Marches Lighthouse, Manteo, Roanoke Island
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Buffered by the Outer Banks — a chain of desolate barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina — the island of Roanoke ought to rank high for any traveler curious about United States history.

Way before Jamestown, Roanoke Island was the first true attempt by the British to colonize the so-called New World. The mass migration got its start in 1584, when an all-male voyage, led by Sir Walter Raleigh, made its way into these waters. Three years later, a group of men, women and children, showed up to permanently settle the land.

The attempt was to be short-lived. Roanoke Island, despite being recorded as the landing spot of these trailblazing British settlers, is now the infamous site of an enduring — and utterly beguiling — colonial-era mystery. Within just a few years, when a follow-up expedition sailed from England to check on the new settlers’ progress, they discovered that the entire colony had vanished. All 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children (including Virginia Dare, the first English child ever born on this land) had simply disappeared. They left no messages, no signs of a battle or skirmish, no clues at all. Nothing.

Fittingly, Roanoke Island is now nicknamed the Lost Colony.

Roanoke Island's important place in American history doesn't end with the missing settlers. While under the control of the Union, a Freedmen’s Colony was established on the north side of the island from 1862 until 1867, offering a rare sanctuary, including hospitals, schools, and housing, to any freed or escaped slaves who safely made their way to the island. At its peak, the population swelled to 4,000 people.

Of course, there's plenty for travelers to see and do here today. Consider this your definitive guide to exploring Roanoke Island.

Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Visit the town of Manteo

Because the Outer Banks are so spread out, the town of Manteo (located in the center of Roanoke Island) is the traditional hub for visitors. This vibrant downtown area is equipped with cozy waterfront inns (Roanoke Island Inn, Burrus House Inn), lively pubs, and restaurants like Stripers Bar & Grille, which has three floors overlooking the marina and a seafood-focused menu featuring steamed mussels and Rockfish Reuben sandwiches.

It’s in Manteo, too, that you’ll find two of Roanoke Island’s most important cultural attractions.

Check out the Elizabethan Gardens, an interactive, English-style garden estate that’s in bloom practically year-round (show up at Christmas, when the trees and hedges are lit up with a million fairy lights).

Come summer, travelers can watch The Lost Colony musical, which takes place in a waterfront amphitheater inside Fort Raleigh every year. More than 100 actors, technicians, and designers tell the story of the vanished settlers, which is one of the longest-running outdoor historical dramas in the country.

Stroll along the boardwalk

From downtown Manteo, there’s a mile-long boardwalk that’s perfect for anyone who wants to explore the marsh-lined island on foot. Start at the marina, where you'll pass several shops and picnic areas, eventually making your way out to Roanoke Island Festival Park. Set just across the harbor, this 25-acre site contains a reconstructed 16th-century explorer ship as well as a scenic nature trail through a forest of Atlantic white cedars, myrtles, and live oaks.

Explore the Outer Banks

Since Roanoke Island is sandwiched between the mainland and the barrier islands, it doesn’t technically sit on the ocean. But the area's famous windswept sandy shores are just a 10-minute drive away. On nearby Nags Head, a protected National Seashore, the choice of beaches is nearly overwhelming: you could drive for miles, only to encounter more of the same undeveloped, enchanting coastline. (Even in the height of summer, it manages to stay crowd-free.)

Of particular interest is Jockey Ridge State Park, home to the tallest sand dunes on the East Coast. For travelers who wish to spend serious time on this oceanfront wilderness, book a campsite at Oregon Inlet Campground, where the only thing separating you from the crashing waves are the dunes themselves.

Bodie Lighthouse, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Climb a lighthouse

Roanoke Island, and the Outer Banks in general, are known for their quintessential lighthouses. In fact, there’s even a special society set up to preserve the region’s dozen or so historic lighthouse structures. Among the most unique are Bodie Island Lighthouse, known for its unique black and white stripes, and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in America (both are open to the public for climbing). Meanwhile, on Roanoke Island proper, there’s Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, which towers over downtown Manteo.

Don’t miss the Freedom Trail

While history remains a big draw for visitors to Roanoke Island (in addition to the Lost Colony, and the Freedmen's Colony, the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight took place just a few miles away), the waterfront itself provides endless opportunities for sailing tours, surfing, and plenty of secluded nature walks.

“There’s a beautiful path called the Freedom Trail,” noted Beth Storie, publisher of a guide series on the Outer Banks, and a resident of Roanoke Island since 1979. “It starts directly across the entrance to the Elizabethan Gardens, and goes for a mile and a quarter. The trail is wide and well-maintained; you always see people back there walking with their dogs, or on horseback. You’re going through woods the whole way, and you end up right at the edge of Roanoke Sound. It’s magical.”