On Roanoke Island, the Past Is Very Much Present

By Eve Zibart
Friday, August 17, 2007

Roanoke Island is a little like a cross between Lewes, Del., and the "olde country" at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, only without the roller coasters.

You have a quaint little village full of shops, inns, restaurants and a soda fountain; fishing charters and dolphin-watching tours; bay views, boating and easy access to the ocean beaches; a paved biking/jogging path that runs the length of the island; a beer garden; a re-created 16th-century ship and settlement fort with costumed interpreters speaking in Shakespearean accents; Elizabethan-era gardens (where the "queen" makes frequent appearances); an aquarium; and one of the longest-running outdoor plays in history.

As home to the first English settlement in the Colonies (Jamestown notwithstanding) and the place where the first English child, Virginia Dare, was born on American soil, Roanoke is bursting with historical pride: The island is filled with street names and other reminders not only of the more than 100 settlers who vanished in 1590, leaving nothing but the word "Croatoan" carved into a post as a clue, but of their patron, Sir Walter Raleigh, and his royal patron, Queen Elizabeth I. The towns of Manteo and Wanchese were named for the friendly Croatan Algonquians who returned with Raleigh's company to London after its exploratory visit in 1584. (Even Blackbeard's ship has a cafe named after it.)

Manteo's picturesque Old Town waterfront, lined with shops and inns and edged round by a boardwalk, faces Shallowbag Bay, a cove off Roanoke Sound. At one end is the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse , a re-creation of a screw-pile lighthouse that used to sit outside Wanchese; moved and lit in 2004, it's now a maritime museum (104 Fernando St.; 252-475-1750) with a working boathouse.

At the north end of the boardwalk is the entrance to Roanoke Island Festival Park (252-475-1500), a combination living history museum, nature park and arts center, also on the waterfront. Among its features are an interactive history museum; settlement buildings where you can test out straw pallets or work the bellows for a blacksmith; "The Legend of Two-Path," a 45-minute film that retells the first visit from the viewpoint of the Indians Manteo, Wanchese and their friend Skyco (Two-Path); and the Elizabeth II, a 69-foot, square-rigged, three-masted bark of the sort the 1585 settlers came in (named not for the sovereign but after the Elizabeth, one of the original vessels). There are also boardwalks into the marshes and maritime forest, a reading room and history-minded gift shop.

The nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic Site includes a visitors center (Highway 64 three miles north of Manteo; 252-473-5772) with video history, exhibits on early Native and black Americans, the earthenwork remains of the settlement, a nature trail and a hiking trail. The park also holds the 10-acre Elizabethan Gardens (252-473-3234).

The one thing you will miss, going after peak season, is "The Lost Colony," which closes Monday. The landmark musical was commissioned for little Virginia's 350th birthday in 1937 and was supposed to run only one summer, but the presence of President Franklin Roosevelt only a few weeks into the show turned it into a tradition. (Play alums include Andy Griffith, soap star Eileen Fulton, Broadway's Terrence Mann and Chris Elliott.)

The North Carolina Aquarium near Fort Raleigh, on Airport Road at the Croatan Sound (252-473-3493) has saltwater tanks as large as 285,000 gallons (the one with the sharks and sea turtles), two touch tanks and alligators and otters for fun.

Roanoke Island has plenty of smaller motels, B&Bs and inns as well as the newer, larger condo developments on Roanoke Sound, including Pirate's Cove.

The most upscale restaurant in Manteo is 1587 (405 Queen Elizabeth Ave.; 252-473-1587) in the Tranquil House Inn, which serves mid-Atlantic eclectic fare with separate chop and vegetarian menus and has a view of Shallowbag Bay. The long-running Weeping Radish (623 Hwy. 64; 252-473-1157) has moved its brewing equipment north to Jarvisburg and filled the space with art and souvenirs, gone into hormone-free meats and farmers market produce in a big way and supplied its Bavarian beer garden with playground equipment to distract the underage.

HOT TIPS: Sunday brunch at Stripers Bar & Grille (90 N. Bay Club Dr., in Shallowbag Bay Club; 252-473-3222); biscuits and sausage gravy at Magnolia Grill (408 Queen Elizabeth Ave.; 252-475-9877); a bottle of wine at sunset in Festival Park.

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