Manteo: A tourist destination, or a small town?

By Mia Brady

Despite the fact that I have attended college in North Carolina for the past four years, the Outer Banks is a place that I had not yet managed to journey to before this road trip. As we pulled up to the final stop on our Highway 64 tour, I stepped out of the car expecting the ocean to be somewhere in sight; I had heard from friends of the Outer Banks’ amazing beaches and rolling sand dunes. But rather, I found myself facing a beautiful harbor full of boats, and streets lined with picturesque shops and restaurants. Manteo grabbed my attention; I was curious about this beautiful end to Highway 64, and start to the expansive Outer Banks.

Manteo is a small town on Roanoke Island, which lies directly between the mainland and the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. In order to visit the beach towns of the Outer Banks, it is essential for travelers to drive through this charming town. There is no question from where their temptation to get out and walk around may come. Manteo does not have much of what I assumed or anticipated of the Outer Banks, but after spending just a few hours in this town, there is no question that rather than the appeal of rolling beaches, this picturesque town has an appeal of it’s own.

Walking around Manteo, its homey feel is palpable. With Manteo’s quaint shops and restaurants, storefronts with porches and patios, and neat streets, downtown Manteo is an attraction of the Outer Banks for all to see. We spent the first half hour or so just walking around, and getting a feel for this place before really diving in and speaking to the locals. It wasn’t until we spoke to locals that we really understood that Manteo is far more than a quaint little town, but rather, a quaint little town that is torn between a tourist destination, and a town focused on it’s locals.

After popping into a small jewelry store, and speaking briefly to the owner, she directed us to The Coffeehouse On Roanoke Island, a quaint coffee shop just around the corner, with the promise that the employees would love to give us meaningful insight on the town of Manteo.

Leaded by the antique sign pointing us up the stairs, we climbed until we reached the front door of this welcome shop. Upon entering, I immediately noticed the homey feel of the small, little coffee shop. With plush couches, antique tables and lots of framed photos, newspaper articles and signs, I had no question that The Coffeehouse On Roanoke Island was a great place to gain a better understanding on the community feel in Manteo.

As we approached the counter, and pondered what to order off the huge colored chalkboard, featuring drinks like Forbidden Fruit smoothies and Butterscotch milk shakes, we were greeted by the friendly employees. After ordering our drinks (I got a delicious ice coffee with a sugar free vanilla flavor shot), we took some time to peruse this unique spot, noticing framed local newspaper articles and a chalkboard wall for guests to sign. A few minutes later, as the coffee shop became less and less crowded, we took the opportunity to introduce ourselves, and start up a conversation with the employees, Monique and Bethany, two young women in their 20s.

When initiating conversation with these two women, we had no idea that 45 minutes later, we would walk out of the coffeehouse with some strong insight and opinions on the town Monique and Bethany grew up calling home, and still call home today. Monique is the new owner of the shop, and her mother was the former owner. Bethany, the younger woman, has worked in the shop for years, and has lived in Manteo her entire life. While the small town is appealing to tourists and travelers with its quaint shops and stores filled with antiques and gifts, the distinction between attention on tourists and attention on locals is a struggle for the small bayside town.

Bethany and Monique contribute business for The Coffeehouse on Roanoke Island to both tourists and locals, noting that they have a stream of regulars every morning until about 10 am. After 10 am, the tourists come wandering in, looking for a smoothie to cool them down or a cup of coffee for a pick-me-up. But as business owners and locals, they have their own opinion on the way Manteo caters to them as locals. The Coffeehouse takes pride in their ability to stay open all year. Their website states, “We are open YEAR ROUND to serve the community and do thank the locals for their support!!” While the coffeehouse is able to stay open all year long, this is not the case for many Manteo restaurants and shops.

Living in Manteo has its pluses, as both women note that it was a great place to grow up, and Monique is even raising her own children in the area. But there is no question that in terms of negatives, living in a town like Manteo can make it difficult to be a local. The women note that they wish more establishments stayed open for the locals, as residents, particularly youth, run out of things to do off-season. But the truth of the matter is, how can a small town, whose tourist season greatly supports many of the establishments financially, function the same way in the off-season as the tourist season?

Paul Charron, the owner of a Full Moon Café & Brewery on Queen Elizabeth Street in Manteo, is native to Manhattan. He picked up, and left and moved down to Manteo, saying he’d live nowhere in between. Paul and his wife Sharon have been operating this corner restaurant, just a few blocks from the bay in the heart of downtown Manteo, for the past 17 years. A unique menu, the recent added value of homebrewed craft beers, and recognized as a hotspot on the Outer Banks by The New York Daily News and The Washington Post, this is not a place to miss when visiting Manteo.

While Paul and Sharon run a successful business, Paul stated that staying open year round was simply out of the question for them, and reaped far more problems than it did benefits. There simply is not a big enough pool of people in the off-season to run the restaurant smoothly. While Full Moon as been running since 1995, the brewery component of the establishment was just added in the past year. At the rate that Full Moon has been growing, this relatively small restaurant is incapable of catering only to locals. With a steady stream of customers during tourist season, Paul has noticed that locals to Manteo will not take the time to wait as tourists will. Staying open for locals year round is just simply not something that Full Moon has the means to do. The same can be said for many other establishments in Manteo.

Manteo is a charming bayside town with friendly locals. This town is also a charming vacation spot for tourists. It is a beautiful town, that like many other tourists destinations, is torn between a destination, catered towards visitors, and a small town, with businesses and citizens living their day-to-day lives. Regardless of the tear between a tourist destination and a small town, Manteo is a place that is enjoyable to all; whether you are a local or a tourist.