The disappearance of the Lost Colony is an enduring mystery on Roanoke Island, where an English sailing vessel left 115 souls behind in 1587. When the governor, John White, returned three years later, the colonists had vanished, including his new granddaughter, Virginia Dare.
It’s hard to imagine White’s journey as he sailed into Roanoke that August day more than 400 years ago. Today, at the historic waterfront in Manteo, tourists can climb aboard the docked Elizabeth II replica to get a feel for White’s ship and its tight quarters.
But that’s not sailing.
To experience the power of the wind and strong flutter of the sails, step onto the Downeast Rover, a reproduction of a 19th century topsail schooner. The small, tall ship is about 55 feet long and can seat two dozen people on deck. It sails three times daily from the Manteo harbor into the waters where those settlers arrived for a fateful new beginning.
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A two-man crew guides the schooner out of Shallowbag Bay. The sailors joke that if anyone falls overboard, the thing to do is stand up. The bay is only about five feet deep.
Soon enough, though, the Rover motors beyond the buoys into Roanoke Sound, still shallow but a little deeper. There, the crew will ask for volunteers to help hoist the sails – not an insignificant task. As the sails slowly rise, passengers get a quick lesson on what happens when the boat takes a turn, or “comes about.” Hint: it’s not an accident that the pole attached to the bottom of the sail is called a “boom.” The newbie sailors are warned to keep their heads low when it’s time for the boom to lurch across the deck.
Once the sails are up, sit back and take in the quiet, breezy ride. The rover will pass osprey nests, and it’s not uncommon to see dolphins swimming alongside the ship.
The experience manages to be calm and thrilling at the same time. Hold on as the boat tilts in the wind, and if you’re in the mood to take the helm, the crew will oblige, instructing you when to “come up,” or turn toward the wind, and when to turn away, or “fall off.”
The $40 sunset sail is the Rover’s most popular voyage of the day (for reservations, call 252-473-4866 or go to www.downeastrover.com for information). As the sun sinks toward the horizon, giving a magical glisten to the sound, passengers can enjoy a cold beverage purchased at the general store in Manteo.
The peaceful, two-hour journey offers unusual views of common Outer Banks landmarks. Passing by Jockey’s Ridge, the giant sand dunes, from your speeding SUV on U.S. 158 is one thing. It’s quite another to see the otherworldly sight from the other side, at a distance, as you glide across the water.
North Carolina is blessed with a beautiful, unique and rugged coastline that stretches for 300 miles. The best way to see this state may just be to get out on the sea and leave your four wheels behind.
Revenge pirate cruise, Beaufort
Aye matey, climb aboard the Revenge for a swashbucklin’ adventure on the high seas. Or at least the waters that hug the Crystal Coast. On most days, the Revenge sails four times from Beaufort, delighting kids and their parents with sword fights, treasure hunts and, of course, water cannons aimed at the evil Pirate Kegger, who inevitably gets drenched and defeated in the spirited battle. This is an interactive experience complete with costumes (or at least pirate scarves) and foam swords that draw no blood. The Revenge is a 40-foot replica pirate ship that sails very near the real remains of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the sunken ship of the most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard. If that doesn’t give you a shiver, try the Ghost Float, a haunted cruise that sails at sunset Thursday through Saturday. The day cruise is $24.95 for adults, $19.95 for children 12 and under. The evening cruise is $19.95. Call 252-728-7827 for reservations. Board at 600 Front St. in Beaufort, if you dare.
Airboat adventure, Manteo
If you thought airboats only skimmed through the Florida Everglades, think again. The shallow water boat with the giant fan on the back has come to North Carolina. Chesapeake Bay and Outer Banks Adventures will whisk you from Manteo through the marshes to explore Oregon Inlet, where you can see the impressive Bodie Island Lighthouse and other sites. The rides are loud and fast, whipping up a wind that will feel great on a hot day. Several excursions are available but many folks opt for a one- or two-hour tour. Special requests are welcome. Call 757-871-6402 to book.
Partnership for the Sounds river tours, Washington, Windsor, Columbia
Get a dose of nature on a river tour sponsored by the Partnership for the Sounds. Pontoon boats leave from three locations. You’ll learn a little local history, some riverbank traditions and maybe catch a glimpse of wildlife along the way. At Washington, the River Roving boats leave from the N.C. Estuarium on the waterfront Wednesday-Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., as well as Saturday at 10:30 a.m. You’ll either cruise the Tar or Pamlico river, explore area creeks and perhaps learn about the blue crab industry. Call 252-948-0000 for reservations. In Windsor, the River Rambling tour leaves from the Roanoke/Cashie River Center each Saturday at 10:30 a.m., featuring a cruise along the forest-shrouded Cashie. Call 252-794-2001 for reservations. In Columbia, take the River Roaming boat along the Scuppernong River on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. Call 252-796-0723 for reservations. Best part about the tours? They’re free. Only 10 passengers per boat (children must be at least 6 years old), so call ahead to get a seat.
Kayak tour, Ocracoke
For a peaceful view of the beautiful Silver Lake harbor at Ocracoke, you really can’t beat a kayak tour. Ride the Wind Surf Shop offers sunrise, midday, sunset and full moon kayak excursions. Learn the colorful history of Ocracoke, where Blackbeard perished in a fierce battle in 1718. Or if history isn’t your thing, settle in for a quiet paddle along the marshes where you might see ibis, egret and other waterfowl. Tours are around $40 for adults. If you have really good balance and want to try something truly unique, Ride the Wind offers a Standup Paddleboard Yoga Class. Yes, it’s just what it sounds like. Yoga. On a paddleboard. In the water. Call 252-928-6311 for information at the shop, at 486 Irvin Garrish Highway in Ocracoke.
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