Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island is a small place with just two towns, Wanchese and Manteo, making up its population. Steeped in colonial history, Roanoke Island offers visitors a historic perspective on colonial settlement surrounded by natural beauty. Tour historic sites like Fort Raleigh National Historic Site or visit the Elizabethan Gardens nearby. Shopping, dining, and watersports are just some of the reasons people love to visit Roanoke Island.

Roanoke Island

Historically significant Roanoke Island was home to the first settlements sent by Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh. They explored the area and created colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth, to name a few. Roanoke Island was the first colony in North America, established in 1584. Mostly made up of soldiers and sailors, they built up the area while also engaging with the local Native peoples. The name ‘Roanoke’ comes from the Roanoke Carolina Algonquian tribe who lived in the area. The towns of Manteo and Wanchese came from two Native American chiefs. It is possible the island was populated around 8000 B.C. or even earlier. Elizabeth Dare was an English settler who moved to Roanoke Island and gave birth to Virginia Dare but mysteriously many ill-fated members of the colony disappeared. Today, visitors to Roanoke Island can spend time exploring its history, enjoying local attractions, and taking in sea life, water sports, the North Carolina Aquarium, and the natural beauty of the area. Check out some of the best Roanoke Island has to offer.

Roanoke Island

Buffered by the Atlantic Ocean, Roanoke is still an island but with less sandy beaches than its neighbors. The Roanoke Sound sits along the eastern border and connects to the Croatan Sound on the western side of the island. The only way to arrive is by bridge from Manns Harbour or Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge which crosses the Croatan Sound from North Carolina. Nags Head/Manteo Causeway also connects to Roanoke Island, making it a great day trip from Nags Head.


Visitors to Roanoke Island can take in Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, detailing the history of colonies that popped up and what occurred after. The mystery of their disappearance has been one of the legends. Walking distance from the museum is a long-running outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony,” which runs through summer and tells the colony’s story. Stop by Elizabethan Gardens with 10 acres of beautiful botanical gardens to explore. The statue of Dare stands under live oaks and is a great photo stop. Explore the Croatan Sounds or stop by the shops in Roanoke. 

North Carolina Aquarium

North Carolina Aquarium offers a memorial to Richard Etheridge, a Black descendant of a prominent family and heroic figure of the U.S. Lifesaving Service (now known as Coast Guard). The centerpiece is a Graveyard of the Atlantic tank with replica wrecks like so many offshore. Interactive exhibits are hands-on fun for all ages.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is at the end of a short pier symbolizing one that helped commercial fishermen navigate shallow waters around the island. Island Farm offers a living-history museum showing how islanders and locals lived in the mid-1800s. See builds, costumed historians, and more explaining local history.

Roanoke Trails

Hit the trails on a bike or go hiking around the island. Mixed-use paths parallel the highway and let you explore the area. Take the bike path towards the aquarium, Island Farm or other historic sites. Bikes are for rent at various shops around the island. 

Cruise around viewing the sunset, take a dolphin tour or go sightseeing from the island. Several boats depart Manteo Harbor. From Wanchese, check out dolphin cruises to see them in their natural habitat.

Roanoke Island Marshes Game Land

Private property hunting is offered in certain areas and around the Roanoke Island Marshes Game Land. You will need a North Carolina hunting license and tags or stamps. Check out the game at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge for quail, squirrel, raccoon, opossum, or deer viewing.


Manteo is host to one of the biggest communities on Roanoke Island. Roanoke Island Festival Park is historical and attracts visitors to their festivals throughout the year with costumed performers explaining life in the original colonies. Take a trip on The Elizabeth II, a replica of the ships colonists took from England to the island. Climb up top and view the deck, and details, and see the ship as it might have been back then.


Visitors to Roanoke Island who want to stay can check into locally owned hotels or motels, close to historic downtown. There are Manteo attractions nearby also but most of them stay open year round unlike other areas of the Outer Banks. Manteo offers bed and breakfast options made from converted historic homes and mansions with lush gardens and wide porches. Vacation rental properties offer private pools, hot tubs, boat slip access, and more for those wanting a longer stay. Enjoy Southern hospitality on display while staying on Roanoke Island.

Shopping & Dining

Restaurants on Roanoke Island offer many types of cuisine. Visiting restaurants on the island or in nearby towns like Manteo can make the trip enjoyable. Restaurants offer sandwich shops, casual dining and fine dining. Waterfront restaurants offer beautiful views while dining on fresh, daily caught seafood, oysters, crab soup, or home country cooking, Carolina-style barbecue and fresh produce from the markets. Vegetarians and vegans are welcome to come divine on healthy fare. 

Shopping will entail less browsing beachfront cabanas and storefronts and more waterfront boutiques with fine goods. Shop at art galleries, fine boutiques, bookstores, and more. Stroll shop to shop on the small island without driving everywhere. It is all right within walking distance. To get the best out of shopping, hit up small parking lots in the Manteo waterfront area and look for on-street parking. Look for Roanoke Island shopping sales to get good deals and save some money while venturing out.

Roanoke Island F.A.Q.

The majority of homes on Roanoke Island are inhabited by residents. People do come to vacation here but not as often as other spots in OBX. The selection of rental homes is less than other spots. There are not as many beach activities to do that draw young people and kids. Adults and families love to come here or visit for the day rather than stay for a week.

In 1587, 117 English men, women and children came to establish a settlement in the New World. Three years later in 1590, the English ships returned to bring supplies and found it deserted with no sign of the colonists. There is a mystery about what happened to them that endures to this day and has created a theatrical show about them on the island and other legends are outlined in the history museum in Roanoke.

Roanoke Island has a coastline with lots of attractions from day trips to week-long retreats but it is not a beach destination, per se.  The charming island is a favorite place to unwind in North Carolina and is home to one of the best places to stay in North Carolina.

There aren’t ocean beaches because it is separated from the ocean by a sound but on the north end of the island, there is a sandy beach on the border of the Croatan Sound. Locals swim here, which resembles a river more than anything. Ranging from 4-6 miles wide and 10 ’20’ deep, the sound is always moving and a definite spot for locals but not all visitors want to venture out into the water for swimming, though kayaking and other water sports are popular.