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Outer Banks: 'land of beginnings' where the ocean reigns supreme

Their very name seems to conjure up a wind-blown, salt-sprayed, sun-seared remoteness. Broad-backed beaches, flecked with wisps of seaweed, bound away into the haze.

A truculent surf, forever reordering the shoreline, sends cockle and scallop shells careering ashore on its creamy fingers.

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It is a primal, fragile world where sanderlings and willets scurry over the warm sand in a sort of distracted ballet, probing ceaselessly for food, and where hot breezes gently riffle the sea oats that bind the dunes together.

These are the Outer Banks - some 175 miles of slender, featureless barrier islands that arc down the North Carolina coast from the Virginia line to Beaufort Inlet. With the assistance of a spectacular bridge at Oregon Inlet and a ferry on Hatteras Island, state highway 12 has made them accessible all the way to distant Ocracoke Village.

It's hard to believe that Andrew Wyeth wasn't drawn to the bleached, brittle wood of the old lifesaving stations here, or that Edward Hopper didn't find a metaphor for loneliness in the solitary lighthouses and weather-worn resorts.

The heaving, surging Atlantic dominates everything on the Outer Banks. In its uglier moods it has sent thousands of ships - brigs and brigantines, sloops and steamers - to their doom. In its more benign moments it has borne Elizabethan mariners and colonists to safe haven on this coast.

No one seems to know precisely where on Bodie Island the English sea captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set foot on July 13, 1584, in their quest to find a site where Sir Walter Raleigh could plant a colony. But that they landed on and explored Roanoke Island is certain.

Barlowe found its Algonquian Indians to be ''gentle, loving, and faithful'' and asserted that its soil ''bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.''

Raleigh was impressed, and sent colonists to the island in 1585. When, disillusioned, they returned to England the following year, he sent out a second contingent in 1587. These unfortunates would become the famous ''lost colonists'' when they disappeared without a trace, along with Virginia Dare, the first child to be born of English parents in America.

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The memory of those two sea captains is decidedly green on Roanoke Island - so much so that in Manteo today, and for the next three days, islanders will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of their landfall on the Outer Banks.

Festooned with standards and banners, the pretty waterfront town promises to be teeming with residents in Elizabethan costume sampling all manner of 16 th-century entertainment and culinary delights from specially erected booths and stages.

In a ceremony on Ice Plant Island today, Britain's Princess Anne, guest of honor at the Manteo festivities, is scheduled to commission a brightly painted replica of the sort of Tudor ship that brought the English colonists to Roanoke Island. Built of juniper and yellow pine, the 69-foot, square-rigged bark Elizabeth II slipped gracefully into the town's Shallowbag Bay last November.

Like thousands of tourists before her, Princess Anne is expected to be delighted by Roanoke Island's Elizabethan Gardens, opened in 1951 as a memorial to''the valiant men and women'' who founded England's first colony in America.

The 10-acre site, a creation of the Garden Club of North Carolina and carved out of woods and dunes at the north end of the island, is shaded by live oaks and adorned with antique garden ornaments. This summer it will be aglow with gardenias, magnolias, crape myrtle, daylilies, roses, and hydrangeas. The Herb Garden contains plants mentioned in Shakespeare's poems and plays, including hyssop, fennel, lavender, and rosemary.

Next to the gardens in a forest clearing stands the earthen fort that must have given the early colonists some sense of security, particularly if it was part of a more complex defense system. Excavated between 1936 and 1948, Fort Raleigh was restored in 1950. Grass growth on the structure over the years has considerably softened its warlike appearance.

The poignant story of the Roanoke settlers has been kept alive for several decades now by ''The Lost Colony,'' a symphonic drama currently being performed in the outdoor Waterside Theater north of the fort on the shores of Roanoke Sound.

Tickets for ''The Lost Colony,'' which involves a cast of some 110 performers , can be had at the theater box office as well as at local hotels, motels, and retail outlets. The production will be staged nightly - except Sundays - until Sept. 1.

Tourism officials in these parts are fond of characterizing the Outer Banks as a land of beginnings. One might accuse them of exercising excessive imagination if they could point to nothing more than Roanoke Island. But they can. Take the Wright brothers, for instance.

It was at Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903, that Orville Wright broke mankinds's earthly fetters and launched the aviation age. Orville and Wilbur Wright had been attracted to the Kill Devil Hills by the area's obliging winds and yielding dunes.

Although Orville's epochal powered flight lasted only 12 seconds and covered a mere 120 feet, it was the first time man had flown in a heavier-than-air machine. ''Isn't it astonishing that all these secrets have been preserved for so many years just so we could discover them!'' he wrote in 1903.

It takes a visit to Jockey's Ridge State Park, a huge whaleback of a dune a mile or so south of the Wright Memorial, to appreciate fully the wonder of flight. Here stiff breezes pluck hang gliders into the air from a summit that appears to have a perpetual spume of sand blowing from it. Apparently this slice of Saharan landscape is the highest natural sand dune on the east coast of the United States.

The northern Outer Banks are far less attractive than the southern ones. The beach road that links Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk on Bodie Island is actually blighted with some of the most hideous seafront development imaginable.

So it's no small blessing that, for the most part, the Outer Banks are under the strict control of the National Park Service, which has divided them into the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores. The Cape Hatteras section is well supplied with hotels, motels, and campgrounds, though Manteo, with its charming houses and tree-lined streets, makes a delightful base for the exploration of the northern Banks.

The seas around these islands must still teem with as many fish as when the Algonquin harvested their extraordinary bounty. And that's whether you're surf fishing from the beach for bluefish; dropping a hook in from a pier for flounder; fishing for bass from a headboat in the sounds and inlets; or heading out into the Gulf Stream in search of blue and white marlin, sailfish, and tuna.

With some 200 species of birds, the Banks are also an Elysium for bird watchers eager to catch sight of gannets and terns, loons and pelicans, laughing gulls, great blue herons, and double crested cormorants.

If there's a golden rule on the beaches here, it's quite simple: Respect the ocean. Rip and littoral currents make for dangerous swimming, and winds can blow air mattresses out to sea in a trice. The wisest policy is to swim only where lifeguards are on duty. Even at its most docile, the Atlantic is boisterous in these latitudes.

Thousands of ships have foundered on the dangerous shoals of the Outer Banks over the past several centuries.

The most famous wreck in the region is that of the federal ironclad Monitor, swamped when under tow to Charleston, S.C., on Dec. 31, 1862, and now lying upside down 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras in 220 feet of water.

The well-known lighthouses of the Outer Banks are a testimony to the peril of the coast. The candy-striped Cape Hatteras lighthouse is perhaps the best known of them all. Rising 208 feet above the dunes, it is the tallest in America.

In 1942, so many German U-boats prowled the waters off Cape Hatteras, attacking Allied shipping, that the area became known as ''Torpedo Junction.'' On May 11 that year, HMS Bedfordshire, an antisubmarine trawler, was sent to the bottom some 40 miles southeast of Cape Lookout by the U-558.

Some days later, the bodies of one officer and three men washed ashore on Ocracoke Island, where they were buried. Today the gravesite in the village, known as the British cemetery, is a popular tourist attraction. Lovingly maintained by personnel from Ocracoke's Coast Guard station, it is surrounded by a smart white fence on which has been fixed a homemade brass plate bearing an extract from Rupert Brooke's famous poem ''The Soldier.'' The lines (not embossed with total accuracy) read: If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England.

To the chagrin of villagers, a soft-drink machine has recently been installed next to the little burial plot, which in 1976 was designated an official piece of British soil.

Ocracoke village, reached by free ferry from Hatteras Island, is not perhaps as attractive as its post cards might suggest. But it has the most charming lighthouse on the Banks, and seems proud of its association with Blackbeard, the fearsome British pirate whose career came to an end just south of the village on Nov. 22, 1718, when he was run to earth by the Royal Navy.

To the south of Ocracoke Island lies the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a 55 -mile ribbon of sandy barrier islands running down to Cape Lookout and Beaufort Inlet. This is the wildest and most isolated part of the Outer Banks. The islands have no roads and can only be reached by ferry from the mainland.

If you're given to scoffing at the ''getting away from it all'' platitudes of travel brochures, be warned where the Outer Banks are concerned.

These islands can induce a delicious sense of detachment - to the point where the life one has left behind assumes as distant and dreamlike a quality as the prospect of having to return to it.

Strolling along a beach on a clear summer morning to the thunder of the surf and the squawk of sea birds has a way of putting everything in perspective.

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