A Little Bit O’ Everything

(The following entry is from a previous trip – not the present day.)

Sunday, August 5.

I love big Sunday breakfasts.

Especially those involving pancakes and sausages or bacon.

Which is why this morning’s meal is making my mouth water in anticipation.

On a recommendation from the front-desk staff at our hotel, Lori and I make our way over to a place with an enormous range of dishes on its menu – eggs, pancakes, sandwiches, you name it.

Our server is fantastic, as are his recommendations. Lori digs into peach cobbler crepes, while I savour my beloved pancakes – topped with peaches – and just the right amount of bacon. (I’m not sure if there is such a thing as “the right amount” of bacon, but it was for me.)

After our Sunday Breakfast of Sugary Triumph, we hop on the bus, make our way down to Millennium Park, and get on a trolley headed for Chicago’s South Side.

Our tour guide isn’t as gregarious as the one we had yesterday, but he’s equally as friendly, informative, and open to any questions we have.

We catch a glimpse of some of the cities’ museums during one of our stops. But because of time constraints, we don’t get off.

265Our tour trolley passes by numerous neighbourhoods, including the leafy, tree-covered Hyde Park neighbourhood (which, if I remember correctly, is close to one of the universities). We even pass by the street the Obamas live (lived?) on – which is noticeable because of the metal barricades blocking off the street.

After the tour, we walk down to the river front, winding our way towards the offices where we buy our tickets for one of the city’s famed architectural tours.

After a bit of a wait for the arrival of the boat, our group and our guide – a volunteer from the architectural society – set off.

Despite being out on the water, the sun is HOT. I have to take cover in a seat under the boat’s awning, to be able to enjoy the tour.

But the view – while not exactly camera-friendly – is still stunning.

328Glass-paned windows sparkle; concrete structures stand out. Even the functional criss-crossing of the steel-beamed bridges seem to be somewhat stylized. The guide who describes each major building of interest is a wealth of information – firing off names of architectural firms, styles, and eras with precision.

It is, arguably, the best money – and 90 minutes – spent, if you’ve got any interest in architecture, or even in seeing Chicago from another point of view.

After the tour, we head back down the riverfront, and stop by the lakefront restaurant for two heaping bowls of salad, to tide us over until we can grab dinner.

For our last evening meal in town, we head to a restaurant recommended by friends, called SUSHISAMBA – a Brazilian/Japanese/Peruvian fusion eatery (with six U.S. locations and a fifth in London).

Despite my initial reservations about the sushi portion of the menu (because of two previous unsuccessful outings involving sushi), I did order something I ended up liking very much. Lori orders some sashimi rolls and loves every bite.

Another thing we enjoy? Our waiter. Apart from being super helpful, he is easy on the eyes.

We top off our excellent meals with dessert, then decide to head out in search of some live music.

Relatively close to our hotel, is a little blues bar. We arrive and order drinks just before the band starts. They’re a lively group – they’re funny, friendly, and interact with small folks from the small crowd in attendance. And the music is pretty catchy.

But we only end up staying for an hour; Lori has to board a plane the following morning.

Despite the limited time, our taste of Chicago is brief, but it’s enough to consider a return trip. Probably just not during Lollapalooza.

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Hot Summer (Day) In the City

(The following entry is from a previous trip – not the present day.)

Saturday, August 4.

Lori and I start our day with a big breakfast at a restaurant a few blocks away.

It is, literally, a BIG breakfast. Scrambled eggs, toast and hash browns.

The menu said it was a three-egg scrambler. It looks more like THIRTEEN eggs.

In any case, we’re both stuffed by the time we depart.

First order of the day: finding a hop-on, hop-off tour. This part’s a breeze – there are a couple of tour companies mere blocks from our hotel, parked outside a nearby McDonald’s (with probably THE BIGGEST ARCHES I’ve ever seen).

We ascend to the upper level of the bus, taking two of the only seats left, near the front, close to the tour guide.

Our guide – an older, African-American woman named Rosie – almost immediately tells us that we should change seats, because it’s too hot and stifling, instructing us to sit at the back, where two seats remain.

The bus pulls away from its stop, and before long, we’re craning our necks to look and snap pictures of skyscrapers and sculptures, as Rosie fires off facts and numbers (which we later question amongst ourselves for accuracy), and makes snappy quips.

Back home, I’d normally grumble about the skyscrapers and super-tall condos blocking out the sunlight. But today, on a day when the sun is bright and hot, I say a silent thank-you each time the bus turns onto a street where the shadows cast by these monstrous buildings offer momentary relief.

Before long, we’ve reached one of the first stops on the tour – just outside Millennium Park. Rosie is “encouraging” folks to disembark at this point to collect their free “Chicago” t-shirts and wander around the grounds. Lori and I decide amongst ourselves to ride the tour the entire way through, to get a lay of the land.

I suppose Rosie has noticed we haven’t budged – or assumed the hot Chicago sun has baked our brains, rendering us dumb – because she says a bit loudly (to Lori, I think; neither of us are sure at first) that it’s the first stop, and don’t we want to get off and get our t-shirts?

Lori (bless her) tells her we’re going to stay on – we’re here for three days.

Rosie says, “Is this your first day, ma’am?”

Lori says yes, and Rosie’s like, “All riiight …”

Rosie has officially gone from tour-guide-sarcastic to crusty, in my books, and from this point on, listen to her tour-guide riffing with different ears. (I actually consider – for a split-second – whether she deserves the tip I leave in her plastic bin, on account of her demeanour. Why does it matter what we do and when we do it? We’re tourists – not mouth-breathers.)

We zip over a bridge, past Soldier Field, and reach a spot where we can take our first full picture of the Chicago skyline (“Take your pictures! G’head, take your pictures!” Rosie enthuses, sort of bossily).

We motor past Grant Park – where, as it happens, Lollapalooza is well underway – and down towards Navy Pier (which we visit later on). We turn away from the pier grounds and Ferris Wheel, and loop back around and through the downtown core, until we return to Millennium Park, where this time, we leave the bus and – like good little tourists! – go to collect our t-shirts and take a look around.

MAN, it is ever hot! I don’t know about Lori, but I’m trying my best not to melt.

We walk towards the park, catching a glimpse of the Pritzker Pavilion as we pass. We head over to one of the most recognizable sculptures at the park – a huge, mirrored piece entitled “Cloud Gate” by British sculptor Anish Kapoor.

Most people call it “The Bean” because of its kidney-bean likeness. (Word is, Kapoor’s not terribly keen on the nickname.)

We walk underneath it, and over to the wading pool with the two art installations – the ones if, if you wait long enough, will spray a stream of water through their “mouths”. Kids run to and fro through the water; adults wade nearby. Lori and I take turns cooling our hot toes in the water.

After a little Cold Stone Creamery ice cream to help cool off, we board a tour “trolley” that takes us on a trip of Chicago’s West Side.

Our guide/driver is fantastic – super-friendly, funny and imformative. She takes us past Chinatown, and into Little Italy, where we make a stop (not officially part of the tour!) for some Italian ice (delicious!). We also pass through Greektown, and even are driven past Oprah’s studios.

While on the trolley, I notice the skies are turning gray. At one point, Lori and I discuss whether or not to ride the trolley to Chinatown, or to go elsewhere. My gut is telling me it’s going to rain and not to get off the trolley. But we take a chance and eventually decide to get off the trolley and go see Chinatown. Perhaps the rain will hold off long enough for us to get a look-see.

As we wait to cross the intersection, I notice the skies have gotten even darker. As we’re walking into Chinatown proper, the clouds seem to have gone a funny colour. Almost greenish.

We start walking, and I see it. Flashes of light across the sky. Mere moments later, I feel them. Drops. I sort of suggest to Lori that perhaps we should take cover before the rain starts.

Too late. The skies open up just a couple of moments later. By the time we find refuge in a Chinese restaurant, we’re half-soaked. The rain is simply torrential and doesn’t seem to be easing.

A little while later, Lori suggests that we try to hail a cab back to the hotel. Which means going back into the crazy rain, despite not seeing any cabs pass by the restaurant.

I’m not crazy about the idea, and I make it known.

But back out we go, and – barely two minutes outside – we DO get a cab. THANK. GOD.

By the time we return to the hotel, dry off and change for dinner, the rain has actually stopped.

Tonight, we decide to go in search of some deep-dish pizza – one of the many things Chicago is known for.

We walk a few blocks over to one recommended pizzeria, only to find out there’s a bit of a wait.

So we double back about a couple of blocks and end up at a place relatively close to the hotel. It’s big and, actually, quite empty.

I order some calamari – which turns out to be a big basket full of the stuff! Knowing what I’ve heard about deep dish pizza, I question whether I can eat both.

But somehow I manage to demolish that pile of fried squid to make way for the main event.

The pizza almost resembles a bowl filled with tomato sauce, with herbs.

While not as large in diameter as a typical pizza, the prospect of trying to eat this entire thing intimidates me a bit (and I think Lori also has her reservations).

But we soldier on and eat as much of our pizzas as we can. (I think we finish, but I don’t remember at this point.)

While I don’t regret having tried this, admittedly I don’t think this is something I would try again. (Sorry, Chicagoans. Perhaps I just didn’t eat this at the right restaurant.)

For our evening adventure, we take a trip down to Navy Pier, bustling with bars, restaurants and amusement rides.

Lori and I get on the Ferris Wheel – a modernized, comparatively smaller replica of the original that was designed and constructed in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in – where else? – Chicago.

As someone uneasy with heights, I admittedly don’t look out the windows of our car the entire trip, but what I do see was a great sight. I also get some kind of high being up there, because after that, I decide to ride the carnival swings while Lori sits and waits.

As it happens, it’s also one of two nights when Navy Pier puts on a fireworks display – a sight that’s not too shabby.

After a couple of drinks, we decide to call it a night and head back. After all, tomorrow’s a new day, with more food and more exploring to do!

Blowin’ Into Town

Friday, August 3.

It’s sometime after 8 p.m. when I finally reach the hotel and see my friend Lori.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this year. But after a couple of months of planning, I have finally made it to Chicago.

It’s a long day, though. My flight is delayed by about 40 minutes because the airline has oversold seats, and had to beg passengers to volunteer to take a later flight.

The arrival at O’Hare is a piece of cake. I then elect to attempt having a go at taking transit into town.

Trying to get a transit pass from one of the automated machines is the first challenge. The machine keeps spitting out my crisp bills. I’m about to switch to another machine, when another woman making her way to the airport gives me her pass – making sure to tell me that it’s only valid for one more hour.

Challenge number two: the newly-acquired pass won’t swipe, despite me trying to follow the directions on the automated turnstile, turning the pass every which way, and so on. A transit worker has to swipe me through with his pass.

Challenge number three: Finding a subway that’s in service. A number of passengers on the platform have to wait something like 25 minutes before a subway goes into service.

The rest of the trip is relatively easy, more or less. I alternate between reading my magazine and gazing out the window as the train passes by highway, suburban landscape, apartment balconies and fire escapes.

By the time I reach the station from which I’m supposed to depart to catch my connecting city bus, I realize my pass is probably expired. So I get another pass, just in case. I resurface, just in time to miss the bus I’m supposed to take.

Mildly frustrated, I plop down on the bus stop bench, untangling myself from my backpack, waiting for the next bus in the evening heat.

Luckily, I don’t have to wait very long for one. And the trip the rest of the way goes faster than I expect.

Lori and I enter the hotel, where she retrieves her things from the luggage locker, and we check in. The folks the reception desk are friendlier than I expect, and quite helpful in answering questions.

As I swipe the key card and enter our room, I hold my breath a bit, not knowing what to expect. But the room is just the right size, with very nice (but typical) boutique decor, and very quiet.

After dumping our things, we decide to head out to dinner – somewhere close. Luckily for me, Lori had done some walking around sooner, and offers me some options. We end up at this English pub about five or so minutes away from our hotel by foot.

The interior is huge – and dark. The Summer Games are blaring on the TVs overhead; I’m automatically drawn in.

We order beers and dinner. I have a lobster mac ‘n cheese which is way less cheesy than I had braced myself for – which is a good thing. And there were nice, tasty chunks of lobster that hit the spot.

Our evening isn’t a late one. We opt for an early evening – the real exploration begins tomorrow.