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North Carolina's Outer Banks have proven irresistible to travelers since 1585, when Sir Walter Raleigh settled on Roanoke Island with England's first permanent New World colony. The draw continues, sometimes to a maddening degree in the summer. There's simply no place quite like this string of barrier islands, with attractions both natural and historical, such as colonial coastal towns, the Wright Brothers' monument and soaring lighthouses. This is the place for breathtaking Atlantic beaches, shipwrecks, weathered fishing villages and mouth-watering seafood. The Outer Banks are the East Coast's recreational playground.

Cities

Few places in the Outer Banks rank as cities -- that's one of the region's benefits. Nags Head's weathered, oceanfront homes and assorted hotels and watersports stores have drawn sandal-clad tourists since the 18th century. A few wild horses still roam the dunes around Corolla, an upscale cottage town near the Virginia border. If you long for big city attractions, head for Norfolk, Virginia, the closest offering for maritime museums, boutique shopping, vibrant nightlife and international air travel.

Countryside

The Wright Brothers National Memorial honors humans' first air flight at Kill Devil Hills. This Outer Banks town famous for its unvarying ocean winds (the very ones that attracted the Wright Brothers) is also graced with windswept dunes and glorious, sandy beaches. Surf-splashed Route 12 continues south, past the century-old seaside cottages of Ocracoke Island, their cedar shingles turning gray with age. At Cape Hatteras, windsurfing aficionados dot the breakers with a rainbow of sails.

Coast

Strong winds and fertile fishing grounds combined to create a shipwreck graveyard off the coast of the Outer Banks. Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (the East Coast's tallest), and Ocracoke (its oldest), have stood as coastal beacons since the 19th century. Ferries ply the calm, sparkling waters of Pamlico Sound en route to the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge. There, 11,000 acres of marshland grow thick with saltmeadow hay, needlerush and salt-marsh cordgrass, protecting thousands of ducks, brown pelicans and alligators.

Eating and Drinking

The Atlantic Ocean greets visitors at every turn in the Outer Banks, promising seafood feasts humble and sublime. Dockside restaurants overlook Pamlico Bay and Currituck Sound, where diners look out picture windows at the waters that produced the day's catch that very morning. Creamy seafood chowder whets appetites at restaurants along the coast. Flaky crab cakes and fresh-caught, broiled flounder top it all off, accompanied by tangy coleslaw and steaming hot hush puppies.