two places roanoke island
photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

An intriguing boundary divides Roanoke Island, which sits between Roanoke and Croatan sounds, and is the last bit of land before you reach the Outer Banks.

This boundary is inexact, but U.S. Highway 64 is close enough. To the left of the road lies Manteo, with sidewalks and lanes and shingled homes; with galleries and breweries and dog boutiques; with fluttering street-pole flags heralding The Lost Colony outdoor drama and the Elizabethan Gardens and the North Carolina Aquarium. Manteo has charm, and people — including visitors on their way to the Outer Banks, and a live pirate with a braided black beard who waves at passing cars. Because with all the things there are to see and do in Manteo, all the places to eat and drink and stay, there’s also traffic.

nick gowitzka fisherman

Nick Gowitzka, first mate of the Fishin’ Frenzy, holds a freshly caught mahimahi at Wanchese Harbor. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

Take a right turn, though, and the difference is instantly obvious. You’re headed for Wanchese, which still calls itself a village, though that’s a stretch. “Village” implies a cluster of shops, and in Wanchese, they don’t shop. They fish. On the Manteo waterfront, the boats are beautiful sailing vessels. Yachts, even. In Wanchese, the waterfront is a marina, and the boats are workhorses, rode hard and put up wet, literally, after heading out at dawn for their daily catch, then coming back to wharves and warehouses where ice-packed, waxed-cardboard boxes stamped “Fresh Seafood” await their return.

Manteo is a town. Wanchese is a place.

At Darrell’s Seafood Restaurant in Manteo, a 56-year-old family-owned restaurant, patrons (emerging from cars bearing plates from New Jersey, Ohio, Canada) discuss the difference between sailfish and marlin, enormous specimens of which are hanging on the walls. These fish were likely caught off of Wanchese, where any vehicle worth its salt bears a boat hitch, and the farthest-flung license tag is from Virginia. These travelers have likely come to buy rockfish, grouper, and soft-shell crabs by the beautiful red-and-blue-and-green dozen at O’Neal’s, which offers straight-off-the-boat seafood for sale and for in-the-know diners. But only for lunch. Better head back to Manteo for dinner, and to spend the night. Wanchese has a post office the size of a toolshed, and several bed and breakfasts, but no hotels.

• • •
Manteo is a town. Wanchese is a place. If you’re going for history, or kayaking, you’re going to Manteo. If you’re going to see a man about a boat, you’ll probably go to Wanchese. In Manteo, people are just plain nice. Although she’s seen me exactly once, the innkeeper says, “Goodbye, Miss Susan” in the old Southern way. People are nice in Wanchese, too. There are just fewer of them.

elizabethan gardens

The Elizabethan Gardens, at the island’s north end, feature crape myrtles, tulips, and, at center, an Italian statue of Aphrodite. photograph by Emily Chaplin and Chris Council

Roanoke Island’s population of nearly 7,000 consists largely of two types: locals and natives. Locals have been around for decades. Natives were born here, and go back generations. They rode Shetland ponies in Wanchese, and their fathers were commercial fishermen before regulations changed the industry, before visitors, as tourists are known, became the island’s main industry. Today, natives make up 8 percent of its population.

• • •

If you’re going for history or kayaking, you’re going to go to Manteo. If you’re going to see a man about a boat, you’ll probably go to Wanchese.

Signs in Wanchese say “Waterfront,” with directional arrows. Before you get to Wanchese’s waterfront, you’ll pass miles of marsh, where there’s nothing but reeds, never mind signs. The road that leads to Manteo will also lead you off the island by bridge when you reach its north end. The road that leads to Wanchese will lead you to … the ocean. It simply ends where the water begins. If you’re looking for civilization and coffee, go to Manteo. If you’re looking for wildness and wahoo, go to Wanchese. If you’re looking for the dividing line of this dual-personality island, you can only feel it, not find it.

• • •

roanoke marshes lighthouse

This replica of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse — the original stood at the southern entrance of Croatan Sound in Wanchese ­— now glows in Manteo. photograph by Emily Chaplin

The Roanoke Indian chief Wanchese, along with his Croatan counterpart Manteo, befriended and assisted the English explorers who first landed on Roanoke Island in 1584. Hosted by Sir Walter Raleigh, the pair visited England together and, unsurprisingly, were a sensation at the royal court. Manteo was very involved with later colonists, and became the first Native American to be baptized into the Church of England. Wanchese, however, grew suspicious of the explorers’ motives, and ended his good relations with them. Were the chiefs to revisit Roanoke Island today, which would be pleased with his namesake town?

Probably both.

Navigating Roanoke Island

Outer Banks
A trip across another bridge takes you to Nags Head and, eventually, to Corolla or Hatteras.

A water tower guides your eye toward the harbor on the southeastern side of Roanoke Island.

Find Shallowbag Bay, then find the marinas, shops, and homes surrounding it.

Dare County Regional Airport
A World War II training site for Navy pilots.

The Lost Colony
The home of outdoor drama since 1937. The Elizabethan Gardens are close by.

Two Bridges
The original William B. Umstead Bridge couldn’t handle all of the traffic, so the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge opened in 2002.

Northwest Point
Well-kept homes and a private marina sit on Roanoke Island’s northwestern tip.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.