The name Kitty Hawk is forever associated with Orville and Wilbur Wright -- it says so right on North Carolina's license plates. That's the place where, on December 17, 1903, this brother-brother team from Dayton, Ohio, achieved the world's first sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight. (You need all those adjectives to distinguish the Wrights' flight from a mere glider or hot-air balloon flight.) But you could score big trivia points for knowing that the Wrights didn't take off from the town of Kitty Hawk, but from a nearby 90-foot-high dune called Kill Devil Hill on the Outer Banks, a bony finger of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the inner sounds and estuaries of North Carolina's coast. Ask the kids: If you were flying an experimental aircraft into the teeth of gusting Atlantic winds, would you really want to launch from a place called Kill Devil Hill?
Desperate to get home to Dayton in time for Christmas, Orville and Wilbur did get the Wright Flyer off the ground that windy December day in 1903, keeping it aloft for 59 seconds and flying a distance of 852 feet. Their feat is commemorated at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, an imposing 60-foot-high pylon of white North Carolina granite, erected in 1932 on Kill Devil Hill. In fact, the Wrights made four successful flights that day, of increasing lengths; numbered markers on the long slopes show how far they made it each time, until on the fourth go the Wright Flyer crash-landed. The visitor center features a replica of that Wright Flyer, plus a glider they flew here in 1902, along with a few exhibits telling the Wright Brothers' story; park rangers lead twice-daily tours, present talks at the visitor center, and run afternoon family activities such as kite flying or paper-airplane building. You can explore reconstructions of the hangar Orville and Wilbur built for their plane and their workshop/living quarters. The main thing, though, is to stand on the big grassy dune and feel the breezes rise off the water; it suddenly becomes clear why the Wright brothers traveled all the way to North Carolina to get their spidery winged craft aloft.
Not far away, at the highest sand dune on the East Coast, 138-foot-high Jockey's Ridge, you can try out those Outer Banks winds yourself by taking a hang-gliding lesson from the world's largest hang-gliding school, Kitty Hawk Kites, near the visitor center of Jockey's Ridge State Park (milepost 12 off U.S. 158 Bypass; tel. 252/441-7132). Beginning, intermediate, and advanced instruction are provided; for reservations, call tel. 877/359-8447 or 252/441-2426; or go to www.kittyhawk.com.
Nearest Airport: Norfolk International, VA, 80 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Cahoons Cottages, 7213 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Milepost 16.5, Nags Head (tel. 252/441-5358; www.cahoonscottages.com). $$$ The Tranquil House Inn, 405 Queen Elizabeth Ave., Manteo (tel. 800/458-7069; www.1587.com).