KITTY HAWK, N.C. — More than 80 years ago the Wright brothers, looking for a site to develop their newfangled flying machine, settled on this remote hamlet in North Carolina's Outer Banks in large part because the steady winds seemed ideal for their experiments.
Long after the Wright's historic success here, those cooling breezes still blow, luring summer vacationers to this strand of barrier islands flanked by the Atlantic on the east and Roanoke Sound on the west. It's not the easiest place to get to, but that adds to its charm.
In an era of hectic, high-pressure resorts, the relative remoteness of the Outer Banks from the population centers of the East Coast have helped to preserve its unclutterd beaches and unpretentious life style in a sort of time warp.
As one restaurant advertises, making a point that applies not just to dining out but to the overall ambiance in these parts: "If it's sophistication you're after, go somewhere else."
To be sure, in recent years the Outer Banks have belatedly been catching up with the 20th Century. Our family--myself, my wife and our two daughters--since we started vacationing here in 1971, has sadly watched the Outer Banks gradually become more like most other beach resorts.
We remember, years ago, whizzing along the bypass highway that runs west of the beach road, at a mile a minute. Now, as a result of new restaurants and shopping malls, autos creep along so slowly on this route that we often bypass the bypass and take the beach road instead.
Yet for all the recent stirrings of commerce, the modern culture of the mainland remains at least a few summers away from taking over. This is largely because residents are battling to slow down the pace of change, a conflict to which they have long been accustomed.
To prevent their cherished dunes, the hallmarks of the Outer Banks, from being swept away by the unrelenting winds, year-round citizens have planted sturdy beach grasses called sea oats to hold the sand piles in place, and then protected the sea oats by pushing through a state law against picking them.
Protecting the Past
It is that spirit which so far at least has protected the past from being engulfed by the present. In the mid-1980s an Outer Banks visitor can still count on the fingers of both hands the number of people within shouting distance on any strip of beach, still rent a cottage at bargain rates and still avoid the high pressure pace of the Atlantic's better-known rivieras.
For our family the main reason for coming to the Outer Banks or any other beach is simply to lie in the sun and splash in the saltwater, an elixir whose beneficial qualities, my grandmother taught me, are unmatched by any other fluid, even chicken soup.
But make no mistake--there are other diversions and attractions in the Outer Banks. Among the most notable is fishing. You can fish almost anywhere, in the surf, off a pier or in a charter boat, with a chance to catch just just about anything that swims, from amberjack to wahoo.
Our next-door neighbors, casting in the surf, pulled in spots, which could not have weighed more than a pound. Farther down the beach some more enterprising folks floated a net out in the ocean and hauled in a mean-looking sand shark that must have topped 100 pounds.
See Daily Feedings
If you would rather learn about fish than hook them, the North Carolina Marine Resources Center aquarium on Roanoke Island invites visitors to observe daily feedings and offers lectures and films for children and adults.
The stiff winds that helped the Wright brothers get their pioneering flights off the ground make this a superb site for hang-gliding and windsurfing.
The most conspicuous launching pad for gliding is Jockey's Ridge, 13 stories tall, the highest sand dune on the East Coast. Even if you don't give a hang for hang-gliding, Jockey's Ridge is worth the climb just for the magnificent view of sound, ocean and beach.
An outfit called Kitty Hawk Sports offers gliding lessons and promotes a series of competitions and celebrations throughout the year, climaxed on Dec. 16, the eve of the anniversary of the Wrights' first powered flight, by the annual meeting of the Man Will Never Fly Society.
A 60-foot granite pylon atop Kill Devil Hill memoralizes the achievement of the Wright brothers; an adjoining museum displays a full-size replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer.
History here also goes much further back, to the first English-speaking settlement in the New World, on Roanoke Island. The mysterious disappearance of its inhabitants is commemorated by a long-running outdoor pageant called "The Lost Colony." Caution: The violent clashes between colonists and Indians are realistic enough to terrify some younger children.
A less portentious but more nutritious fragment of Americana is an ice cream stand in the shadow of Jockey's Ridge that hand-rolls its own cones, using a model of the cone-making machine developed by the inventor of the ice cream cone at the 1903 St. Louis World's Fair.