Manteo, North Carolina

The locals pronounce it Man-e-o. This jewel, located on the northern end of Roanoke Island just about 22 miles east of where the ICW channel exits the north end of the Alligator River, is often passed by boaters as they rush north or south to get to their seasonal destination. How unfortunate for them. During our current cruise north, we have encountered weeks of lousy weather and delays, and we were looking and hoping to find a good spot to relax and spend some quality time. Did we ever find it in Manteo. It all began while anchored in the Little Alligator River. We called Carl Jordan, Dockmaster at Manteo Waterfront Marina. Being cruisers, we often lose track of time including days or even months. Just as we called Carl, we came to the realization that the next day was July 3rd and we would be asking for last minute accommodations during the 4th of July Holiday. To our delight and surprise, Carl told us to “come on ahead and we’ll find room for you.” And that’s exactly what they did despite a full marina with reservations for the holiday.

Manteo is most famous for, and celebrates, the first settlement in the new colonies and the now famous “Lost Colony.” The town was named after an American Indian Chief named Manteo that acted as a liaison between the colonists and the local Indian tribe. In 1584, English settlers established a fort and settlement on the northern end of the island. In 1587, Capt. John White returned to England for supplies, and upon his return to the New World, all of the colonists were gone with only one word carved on a tree as a clue, Croatoan. The fate of the colony is still a mystery today. But the town of Manteo does an excellent tribute to those hardy souls that established the first foothold on the Outer banks. Known as Festival Island, a small island on the northeast corner of Manteo is dedicated to the celebration of those settlers. Visit the Settlement Site and step back in time to 1585. See how the settlers dressed, worked and lived their daily lives, all in authentic costumes.  Explore the Coastal Algonquian Indian village and sample the culture and discover how their community functioned. Board the replica of the Elizabeth II and help the 16th century costumed crew raise sails, plan navigation and even swab the decks. The Park’s Performance Series offers young entertainers presenting year-round music, dramas, dance, operas and children’s shows. Many concerts and events are held in the open-air pavilion with seats on the grass.

We were fortunate to be in Manteo during the 4th of July celebration which is held every year. And does the town know how to celebrate. Flags and red, white and blue bunting flutters in the breeze all over town. Street vendors are set up on the streets and parking lots selling everything from pizza and flavored smoothies, to chocolate covered bananas, cotton candy and lots more. Music can be enjoyed from the bandstand and bleachers set up in front of town hall. The shops and restaurants are full of locals and visitors alike, having a great time and enjoying the festive atmosphere. And then there are the fireworks. From our slip in the marina, we had ringside seats on our flybridge. This was the fun and relaxation we desperately needed. But you don’t have to wait for the 4th of July to celebrate in Manteo. The town celebrates First Friday, every month on ….the first Friday. The celebration is the same, minus a few flags and the fireworks. The restaurants stay open late, the street vendors are set up and music can be heard everywhere. And just to be sure Saturday doesn’t get jealous, they have a Farmer’s Market each Saturday from 8:00 am to noon. Dare Day is the first Saturday in June, celebrating the birth of Virginia Dare, the first baby to be born in the new colony, and the people and history of Dare County. The event features live music and street dancing. In August, there is the Arts festival, in October, the Bluegrass Festival at the Amphitheater, and on the first Friday in December, the Christmas tree lighting, followed by the Christmas parade the next day. And these are only the bigger events. There is also now a brand new Wildlife Museum and a popular aquarium.

To get to Manteo, you must first negotiate Shallowbag Bay. Just from the name, do we need to say more? We found it’s not as difficult as some of the guide books might have you believe. The channel off Roatan Sound is well-marked. Follow the markers, keeping the reds to port, and make no turns until you have nosed up to red 30A. Turn to starboard and keep to the green side until past greens 3 and 5, then move back toward center channel. Turn to starboard again at red marker 8, depending on which marina you plan to visit or if you might be anchoring.

Manteo is still a boater’s destination. If the conditions are good, the alternate route through Croatan Sound can cut off 17 miles from the ICW route and for sailboats it can mean a good sail all the way. Strong winds can make the Sounds very uncomfortable, so you will need to watch the weather. Strong southeasterly winds can make the harbor uncomfortable and pile in water. If the winds are blowing from the northeast for a time, the water levels can be lowered quite a bit, but when they switch to the west and northwest, the levels return to normal almost immediately. Prevailing winds in the summer are southwest and in the winter, northeast. The town tends to get busy shortly after the Annapolis Boat Show, as soon as many insurance companies allow the boats to go south of Cape Hatteras. During those times, it may be best to make reservations at one of the marinas in advance. There are three marinas in the harbor proper. Shallowbag Bay Marina, Marshes Light Marina and Manteo Waterfront Marina. Manteo waterfront is probably the most well-known and Carl Jordan, the Dockmaster, is one the most helpful and knowledgeable folks you will meet in the Outer Banks. The marina has 23 transient slips and is pretty flexible, as we found out. Carl is also the Dockmaster for the free town docks. These marinas are some of the closest to the Outer Banks. Transportation is available via rental cars from the local Ford Dealership. They will bring a car to you right at the marina.

Manteo has a very extensive town dock system for the use of boaters. Upon approaching the harbor from the channel, a long dock with a gazebo on the end is visible. There are docks with finger piers on one side and side ties on the other.  These are all part of the town dock and are free for 24 hours. The town docks extend farther into the small basin near the Maritime Museum. Water depths for the first 50 feet on the docks near the gazebo are 5 ½ feet. Beyond that, the water shallows to about 4 feet. There is no power or water on the town docks and registration with Manteo Waterfront Marina is required. If in the anchorage, any of these docks can be used to land the dinghy. Use of the marina showers, restrooms and laundry for boats at anchor can be had for a fee of $10.00 per day. Since the City owns all of the seawalls in the harbor, tying a dinghy up just about anywhere that won’t interfere with other boats is okay.

For supplies, the Food-A-Rama and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores are out on the main highway, about a half-mile from the waterfront. The laundry, pharmacy, post office and several fast food places are all in the same few blocks. The downtown area is a delight, with many shops and restaurants to enjoy.  A small general store just off the waterfront offers basic grocery items, beer, wine and soft drinks if the walk to the grocery isn’t needed. Just a few of the popular and excellent restaurants are right on the water or one block over. For lunch, try The Hungry Pelican or Poor Richards. For dinner, we really liked The Avenue Grille. You will have additional choices of The Full Moon CafĂ© and Brewery and, for a real treat, but a bit on the expensive side, 1587 is located in the Tranquil Inn. The staff is dressed in period costumes. The Coffee House offers many varieties of coffee, pastries and smoothies in a relaxing atmosphere. A visit to Mabel’s Scoop Shop for ice cream was one of our favorites.  A stop at the Wanchese Pottery shop is a don’t miss with a small gallery of hand crafted items, and you can watch the owner create on her pottery wheel. One of the best known attractions is The Lost Colony stage production. For 19 days each May, over 200 actors, technicians, designers and volunteers rehearse to bring The Lost Colony to life for another summer season. The production is enormous. The stage itself is over three times larger than most Broadway stages in New York. You will be seated in the center of the stage area with action happening on three sides of you and even sometimes right next to you in the aisle with epic battles and Indian dances. Experience the sorrow and heartbreak of tragedy and loss. Witness the pageantry of the Queen and her court and celebrate the birth of Virginia Dare. There is music, laughter, romance and dance. The Lost Colony is widely acknowledged as the precursor to the modern American Broadway Musical.

What more can we say. Our time in Manteo has been one of the most interesting stops we have made along the east coast on this cruise. There’s something going on all the time and something for everyone. If you’re looking for a true cruising destination, look no further. Take that 22-mile detour and you will not regret it. Rather you’ll wonder why you haven’t done it before, over and over.

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