wanchese Marina. At the Manteo Boardwalk, Kitty Hawk Kites offers a plethora of water sports, like parasailing. Rentals include paddleboards, stand-up paddleboards, and kayaks.
If you’re looking for a leisurely experience, you can stroll around the historic downtown and down the boardwalk that stretches from the marina past waterfront restaurants and a gazebo on the water to the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Then browse the local shops and eat lunch at a waterfront restaurant with spectacular views from every table.
After lunch, you can peruse local art in the 1904 courthouse, now an art gallery; learn about the area’s history at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum, located in a historic boathouse by the water; or see a movie at the historic Pioneer Theatre. Parking is free on the streets as well as in the public parking lot near the boardwalk.
The list of things for the mature traveler to do in Manteo is endless, but here are our best recommendations.
1. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
You’ve probably heard of Sir Walter Raleigh. What about Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America, and the Lost Colony? Did you know that the first English settlement was constructed on Roanoke Island 20 years before Jamestown? And that the English military had built a fort on the island’s north shore two years before that?
How about the Civil War battle that may have changed the course of the war? Did you know that after the Civil War, a Freedmen’s Colony was established near Manteo? The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site brings all these stories and more to life.
See exhibits highlighting early Roanoke Island history at the visitor center. While there, be sure to walk out to the reconstructed earthen fort, the Freedmen’s Colony Monument, the Waterside Theatre, and the Thomas Hariot Trail, a .3-mile loop through the maritime forest out to the Albemarle Sound. You’ll find interpretive signs about the Algonquin people who once inhabited the area, the English settlers, and the forest itself.
Fort Raleigh is just north of Manteo on U.S. Route 64. Admission and parking are free. The visitor center and grounds are wheelchair accessible; however, the trails are earthen. Plan on at least 2 hours to tour the visitor center and walk the grounds.
2. The Lost Colony
A short walk from the Fort Raleigh visitor center is the Waterside Theatre, which is home to the annual stage production The Lost Colony, the nation’s longest-running outdoor symphonic drama. First staged in 1937, the play tells the story of the first English colonies in North America on Roanoke Island.
We visited in September and did not get to see the production, but just seeing the Waterside Theatre was spectacular. I can only imagine witnessing the play itself. On the banks of the Roanoke Sound and under a starry sky, the stage itself is bigger than any Broadway stage. I would have loved to have witnessed the pageantry, dancing, and period costumes and to have heard the music. I can’t wait to return to Manteo next summer to experience all of it.
The Lost Colony runs from May through late August. The running time is approximately 2 hours. Arriving early is suggested. While parking is very close to the ticket office, there is a 450-foot walk from the office to the theater, so plan accordingly.
3. Elizabethan Gardens
The Elizabethan Gardens complex is a beautiful and impressive tribute to Queen Elizabeth I and the Elizabethan era. I’ll be honest — I wasn’t too excited about visiting, but this place is more than just your average botanical garden. It’s a step back in time to a bygone era. Walking around the opulent English garden with its 16th-century statuary is truly a cultural and historical experience.
Begin your adventure by entering the 16th-century-style gatehouse. Notice the priceless antiques within. Inhale the fragrance of 45 varieties of herbs surrounding the marble fountain as you walk out into the courtyard. Your senses will come alive as you take in the wonders of this 10-acre park.
The Freedom Trail starts at the Elizabethan Gardens parking lot. It’s a 2.5-mile round-trip trail through the forest to the Croatan Sound on the western edge of the park, where the Freedmen’s Colony and Civil War forts once stood.
The garden is adjacent to Fort Raleigh. It would be easy to spend at least 2 hours here, but allow for more time to walk the trail. Picnicking on the grounds is encouraged. While there is a nominal fee to enter the garden, the parking and trails are free.
4. Festival Park
Discover even more Manteo and Roanoke Island history at Festival Park. Over the bridge from downtown, Festival Park is a 25-acre adventure park and interactive attraction that celebrates the first English settlement in America. See how the early Algonquin people lived, explore a replica English settlement, go aboard a replica 16th-century sailing vessel, and watch a docudrama about Native American life.
Plan to spend at least 2 hours here. There is a gift shop with souvenirs, books, and more. Check the website for concerts and performances at the park.
5. North Carolina Aquarium
At the North Carolina Aquarium, you’ll learn about the local sea life that lives in or near the river, wetlands, and ocean waters of the island, including turtles, otters, snakes, and alligators. Walk through a sunken ship to find sea treasures and marine life living off the North Carolina coast. See sharks and other fish in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. If you’re certified to do so, you can even dive and swim with the sharks.
Plan to spend at least 2 hours here, and allow more time if you’d like to participate in any of the aquarium programs. The facility is wheelchair accessible, and there are admission discounts for members of the military, seniors, and children.
6. Island Farm
At Island Farm, you can explore Roanoke Island as it was 150 years ago. The farm is a living-history site located on the Etheridge family farmstead; interpreters dressed in period attire guide visitors to the 1847 Etheridge farmhouse, the cookhouse and smokehouse, the barns, the blacksmith shop, and the 19th-century windmill. The grounds also include a kitchen farm, grape arbor with native scuppernong grapes, and a family graveyard. Farm activities and 19th-century toys and games are available.
Island Farm is open from April through November. There is a modest admission fee, of which 6.25 percent is a tax-deductible charitable contribution. Wear appropriate shoes.
7. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
If you love the outdoors and wildlife, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, 3 miles north of Manteo, is for you. It’s home to four short walking trails that start at the visitor center.
You can also explore, in your own vehicle, more than 15 miles of roads through 35 acres of relatively wild land. Otherwise, you could take a guided tram tour. Watch for black bears, wild turkeys, all kinds of birds of prey, waterfowl, and other wildlife.
Visit the National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center, open every day, for loads of local wildlife education and entertainment. There are interactive exhibits, audiovisual programs, and even virtual airplane rides. Watch a short film in the small theater or wander through the gift store.
There are only two towns on Roanoke Island: Manteo and Wanchese. Wanchese is a salty, rustic fishing village 4 miles south of Manteo. It is also a major commercial fishing and boat-building hub. HGTV’s Wicked Tuna: Outer Banks is filmed on the docks in Wanchese.
Drive around admiring the marinas and boatyards, where you’ll see everything from fishing boats to luxury cabin cruisers and yachts. Stop in at a local dive for lunch, and ask for the catch of the day. At O’Neal’s Sea Harvest, we enjoyed ocean tilefish fresh off the boat.
9. Manteo Spirits
While visiting Kill Devil Hills, we heard about Outer Banks Distilling and their Kill Devil rum. Of course, we made this stop a priority. Stop in for tasting, a signature Kill Devil cocktail, and stories about their rums (named for pirates and shipwrecks). Be sure to ask about their candied pecans!
The Lost Colony Brewery and Cafe is a fun, casual brewpub in downtown Manteo. Their award-winning brews are British- and Irish-style beers with names like Kitty Hawk Blonde and Nags Head IPA. Bonus: The cafe menu is off the charts!
Also downtown is Vineyards on the Scuppernong, home of the first cultivated grape in America. Their award-winning wine is sold by the glass or bottle and is served with an array of specialty foods. Free wine tastings are available.
Where To Eat
You can’t go wrong with any Manteo restaurant, especially if you like fresh fish and seafood. Downtown eateries include Avenue Waterfront Grille, Olives: A Greek Kitchen, and Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop, all with great harbor views. On U.S. Route 64, there’s Darrell’s and Stripers Bar and Grille. If you like oysters, try the Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar at Pirate’s Cove Marina.
Where To Stay
You won’t find major hotels in Manteo. What you will find are quaint bed and breakfasts, inns, and vacation rentals. The Elizabethan Inn is the only inn in the area with a pool. The historic Roanoke Island Inn offers views of the lighthouse and is just steps from the boardwalk. The beautiful White Doe Inn is known for its warm hospitality and outstanding cuisine. My personal favorite is the Burrus House Inn, located right on the banks of Shallowbag Bay. All the rooms are beautiful suites with balconies overlooking the bay. Free use of bicycles, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards is included with your stay.