The Outer Limits: North Carolina: With so much sun, fun, food, nature and history to soak up, a visitor can pack a day full of activity, or simply coast.

May 16, 1999|By Les Picker | Les Picker,Special to the Sun

The sun is beginning to bake the sand under my feet to a grainy perfection. It's late morning as I walk along North Carolina's famous Outer Banks beaches near Duck. A family of dolphins frolics in the surf, paralleling my walk, sharing the plentiful fish of the longshore trenches with groups of fishermen sitting on beach chairs. Here and there, a few singles and couples lie on blankets, soaking in the sun's rays. Two young men are trying valiantly to stay on their surfboards, but instead get regularly thrown into the drink. In the distance, a father tosses a disc to his daughter, the sound of their dog's barking barely audible above the surf and the gentle ocean breezes.

It is the start of a typical summer day on the pristine beaches of the Outer Banks, with hardly a hint of the frenetic activity that typifies mid-Atlantic beaches. As I look up and down the straight and narrow strips of sand of Duck and Corolla, stretching for miles, I see only a few dozen people.

As a former resident of the Outer Banks, I remember the locals' schizophrenia regarding tourists. We dreaded the arrival of the "outsiders," who robbed us of the peace and solitude of our beaches, but who also represented our livelihoods for the rest of the year. Yet, there has been a shift in attitudes and most residents today look forward to the few frantic months of summer, when seasonal restaurants reopen, theaters come alive and the pace for locals paradoxically quickens so vacationers can slow down and unwind.

None of that matters a whit during summer mornings when, in exchange for a couple of hours lost sleep, you can stroll along the 33 miles of Cape Hatteras National Seashore and not pass a soul. Just soak in the sun, allow the soothing sound of the surf to work its magic and let the abundant wildlife that frequents the Outer Banks amaze you. But, enjoy it quickly, at least in geological terms. The Outer Banks are nothing more than a passing moment in time, a spit of sand sticking out into the Atlantic, as unstable a structure as can exist on Earth. In a mere few thousand years it will be gone, according to coastal geologists.

While they are here, the Outer Banks offer such a wide range of activities that a significant percentage of tourists are repeat visitors. From toddlers to teens, and from active vacationers to sedentary tourists, the Outer Banks is a family treasure trove of fun and relaxation. Here are some of my favorite places to see and things to do.

Places to see

The main attraction of the Outer Banks, its beaches, speak for themselves. For those rainy days, or for an out-of-the-ordinary vacation experience, try one of these options:

* Wright Brothers National Memorial: The town of Kill Devil Hills hosts the Memorial, dedicated to the pioneering spirit of the Wright brothers and their famous 59-second flight, made in 1903. The museum includes a video recounting the history of flight as well as talks and activities led by rangers.

* Roanoke Island: Plan to spend at least a full day on the island, situated between the Outer Banks and the mainland. The local history that prompted the story of Virginia Dare still remains, kept alive in the names of its streets and of its people. Drive across the causeway separating the OOuter Banks from Roanoke Island and you enter a realm of intertwined English, American and Native American history that can easily get under your skin. The only two towns on the island are Manteo and Wanchese, named after two prominent Native American chiefs of the time. The two towns are as different as night and day, with Manteo becoming the commercial hub of the island and Wanchese retaining its fishing village charm.

Be sure to visit the historic re-creation of the original ship, the Elizabeth II, which brought the colonists from England (252-475-1500). If you are a gardener, take in the formal Elizabethan Gardens (252-473-3234). Above all else, do not miss the Lost Colony play, a retelling of the mystery of the original colonists, who disappeared without a trace between 1587 and 1590, before Sir Walter Raleigh could return with supplies. If you are fortunate enough to vacation over Aug. 18, reserve tickets well in advance for the play. This is the birthday of Virginia Dare, the first colonist born on these shores, and on that evening, the play features a real infant in the christening scene (800-488-5012).

For natural history information, the North Carolina Aquarium offers fish and other aquatic life, tours, naturalists, children's activities and exhibits. The facility is undergoing major renovations that will double its size, so call before you go (252-473-3493).

Manteo also boasts some great shopping, making it the perfect place for a rainy day excursion.

* Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge: Refuge staff offer guided tours highlighting the many birds, foxes, deer, bayberry, holly and other wildlife common to the Outer Banks.

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