Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island, North Carolina

We took off Thursday morning for a week’s trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  As someone who grew up in California, I didn’t know much about anyplace east of the Rocky Mountains, let alone south of the Mason-Dixon line.  To me, the south-eastern U.S. was all hot, humid, maybe swampy,  with crumbling ante-bellum mansions draped with ghostly shreds of gray Spanish moss, and pockets of vast, old wealth, race horses and mint juleps.  All this in the midst of sordid poverty and "Deliverance" type pig farmers and rascists.  Virtually all my images were based on Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Gone With the Wind. 

You could justifiably say that I was one of the last people on earth to have missed the economic revival of the South, and to be so ignorant of the beauty and variety to be found here.    I did go to Atlanta and New Orleans during the 70’s when I worked for a French company, but those were, to me, anomalous islands in the midst of All the Mysterious Rest. Not that I know much now, but I am delighted to be discovering it, a little at a time.  Virtually none of these images is correct now, if they ever were.

Our drive from Cary was trouble free.  No traffic, good roads, endless green countryside and a few farms and houses, mostly wooden and painted white, with screened in porches along the front.  And pretty, white-painted, wooden churches.  They are the Smyrna Baptist Church, the Free Will Baptist Church, the Volunteer Baptist Church, with the occasional Methodist Church. This describes a lot of what you see until you come to the Albemarle Highway and enter the wildlife refuge.  Then signs saying Red Wolf Crossing, and Watch for Bears start to appear.  Scraggly woods, marsh land, and ponds line the highway.  Not what I would have called bear country.  They belong in the mountains, don’t they? But here they are, numerous enough to be watched for. 

A long bridge spans the Alligator River, which looks more like a bay than a river, onto the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.  Another bridge takes you across the Sound to Roanoke Island.  The first thing to strike us is that most of the architecture is still the white wooden homes with porches that we saw on the mainland, some brick buildings, lots of open space.  We miss the turn to the hotel and instead turn down a street named Mother Vineyard.  Beautiful sprawling homes on manicured lawns splashed with big, gaudy Rhododendren and Azalea  bushes eventually lead to the water, where more big houses, now with docks and boat ramps, face the Albemarle Sound.  The water, the green grass, the pulsing magenta Rhodies are sparkling in the sunshine. We realize, sadly, that we won’t find our hotel here.

When we do  find it, we are happy to see that it is on the water facing Shallowbag Bay and tiny Festival Island, is old enough to feel historic, and well-enough maintained to be comfortable.  They even have WiFi.  We had a fancy dinner at the restaurant attached, called the 1587 in reference to the landing of Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island.  I won’t call it gourmet – it was a little too pretentiously presented and not subtle enough in taste, but better than Bojangles, for sure.

Next day we wandered around the village for an hour or so, looking into the little pottery and gift shops, then as our stamina for that kind of walking is extremely limited, we sat down for a coffee at a Cafe.  No sooner had we sat down out on the second story wooden walkway than two local ladies wandered by.  One wore a Garden Club badge next to a gold DAR pin.  Soon, one of them learned we lived in Shere,and she had visited there.  She pulled up  a chair, and the conversation didn’t stop for an hour and a half.  We learned a lot about local families and local history. One of the women had appeared in the play, The Lost Colony, which has been running since about 1905.  Her director was Andy Griffiths, who had himself appeared in the play for years and years, before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. 

With all that talk, we were ready for lunch. We started to push back our chairs and the DAR woman said, "How would you feel about a house exchange?  We live in Mother  Vineyard, and would love to stay in Shere." Mother Vineyard– the neighborhood we were drooling over. She gave me her card with her email address, so we’ll see if we can arrange that.  These two ladies were embodiments of the friendliness of North Carolinians, the slower pace of life, the willingness to take the time to talk to strangers.

It probably didn ‘t hurt that Bernard is English and has such a beautiful accent.  Everything on the island is named after Elizabeth the Ist or Sir Walter Raleigh. Only the names of the island itself, and its two villages recall the former inhabitants – Manteo and Wanchese, Croatoan Indians who, it is said, helped the colonists.  However, despite or because of them, the 117 men, women, and children disappeared mysteriously, and no one knows what really happened to them.  Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America, was among them.