COROLLA From the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, you can see the rooftops of beach houses stretching down the coast like crowded tenement buildings in a city.
But circle around the iron gallery to the other side, where the canopy of trees near the lighthouse gives way to marsh and the Currituck Sound, and you get a better idea of what this part of the Outer Banks was like before people like you arrived.
Like the surrounding village of Corolla, the shady grounds of the lighthouse and its Victorian keepers' houses retain the feel of an earlier time in defiance of the bright, busy beaches nearby.
"People romanticize the lighthouse experience - to live the calm life, the ocean-side life," said Meghan Agresto, who manages the site for the Outer Banks Conservationists, the nonprofit that owns and manages the lighthouse and its grounds.
"When they come here, we certainly like them to get that sense of place, to climb those stairs and transport themselves. To imagine a life."
N.C. 12, the paved road connecting Corolla to the outside world, didn't reach this far north until the 1980s, meaning this part of the Outer Banks was largely developed during the era of the Giant Beach House. To rent one in the summer usually means inviting aunts, uncles and friends to fill the bedrooms and split the cost.
The delay in development also means some of the area's history and natural beauty had a better chance to survive. The road ends at the N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 960-acre preserve of sound-side marsh and maritime forest where it's possible to escape the roar of the surf and summertime traffic.
Much of the old village has been turned into shops and real-estate offices. The 120-year-old Corolla schoolhouse has been restored and turned into a wild horse museum, and the Whalehead Club, a grand 1920s home where the rich once came to hunt and relax, is open for tours in Currituck Heritage Park.
But the centerpiece of the village is the 162-foot lighthouse, completed in 1875 to fill the "dark space" along the coast between the Cape Henry light to the north and Bodie Island light to the south.
At the time, people brought their cattle to graze on this part of the Outer Banks, but few lived here. The land was mostly dune and scrub, with pockets of maritime forest, and the two-story keepers' duplex afforded views of both the ocean and the sound.
Back from the ruins
The lighthouse was automated in the late 1930s, and the keepers' houses were abandoned. In time, the windows and doors and interior woodwork disappeared. In 1952, the state took over the land around the lighthouse for muskrat research.
In 1980, the great-grandson of the last lighthouse keeper, dismayed by the condition of the house where his mother had spent her summers, formed a nonprofit to preserve it.
The Outer Banks Conservationists has slowly restored the lighthouse and the grounds, including a small Victorian keepers' house that was so covered in vines that people had forgotten it was there.
Today, the group has a long-term lease from the state on the grounds and owns the lighthouse outright, though the U.S. government kept the lens at the top. The light comes on automatically at dusk, flashing on for 3 seconds, off for 17, repeatedly until dawn.
About 110,000 people climb the lighthouse each year, most conquering all 214 steps on the spiral iron staircase. You'll work up a sweat on a hot summer day, particularly if, like many parents, you make the ascent with a small child in your arms or strapped to your back.
"He was a little clingy," said Colleen Holm-Olsen, still holding her 2-year-old son, Kieran, after leaving the lighthouse.
Kieran's 4-year-old brother, Owen, got about half-way up before his father, Finn, had to carry him.
The family, Americans living in Nairobi, Kenya, included Kieran's stuffed lion Lance.
"He carried Lance," Finn said. "So Lance got a nice view up there. It's beautiful."
No acrophobia allowed
For others, climbing the lighthouse means facing down their fear of heights. Debbie Lynch of Flemington, N.J., has been taking young relatives and friends to the top of the lighthouse for most of 23 years, despite an uneasiness with heights.
Lynch says she just stays near the wall, away from the iron railings, and suppresses any bad feelings.
"I don't ever let it stop me," she said. "When you have kids with you, you don't want to let it show."
With Lynch's help, her nephew, Jordan Barnert of Hamlin, Germany, made it to the top, a year after failing to get beyond the first landing.
"When you look down, it's like 500 feet down," said Jordan, 10.
From a distance, the lighthouse peaks above the trees, tiny figures visible on the black iron gallery that caps the brown brick spire, left unpainted so mariners would know it by day.
The best view is from Currituck Sound, on the water, looking back across the marsh.
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