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P.J. Thomas: Outer Banks' sand dunes and beaches only hours away

THE NEXT time you see one of those "OBX" decals pasted on the back of a car window, follow it. All the way down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and a perfect vacation.

THE NEXT time you see one of those "OBX" decals pasted on the back of a car window, follow it. All the way down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and a perfect vacation.

The Outer Banks are within a day's drive of Philadelphia and offer a wide range of accommodations, restaurants and things to do, all at very reasonable prices.

The Outer Banks begin in Currituck County, just minutes from the Virginia Beach-Hampton area, and stretch southward in a string of islands that include Roanoke, Colington, Hatteras, Ocracoke and Bodie (which is technically a peninsula).

There are more islands to the south of Ocracoke, including Cape Lookout, Shackleford Banks and Bogue Banks, but most don't consider these to be part of the Outer Banks.

Like many barrier islands along the U.S. coast, the Outer Banks were isolated for many years, reachable only by ferry or boat. Thanks to this remoteness, the small year-round population had a quiet way of life, making a living mostly by fishing Albermarle and Pamlico sounds and the Atlantic Ocean.

Today, tourists come from all over the world to enjoy the beaches, windsurfing, kayaking, fishing and just about every other outdoor adventure along 130 miles of coastline, much of which is federally protected land in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Everywhere you look, there are anglers with fishing rods protruding from their trucks, kids with boogie boards heading toward the ocean, and middle-aged couples riding bikes or strolling along the beach.

The Outer Banks are divided into three main geographic areas: the Northern Beaches, Roanoke Island to the west and Hatteras Island to the south. There are 16 towns and villages here, each with a distinctive personality.

Duck, located along the Northern Beaches, is the smallest and quietest, with no public beach access. Popular Nags Head and Ocracoke Island lie at the southern end of the Outer Banks.

In between are destinations such as Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills - the largest town. It's jammed with kitschy beach shops, bars, restaurants and so many fast-food joints it's been nicknamed French Fry Alley.

Roanoke Island, to the west, is the site of the oldest British settlement in the New World. These early pioneers disappeared in what has remained to this day a mystery.

Whether you prefer motels or campgrounds, museums or nature preserves, there's a spot on the Outer Banks for you. Do some research or check with your rental agent to determine the best location.

In 1903, when the Wright Brothers traveled to Kitty Hawk in search of windy weather and a soft landing for their first test flight, the area was just a settlement of 20 houses and fewer than 100 people.

To recreate the Wrights' experience, head first to Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head, a popular destination for people who want to hang glide, sandboard or simply fly a kite. Park rangers also facilitate outdoor programs year-round, including the popular "Sunset on the Ridge" that takes visitors to the top of the dunes to watch the sunset.

Within the park is the largest natural sand dune system on the East Coast. Here the Kitty Hawk Kites' Hang Gliding School, a privately owned company, teaches people how to fly. If that's your idea of fun, make a reservation in advance, because classes fill up quickly in peak tourist months.

The class I attended was divided into two groups of eight, with two instructors in each group. After watching a short video and listening to a safety talk, we were ready for the 20-minute-walk to the sand dune for a three-hour hang-gliding lesson.

The dune appeared to be nearby, but as we trudged forward through the sand, it seemed farther and farther away. Thankfully, it was a moderate May morning.

Temperatures on the sand dunes are usually 25 to 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature, which can make walking up the dune feel as if you are marching across the Sahara. In summer, sandals or beach shoes are a must, and an early morning lesson is suggested.

Walking in sand is hard work, but who could complain? We carried only water bottles, while the instructor carried the 70-pound red-and-white hang glider.

Once at the top of the dunes - which constantly shift position and shape but average about 75 feet high - the instructor asked for volunteers to go first and, after a little hesitation, a couple of people stepped forward.

They fastened their helmets and lay on the ground while the instructor strapped them into a harness and issued final instructions on how to use the control bar for pitch and speed. Of the first two volunteers, one managed to get a few feet off of the ground, but the other, unable to maneuver the bar while running down the dune, did an awkward-looking dive into the sand.

The most challenging aspect of hang gliding is getting strapped into that harness and trying to keep your head up and out of the sand. The other part is trying to act like a bird. "Keep your head up! Arch your back," said the instructor. "Now run!"

Though you're barely more than 10 feet in the air and the "flight" lasts for about 30 seconds, it's loads of fun. During those seconds, as you gaze out at the Atlantic Ocean, you'll experience the thrill the Wright Brothers must have felt on their first flight.

There are more than 1,200 restaurants scattered through the Outer Banks, nearly all of them shorts-and-flip-flops casual, with menus heavy on the fresh seafood that's caught by the commercial fishing boats that dot the coast. As in Maryland, you'll find tasty blue and soft-shell crabs on every menu when in season.

As you wander the Outer Banks, you'll come across the four iconic lighthouses along the shore. The most famous of these is at Cape Hatteras - a black-and-white, candy-stripped beacon which, at 208 feet high, is the nation's tallest. It's not open for climbing but still worth a visit just to take a picture.

Vacations here are like life on the Outer Banks - laid-back and easy, perfect for frazzled city-dwellers looking for a place to kick back for a few days. *

P.J. Thomas is editor and co-publisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997, and co-host of "Travel with Pathfinders" on WPGC-AM in Washington, D.C. Contact her at