The winds at Kitty Hawk are constant and kind, and the sand is not only soft but deep, rising up in dunes over 100 feet high. No wonder Orville and Wilbur picked this spot to fly an airplane for the very first time.

And if it was right for them, I decided it was right for me. There was, after all, not only a kind of poetic logic to the whole affair - learning to fly at the birthplace of flight - but the assurance that it would be easy and safe.Learning to hang glide on North Carolina's Outer Banks is definitely perfect for wimps.

The Outer Banks - three skinny islands that hang like a tail off North Carolina's eastern shore - are perfect in lots of other ways, too. On the Atlantic side are long, solitary stretches of wild, ocean beach. On the western side are the shallow, gentle waters of Roanoke, Croatan and Pamlico Sounds.

The Outer Banks are still far enough away from the closest metropolises - about a four-hour drive from both Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, N.C. - to be relatively free of crowds and concrete. They're not as rugged and bare as they were when my mother would visit when she was a young girl, but they are still refreshingly uncluttered.

There are no high-rises along the 170 miles that make up the Outer Banks, stretching from Whalebone Junction on Bodie Island to Ocracoke Village on the southern tip of Ocracoke Island.

When you get away from the most developed areas - around Kitty Hawk and Nags Head - you can drive for miles and just see sand dunes and oat grass.

Once you cross over from the resort areas on Bodie Island to the less commercial Pea Island you enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 70 miles of mostly undeveloped beach front, protected by the National Park Service.

You can park your car by the side of the road, take a short hike through wild grape to the top of a small sand dune, and there you are - at your own private ocean.

We walked up and down the beach looking for sea shells, and only in the far-away distance could we see what we assumed might be a beach umbrella. The only other sign of civilization was the carcass of an old lawn chair, washed up on the edge of the sand dune like the shell of some bulky crustacean.

The only drawback to this idyll is that when you get back to your car you may discover, as we did, that it has hunkered down into that soft, deep Outer Banks sand. Luckily, the Highway Patrol is vigilant, helpful and doesn't even nag as it helps dig you out.

The serenity of Pea Island on a lazy summer day is a little deceptive though. The stunted growth of the vegetation, and the tendency to build Outer Banks homes on stilts, hints that the weather here can get pretty nasty at times. In fact the ocean off Cape Hatteras is sometimes known as The Graveyard of the Atlantic. Over 600 ships have gone under over the years and the area is included, by some reckonings, in the Bermuda Triangle.

The Outer Banks are so narrow in some places that your peripheral vision can almost take in both the sound and the ocean at the same time. This proximity offers not just a pleasant contrast of scenery but a large choice of recreational activities, from surfing in the sometimes violent waves on the ocean side to windsurfing in the gentle breezes on the sound side.

We stayed in a beach house on the northern end of the Outer Banks, in a place called Duck. Downtown Duck is located on Carrituck Sound, where it is possible to learn how to windsurf in water that is warm and shallow. The Outer Banks is definitely the right place to do all those outdoor things you aren't sure you really want to try in a freezing reservoir or on a granite mountain back in Utah.

That's why I signed up at the Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding School (motto: "Gravity? Just Say No!") for its Beginner Dune Lesson - training film, ground school and five flights for $55. Over 140,000 people have successfully learned to hang glide at the school since it opened in 1974, the training film assured us.

The sand is very forgiving, our instructor told us as we trudged up the sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park - which boasts the tallest dunes on the east coast. And he was right. Since you're only, at the most, about 10 feet off the ground when you're gliding, even if you crash land the worst that can happen is sand up your nose. And the humiliation, of course, of looking like a large, wounded moth wearing a helmet.

But it turns out that hang gliding off a sand dune is a snap. You just start running as fast as you can, and before you know it there's only air underneath you and you're flying.

So what if the actual amount of time you're flying is only about 12 seconds. That's all that the Wright brothers managed on their first flight, and they had an engine.