Manteo, pronounced “MANeo”, is a charming small town on Roanoke Island, well worth visiting. It is one of our favorite places, in part because the yacht basin is a good place for pied billed grebes and other diving ducks. And it is charming in general. The yacht basin occupies one side of the little harbor, lined with piers filled with moored boats connected with a boardwalk. It ends at a modern but nicely arched road bridge to the Festival Park on the other side of the harbor. The bridge marks the end of the waterfront and of the navigable part of the harbor. Beyond it is a natural wetland lined by private land.
The other side of the bay is wilder. From the boardwalk, it looks undisturbed except for a single pier where the Elizabeth II, the full-scale reproduction of the ship Sir Walter Raleigh’s sailed to Roanoke to found the Lost Colony. Manteo, named after one of two aboriginal men who sailed to England with Raleigh on an earlier voyage to Roanoke and returned with the settlers, is the spiritual descendant of that initial colony. That spirit is clear in little things, from the names of streets to the various attractions that draw visitors to the town. Besides the waterfront, these include the North Carolina Aquarium, the Elizabethan Gardens, and the adjoining Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
However, Manteo is not a tourist site in the modern sense. Everything there is genuine and much of it old. The village is full of graceful homes that in many cases have been there for generations. The waterfront is newer but fits into the area well. The Elizabethan Gardens are a creation of the local and state garden club, and the Elizabeth II is a careful replica of an English merchant ship of the period down to the iron bolts holding it together. There is no glitz and no Disney-like feeling of the fake.
The southern half of Roanoke Island is occupied by Wanchese, named after the other aboriginal man who sailed to England with Raleigh. It is a small commercial fishing village, very different from Manteo. It is insular and a working-class family town. While Manteo has a genteel charm and in places almost looks like a reproduction of a 19th century village, Wanchese is clean but worn, with no pretentions. The island begs for a sociologist to study the contrast and how the two communities work together. As a park ranger explained it, “Nobody leaves Wanchese. People leave Manteo.”