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24 Hours in the Outer Banks

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Sunrise on the dunes at Kitty Hawk, NC. (Photograph by Kenneth Hall, My Shot)

North Carolina’s Outer Banks may be known for surf fishing, over-the-top vacation homes, or — if you obsessively watch the Weather Channel this time of year — hurricanes, but after just a day on the ground in these barrier islands, you’ll see them in a completely different light.

We did.

We landed in Nag’s Head after a marathon drive from Central Florida — and after a late start that included cups of high-octane espresso for the adults, we dragged ourselves to the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. We weren’t expecting much.

Most sand dunes are highly protected and you can’t so much as sneeze on them before the turtle-egg police tries to arrest you. But not on these dunes.

At more than 150 feet, they’re said to be the tallest on the eastern seaboard, and when we stepped on to them (yes, they allow it) we felt as if we were transported into the middle of the Sahara. The dunes seem to have their own microclimate: dry, hot, and windy. Our three kids squinted in concert to avoid the sand blasting in their faces.

But, once they recovered, the children found endless opportunities to amuse themselves. They made sand castles (which the wind promptly destroyed), rolled down the hill (stopping just short of an oasis filled with shallow water and populated by schools of tadpoles), and pretended to explore another planet.

The Jockey’s Ridge dunes will change the way you think about the Outer Banks. Since admission is free, you can spend all day out on the sand, taking in the world from another perspective.

Next, we drove north to Corolla to see the Currituck Beach Light Station, a restored lighthouse from the 1850s. I know what you’re thinking: You’ve seen one light house, you’ve seen ‘em all, right?

Not this one.

The restoration work on this structure is second to none, and it also makes for a terrific picture. It’s the perfect place for a picnic lunch, but if you’re going on a weekend, be sure to mind the traffic. On Saturdays, you’ll see a long line of cars from Kitty Hawk to Duck (yes, that’s the name of the town — my kids had a lot of fun with that one). And on Sundays, the line will be heading the other way.

Before we hit our last stop in the Outer Banks, we had to try the seafood. After all, this place has a reputation to uphold. We stopped, at Pamlico Jack’s and ordered scallops that had been caught in the bay just behind the restaurant. Even our kids, who are notoriously picky eaters, raved about them.

The star attraction, of course, is the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kitty Hawk. Here, we could see the exhibits that explained how flight was achieved through countless hours of trial and error in a dark workshop. We saw a replica of the first plane (said to be the most accurate reproduction of its kind) and walked along the path of the first four flights, which are identified with stone markers.

The Wright Brothers facility is filled with highlights, but the one that stands above all others — both figuratively and literally — is the monument to flight, a wing-shaped obelisk that towers above the old hangar and historic runway. When you stand at its base looking down at the place where people first took to the skies, you can’t help but feel a sense of pride at how far we’ve come in so short a time.

It makes you wonder what the next century will hold.

If Jockey’s Ridge is a sandbox, then the Wright Brothers Memorial is a classroom. But don’t tell the kids. Somehow seeing the first aircraft in 3-D — and understanding how the pilot controlled it by moving his body and bending the wings — will help my kids understand aviation so much better than any textbook could.

And that’s certainly worth the price of admission.

Read Christopher Elliott’s “The Insider” column in National Geographic Traveler and follow him on Twitter @elliottdotorg.

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