Roanoke Island is the actual island that lies between the North Carolina mainland and Nags Head. It's roughly 8 miles long and, at its widest point, 2 mile wide. It's reachable by three bridges, the 5.3-mile (longest in the state) Virginia Dare Bridge that runs from Manns Harbor to the mid-section of Roanoke Island, the William B. Umstead Bridge that also runs from Manns Harbor to the north end of Roanoke Island (mostly used by locals now) and the Washington Baum Bridge that connects the island with Nags Head. Roanoke Island contains the town of Manteo as well as the village of Wanchese. Manteo is the county seat and is, more and more, a major draw for Outer Banks vacations. The waterfront area of Manteo is a two-block turn off from U.S. Highway 64 that runs through Roanoke Island. Wanchese is a quiet fishing village where life is centered on commerce from the sea, not on tourism. When we refer to Roanoke Island in this guide, we're mostly meaning the area that's not specifically within the Town of Manteo boundaries (which is the main downtown waterfront area plus about a mile to the north, south and west) or the very southern tip of the island where Wanchese lies. See the separate page with details on the Town of Manteo proper.
Roanoke Island Attractions
While Manteo has more than a few attractions, the collection of the most popular ones on the Outer Banks are found on the north end of Roanoke Island. There’s no other area of the Outer Banks that can top Roanoke Island attractions. Always vying for top billing are The Lost Colony outdoor drama, The Elizabethan Gardens and the North Carolina Aquarium, but other popular ones are Island Farm and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Visitor Center. All these sites are within a few miles of each other, so it's possible to tour all within the same day – though that would make for an extremely long, full day, especially when you count in the attractions within Manteo too.
Roanoke Island Restaurants
Restaurants on Roanoke Island entice visitors and locals alike, and a nice feature for most guests here is that, because of the small-town essence, here you get to rub elbows with lots of residents who are happy to answer your questions or give you advice on the local scene. Even if you're not staying in Manteo for your vacation, visiting any of these restaurants is well worth the short drive. And a local's secret is that when you have an hour or more wait at a beach restaurant, you can usually get in pretty quickly here. Restaurants on Roanoke Island run from very upper crust to sandwich shop casual, but even in the casual spots your chef is likely to be highly trained and ready to surprise you with the variety and quality of food. Again, when we talk about Roanoke Island restaurants specifically, we're meaning the ones that are located on U.S. Highway 64, the corridor that runs through the island, not in the waterfront area (though, also again, many visitors and even locals interchange the two terms). Restaurants found on the corridor include a long-lived seafood place, BBQ, a popular waterfront eatery, a Peruvian place, a pizza shop and some national chains.
Roanoke Island Places to Stay
While most of the accommodations for the island are located within the Town of Manteo, on the island as a whole there are other options as well. Roanoke Island hotels include a large property that also includes a fitness center and indoor pool, a few well-maintained motels and an RV park. The Roanoke Island vacation rentals scene is certainly less than that of the beach towns, but there are still options for week-long stays if you want to really settle in. And if your form of settling in means buying property here, Roanoke Island real estate offerings range from historic homes to modern condos.
Roanoke Island Shopping
A delightful day can be spent enjoying Roanoke Island shopping. The heart of the town on the waterfront contains lots of gift shops, clothing stores, galleries, estate jewelry, antique shops, one of the best bookstores known to readerkind, coffeshops ... all within a few easily walkable blocks. On the main corridor, U.S. Highway 64, are a lot of necessity stores such as grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, hair and nail salons, the liquor store, an Ace Hardware, several discount stores and auto supply places plus several local gems that draw visitors from all over the Outer Banks – The Christmas Shop, Silver Bonsai Gallery, Manteo Cyclery and Roanoke Island Outfitters and Dive Center. Wanchese shopping mostly lures those who know that there’s no better place to go for fresh seafood than this village where they bring it in daily straight from the boats.
Things to Do on Roanoke Island
Roanoke Island things to do center around the water, but an added bonus on this island is the focus of fun activities pertaining to history, wildlife and island culture – ever been on a wolf howling or to scout for bears? The Roanoke Island fishing culture is alive and well. Manteo is also perfect for exploring on foot or by bicycle. A bicycle/multi-use path runs parallel to Highway 64 from the Nags Head Causeway to the North End. If you have a bicycle handy, we highly recommend using this path to explore Roanoke Island. Find somewhere to park the car (downtown Manteo or at Roanoke Island Festival Park are good places), then pedal away. The path leads all the way out to the attractions of Fort Raleigh and ends at a beautiful soundfront park. The streets of Manteo are also perfect for walking and jogging. A shop on the highway rents bikes if you didn't bring your own.
You might want to read more about Roanoke Island and Manteo’s history before you come so you’ll get the most out of your island experience.
Weddings on Roanoke Island
One more aspect of present-day Roanoke Island that’s worth special note is the increasing popularity of Roanoke Island weddings. So many couples have chosen this area for their nuptials that a big industry has built up around supporting these destination weddings. If you’re considering an island wedding, we offer this important piece of advice: Plan early. The B&Bs, venues and suppliers get booked up many months in advance. Some of the most popular venues for the ceremony and reception are The Elizabethan Gardens, The North Carolina Aquarium, downtown at Roanoke Island Festival Park and the town park beside the North Carolina Maritime Museum.
Frequently Asked Questions about Roanoke Island
How did Roanoke Island get its name?
The island is named after the Roanoke Carolina Algonquian tribe that were the original inhabitants of the island and were here when the colonists arrived in the 1500s.
What is The Lost Colony?
The term Lost Colony refers to the 120 men, women and children who set sail from England in 1587 determined to form a permanent settlement in the New World on Roanoke Island. The play, The Lost Colony, was written by Paul Green and is the longest-running outdoor symphonic drama in the country. It depicts the time leading up to the voyage in England, the attempts to create a lasting fort here on Roanoke Island, the varying relationships with the local Indian tribes and the ultimate suffering and disbanding of the colony as they awaited supplies from England, which came several years too late. Recent discoveries of a patch on a map drawn by John White, one of the leaders of the voyages, gives way to theories that, rather than following friendly Indians to Croatoan (a word carved into a fence post and referring to present-day Hatteras Island), the remaining colonists might have made their way up the Albemarle Sound about 50 miles inland toward the town of Edenton. Here on Roanoke Island, remains of their fort and artifacts are displayed on the north end, and you can view them and learn more at the visitor center at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
Is Roanoke Island really an island?
Yes, it is. It's separated from the mainland of North Carolina and from the beaches islands by the Roanoke and Croatan sounds.
Are there beaches on Roanoke Island?
There aren't ocean beaches, since Roanoke Island is separated from the ocean by a sound, but on the north end of the island, at the end of the bike path, you will find a sandy beach on the border of the Croatan Sound. Lots of locals swim here. Otherwise, from Roanoke Island, you can be at a beach access in Nags Head in less than 15 minutes.
Can you bike over the bridge that takes you to Nags Head?
That bridge is called the Washington Baum Bridge, and while, technically, you can ride your bike over it, you should make sure you have a lot of safety gear to make yourself as visible as possible. Particularly right after you head down the crest of the bridge, it's hard for motorists to see you, so we recommend a tall flag on your bike.
How is Roanoke Island different from the beach areas?
Roanoke Island is one of the oldest, established communities on the Outer Banks, and that gives it a history and an anchor that feels different than the atmosphere on the beach. There's a small town sense to Roanoke Island with lots of restored homes, grass and trees. The pace is slower on the island than at the beaches, and most of the island's attractions and the town of Manteo are easily bikable or walkable. There are two waterfront restaurants that have nighttime entertainment, and there's a movie theater that only charges $7 per ticket for first-run movies (!!), but admittedly the "scene" is much more laid back than on the beach.