Anyone with a fascination of history and America's European roots will love a day exploring the Elizabeth II, a historic 16th century sailing vessel that is docked along the borders of the Roanoke Island Festival Park. This ship can be admired by virtually anyone who takes a stroll along the downtown Manteo waterfront, as it sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the modern day sail boats, yachts, and fishing boats that are docked nearby. The wooden exterior and brightly colored Tudor flags sail in the breeze, and the sight of the resting ship certainly feels like a step back in time.
Visitors who want to delve a little deeper into this curious attraction are welcome to climb aboard and explore, as costumed interpreters are more than happy to put their new crew members to work raising the anchor, swabbing the decks, or even helping the captain plot a course to or from the New World. With virtually every nook and cranny of the painstakingly maintained 69' foot 0ship open for exploring, visitors are sure to have a wild adventure going back in time, and experiencing the hard life of America's earliest settlers, before they even set foot on Roanoke Island.
The ship, or rather ships, that the Elizabeth II was modeled after are the sailing vessels that were sent to Roanoke Island in 1584 and 1587, respectively. At the time, Tudor-era queen Elizabeth I was trying to keep up with the New World exploration achievements of Spain, which had been sending vessels to and from the Americans for nearly 100 years. Spain had already conquered and settled the South American portions of the New World, so Elizabeth I turned her attention further north, to the modern day United States.
A settlement commandeered by Sir Walter Raleigh was sent to initially set-up a colony in the southern Outer Banks, (near Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands), but after a bout with bad weather and a bit of misdirection, the colonists settled instead on Roanoke Island.
This first settlement had trouble with supplies and local Native American relations, and a second colony was sent just three years later, this time with men, women and children, to try a more permanent settlement that could grow into an established New World colony. Unfortunately, the fate of these travelers went down in the history books, as this "Lost Colony" completely disappeared within several years of landing. Their fate is still argued today, and the story has become the plot of the famed "Lost Colony" outdoor drama which is performed nightly in the summertime just a couple hundred yards away from the Elizabeth II.
Certainly, the daily life of dealing with the Outer Banks elements, building a settlement from scratch, and living next to a growingly hostile community of Native Americans was a hard enough life on its own. But before the colonists even got to the New World, they had to deal with months aboard a heaving 16th century ship with cramped quarters, stale food, and barely livable conditions. Life on the ship was really an introduction to how hard their life on the new mainland was about to be, and the Elizabeth II replica plays an important role in teaching visitors the courage and determination America's first English residents needed in order to survive in an entirely New World.
The Elizabeth II was conceived and built as an integral part of America's 400th Birthday Celebration, and was constructed from the ground up right in Manteo at "The Boathouse," which now serves as the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum in downtown Manteo. Popular since it first laid out the gangplank, the Elizabeth II is still an admired and eye-opening attraction for visitors, and an incredible head-turning sight along the Manteo harbor. With no detail spared from the colors of the Tudor flags to the navigational instruments in the Captain's Quarters, the Elizabeth II is truly a remarkable way for visitors to experience the hardships of the first colonists, while still being able to step off of the ship, and step back into modern times.
The Elizabeth II can be found in the middle of Shallowbag Bay at the very edge of Roanoke Island Festival Park. Visitors can access the site by entering the Roanoke Island Festival Park, and crossing over through downtown Manteo via a well-placed boardwalk that spans across the bay and presents some pretty incredible views of downtown and the Elizabeth II herself.
At the site, visitors are free to walk around the docks and grassy areas where the Elizabeth II is stationed, but a small admission fee is required to board the ship and take the full and well-guided tour. The ship is well-stocked with trained and costumed crew members who are happy to answer questions and explain the daily operations of life on the ship while out to sea.
The crew members rotate, and visitors will ever quite know what to expect on any given Elizabeth II adventure. On the topside, or the main above-ground level, visitors may be asked to help set the sails or swab the decks as they wander across the ship admiring the hundreds of yards of intricate rigging, and the incredible views of the downtown located just across the bay. Visitors may even be asked to help raise the heavy anchor out of the water, or lower it back down to keep the ship safely near the docks. The "top level" is a pleasure to explore, and on a clear summer day, the breezes and the open water views may make even the most die-hard landlubber want to take to the sea.
The lower level , however, is not for the claustrophobic, and visitors can wind through narrow hallways to different compartments that were well-known to the captain, crew, and the everyday pedestrian settlers. In these areas, visitors can shift through barrels and boxes to see what goods are being carried to the New World, try out the straw and feather mattresses that served as beds for months at a time, or even pass the time playing checkers with a local 16th century sailor. No detail has been overlooked, and many visitors marvel at the thought of living in such cramped quarters for months at a time, with nothing but the open ocean to look at for entertainment.
The staff and crew of the Elizabeth II take great efforts to make sure everyone gets a hands-on visit, especially their youngest visitors. This is definitely a kid-friendly excursion, as kids are usually the first visitors to get recruited to help the captain find his latitude with an astrolabe, or turn the giant sailing mechanisms that lower or raise the sails. Extremely educational while still feeling like a fun day playing pretend at sea, vacationers are encouraged to bring along their youngest family members who will certainly have an incredible interactive and eye-opening experience.
The Elizabeth II is open daily, generally from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and is open year-round except for the rare occasions when she takes to sea to visit other locations. In the spring and fall months, the Elizabeth II has been known to leave the harbor to serve as a traveling exhibit to other East Coast destinations, often cruising in tandem with the Silver Chalice, a smaller 24' replica of the boats that were used after arriving on Roanoke Island to transport goods and colonists to the shore. Maritime history lovers who can't squeeze in a visit to the Elizabeth II or the Outer Banks are advised to look out for these seasonal tours for an opportunity to see history in action, literally, and heading to a port near their home town.
Other than these small seasonal excursions, the Elizabeth II is wide open to visitors, and everyone is encouraged to take a tour, either as a part of a full Roanoke Island Festival Park excursion, or as just a scenic side trip during a Manteo waterfront stroll.