By Cecil Scaglione
Nags Head NC— It was the Wright place and the Wright time for 73-year-old Charles Dettor and his 66-year-old wife, Ruth, to learn how to fly.
They donned helmets and hang-gliding harness on the largest living sand dune in America to emulate the Wrights’ historic moment more than a century earlier just up the road at Kill Devil Hills. That’s where a memorial to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous flights is operated by the National Park Service.
It was the wide-open rolling dunes, privacy, and persistent wind at Kill Devil Hills, not Kitty Hawk farther up the road, that opened the skies for air travel.
Any local will tell you bluntly – you don’t even have to ask – that Kitty Hawk gets all the glamor because the Kill Devil Hills telegraph station was closed that December day in 1903 when the Wright brothers completed their four controlled flights. So they made their announcement to the world through the Kitty Hawk telegraph office. And that’s how that locale got penciled into history.
The brisk breezes that lure hang gliders to this ring of barrier islands that shelter the North Carolina shores are what give this place its spanking-clean look. Everything is scoured by sand.
Cookie-cutter wooden houses on stilts and lattice-wrapped carports stretch along the 75-odd miles of beachfront. They come in all shades of gray – tan, white, ecru, taupe, azure, cream, yellow, and aqua, but still look gray – and straddle both sides of Highway 12, the asphalt spine that stretches south from just below the Virginia border to Ocracoke Island just past that storied point of fact and fiction, Cape Hatteras.
It was a 90-minute drive from the Norfolk airport to the Sanderling, our lodgings a few miles south of Currituck Lighthouse that warns ships away from the northern end of these Outer Banks.
This restful resort’s dining room, the Left Bank, had menu offerings ranging from sweetbreads to softshell crab. These latter delicacies are served in most diners, saloons, and eateries all along the Banks. We learned in the nearby town of Manteo (pronounced MAN-ayo), on Roanoke Island, how they are farmed.
“They’re called peelers,” said our guide as we kayaked along the Manteo waterfront.
They’re trapped in wire cages much like lobster and, since crabs molt only under a full moon, light bulbs are placed over the traps to confuse the crustaceans. As soon as the peelers shed their carapaces, the crab catchers pick them out and trim them ready for sale.
Across from the town’s core is the Elizabeth II – the original. It’s a three-masted barque that, with a crew of 12, sailed to Roanoke Island as part of a British squadron on a clandestine mission to collect intelligence about the moves and motives of the Spaniards in the New World.
The vessel flies the British flag of the period: a red St. Andrew’s cross in a white square at the top inner corner with a field of alternating white and green stripes — green being the color of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth manipulating her way through a Roman Catholic Spanish world, we were told.
As part of the community’s efforts to nurture its roots with the past are the Elizabethan Gardens that opened in 1954. It features a niche dedicated to Virginia Dare, the first English-speaking child born in North America.
It also serves as a reminder that the settlement had to become self-supporting with the original mariners carting over cattle, sheep, and even honeybees that did not exist here before the British arrived.
These sailors had to maneuver their way through the sinister shifting shoals that made this stretch of coastline The Graveyard of the Atlantic. Adding to the perils was Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard, who used the area below Cape Hatteras as a hideout because his shallow-draft ships could slide in and out over the sand bars that the heavier British warships couldn’t manage.
The Ocracoke Lighthouse, shortest in the state, marks the inlet Teach had mastered. It’s a few miles south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation.
A bit farther north, the Bodie Lighthouse guards the Oregon Inlet, where the sport-fishing fleet anchors.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler and writer and currently a syndicated columnist.