Nothing is any finer than to be in Carolina Coast: North Carolina has a lot to offer the traveler, from the wild beauty of the outer Banks to the yuppified banking center of Charlotte.

April 20, 1997|By Stephen Kurkjian | Stephen Kurkjian,BOSTON GLOBE

The wild beauty of vast expanses of sand and water are the main attractions of the Outer Banks, a series of about 20 barrier islands that traverse the 300-mile length of North Carolina's Atlantic shore.

Mingled among them is an eclectic mix of living styles from exclusive communities offering the most comfortable and expensive of accommodations to rows of funky cottages and guest houses, constructed on foundations made of wooden stilts to protect them from the at-times moody ocean a few yards away.

There are also two national seashore preserves -- Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout -- that offer a total of 90 miles of beach, dunes and scrub brush for exploring. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the most extensive stretch of undeveloped seashore on the Atlantic coast. Except for a few villages on the islands, the area includes Ocracoke and Hatteras islands, and part of Bodie Island. These islands are connected by a free bridge and free ferry.

The fishing is exquisite, and even on days when the wind is howling, fishermen can be seen along the coast, cocooned in down jackets, eyes looking straight forward for the multitude of fish that populates these waters.

Fishing is a constant

As one guidebook states of the fishing here, something is always running off the North Carolina coast: channel bass in spring; TC Spanish mackerel, whiting and flounder in summer; small bluefish in fall. Pompano show up in spring and stay until nearly winter. Spiny dogfish, a beach shark, prefers the winter, and sea trout can appear any time of year.

If you're looking for something more sedate than taking out a charter boat or castin from the shore, you can find peace and a plentiful supply of fish by dropping a line off one of the innumerable piers and jetties that sprinkle the Outer Banks. I was told that more than a quarter of all Atlantic Ocean piers are in North Carolina.

For beachcombers, little can match seeing the bottlenose dolphins diving in and out of the waves.

For the more energetic tourist, the Outer Banks also has much to offer: its rolling waves for surfers, its persistent wind and summits of sand for hang gliders.

One of the largest hang-gliding schools in the world, Kitty Hawk Kites, promises to get you off the ground in three hours. The beginner's lesson includes at least five flights for $60. The afternoon we wandered by, a dozen retired military officers were testing their wills and skills and, although they were not reaching any great heights, were having an uproarious time as they mastered the same primary lessons of flight that Orville and Wilbur Wright did on these same dunes at the turn of the century.

The Wright brothers! Their name evokes as powerful a sense of accomplishment as can be found from American invention.

The monument to the Wright brothers sits majestically on a high grassy dune that was the site of their first flight in December 1903. The exhibition center presents a full-scale replica of the engine-powered glider that Orville and Wilbur piloted for four successful flights, and outside the center are replicas of the two wooden sheds that the Wrights lived and worked in during their stay that year on the Outer Banks.

Banking capital

While the Outer Banks are a favorite haven for vacationers from throughout the Middle Atlantic and South, Charlotte, North Carolina's largest city, also has its fair share of attractions.

With a metropolitan area population of more than a million, Charlotte has become the banking capital of the South, "a financial powerhouse of national stature," as a recent article in National Geographic proclaimed. The city raised $30 million to expand its campus of the University of North Carolina, and it knew what it would take to attract big-league sports to its borders: a 23,500-seat arena for its NBA team, the Hornets, and a soon-to-be completed stadium for the NFL's Panthers.

There is still only one major museum in the city, the Mint Museum of Art. But the growth of the Spirit Square Arts Center, which stages concerts and theater performances and sponsors art exhibits, should provide assurance that there is much to see before the NASCAR races at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In both look and attitude, Charlotte has committed itself to the New South. Giant shopping centers have sprouted in many of the suburban neighborhoods, and feature sufficient numbers of trendy boutiques, sports bars and bookstores to satisfy the influx of yuppies who have flocked to the city for jobs in its banking sector.

For more information, call the North Carolina Travel & Tourism Division at 800-847-4862.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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