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North Carolina Coast

The beaches are narrow and the tide is strong, but nature and history offer enduring appeal.

OUTER BANKS

At 6 1/2 hours by car from the Charlotte area, the Outer Banks is about as far as you can go and still be in North Carolina.

It is indeed a world away. Winds sweep over barrier islands topped by scrub and sand dunes; gigantic houses, ripe for renting by extended families, line the beach.

From Manteo to north of Kitty Hawk, the allure of wind and beach have created one residential or business community after the other -- a series of intermingled beach towns.

Summer population: more than 50,000.

North of Corolla begins an expanse of less-used, roadless beaches that extends to the Virginia line. Beyond the Currituck Lighthouse is the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

South of the U.S. 64 bridge that takes you to the Outer Banks, civilization diminishes along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

The 58-mile, wind-buffeted drive down N.C. 12 to Hatteras ably shows you the power of the sea, the strength of lighthouses (you'll see two of them) and fragility of our barrier islands.

Anywhere on the Outer Banks, you'll see and hear seabirds.

Jockey's Ridge State Park, in Nags Head, is a favorite spot for people who like to hang glide (www.jockeysridgestatepark.com).

Kitty Hawk Kites/Carolina Outdoors, across N.C. 158 from the park, sells kites ($10-$500) and has one of the largest hang-gliding schools in the country (www.kittyhawk.com).

OBX, Etc.

"OBX" turns up on bumper stickers and T-shirts as an abbreviation for "Outer Banks." But there is no major airport abbreviated as OBX in the Outer Banks -- there's a small one in Manteo (DCRA); the nearest major airport is Virginia's Norfolk International , Va. (ORF). First Flight Airstrip is at the Wright Memorial has no tower, but there is a pilot-welcome center.

Know the Numbers

N.C. 12, the highway between Corolla south to Hatteras, uses the milepost system to mark distances. Southbound, Milepost 1 is in Kitty Hawk; from Charlotte via U.S. 64, you reach OBX at Whalebone Junction, at Milepost 16 1/2.

`Best beach' in reach

For the past year, the best beach in the United States this year is in the Carolinas --Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach, on the southernmost inhabited island in the Outer Banks.

And the designation is official: Every Memorial Day weekend, with shoals of national hoopla, Stephen Leatherman -- the oceanographer known as "Dr. Beach" -- releases his top-10 list of U.S. beaches. Though a Charlotte native, his 2007 Ocracoke accolade is the first time a Carolinas beach took No. 1 honors.

Ocracoke, about eight hours east of Charlotte, isn't the easiest beach to reach; you have to take one of three ferries, a private boat or plane. Aside from Ocracoke Village at its southern end, most of the island is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Ocracoke's island population of 800 swells in summer when tourists descend on its 23 miles of beaches.

Ocracoke info: www.ocracokevillage.com. Ferry details: www.ncferry.org.

Forever England

A small swatch of Ocracoke Island is actually foreign soil -- ceded to Great Britain. Nazi subs preyed on shipping off the N.C. coast during the dark days of World War II, and British ships were sent to protect our shore. In May 1942, the HMS Bedfordshire was torpedoed near Ocracoke and all aboard were lost. The bodies of four British seamen were recovered and buried here. The British Cemetery is now a Royal Navy memorial tended by the U.S. Coast Guard.

KITTY HAWK

It was wind strength that brought Orville and Wilbur Wright to Kitty Hawk in the early 1900s to test gliders and then pilot the first working airplane.

Nowadays, what's Wright to see? The Wright Brothers Memorial -- the 425-acre site of the First Flight -- is a wide-open, windy expanse in Kill Devil Hills ($4). Have your photo taken at the 1930s Art Deco obelisk on the hill where the brothers staged gliders flights. Below, on the flat tract where the First Flight occurred, pace off the short but history-making distances they flew Dec. 17, 1903. The memorial's visitor center has tools and sprockets from the Wrights' Ohio bike shop; Orville's drawing tools; and an engineers' handbook.

The Black Pelican in Kitty Hawk is the place to go when hunger overrides history. The restaurant/bar is in one of the few buildings from 1903 still standing.

Hurricane season is late August through October in these parts.

Where's Kitty?

"Kitty Hawk" reminds people of the Wright brothers, but their First Flight was actually just south of there in Kill Devil Hills. Kitty Hawk stuck in popular imagination because it was the nearest telegraph office -- where they went and wired their dad about their achievement.Wilmington?

There's a strong chance you've seen Wilmington even if you've never been there: The sixth-largest metro area in North Carolina flourished as a TV and film town in the 1980s and '90s. WB Network's "One Tree Hill" is shot in the area, as was "Dawson's Creek." "Secret Life of Bees," destined for big-screen release and starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah, recently wrapped filming there.

One draw for filmmakers is the presence of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, billed as the largest U.S. moviemaking facility east of California. (The studio offers one-hour tours, weekends only ($12, $5 for kids; www.screengemsstudios.com.)

And beautiful scenery comes naturally to this port city. The downtown is low-slung, picturesque and busy -- historic buildings abound, and Market-Water-Front streets area is plush with eateries, stores and lounges. (Don't miss The Cotton Exchange and Chandler's Wharf Shops.)

Fast-grown UNC Wilmington is close to downtown, and pops up annually on lists of top public universities in the South. This adds considerably to the town's coolness and youthful allure.

Dine at a riverfront bistro, or stroll along the Cape Fear River. Sign up for a walking tour, or get out on the river on a sightseeing cruise aboard the Henrietta III (starting at $14, $5 for kids; www.cfrboats.com).

For neigh-saying visitors

Too tired to hoof historic Wilmington? Explore the area by horse-drawn trolley or carriage. They're offered on the half-hour, with no reservations needed, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (reduced hours/days October-March).

Details: www.horsedrawntours.com

There’s a strong chance you’ve seen Wilmington even if you’ve never been there: The sixth-largest metro area in North Carolina flourished as a TV and film town in the 1980s and ’90s. WB Network’s “One Tree Hill” is shot in the area, as was “Dawson’s Creek.” “Secret Life of Bees,” destined for big-screen release and starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah, recently wrapped filming there.

WILMINGTON

There's a strong chance you've seen Wilmington even if you've never been there: The sixth-largest metro area in North Carolina flourished as a TV and film town in the 1980s and '90s. WB Network's "One Tree Hill" is shot in the area, as was "Dawson's Creek." "Secret Life of Bees," destined for big-screen release and starring Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah, recently wrapped filming there.

One draw for filmmakers is the presence of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, billed as the largest U.S. moviemaking facility east of California. (The studio offers one-hour tours, weekends only ($12, $5 for kids; www.screengemsstudios.com.)

And beautiful scenery comes naturally to this port city. The downtown is low-slung, picturesque and busy -- historic buildings abound, and Market-Water-Front streets area is plush with eateries, stores and lounges. (Don't miss The Cotton Exchange and Chandler's Wharf Shops.)

Fast-grown UNC Wilmington is close to downtown, and pops up annually on lists of top public universities in the South. This adds considerably to the town's coolness and youthful allure.

Dine at a riverfront bistro, or stroll along the Cape Fear River. Sign up for a walking tour, or get out on the river on a sightseeing cruise aboard the Henrietta III (starting at $14, $5 for kids; www.cfrboats.com).

For neigh-saying visitors

Too tired to hoof historic Wilmington? Explore the area by horse-drawn trolley or carriage. They're offered on the half-hour, with no reservations needed, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (reduced hours/days October-March).

Details: www.horsedrawntours.com

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