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Planes, pirates and shipwrecks on North Carolina's Outer Banks
The terrifying image drew closer, his curved sword swinging wildly. Just as it seemed he would separate my head from my body, I snapped back to reality, left my all-too-real daydream about Blackbeard the pirate behind and moved on the next exhibit in the museum.
The dramatic — if somewhat grisly — story of Blackbeard is but one display that transforms the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, N.C., into a memorable lifelike experience.
The eclectic collection is among several attractions that combine to make the Outer Banks — the chain of narrow barrier islands that parallels the state's Atlantic coastline — into much more than just another sun-and-sand vacation destination.
If lighthouses and the story of a lost colony aren't enough, what about the first flights of the Wright brothers or an island transformed into a living history museum?
In fact, the Outer Banks' past comingles with life there today. Tiny family cemeteries stretching back generations are hidden behind some homes. Several houses contain timbers salvaged from the hundreds of ships that fell prey over centuries to the shoals and treacherous waters off the coast.
Visitors occasionally have trouble understanding native "Bankers" who retain vestiges of a unique accent passed down from their forefathers.
The Outer Banks first became a magnet for vacationers in the 1830s, when families of wealthy North Carolina planters found refuge there from the summer heat. They were followed by sportsmen drawn to the outstanding fishing and hunting that American Indians had discovered centuries earlier.
Today, beaches along the 130-mile-long Outer Banks are the major appeal for many visitors. Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which covers much of the Banks, stretches 70 miles along the water's edge. This near-pristine enclave encompasses some of the largest undeveloped beaches in the country.
Nestled between those stretches of sand is a string of villages, each with its own distinctive character.
Many visitors rank Corolla and Duck, the northernmost towns, as the two prettiest on the islands. In addition to a smattering of interesting shops, Duck sports a wooden boardwalk along the shoreline of a bay on the west side of town. Here and there it skirts pockets of woods where bird calls are the only sound.
Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head form the commercial hub of the Outer Banks. They have a kind of strip-mall atmosphere, but two attractions are definitely worth a stop.
It was at Kitty Hawk where, on Dec. 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first controlled power flights — and history. People often are surprised to learn that the longest journey lasted only 59 seconds and covered just 852 feet. A museum houses a full-scale replica of their rickety aircraft and other memorabilia that tell the story.
Nearby Jockey's Ridge State Park makes its claim to fame as the site of the tallest sand dune on the East Coast. In this mini-desert setting winds constantly reshape the ridge, causing the dune for which the park is named to vary in height from 80 feet to 100 feet.
South of this commercial section both traffic and the islands thin. A slight detour over a bridge leads to Roanoke Island, which in 1587 became the site of the first English colony in the New World, 22 years before the settlement of Jamestown, Va.
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