Wednesday, October 20, 2010

USA Trip 2010 - Chicago [Part 5]

I originally wanted to travel from Boston to Chicago by rail. I realise that would have been a very long journey but we would have gotten ourselves a sleeper car. I think it would have been a very nice, relaxing experience. Sitting on a train watching the world go by while reading a book, listening to podcasts or playing a game really appeals to me. Alas, a few things conspired against the idea. Firstly, the holiday was going to be slightly shorter than planned so spending an extra day travelling didn't make sense and then there was the cost. It would have been four times more expensive to go with Amtrak than it was to fly with US Airways. Those reasons and I didn't fully commit to the idea in the first place, it was something I would have liked to do but I never actually made the decision to go and do it. So in the end we flew to Chicago.

There isn't really much to report about the plane trip to Chicago other than it was a little bumpy. I've recently read that a plane is like a see-saw. The front and the back tend to rock the most so if you sit in the middle it will move a lot less. We were sitting at the very back of the plane to Chicago and my wife was feeling a little unwell and to be fair the plane was rocking a bit. I know in future to try to sit in the middle. After collecting our luggage we got a taxi into the city, it was a pretty long drive because of the heavy traffic. We did spot an awesome Jeep on the freeway that had a very authentic looking Autobot insignia on the back. It is about the only thing on the holiday that I didn't manage to get a photo of. Arriving at the Affinia Hotel it is hard not to be impressed. The building looks brand new, people were on hand to take your luggage and check-in was very efficient. It got even better when we walked into our room. It was a very spacious and modern room. As you enter the room the bathroom was to the right and then you had steps down into the bedroom area. The bed was very large and we had a nice big window, although the view was nothing spectacular as the Affinia building is dwarfed by neighbouring buildings. The only downside to the room was the lack of free wi-fi, something I had become very accustomed to by that stage.

We arrived mid-afternoon and after settling into the room we went for a walk to get our bearings. The hotel is on E. Superior Street which runs perpendicular to the famous North Michigan Avenue and is right on the Magnificient Mile. I was now three for three with good hotels in great locations after NY and Boston. We had missed lunch so we went to a diner and both opted for a nice Italian sausage sandwich. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking around the Magnificient Mile, spotting things that we would head back to over the next few days. Of course I also spotted the local Apple Store that as luck would have it was right around the corner from our hotel. Unfortunately, they had no iPad cases either but they were sold out of iPads too, which made me feel better for buying mine in Boston. I got my picture taken outside the store to complete the set for this holiday. We also went over to the Hershey's Store to see what it was like. Even when those Hershey's Kisses are free I still wouldn't eat them. We kept an eye out for somewhere to go for dinner that night and settled on The Grill on the Alley, by the Westin Hotel on Migichan Avenue. When we got there that night we thought at first that it seemed a little fancy but it actually had a nice laid back atmosphere. I remember that we both really enjoyed our meal there but I can't quite remember what I had. It was some kind of chicken dish with mash that was delicious.

Wrigley Field
Like the hotels in NY and Boston, the breakfast at the Affinia wasn't great. I don't like fruit in the morning, or anything too sweet so I always struggle to find something to eat in the US. We had the fry the first morning but it wasn't great to be honest. That day, the 27th May we had tickets to go see the Chicago Cubs vs. LA Dodgers at Wrigley Field. Now baseball wasn't my first choice, that would have been ice-hockey. However, the hockey season was at the play-offs stage, with co-incidentally the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals. We also missed out on the NBA and NFL seasons so we were left with the MLB to get in some American sports. We took the train to Wrigley Field and got there about an hour before the game. There were thousands of people there all enjoying the atmosphere, which we both found very strange as it was 1pm on a Thursday. Don't people in this city have jobs? After taking some photos outside we made our way into the stadium. The officials there were very helpful in showing us where to be going and we got to our seats with little fuss. We actually had a pretty good view and watched the team warm up and the stadium fill up. As soon as the game started we were lost. We had a very rough understanding of the rules, based on 'rounders' but this didn't help us at all. I was actually surprised at how little the batter was actually hitting the ball. Maybe they were very good or that is what every game is like but it surprised me. It was an enjoyable experience, it was certainly something new but I wouldn't call it exciting. I am glad that we went and I got some good photos and we got to see a true American pastime in action. We stayed for about two and half hours before calling time on our first baseball game.

View from the John Hancock Observatory
When we arrived back we headed to the John Hancock Building. This impressively tall building in the middle of Chicago has the most spectaular view of not just the city but surrounding states. The Observatory floor of the building gives you a 360 degree view of the city and allows you to see up to 80 miles. There is an amazing view of Lake Michigan and if I hadn't known it was a lake I would have been convinced that it was the ocean. We availed of the free multimedia tour that was narrated by David Schwimmer and it was very good as it gave you places to focus on outside rather than just staring at nothing in particular. On the way back to the hotel we bought tickets for the hop-on hop-off tour for the next day. That night we ate in the hotel's restaurant. I got a very simple sounding meal of fish and chips. It was presented very nicely and I found it to be extremely tasty. We had less luck with the dessert though. The menu was very confusing, but basically you had to pick and choose from a huge selection of sweets. We chose five, I think. We expected them to be small but they were actually quite large and not that nice either. When we were finished we went to the top floor to the bar. While we were up their we got talking to an older couple from N. Ireland who were travelling around the US.

The next day we went to get the tour bus for a day of proper sightseeing. As we passed the John Hancock Building and got the history of it the guide told us an interesting story. There is a small one-storey building at the back of the Hancock Building, that is used by very, very rich people who meet up and play poker. When the Hancock Building was relatively new they wanted to expand its grounds and so made an offer to buy the small building. They were refused, so they tried again. Once more they were refused and the owners of the Hancock Building got more aggressive in their attempts to buy. Finally, the lawyers for the Hancock Building got a phone call from one of the regulars at the poker games in the building they were trying to buy. He told the lawyer in no uncertain terms that if they contacted them again with another offer to buy, they would counter the offer and buy the John Hancock Building for themselves and firing the management while they were at it. No further attempts to buy the small building were made.

The Silver Bean
Our first stop on the tour was Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. The Willis Tower is famous for it's height and the Skydeck, a glass balcony jutting out of the building at 1,353 feet. It isn't so much a balcony as a glass box but it does give some very impressive views and great photo opportunities. The Skydeck is certainly advertised as the 'must-see' attraction in Chicago but in our opinion the views at the John Hancock Building were more impressive. We got back on the bus and headed down to Millenium Park built to celebrate the new millenium but not opened till 2004. The park serves a dual purpose. One to provide more green space for the people and secondly as a giant underground carpark. When we got to the park we went to see Cloud Gate or as it is more commonly known the Silver Bean. The sculpture is a 110-ton elliptical structure of highly polished stainless steel, which reflect the city skyline and the clouds above. It has a 12-foot arch that lets you walk underneath into the concave chamber where you can see your image reflected from a variety of perspectives. Now all that doesn't sound too exciting but you really have to see it. There was such a buzz around from the people there looking at the sculpture. It is hard to conjure into words what it was like but it was certainly one of the highlights of the entire trip. We ate lunch in the park before getting back on the bus.

When we got back on the bus we had a new tour guide, who was friendly, funny and pretty darn hot. The plan was to head over the University campus but President Obama was in the city at the time causing chaos with the city's traffic. We had to take a detour on the way and were diverted onto the freeway. It was pretty exhilarating racing along the freeway on the upper deck of the open top bus. After that we found our way to Navy Pier but by this time it was getting late so we decided to return there the next day. As we made our way back to Migichan Avenue our tour guide was pointing out many locations used in the filming of The Dark Knight. I'm pretty sure I spotted the street that they filmed the truck flipping scene but she didn't mention it. I'm going to assume that I'm right though. That night we went to the Grand Lux Café on Migichan Avenue. It is a very busy place and they gave us a beeper to notify us when our table was ready. We weren't waiting that long and when we got into the dinning area we were up on the second floor. We had a friendly waiter, almost overly so but it was a very enjoyable meal. I went for the chicken and prawn jambalaya and to say it was delicious is to do it a mis-service. During our mains the waiter asked if we would like them to start baking us some desserts, as all the desserts are freshly baked. We were tempted but in the end settled for tea and coffee.

Site of the worlds first Ferris Wheel
The following day we made our way down to Navy Pier, which was about a twenty minute walk from the hotel. It is a very popular attraction for families and it certainly caters to people who like boat trips. Neither of us can handle a boat trip so that was lost on us but we enjoyed the walk around the pier. We got some nice pictures and got a go on a ferris-wheel, that stands on the site of the worlds very first ferris-wheel. We had an enjoyable lunch at the Pier and headed back into the city. Another interesting thing that we got to do was to go and check out the street sculptures littered around The Loop. We got to see four famous works of art that the city of Chicago is proud to display. We saw Alexander Calder's The Flamingo down in Federal Plaza. This whimsical and constructivist (meaning: constructed of big industrial materials bolted together) structure forms a graceful counterpoint to the hard edges and straight lines of the surrounding skyscrapers. This sculpture presented a good challenge to frame the whole thing in a photograph. I managed it, just about, before nearly toppling off the sidewalk as I contorted my body to capture the picture. Over on Chase Plaza there is a 70 foot long mosaic/mural featuring surrealist depictions of Chicago, called The Four Seasons by Marc Chagall. Niether of us were very impressed by this one. I found the colours to be too muted and uninteresting as a whole.

Monument with Standing Beast
Located at the Daley Center is perhaps the most famous, Chicago's Picasso as it is known because the artist gave it no other name. The story goes that he presented it to the city of Chicago as a gift and the only thing he received in return was a jersey of the Chicago Blackhawks with his name emblazended on the back. As I mentioned earlier the Blackhawks were in the NHL play-offs and as a sign of support, statues around the city were all decked out in Blackhawks kit. Chicago's Picasso which to me looked like a horse, had a Blackhawks helmet on its head. My favourite of the four was Jean Dubuffet's Monument with Standing Beast. This sculpture of white organic shapes with thick black outlines sits in the plaza on Randolph. I find it hard to pinpoint what it is about it that appeals to me. Perhaps it is the black outlines, giving it a classic comic-book asthetic that I like. That night we did something we don't usually do on our holidays, return to a restaurant a second time. We went back to The Grill on the Alley and had another very enjoyable meal. I do remember my wife being slightly disappointed that the waiter from the first night was not on duty. I'm pretty sure that was also the night that she beat Plants vs. Zombies, a game on the iPad that had her hooked. If you haven't seen the end credits then get yourself over to YouTube, it is well worth it.

Other random memories from Chicago include a visit to the local Lego megastore where I met such famous characters as Darth Vader, Harry Potter and R2-D2. I'm not sure which night it was but we also ate out at a sports bar, we had had our fill of fancy restaurants. We both got a plate of ribs and they were delicious. Our final day in Chicago was a bit awkward because we had to check-out at noon but the flight home wasn't till around four I think. So we left our bags in the hotel and went out to kill a bit of time. I went to the Apple Store because I still needed to find a case to bring home my iPad. They were still out of stock on the official case so I had to settle for a purple, yes purple carry case. I had planned on replacing it when I got home but I still have it and use it so it wasn't a bad purchase in the end. For lunch that day we went to Gino's East, next door to our hotel. We had very high expectations for this meal because every night we had passed this restaurant the queue to get in stretched down the block. Disappointingly it didn't live up to our expectations. We can't honestly see why so many people would be queueing up to get in. Neither of us ordered the pizza, or the deep-dish pizza that Chicago is so famous for so perhaps we missed out. After lunch we got a taxi out to the airport to take the curtain down on our latest trip to the US.

Apart from the slight disappointment with NY this was a thoroughly enjoyable holiday. Boston is now one of my favourite places in the world and I'd heartly recommend Chicago to anybody. We got to take in some real Americana with the baseball game, saw many famous landmarks, ate some great steak, took some wonderful pictures and have many, many great memories. What more can you ask of a holiday?

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