MANTEO, N.C. -- If Sheriff Andy Taylor had had a house on the water, it would have been here. This small town is as friendly and down-home as Mayberry was. The sheriff's real-life counterpart, Tar Heel Andy Griffith, has been known to visit.
Manteo is the ''big city" on Roanoke Island, a 3-mile-by-12-mile stretch of land with about 7,000 residents that sits in the sounds between the mainland and the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. Five miles to the east are Nags Head and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. On the island's south end is Wanchese (Wan-CHEESE), an unabashedly modest fishing village that doesn't court tourists and doesn't get many, either. On the other hand, Manteo, a former commercial fishing village and boat building center, now reels in more tourists than fish.
This is a place made for walking. Strollers will enjoy the boardwalks along the downtown harbor and past the stately Tranquil House Inn and a waterfront park. Downtown Manteo also houses an easily walkable five blocks of stores, from galleries and clothing establishments to gift shops and a working blacksmith studio.
Go a little deeper into the heart of town, and you'll find lovely and mostly modest homes from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the largest and most historic have been converted into bed-and-breakfasts. Many houses have front porches, and if you see folks sitting on any, you'd best smile and wave, because they will.
You'll want to amble over to Roanoke Island Festival Park, formerly Ice Plant Island. The 27-acre park holds a museum, settlement site, museum store, aforementioned boardwalk, and the town's signature ''land"-mark -- the Elizabeth II, a composite replica of a 16th-century sailing vessel, which is berthed on the waterfront. It was conspicuously absent the weekend we visited in May, as the sailing crew had taken it out on a rare training run.
After an hourlong stroll, you've seen it all, at least downtown.
''That's why we moved here," said Joan Sprague, a transplant from New Jersey. ''Whenever we would come down, we loved to walk in Manteo. We looked at places from Maine to Florida. As soon as I crossed Pirates Cove into Manteo [from Nags Head], I knew: This is it. It's a wonderful place, very friendly. Everyone says hi."
Interestingly, though Manteo is one of the few towns in the coastal region that has retained (and even gained) charm, relatively few people, even North Carolinians, think of it as an Outer Banks destination.
Lisa Grogan, who owns Lady Banks, a clothing and accessories store downtown, said it amazes her how Manteo remains a well-kept secret.
''Even today I'll have customers say, 'We've been coming to the Outer Banks for 30 years and never knew this was here.' Once they knew it existed, they were absolutely thrilled," Grogan said.
Sprague, who works part time at the gift shop at the Roanoke Island Festival Park Museum Store, said vacationers in the know make the trek over the bridge on rainy days and in the afternoons, ''when they've had enough of the beach."
Along with strolling, shopping, noshing, and kayaking or bicycling from the downtown harbor, there's plenty of history to be had here.
To historians, the island is best known as the site of the first English-speaking colonists in America, who arrived to form ''The Cittie of Ralegh" in 1587, two decades before Jamestown, Va., and 33 years before the Mayflower reached Plymouth in 1620.
If Outer Banks vacationers are familiar with Manteo at all, it's likely because it's the site of the long-running (since 1937) outdoor symphonic stage show ''The Lost Colony," which dramatizes the unsolved mystery of what happened to those colonists. The theater setting, overlooking the sound and near the shore where colonists first arrived, is memorable.
After the 110 colonists arrived in 1587, the next expedition didn't come for three years. When it came, there was no sign of a settlement or the colonists, including Virginia Dare, the first English-speaking child in the New World. The only evidence of former life was the letters ''CRO" and ''Croatoan" carved on two trees.
The story is also related, with less dramatic flair, at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, 3 miles northwest of Manteo. You can see the site of a fort built by colonists, but no structure remains. Nearby are the well-tended Elizabethan Gardens, operated by the Garden Club of North Carolina.
Another vanished colony, lesser known but nationally significant, is what's now called the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony of runaway slaves, established during the Civil War (www.roanokefreedmenscolony.com). Through the help of the Underground Railroad, the entire island became a safe haven. In 1863, it became a government-sanctioned colony when Horace James, a Congregational minister from Massachusetts and Union Army chaplain, was ordered to establish a colony of former slaves on the island. Hundreds of homes were built, stores were opened, and children were schooled. In 1867, two years after the war, former landowners on Roanoke Island reclaimed their land, and most of the freedmen were forced to leave the island.
There are descendants of the community on the island, but no traces remain of the colony, which was near the present-day Dare County Regional Airport. To honor their ancestors, descendants erected a memorial at Airport and Old County roads, where it is believed there are mass graves for those who died from illness, disease, and war. There are two other markers devoted to the freedmen's colony -- one at the Fort Raleigh visitor center and another at the northern tip of the island, off Highway 64. That one, too, is part of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, but it isn't marked from the road.
On your way back to town, you should pass Mother Vineyard, the oldest-known grapevine in the country. The scuppernong grapevine is known to be at least 400 years old and is still producing fruit. The impressive L-shaped canopy of twisted vine straddles the front lawns of two private homes, but you can see it from the road.
After a day of doing, it's time for a glass of sweet tea. Since Aunt Bea is no longer around to serve it, you'll have to find it on your own. In a town this cordial, that won't be a problem.
Contact Diane Daniel at email@example.com.