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Outer Banks: Offshore barrier islands offer wonderful flights of fancy


At the turn of the century, Capt. William J. Tate was the postmaster at Kitty Hawk, then an isolated outpost on the sandy barrens of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Descended from a Scottish shipwreck survivor on a coast known as "the graveyard of the Atlantic," Capt. Tate worked variously for the U.S. Lifesaving Service, was a notary public and served as a Currituck County commissioner. But he was chiefly, in the words of one historian, "a one-man chamber of commerce" whose greatest success was in public relations.

His first correspondents were a pair of bachelor brothers from Dayton, Ohio, who 90 years ago -- Dec. 17, 1903 -- became the first men to fly.

Wilbur and Orville Wright owned a bicycle repair shop and were looking for a place to conduct experiments -- flying experiments. They were especially interested in the wind. And here on this nearly 200-mile-long elbow of sand where the East Coast juts out toward the Gulf Stream, Capt. Tate assured them the winds were good and true.

And so the wind brought the Wright brothers to the Outer Banks and forever changed life, as man realized the ancient dream of taking to the heavens. The same wind today -- on average 15 mph daily year-round -- continues to shape every aspect of life along the nation's largest offshore barrier islands.

Wind-driven sporting industries -- hang gliding, wind surfing, kite flying, sailing and recreational aviation -- power much of the economy.

Stretching south from the Virginia-North Carolina border, the Outer Banks are a narrow, ever-shifting sandbar. In some spots a mere matter of yards separates the Atlantic Ocean from the shallow, marshy sounds that wash the North Carolina mainland.

The Banks run southeast along the East Coast to Cape Hatteras -- a legendary halfway mark -- whose treacherous waters have claimed more than 500 vessels since Colonial times. From Cape Hatteras, the sandy, low-lying islands stretch south and west nearly another 100 miles past sleepy Ocracoke Island -- once the lair of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. (Piracy was a virtual cottage industry on the Banks in Colonial times.) The Banks continue along a string of sandy barrier islands to end at Cape Lookout.

Like the Wright brothers' mentor, Capt. Tate, a good few of the original settlers hereabout -- two- and four-footed -- arrived via shipwreck. They were a gritty, long-isolated people who knew and feared the wind. They built their homes on the sound side, away from the Atlantic. Their descendants, who make up some of today's roughly 24,000 year-round residents, still favor the shelter of the sound. But tourists and second-home owners, who swell the population five and tenfold during the high season, perch their houses precariously on the exposed Atlantic-side dunes, a thing old Bankers would have deemed mad.

Beach houses and development are not the only things that have changed on the dunes. In the Wright brothers' day, the Outer Banks were accessible only by water. Today most travelers to the northern banks cross Currituck Sound via the 3.2-mile Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge (a second span, now under construction, is due to open in the fall of 1995) to the village of Southern Shores. The southern banks -- Ocracoke Island and Cape Hatteras -- may also be reached via ferry from the North Carolina mainland.

On the Outer Banks side of the sound, north of the bridge, is the popular upscale resort town of Duck, and farther north the once hard-to-reach village of Corolla, where wild horses, whose descendants were shipwrecked here in Colonial times, roam the dunes.

If you follow the wind along the Outer Banks today, the place to start is eight miles south of the bridge at the top of Big Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk. Here a 90-foot granite pillar rises eerily from a great sand dune -- a monument to the wind and man's mastery of it. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is a peaceful place. Half a million pilgrims come here annually, but oddly there is no sense of crowds.

"This site inspires everyone," says Darrell Collins, a historian with the National Park Service, adding, "All of the famous fliers have come here: Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, Amelia Earhart, Lindbergh."

Away from the solemn and solitary monument that immortalizes Wilbur and Orville Wright, the beach resorts of the Outer Banks south of the great bridge -- Kitty Hawk and Nags Head -- set quite another tone.

On the Outer Banks, it's the gospel of let's-go-surfing-now and the church of the Brew-Thru, a landmark drive-in beer store and shrine for the thirsty in Kitty Hawk. School's always out. It's always summer or it's always trying to be summer even in the cooler months, the "shoulder seasons," as they call them. In March, which the natives consider arctic, crazy Canadians come down here to wind surf.

Here you can idle the day away on the broad deck of a rented beach house, and those celebrated winds might stir the rope hammock slightly. Roused from these exertions, you could always follow the wind to go fly a kite.

From Barrier Island in the north to Buxton in the south, the skies are flecked with a stunning array of kites. Anyone can fly a kite here. And there's a kite for every pocketbook, too, from simple diamond kites hoisted aloft on a modest ball of string to designer kites, airborne BMWs, so elaborate that it takes a team effort to launch them.

If you would sense something of what the landscape was like when the Wright brothers were here, you must climb the great dunes at Jockey's Ridge, near the old Victorian-era resort town of Nags Head. For the banks today look nothing like the lonely wasteland the Wrights knew.

Vegetation, mostly the work of man to stabilize the landscape, covers much of the Outer Banks now. But Jockey's Ridge is still a sea of sand offering the traveler a sense of the isolation and setting the Wright brothers sought. From the top of these dunes, gulls and hawks soar and glide, drifting in the winds. They share the skies with Kitty Hawk Kites, which, with 10,000 students annually, operates one of the nation's largest hang-gliding schools from these sandy hillocks.

From Jockey's Ridge there is the sea on one side, its beaches dotted with kite fliers, while on the sound side, wind surfers cut up Currituck Sound. In an area that bills itself as "the East Coast wind surfing capital," lines of nimble wind surfers in wet suits -- human sailboats with man and surfboard and sail all working as one -- wind dance and glide across the sound's shallow, sheltered waters. Overhead, the direct descendants of Wilbur and Orville's homespun contraption -- vintage open-cockpit airplanes -- offer the traveler a bird's eye, open-cockpit view of the world the wind made.

Where the sand dunes meet the sea, squadrons of pelicans float over the water's edge, looking for fish. For even fishing (by man and bird) hangs on the wind. On the beach road the anglers stopping by Tatem's Tackle Box in Nags Head talk about a wind where a shift can change the water temperature 15 degrees in a matter of hours.

"The wind affects everything," says Damon Tatem, proprietor of Tatem's Tackle Box and a fishing pundit whose newspaper column appears in the Coastland Times. "It controls the water conditions."

"The wind is a wonderful thing, in moderate amounts," reflects Francis Rogallo, who sounds the often-heard note of caution in this wind-dependent world where evacuation route signs dot the roadsides, and hurricane emergency instructions hang in every beach house.

"It's like fire, a great friend of man but an enemy if it gets out of control."

But storms -- such as Hurricane Emily, which clipped the Outer Banks just before Labor Day -- are quickly forgotten.

At dusk, after a long day on the dunes kite flying or on the sound wind surfing, head back to the Wright Brothers National Memorial for a quiet moment. The grassy slopes where modern aviation was pioneered are as solemn as the nave of a cathedral and as lonely as a long-deserted battlefield. Here it is hard not to think of Wilbur and Orville and their dreams that man would fly and feel the presence of history stirring in the wind.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting there

Norfolk International Airport is about 90 minutes from the Outer Banks (Interstate 64 to Route 168 to Route 158). Most major airlines and rental car agencies serve Norfolk. Airport information: (804) 857-3351

Southeast Airlines offers the only regularly scheduled daily flights to the Outer Banks from Norfolk, serving Manteo and Duck: (800) 927-3296.

The main road south (Route 168 to Route 158) from the Norfolk area leads to the Outer Banks. Traffic delays are possible on weekends and holidays. State Route 64 approaches the Outer Banks from central North Carolina via Manteo and Roanoke Island.

General information

The Aycock Brown Welcome Center, about 1 1/2 miles from the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge on Route 158, is operated year-round by the Dare County Tourist Bureau. For further information: (800) 446-6262 or (919) 261-4644. Dare County Tourist Bureau, P.O. Box 399, Manteo, N.C. 27954.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

You can't miss this national monument -- literally. It's visible for miles as it sits on one of the few high points of land on the otherwise flat banks. Open year-round. National Park Service, Route 1, Box 675, Manteo, N.C. 27954; (919) 441-7430.

Wind recreational activities

Hang gliding/kites:

Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head operates one of the largest hang-gliding schools in the country year-round from the sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge (at MP 13 on South Croatan Highway). Call (800) 334-4777 or (919) 441-4124. The business also specializes in kites for all budgets and has other locations in Corolla, Duck and Avon. Or for more kites try the Wright Kite Co. in Sea Holly Square in Kill Devil Hills, (919) 480-2855.

Wind surfing, sailing, etc.

Next door to Kitty Hawk Kites is Kitty Hawk Sports, which specializes in wind surfing, sailing and kayaking equipment and lessons (branches in Corolla, Duck and Avon). Call (919) 441-6800.

In Duck during the high season, try the Barrier Island Sailing Center (on the sound side) at (919) 261-7100 or Nor'Banks Sailing Center at (919) 261-2900.

House rentals

Although the Outer Banks have a wide variety of inns and motel accommodations (see Dare County Tourist Board), most visitors rent beach houses by the week with rentals usually running from Saturday to Saturday or Friday to Friday. Rental agents may require a damage deposit. There is generally a 4 p.m. check-in and a 10 a.m. checkout. Many rental agents do not allow pets or smoking and rent only to family groups. Handicapped accommodations may be available.

House rentals can range in the off-season from as low as $300 a week to more than $2,000 a week, or $800 to $4,000 a week during the summer months, depending on the location and size of the property. For more information:

* Britt Real Estate, 1316 Duck Road, Kitty Hawk, N.C. 27949; (800) 334-6315 or (919) 261-3566.

* Kitty Dunes Realty, P.O. Box 275, Kitty Hawk, N.C. 27949; (919) 261-2171.

* Real Escapes, Frost Morrison Realty, 1183 Duck Road, Kitty Hawk, N.C. 27949; (800) 831-3211 or (919) 261-3211.

* Sun Realty, P.O. Box 1630, Kill Devil Hills, N.C. 27948; (800) 334-4745 or (919) 441-7033.

* Twiddy & Co. Realtors, 1181 Duck Road, Duck, N.C. 27949; (800) 489-4339 or (919) 261-3521.

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