…Now, where were we?
After our time visiting with the fam damily was at an end, we had plans to continue east and give our children a peek at the ocean. It was the first time for Seth and Ollie; Maxwell had seen it in NYC in February 2012, though that hardly counts. I mean…yes, technically speaking it was the ocean, but in comparison to North Carolina’s white beaches in June?
My initial (foolish) wish was to just “see the ocean” the first evening, after we’d driven across the state and set-up our camp at Croatan National Forest–just to scope out the nearby beaches in preparation for the following day. But we could not keep them apart; it was love at first sight for my boys and the sea.
Followed by Joe experiencing love at first bite at the Big Oak Drive-In for dinner–the only establishment that would welcome wet, sandy, salty customers such as ourselves. Shrimp burgers=YUM.
We reluctantly went back to the campground and rolled out our sleeping bags. It was perfect weather for camping (says the camping novice). 70 degrees, breeze, no rain in sight. Just the five of us, lying under the screen-top tent and a canopy of stars. It was magical. At least until the boys started rolling all over each other and us during what turned out to be a rather restless evening.
The next morning dawned bright and bonny, and along with it my bright and bonny Ollie.
Everyone stirred, eventually, and we got ready for a morning at the beach. First things first, however: breakfast. What better than Waffle House to fête the most fabulous on Father’s Day?
(I’m sorry, but that is the perfect Waffle House photo.)
Our bellies full of syrup and coffee (well, just for the parents on the coffee part), we hopped on over to yet another beach along the Emerald Isle. We were awestruck every single time we drove over the Highway 58 bridge that spanned Bogue Sound. The boys and I fell into a habit during our short stay of greeting the ocean and saying goodbye each time we met & parted.
We were out in the sand and surf by 9 AM, sunblocked within an inch of our lives and with me essentially camped out under a pop-up tent cabana we’d rented in a (vain) effort to keep me from turning into a lobster. Unfortunately, no amount of sunblock or shade was really going to help much when we were faced with the scorching southern rays. We wisely cried “mercy!” around noon, went for lunch (where else? Big Oak, Papa’s choice!) and spent the afternoon in an air-conditioned movie theater. We ate at a restaurant that was really too nice for us that evening, and then headed back to camp before it got too dark. As Joe took a shower at the bath house, Ollie fell instantly asleep and Maxwell regaled me and Seth with the most beautiful story about a gnome and a firefly, inspired no doubt by the dancing fireflies outside our tent, as the last of the watercolor sunset succumbed to inky night skies. The winking stars and soft insect sounds lulled the last two boys to sleep, and when Joe returned from his ablutions we hatched an alternate plan for the rest of our trip. We decided to spend just one more brief morning at the beach, as we were all very sunburnt already; we would call our upcoming hotel stays and see if we could bump everything up a day. I felt a little sad that the beach portion of our trip hadn’t gone as I’d planned and hoped, but everyone has to face the reality of their genetic weakness at some time. Ha.
The next morning, we got breakfast from a great local spot, went for a last stolen hour of silvery morning sunshine at the ocean before bidding it a melancholy farewell. We had assured the boys, though, that in exchange for not getting (more) sunburnt, we’d let them have an hour or so at the nearby arcade. While the boys played inside, I called three hotels to rearrange nights, if possible. Success! We went on to have a quick campfire lunch of roasted hot dogs and s’mores at the campsite, packed our gear, and started wending our way back home. First stop, the best hotel in the universe, or at least in Virginia. Of course, I might have been a bit biased due to the hot shower and clean, comfortable bed that awaited me. I am such a n00b of a camper.
After waking, eating, and packing back into the car, we essentially spent the next 8 hours nearly hyperventilating from the beauty of our country. We had passed through some twilight beauty the night before, but now our stunning topography was on full-display. Virginia, West Virginia? I salute you! Hello, Interstate 64. I nominate you for “most beautiful freeway in America”!
We had (late) lunch in the greatest place. I want to give it a shout-out and hope that Google brings people here (in addition to my glowing Yelp review) because the guys at 5 Corners Cafe in Charleston, WV did us a solid. They welcomed us into an empty, near-closing-time restaurant and were so incredibly gracious, so funny and generous that I would have given them a James Beard Award if I’d had one in my purse. I mean, it was a half-hour until they closed and they rolled out the red carpet (and delicious food!) for us and our wild children. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, please go. Or take a trip to WV just to see them. So fabulous.
We got to Cincinnati that evening. We felt like it was mandatory to give their famous chili a shot. It was good enough. We got our snapshot, anyway, and satisfied bellies. Then: time for laundry and bed at the hotel.
The next morning, we checked-out but, before leaving town, we just had to go see their world-famous zoo. It.was.PHENOMENAL.
I loved this zoo. It was very, very clean and well-conceived. Though it was nearly 100 degrees that day, every path we walked on was shaded and periodic misting features kept us relatively cool. The animals were fun!
We would have liked to have stayed longer, since there was plenty to see (check out the insect house if you go!), but we’d planned to sleep in Chicago that night so we needed to hit the road by lunchtime. Off we went, to the Windy City and our last “destination” on the trip.
After eating what must have been Seth’s dream breakfast and number one meal of the trip (Dunkin’ Donuts!) we hopped on the L and headed in to the Museum Campus to hit Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
You don’t have to do it like we did, of course, but here’s some advice for budget-conscious travelers with kids: you can see quite a bit at Shedd for just the general admission price. It’s basically unadvertised, and I think it works best if you arrive early on a not-too-busy day or you’ll be in line forever, but it’s only like $8/person instead of $20+. If your kids are little, they will probably not want to spend 4-5 hours in a crowded aquarium anyway. So we saw the exhibits in the “hub” of the Shedd and it was just enough for the boys before aquatic life was getting old-hat. Then we went on a little walk over to the Adler…
…which, in my opinion, is way UNDERrated as far as Chicago attractions go. It was fabulous. Once again, a general admission will be plenty for kids and parents to spend several hours having a blast. They participate in a museum reciprocity program, so with our MN Science Museum membership we got in for FREE. Great deal! The exhibits seemed to be new/updated and were very engaging for all ages. The boys could have spent a whole day playing in the most kid-centric area, which reminded me more of a children’s museum (all hands-on) than what I’d expect hearing “planetarium”. We only left because they were closing, and even then very reluctantly. I definitely want to get back there.
After a quick stop in at Trader Joe’s, we hopped back on the L and decided to ride it all the way around the Loop, so we could get a glimpse of the city with the boys before heading back to our hotel, which was, needless to say, NOT downtown. We’d ordered delicious Chicago-style pizza to the room the night before and had plenty leftover, with our veggies from the store, for a final dinner on our last night of the trip.
Then we went home. And it was beautiful, and looked different somehow, and was both sweet and sad at the same time. I love our home, but our first big trip as a family had been so incredibly fantastic that it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it was over!
If you made it this far…thanks for coming along with us. It has been fun re-living it a bit while preserving it here for posterity. Someday when my kids are older, I hope it jogs a few fun memories for them. They made it very much worth remembering.