Monday, October 18, 2010
MY WIFE and I decided to take our annual fall vacation in Mud Lake. Some of the locals, in the past, referred to it as "Wild Garlic" because of the lovely smell emanating from the flora along the riverbanks. More recently, it has been called The City Of Big Shoulders, Second City, and The Windy City. It is where the skyscraper was born and where the blues became electrified. You may know it as Chicago.
The short story? Great city, friendly people, and fantastic food. But you don’t come here for short stories. Or maybe you do. If so, you’ve been disappointed in the past and this won’t improve matters for you.
I’m going to lay this out day by day, with subheadings for the major undertakings of that day. If the subheadings don’t intrigue you – or if you have something against any particular day of the week - feel free to skip to the next one. You’ll be breaking my heart, of course, but you’ll make up for it by having an extra two or three minutes left in your day to go and destroy someone else’s ego, and that will be fun for you.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8
We decided to fly Southwest Airlines because they are the only major carrier that doesn’t charge you to take your clothes along on a trip. Every other airline charges $25 for your first bag, and then perhaps $35 for your second, and so forth. We had (and still do, since Southwest didn’t lose them) four pieces of luggage. For a round trip, that would have cost us $240 on every other airline. On Southwest, it cost us bubkis.
(If you’re the president of, say, Crazy Irving’s Discount Airline & Plumbing Supply, and you don’t charge for bags, my apologies. However, aside from Southwest, I found no airline that didn’t charge a fee for baggage, and I refuse to pay $240 for the privilege of being fully clothed once I reach my destination. Fares themselves can be had for less on other airlines, via aggregators such as Expedia or Priceline, with whom Southwest doesn’t list, but these ‘deals’ become no real bargain once those baggage fees are figured in. If you travel with more than a toothbrush and a bathing suit, I recommend just going to the Southwest website and saving yourself the time and trouble of figuring the math. If you can get by with one carry-on, then you might want to explore the other options.)
The employees of Southwest were professional and courteous, the flight was uneventful and arrived on time, and we have no complaints concerning the first leg of our journey. A minor inconvenience would crop up on the return to Boston, but we’ll get to that later. Even with that, I felt that the slight problem was overshadowed by good service, so Southwest gets my wholehearted recommendation.
Arrival In Chicago
There are two major airports serving Chicago, O’Hare and Midway. O’Hare is enormous. Midway is a bit smaller, and it is also closer to downtown on a straight line. Southwest flies into Midway, so that’s where we touched down. Both airports are serviced by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) via El stations.
(The locals call it the El, but you might usually call such a system a subway, metro, or tube. The vast majority of the system operates outside of tunnels, however, and there are more platforms above the streets than on the ground or under the ground, so El – short for elevated – is appropriate.)
The CTA station for Midway was a short walk from where we claimed our baggage. As we made our way to the train, some people coming from the opposite direction said, "Oh, wow! Look at the retro luggage!"
We’ve never thought of our luggage as retro, but I guess it might be. We bought it almost twenty years ago. I guess having our luggage called retro was better than having folks walk by and say, "Oh, wow! Look at the retro people!"
Since we would be in town for a week, and since we planned on using the CTA for travel to most of what we would be doing, MY WIFE and I purchased 7-day passes. Standard fare is $2.25 per ride, while the passes cost $28 each, so these turned out to be a great bargain for us.
We rode the train downtown, switching lines once along the way, and it took perhaps forty minutes for us to reach our hotel. For public transit buffs like me, there will be more about the CTA later.
(We took a cab to the airport at the end of the trip – we just plain didn’t feel like schlepping our luggage by then – and it ran a bit over $30. That ride took perhaps 20 minutes less, and it did include entertaining conversation with the driver, but saving at least $25 and getting an interesting view of the city, from the rails above it, was more fun.)
Homewood Suites By Hilton
Despite what I said earlier about the El being mostly elevated, our ‘home’ stop was on one of the two actual subway lines in the city. We emerged from under the ground at Grand on the Red Line. We walked one block to our hotel, Homewood Suites By Hilton.
When we got to the front entrance, we were greeted by Ivan, a very helpful bellman, who took our bags and directed us to reception, which was, oddly enough, on the sixth floor. At various times during the trip we speculated concerning what might be happening on the second through fifth floors. They weren’t accessible, as the elevator buttons went directly from 1 to 6, offering no option for exploration of a definitive answer. Our best guess was that it was a valet parking garage, but we never did find out. For all we know, maybe they use it as a storage area for guests who will be ground into breakfast sausage for having not paid their bills.
We checked in and were given 704, a corner room and thus affording us our choice of two different views. That was a nice bonus. We were able to consult the clock on the Wrigley Building when we wanted the time and we were too lazy to look at the clock radio.
As the name implies, the hotel is an all-suite affair. We had a living area with comfy chair and a sofa that could be converted into a full-size bed; a king bedroom with dresser and end tables; a kitchen with refrigerator, microwave, two-burner stove, sink, and a dishwasher; and a standard bathing area. Both the bedroom and the living room came with telephones and large televisions.
(I had taken some shots of our suite, but those supplied by the hotel, at their website, are much better. Go HERE for a virtual tour.)
It was an extremely spacious and comfortable place to be. However, we were hungry, so we went back downstairs in search of dinner.
We asked Ivan The Friendly Bellman if he knew of a decent but relatively inexpensive nearby place for Italian food. He directed us to Rosebud, about three blocks south. He had given us a good tip. It was a decent place with nice food. I ordered spaghetti with meatballs. When it came, I found myself faced with a bowl of pasta that included two delicious meatballs the size of my fist. It was a bit of a struggle to devour them, but I managed. Well, OK, to be truthful, not immediately. We both took home enough for another meal, so the second fist-sized meatball was eaten a bit later. And even though we didn’t finish our dinner, we did have dessert. We ordered a pistachio gelato, which we split, and it was delicious.
(Gelato became a theme of the trip, as a matter of fact, as we had it on at least another two occasions and spoke longingly of it many more times than that. The stuff is magnificent and I’d weigh a good hundred pounds more if it were available within walking distance of our home. No, scratch that. After I gained the hundred pounds, I wouldn’t be able to walk to get any more of it, so it would be OK.)
After dinner, we enjoyed a leisurely walk back to the hotel. Ivan greeted us again and we thanked him for the good recommendation. Then it was back to the room and time for bed. As travel days go, it was one of the best.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 9
One of the extras at our hotel was a full breakfast buffet every day, served in a nice dining area off of the main lobby.
It was quite good and we took advantage of it. I started each morning with some combination of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, toast, corned beef hash, biscuits and gravy, orange juice, and coffee. MY WIFE generally opted for a less grease-centric offering of fruit, yogurt, juice, and coffee. The dining room staff was friendly and welcoming. They greeted us warmly every day, and always inquired if there was anything else we wanted. As a matter of fact, the entirety of the staff at the hotel was tremendous. No request was ever denied, all questions were answered with a smile, and the service overall was exceptional. If you plan on being in Chicago and want a place to stay that is convenient, decently priced, has many nice amenities, and is staffed by a great crew, you won’t go wrong at Homewood Suites.
(I should also mention that a modest dinner, with free beer and wine, is included in the price of a room. The dinner is served Monday – Thursday, but not Friday or the weekend. We had other dining plans most evenings, so only tried the dinner once. It was OK, a buffet similar to breakfast in size and scope. If you didn’t have other dinner plans, this would certainly suffice. Not gourmet dining, by any means, but a nice extra. I find it hard to complain about free beer and wine, but the beer on tap was not my cup of tea, so to speak; a bit of a weak pilsner. MY WIFE reports that the wine was an average sort of house wine, but effective.)
The ostensible reason for our trip was a visit with my Godson, Joseph, who recently enrolled at DePaul University. It’s the first time he’s been living on his own. We figured, after five or six weeks in town, he’d be able to show us a thing or two. We looked forward to visiting with him, of course. He’s MY Godson, after all, so he has to be cool.
(If Joseph had done what I asked him to do, and sent me some of the photos he has of himself at college, I'd have a shot of him here to show you what he looks like. Alas, he hasn't sent them to me. You'll have to use your imagination. He's about 5' 8", thin, has hair that hangs over his face like a sheepdog, and he always has some sort of electronic device in his hands which he constantly is pecking away at for some reason or another, but not to send his uncle any photos. In other words, he's a normal teenage college student.)
We took the El to DePaul and met Joseph at the station. A short walk brought us back to his dorm, where he showed us around. His room is right next to the athletic field. The womens soccer team was having a practice the morning we were there. I speculated that this was a plus to having a dorm room in that location. Joseph didn’t disagree.
We were shown other buildings, had some coffee at the student dining hall while Joseph had breakfast, and were regaled with stories, concerning DePaul, which Joseph had picked up during his time there thus far. For instance, we had wondered why a Catholic university had as its athletic team nickname "The Blue Demons". It seemed somewhat at odds with the religious aspect of the school. I speculated that perhaps they were sad demons, thus blue, but Joseph told the true story. It seems the athletic teams used to wear sweaters with a big "D" on them, so they were known colloquially as "The D Men". Then they started wearing blue and became known as "The Blue D Men", and it was a short step from there to "The Blue Demons".
After the tour, and a nice walk around the neighborhood surrounding the school, we left Joseph to his own devices, promising that we would call him later to plan another get together. We then went on our own recognizance for the rest of the day.
All train lines of the CTA (excluding one) are sooner-or-later routed through a central downtown district known as The Loop.
Both MY WIFE and I found this fascinating, so we decided to take a leisurely ride around The Loop while we had nothing else scheduled. It was fun. The elevated station platforms downtown are mostly older than those in outlying areas, with much construction of wrought iron and wood, so that makes them interesting in an aesthetic sense, and they were built right at the edge of surrounding buildings and streets, so you get a voyeur’s perspective of downtown.
The stops, since they are all situated within about a four-block square, come rapidly. My estimate is that a ride through The Loop takes about ten minutes, but perhaps there are lengthier trips during certain rush hour periods. With all five elevated lines flowing onto one central track, there are necessarily interchanges where one train will have to stop and let another proceed.
That’s the name of a great sushi joint that was (and probably still is) next door to Homewood Suites. We were on our way home from our jaunt around the elevated, and we were hungry, so we stopped and read their menu. We saw that they had a luncheon special that seemed reasonably priced, so we went in and sampled it.
As it turned out, it was probably the best bargain in dining we encountered on the entire trip (excluding our free eats at the hotel, of course.) For the price, we each received miso soup; a small green salad; six pieces of sushi; a potato pancake of some sort; a sizeable portion of tempura, included in which was a gigantic deep-fried prawn; and a choice of additional appetizer (I had a perfect teriyaki beef, while MY WIFE opted for a salmon with some sort of brown – and delicious – glaze.) All of this was received for the amazing price of $12.95. It was tasty and filling, served with speed and a smile, and, when accompanied by a generous and well put together Mai Tai, the perfect pre-afternoon-nap delight.
Yes, we retired to our suite and both took naps following the sushi. Neither of us felt obligated to stay awake simply because more uptight folks might think 3:30 in the afternoon is when everyone should be awake. Vacation includes the freedom to sleep whenever you feel like it.
We awoke refreshed and ready to enjoy the evening. We took a cab out to Navy Pier, an amusement park of sorts. That term isn’t strictly correct, as there are actually very few rides and more of an adult vibe to the place, but it captures the flavor better than anything else I can come up with at the moment. The presence of a gigantic Ferris Wheel tends to lead one to remember that aspect of the place.
(Short history lesson. The Ferris Wheel was invented in Chicago, and was first made available for rides at The Columbian Exposition of 1893, a World’s Fair. It was designed as a response to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Mister Ferris decided that the way to one-up Eiffel was to take his idea of an iron structure reaching high into the sky and make it mobile. The original stood some twenty-five stories high and the compartments in which riders were placed held sixty people each. The current structure at Navy Pier is miniature in comparison, but I’d estimate it still reaches at least fifteen stories. We came close to riding it, but in the end, my fear of heights won out and so we didn’t.)
During the month of October, the city has a fireworks show at Navy Pier every Saturday evening at 9 o’clock. We’re always up for something to do with colorful explosives, so that was the main reason for our having decided to go there. However, after walking down a boardwalk including fried dough stands, funhouses, miniature golf courses, and other honky-tonk staples, we discovered something utterly delightful.
The Smith Museum Of Stained Glass contains absolutely stunning renditions of that art form, many of them originals by Louis Tiffany.
Admission is free, which is always a plus, and it provided a relaxing half-hour or so stroll through a space that was incongruously spiritual amid the hubbub outside. Many of the examples were taken from religious buildings, as you might imagine, and one almost felt as though kneeling in front of them would have been the correct response. It was educational – there are seven different styles of stained glass, as it turns out – and its presence in such a place perfectly illustrated the difference between Chicago and our hometown. If they tried to place such a thing in a similar space in Boston, half of the stained glass would either be broken or covered with obscene graffiti within a week. In Chicago, where people aren’t rude and midwestern sensibilities rule, the artwork sits unmolested and ready to entrance those who stumble upon it.
After viewing the colorful stained glass, we went back outside and found a seat on the pier for viewing the fireworks. Actually, there weren’t any seats, so MY WIFE graciously laid out her nice shawl on the asphalt as a make-do blanket and we sat on it, next to a couple from Milwaukee who had had the foresight to bring actual chairs. We had a pleasant conversation with them prior to the explosions commencing. They found Chicago’s waterfront much cleaner than their own. According to them, Milwaukee’s waterfront is filthy, even though it is on the same Great Lake (Michigan) as Chicago. We filed this away for future reference, and if we visit Milwaukee some day, we will not go into a state of shock when we see the disgusting lakefront.
The fireworks were spectacular, and the gelato we had afterwards was pretty good, too. We took a cab back to the hotel and thus ended our first full day in town.
I’ll be back tomorrow (and the next day, and probably another after that) to finish up this trip report. It would probably be a good idea for you to bring a sandwich. Not only will the succeeding installments be as lengthy as this one, but I’ll also be discussing food even more so than I did here, so you’ll likely want a bite to eat if my descriptions are any good.
Soon, with more Chicago stuff.