The Outer Banks are located at the northeast tip of North Carolina, right at the Virginia border. They are a chain of barrier islands stretching over 200 km from the secluded beaches and mansions of Carova, to the equally off-the-beaten-path Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands.

There are four lighthouses scattered throughout the Outer Banks - Currituck Light, the Bodie Island lighthouse, Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and Ocracoke lighthouse - as this has historically been a popular region for shipwrecks and similar activities. For this reason, the region has been known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic." It is also home to Kitty Hawk (a bastardisation of Kittyhuk), where the Wright Brothers made their first, rather brief, flight. Further to the south, near the present-day town of Manteo, is the site of one of the longer-lived mysteries of the colonial period: the lost colony of Roanoke Island.

The place names themselves are an interesting bit of history. Nags Head, for example, comes from the use of the Outer Banks as a pirate outpost. Pirates would hang a lantern around the necks of horses (nags) to simulate the appearance of a lighthouse, so that ships' navigators would see it and run aground. Legend has it that another similarly picturesque place name, Kill Devil Hills, is derived from the local rum made there in the early colonial times. It was rumoured to be so strong that it would "kill the Devil."

These days, the Outer Banks is one of the nicer tourist destinations on the eastern seaboard. Unlike some of the other popular destinations on the southern Atlantic coast, such as Myrtle Beach, which has all the charm of a parking garage and all the taste of a Pauly Shore movie, the Outer Banks is a chain of small towns growing more and more sparsely populated as one moves southward.

You won't find a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Café there. In fact, one of the more endearing features of the Outer Banks is the general dearth of chain stores and restaurants. While there is a K-Mart, a Seamark, as well as two Food Lions, most of the businesses there are small and locally owned.

Even more endearing is the fact that the Outer Banks is over 200 km of beach. Since the islands are such narrow strips of land, you are essentially always around 5 minutes away from a public beach access. Many of the beaches in the northern towns of Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head can be highly crowded during the summer, but about 30 minutes south of the main spots is Coquina Beach, part of the Hatteras National Seashore. Its slightly remote location ensures that it is rarely as packed as the northern beaches. In addition, the sand is gloriously fine, and there is plenty of pelican activity for those who enjoy watching birds with large, pouching beaks.

During the summer, the hotels are often booked solid; however, there is no shortage of houses for rent (if you book sufficiently in advance). Some of the better areas for rentals include Old Nags Head Cove, with its network of canals, which allow you to take a kayak out on the Sound from your own backyard, Duck, a slightly upscale area in the north with a wide variety of good restaurants and shopping, and Nags Head proper.

There are two main roads in the Outer Banks, known commonly as the Bypass (North Croatan Highway) and the Beach Road (Virginia Dare Trail). These roads have mileposts along them, which serve as the most common way of indicating the location of something (e.g. "MP 14 Kill Devil Hills). Just about every restaurant, store, or other place to go is located on these roads.

This might seem convenient; however, it isn't. Finding a decent place to eat in the Outer Banks is a hit and miss affair. Guidebooks, such as the Insider's Guide to the Outer Banks, are of at best very limited utility. For one thing, these books constantly overvalue the expensive places, particularly those owned by "pillars of the community." Often, the only useful indicator of the quality of a restaurant's food in these books is the emphasis of the write-up. For example, if the guidebook goes on for three paragraphs about the restaurant's architectural and ownership history ("The building was once used as a station by the U.S. Life Saving Service...."), stick to beverages. Often, it is utterly impossible to fathom why a particular restaurant was included or excluded from the book. For example, Nags Head's New York Pizza Pub, which has won several awards, including "best pizza," inexplicably disappeared from the Insider's Guide.

This can lead to a great deal of frustration. It also puts a lot of pressure on diners. There is a desire, rooted in cognitive dissonance, to sincerely believe that the choice one has made is the best one, resulting in awkward restaurant moments such as this:
A: (tentatively) So, this place turned out to be pretty good after all.
B: (
stiff upper lip) Yeah.
C: Sure.
The party continues chewing, uneasily. A minute passes.
B: This steak is tough.
C: These mashed potatoes are runny.
A: Now that you mention it, this pasta is overcooked...you know...this place kinda sucks.
General agreement around the table.
Here are some general guidelines to avoid this unfortunate turn of events.
1.Stick with mid-range restaurants. In my experience, the expensive places on the Outer Banks generally aren't worth the gamble. The best places I've found there are relatively inexpensive.
2.Throw out your guidebook, or at least tear out the restaurants section. Apart from the utterly useless and irredeemable restaurants section, the Insider's Guide has had some good ideas. The boat rides it recommends, for example, have all been worthwhile, as have the recommended beaches. It's only once they get into the area of food that they start having trouble.
3. Ask locals for recommendations. This method has not failed me yet. The guidebooks most likely include the places that have difficulty getting local business and are dependent on tourists for revenue. People who live there will know where to go.

The drive to North Carolina’s Outer Banks - a series of barrier islands out in the Atlantic Ocean - can really take the "vacation" out of vacation. Arrive midday Saturday on muggy July afternoon, like I did, and you just might consider bashing your brains out on the steering wheel. The gridlock was inhuman. I must've spent an hour on the bridge to Outer Banks in the worst stop and go traffic known to man.

And when I finally did cross the bridge, the car behind me was rear-ended, causing it to then rear end MY car. Mentally exhausted, we all got out of our cars, saw the minor scratches on our bumpers - glanced at the witless teenage culprit - and decided to say fuck it and drive on.

I was already regretting the whole trip. The main drag, Croatan Highway, was choked with endless low density sprawl fashioned halfheartedly to resemble the quaint cedar-shingled cottages of yesteryear. With illustrious businesses like Try My Nuts and I Got Your Crabs lining the streets, my hopes dimmed. To think someone had bragged about the Outer Banks being less developed than Virginia Beach. This wasn't my idea of pristine.

I hemmed and hawed. Only a cool breeze from the Atlantic promised any relief from my frustration.

I parked in one the small public lots sandwiched among the plentiful rental condos. The scent of a thoroughly abused Port-A-Potty hung languidly in the air. A sandy hill blocked any views of the ocean. What could possibly be so great about this beach? I wondered.

My mounting cynicism melted away when I crossed over the beach grass to the other side of hill. Despite decades of rampant development, the Outer Banks coast remains as beautiful and entrancing as ever. The drive was worth it, after all. It brought home a lesson I'd soon learn about the East Coast - it's crowded, sure, but for a good reason.

Somehow, someway, the Outer Banks manages to retain the feel of undisturbed nature. The black, oval eyes of yellow "ghost crabs" poke out of holes in the sand. Pelicans fly in V formation, hovering effortlessly on drafts of air. In the distance, dolphins surface for precious oxygen. Waves pound the shore, leaving elliptical prints in the soft sand.

It's beautiful, humbling.

The pelicans, in particular, are captivating. On land or sea, the pelican is a homely creature. The long beak, unkempt feathers, fleshy “throat pouch” and bugged out eyes - it's a bird only its mother could love, and even then barely. But in the sky the pelican is transformed. It's majestic. It soars effortlessly, inert but mobile, its outstretched wings in complete command.

No doubt such sights must've inspired the Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur as they toiled on their newfangled glider in Kitty Hawk, a small village on the "sound side" of the Outer Banks. The two immaculately dressed city slicker brothers from Dayton, Ohio were avid birdwatchers, and on especially frustrating days there's little reason to doubt that they may have taken break or two to observe their avian contemporaries.

In fact, almost two decades after the first Wright Flyer flew over the Outer Banks town of Kill Devil Hills, Orville recalled the birds of the Outer Banks with crystal clarity in a letter to a friend (broken into paragraphs for readability):

“The most remarkable example of soaring that I have ever seen was witnessed by Wilbur and myself near Kitty Hawk in 1900. The remarkable feature of the flight was in the intelligence or the instinct of the birds which led them to create for themselves a soaring condition where it did not already exist.

One morning after a cold night we saw a number of buzzards, probably fifteen in number, and several fish hawks, begin by flapping their wings vigorously and flying together in a small circle, not more than fifty or seventy-five feet in diameter, at a height of twenty-five or thirty feet from the ground. They all kept well together in the circle, gradually working upward.

When at an altitude of approximately fifty feet they suddenly quit flapping and then rose rapidly on stationary wings. As they rose higher they spread out into larger circles. When they reached an altitude of about one thousand feet they began to separate, each gliding off in a straight line.

After leaving the circle they all lost altitude. In fact the gliding angle of the buzzard is not better than that of an aeroplane. The warm sun had no doubt created a warm stratum of air immediately above the ground, which was a sand plain.

The birds through concerted action made an opening through the cold stratum above and started a rush of warm air upward, and then used this upward rush of air to gain altitude.”

The final design of the Wright Flyer's wings was modeled after the wings of birds. A complex system of cables and pulleys was rigged up by the brothers to allow the pilot to bend or "warp" the wings while flying in a way similar to birds, a concept known as “wing warping”. Wing warping was vital to maneuverability and achieving lift, and a variation on that technology is still used by today's planes.

How much the Wright Brother's casual observation of birds on the Outer Banks inspired those last design tweaks on the Wright Flyer is impossible to say. But as I bobbed like a sunburned cork in the aquamarine waves, that there was indeed a link didn't seem - to me - out of the question.

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