It’s the middle of September already. Although it still quite warm where I live, summer is pretty much over, and it’s time again to recap the fun and adventure that I’ve had in the past three months or so.
During this summer, I returned to Outer Banks of North Carolina. The first time I’ve been there was 3 years ago, and during that trip I got to explore the southern portion of the Outer Banks all the way down to Ocracoke, but I didn’t get a chance to go to the stretch north of Kitty Hawk. Therefore, this trip was mostly to visit the northern parts of the OBX. After reaching Nags Head, I drove north all the way up to Corolla, which is northernmost community on the Outer Banks that still had paved roads. One could drive further north on the beach in search of Corolla’s wild horses, but I wasn’t prepared for beach driving so the village/town was as far as I went.
The first place I went to in Corolla was the Currituck Beach Lighthouse to get an elevated view of the area. North Carolina has lighthouse up and down the coast which still help ships navigate the waters during the night. I’ve already climbed the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is the tallest and most famous one on the Outer Banks, and the Currituck Beach Lighthouse was the second lighthouse I climbed. From the top, I got a great view of the northern Outer Banks area, especially of the Historic Corolla Park just south of the lighthouse.
After getting my stair-climbing workout for the day going up and down the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, I ventured into the Historic Corolla Park. Located on the sound side of the barrier island, the park contains the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, and the historic mansion Whalehead Club. The Center for Wildlife Education has some interesting exhibits about the wildlife and fisheries in the area. As for the Whalehead Club, its distinctive yellow exterior made for a picturesque scene against the backdrop of the Currituck Sound.
Of course, I couldn’t come to the Outer Banks without going the beach. 3 years ago I camped by the beach and got eaten alive by sand flies, so this time I got a hotel by the beach to avoid the bugs. The ocean-facing side of the Outer Banks is all natural sandy beaches, so there is shortage of sand for everyone. Traffic was busy at OBX that weekend, but the beaches don’t feel crowded at all… probably due to the fact that there are no giant resorts and the sandy stretches just seem to be endless. The weather was beautiful and the water was warm, and so it was a great time to take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
The next day, I climbed another OBX lighthouse, and this time it was the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Located within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Bodie Island Lighthouse has distinctive black and white horizontal stripes, and some pretty good views of the Roanoke Sound and the marsh land in the area.
Before heading back home, I stopped by the fishing and crabbing docks just below the Washington Baum Bridge that connects Roanoke Island to Nags Head. They built an extensive system of the wooden walkways around the bridge supports for people to fish and crab. There were plenty of people there, but nobody seems to be catching much. I only managed to catch one legal-sized blue crab during the 3 hrs that I stayed there. Since one crab is not enough for a meal, I let the lucky crab back into the water. I still had fun though, and crabbing under the bridge has the benefit of the bridge providing shade from the blazing sun.
I was sent to the Chicago area for a two week work assignment. The assignment was located in the suburbs, but during the weekend in between I got a chance to explore Chicago’s downtown. Being the 3rd largest city in the United States, Chicago is a true big city and has plenty of places to visit and things to do. I spent a lot of my time just walking around the downtown. With all of its skyscrapers, downtown Chicago felt like a slightly smaller version of Manhattan, and the Magnificent Mile is like Chicago’s version of 5th Avenue. I also walked all the way to the end of Navy Pier and back, getting views of downtown Chicago from the edge of the water. Of course, one cannot come to Chicago without a trip to Millennium Park to see the Cloud Gate, better known by its nickname The Bean.
One thing that is unique to Chicago is the Chicago River, which separates downtown into north and south halves. On recommendation from colleagues, I took a river cruise during which the tour guide talked about the architecture of various notable buildings in Chicago’s downtown. Seeing the city from the river offers a whole different perspective of Chicago’s impressive skyline than walking in the streets.
For convenience and to save a few bucks, I bought the CityPass which grants fast access to five of the city’s top attractions for a nice discount. The first one I crossed off the list was the Skydeck observatory at the top of the Willis Tower. Standing 1450 feet tall, the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower) was once the tallest building in the world, and currently is the 2nd tallest building in the United States. The Skydeck is located on the 103rd floor, and offers panoramic and unobstructed views all around. You can see all of downtown, Lake Michigan, and the flat outlying areas. The Skydeck also has the Ledge, which are glass boxes that protrude out from the walls. Visitors can stand and sit on the glass floors which gives them a view of the streets directly below. Some people find it scary, but I didn’t feel much since the boxes are completely enclosed, so there is no danger of you falling out.
I also visited the other observatory in the Windy City. The 360° Chicago Observatory is located at the top of the former John Hancock Center in the River North area of Downtown. At 1128 feet tall, the building isn’t as tall as the Willis Tower, but you still get 360° views of the surroundings. Due to its location closer to the shore, you can get better views of Lake Michigan from 360° Chicago. For a small extra fee, visitors can also experience the TILT, which is a series of floor to ceiling windows that tilt outside to an angle of 30 degrees. The day of my visit happened to coincide with the weekend of the Chicago Air and Water Show, and I was able to watch some of the aerial performances from a position higher than the stunt planes.
I used the remainder of my CityPass on three attractions that are located in the museum complex south of downtown. The first of these was the Fields Museum of Natural History, a very large museum that features both natural history and anthropology exhibits. It is about as big as the biggest museums in Washington DC or New York City, so it’s a huge museum. Even walking briskly, it took me the whole morning to go through all of the exhibits.
Located next to the Fields Museum is the Shedd Aquarium. As with any self-respecting aquarium, Shedd has a number of exhibits featuring freshwater and saltwater creatures, along with a dolphin and a beluga habitat. It’s certainly not the largest nor most impressive aquarium I’ve visited, but it has a decent amount of exhibits, and I always enjoy looking at the wonderful and sometimes bizarre wildlife under the water. One thing that stood out about Shedd was that it had a touch pool with small sturgeons, which I have not seen in any of the other aquariums.
I finished the tour by visiting the Adler Planetarium at the eastern end of the museum complex/park. When I was a little kid, I was really into space exploration, so I found Adler’s exhibits to be pretty interesting. Along with the exhibits, the planetarium also has several theaters showing documentaries about space exploration. The Graingner Sky Theatre was particularly memorable, because the entire dome ceiling is the screen, and I felt that I was really in space staring out in multiple directions.
As a first-time visitor to the Windy City, I made sure I had my fill of Chicago’s signature food: the deep-dish pizza. During my weekend in downtown, I went to Giordano’s and Gino’s, two restaurant chains known for their Chicago-style deep-dish pies. It takes a bit of wait since deep-dish pizzas take 45 minutes to 1 hour to properly cook, but the result is a whole lot of cheesy deliciousness. The thick cheesy filling with the buttery crust is an experience. It’s probably not a good idea to eat deep-dish too often due to all those calories :lol: .
I really enjoyed my weekend in downtown Chicago. Chicago gets a pretty bad reputation these days due to its high crime rate, but the tourist areas of downtown felt pretty safe. I spent most of my time walking and probably ended up tracking 26+ miles over the weekend. I walked so much that I had blisters on my feet and a limp in my gait at the end. I did rid the L, which is Chicago’s light rail/subway system, but downtown Chicago is such a walk-able area with its parks, museums, restaurants and shopping. I am glad that I visited during the summer months when the weather was very hospitable. I definitely don’t want to be in Chicago during the winter.
Those are the two overnight trips I took during the summer. I also participated in some local activities, with photo highlights shown below.