These days, it might seem naïve to describe a town as enchanting. That word is often reserved for made-up tales, right? Ones where you also expect magic and fanciful events to occur. But the story of Manteo, North Carolina, isn’t make believe. It’s a very real town on a very real island, and locals and visitors alike would agree with the description.
“What,” you are probably thinking, “would merit such a description as enchanting? Sure, towns can be nice, they can be pretty, they can be friendly and welcoming … but enchanting?” Well, as any good storyteller will say: keep reading.
Manteo has been a town for 121 years. As all small towns did, especially ones that sat on the watery edge of the land and were only accessible by boat, it started out humbly. Though it was the county seat, thus the center for commerce and official transactions for all of the Outer Banks towns, it mostly was peopled by boat builders and fishermen and their families, as was true for the other local towns. But the difference in Manteo then – and today – was the sense of community that was born of families living closely together, sharing daily experiences as neighbors. Many other towns were spread out, without a town center. But the people of Manteo focused their lives around a graciously designed red brick courthouse, businesses that were side by side on the waterfront and houses that were built in close proximity.
As would be expected, the town grew in size and population as the decades passed. But, even as the beach towns were reacting to increasing tourism by the rapid building of hotels, rental houses and shops, Manteo took another route. Town officials, determined to maintain the charm and character of this place, called for a vision that would keep development within the boundaries of values that locals said were important: a walkable town, respect for the history and heritage, restoration of historic properties, limiting the size of retail buildings, conservation of the fragile environment and attention to the cohesive look and feel of the town.
When you walk Manteo’s streets today, you see that the vision for the town has been carried out perfectly. Sidewalks and boardwalks connect the town and make it enjoyable for strolling around, admiring restored homes, picket fences, gardens, trees and manicured lawns. Visitors have a hard time knowing if houses are old or new since local residents have incorporated the town’s architectural history into new homes. In keeping with Manteo’s heritage, the N.C. Maritime Museum gives a working glimpse into our boat-building traditions. The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and Weather Tower show how locals navigated and communicated about weather events, and still do to this day. Roanoke Island Festival Park gives you the opportunity to learn about our island’s storied history from both the Native American point of view and that of the early voyagers from England to this island. The Pea Island Cookhouse Museum honors the heritage of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station and its heroic all-Black crew. It’s a town filled with history.
It’s also a town filled with today’s story. The waterfront area bustles with individually owned and interesting shops that reflect the personalities of the owners. Restaurants offer choices from sandwiches to fine dining, and most of them have outdoor patios where your pooch is welcome too. With the stately courthouse now housing the Dare County Arts Council, arts are lively and abundant through exhibits and events. We have the smallest brewery in the state that creates award-winning beers, and you can visit the local rum distillery and taste samples! From the boardwalk that belts the waterfront area, you can watch boats on the sound or get out there yourself on a kayak or standup paddleboard through local outfitters. Dolphin and sunset tours operate all summer long as do ghost walk tours. The oldest movie theater in the country owned by the same family is here too with ticket prices that make it possible to take the entire family and get all the munchies you want. There are gorgeous wedding and reception venues as well as bed and breakfast inns to house guests in restored homes.
It’s a town full of locals who know each other and who welcome visitors with genuine smiles. You can tell that people feel at home here and appreciate the small town coastal vibe.
But, maybe more than all the above, the beauty that surrounds Manteo is what sticks with you. Here’s a suggestion: At sunset, take a walk on the boardwalk. When you get to the net shed, stop and look around you. The colors of the sky reflect off the water, and if it’s still, you see an upside down mirror view of everything. Because there is such little light pollution, the stars and moon will amaze you. Across the sound you’ll see the shimmering lights and shoreline of Nags Head. Just a little to the left, and there’s the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse with her blinking light and behind that the Elizabeth II ship with her vibrant colors. Across the way will be the board and batten Maritime Museum and the verdant park beside it. Adjacent will be the lights on the town’s buildings and streets as they twinkle in the twilight hour. You’ll hear the laughter of children playing at the playground and watch the flags flying on the weather tower. Adding to the experience will be the view of all the boats in the marina and the sounds their sails and hardware make as they respond to the breeze.
And, you’ll see. It’s enchanting. It really is. It might feel like a moment frozen in a simpler time because it’s quiet and still. But it’s what you’ll come to expect from Manteo.
For further information about Manteo visit townofmanteo.com.