CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES #11: CAPTIVATING CHICAGO, PART 1

“Be careful in Chicago; there is so much crime!”  “Don’t go out at night in Chicago, even in the tourist areas!”  These were the warnings I received from a couple of acquaintances who used to live in Chicago.  I had heard it all before.  Chicago’s crime was all over the news, and it had gotten much worse since I visited the city with my best friend, in 2012.  Those warnings, however, weren’t going to stop me and Bruce from seeing U.S.A.’s third largest city together, and this was the perfect opportunity—at the end of our cruise, before flying home. 

During our three days in downtown, we took the necessary common-sense precautions, walked all over downtown, and thoroughly enjoyed it!

For a good overview to begin our stay, we used our on-board credit and took a city tour that was offered through American Queen Voyages, the company we had cruised the Great Lakes with during the previous two weeks.  On our final day, we did an architecture river cruise to learn about the skyscrapers that lined the Chicago River.  Both tours were excellent!

What most impressed us about Chicago was how clean and beautiful the downtown city center was everywhere we walked.  The city is situated along Lake Michigan, and the city planners did a fabulous job lining the waterfront with attractive parks that offered great vantage points of the amazing skyline.

There is so much I could write about Chicago, but I will let my pictures tell the story instead. (To view them larger, click on the photos.)  Here, then is Part 1:

Navy Pier
View from the end of Navy Pier
Buckingham Fountain

Scenes from Millenium Park:

Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean”
That’s us at the bottom, center, looking up at the sculpture

It was fun watching the faces change on Crown Fountain, and then “spit” water every ten minutes. The kids loved it! What a great way to cool off during the hot, humid summers.

Chicago hosts the Millenium Park Summer Music Series at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion for free!

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

We stayed on the 14th floor at the Warwick Allerton Hotel, on North Michigan Avenue. This (right) was our (zoomed in) view of Michigan Avenue from our room, including this gorgeous bird! Yes, it was real! I was able to photograph it by sticking my camera out the window that opened up just enough to fit my hand and camera through. Our room was on a corner, so it required a bit of maneuvering and guess work to angle my camera, hold it steady, and snap these shots!

The largest Starbucks in the world was located a block away. People actually line up around the corner to get in! We don’t drink coffee, and we aren’t Starbucks fans, but we thought it was worth a look inside when we happened to walk by when there was no line.

The planters along Michigan Avenue and neighboring streets were fabulous! They added such a beautiful element to soften the appearance of all the steel and concrete of the city.

Some of the buildings featured interesting artwork on their exteriors:

Although we thoroughly enjoyed our vegetarian deep dish pizza at Lou Malnati’s during our pre-cruise Chicago visit, we decided to try Giordano’s stuffed vegetarian deep dish pizza for comparison (see below). Lou Malnati’s crust wins the contest; however, Giordano’s wins for everything else! We loved their sauce and stuffed pizza! Want to make your mouth water? Click on the pizza photo to see it larger!

Now, for dessert. Kind Snacks is on their “Frozen Summer Tour,” and we were lucky enough to see them– twice! First, we saw the truck at the park at the foot of Navy Pier, and they were handing out free samples of their DELICIOUS frozen bars. They were eager to give you as many as you wanted, so we went back for seconds. 😀 The next day, they were on Michigan Avenue near the Chicago River! They would have given us an entire box if we wanted! The sample lady was eager to empty their coolers and call it a day. We ended up tasting one each of three different flavors and made pigs of ourselves. Damn, those things are good!

A window display on Michigan Avenue, better known as the “Magnificent Mile.”

Next up: Cruising the Great Lakes #12: Captivating Chicago, Part 2

CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES ABOARD AMERICAN QUEEN VOYAGES’ OCEAN NAVIGATOR

Like millions of other avid travelers now clogging the nation’s airports, several trips we had booked over the past two years had been canceled due to COVID.  One of those trips would have been aboard American Queen Steamboat Company’s acquired Victory Cruise Line ships.  Since then, the company was renamed American Queen Voyages (AQV), and the itinerary we had chosen was no longer on the schedule.  We opted for a 14-day Chicago roundtrip cruise on the Great Lakes with three days on our own in Chicago after the cruise.

This post, as well as the next several, will be about our (thankfully!) COVID-free journey, and the wonderful people, places, and experiences we shared along the way.

As was the case with past American Queen cruises, the first night was spent at a hotel before boarding the ship.  We were put up at Chicago’s downtown Hilton, a beautiful hotel located on a beautiful park-lined stretch of South Michigan Avenue. 

Following our mandatory COVID tests, we were cleared for our cruise aboard the Ocean Navigator (previously named Ocean Victory) the following day.  Whewww!  All 131 of the passengers tested negative, so we were free to roam the city until our bus ride to the ship the next day.  We ventured out to walk the parks, see Buckingham Fountain, stroll along the lake, and then head to Lou Malnati’s for the deep-dish pizza I had been craving over the past two years!  It was just as I had remembered it when I visited Chicago with my best friend, ten years before—awesome!

Unfortunately, Chicago authorities decided shortly before the summer cruise season they didn’t want cruise ships coming and going in their waters during the busy summer weekends, so AQV was forced to bus us up to Milwaukee to meet the ship. It was all a bit of chaotic mess, because the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing (thanks to a lack of communication from the home office), but once we got on board it was (almost!) all good!

Let’s get the “(almost!)” out of the way first.  If you have poor hearing, wear hearing aids, and remove them at night, I HIGHLY recommend this ship.  If, on the other hand, you have excellent hearing and wear industrial-grade ear plugs at night to prevent inconsistent noises from waking you, think twice before cruising on this ship—at least until they resolve the pipe noise issue.  Even a white noise ap couldn’t mask the loud sound of pipes rattling when water was being pumped throughout the ship for the showers.  The water tanks were located below our cabin, so Alex, the wonderful Hotel Director, moved us in hopes of resolving the issue, since the problem couldn’t be fixed.  Unfortunately, the “upgrade” from the first to third deck didn’t make a difference; the rattling was throughout the ship.  This wasn’t a big deal during the day or evening, but the first shift of officers (housed in the inside cabins; passengers had outside cabins windows or balconies) showered around 5 am!

Our cabin on Deck 1 before we were moved.
Bruce and Alex (Hotel Director) with me

Otherwise, I can’t begin to tell you how much we enjoyed everything else about the ship, its crew, and this cruise!

Unlike American Queen’s U.S.A.-registered paddlewheel river boats, the Ocean Navigator is registered in the Bahamas, allowing the company to hire foreign crew.  Although most were Filipino, many nationalities were represented, including our charming and funny Scottish captain.  Alex and the chief purser were from the Ukraine, and our cabin steward, Jose, was from Honduras.  All were friendly, hard-working, and eager to please.  They made our cruise!

Our Scottish captain

Meet Marisol and Sarah:

Whenever I went to the gym, located across from the Purser’s desk, I would hear, “Hi, Miss Elaine!” They told me that after seeing my passport and comparing my birthdate to the photo, and then to me in person, I was their inspiration, and that I couldn’t possibly be 60!  They decided right then and there to give up unhealthy foods and start exercising, so they could look good at 60, too.  Made my day!

This is Chef Ross, a skinny chef you can trust! 

Of all the 56 cruises I have worked on or been a paying passenger, Ross and his staff prepared the best cuisine.  Like other AQV cruises, lobster tails were available every night; however, these were absolutely the best.  We ordered seafood every night and often asked for a lobster tail to be placed on top; we were in seafood heaven!

Ross didn’t mess around when it came to chocolate either.  He budgeted for a block of expensive, top-rated Valrhona chocolate, from France, for Gladwyn to use for baking his desserts.  His Valrhona Chocolate Tart was just as good as Nancy Silverton’s chocolate tart that I had enjoyed when Nancy was considered one of the best pastry chefs in the U.S.A.  After raving about it to Ross and Gladwyn, they surprised me with more that Gladwyn made special the following night.  Pure chocolate heaven!

Another Gladwyn masterpiece

This ship doesn’t offer the production shows like AQV’s river boats have at night, but we enjoyed listening to the band—especially Tim’s saxophone, flute, and harmonica solos.  We enjoyed sharing a few dinners with Tim, too.

Johnny (Piano & Vocals), Tim (Sax, Flute, Harmonicas), Bruce, and John (Drums)

After a full day at sea—uh, make that “at lake,” we docked at our first Michigan port…

Next up:  Motorless Mackinac Island

Until then, how about a virtual tour of the Ocean Navigator?

Ocean Navigator
Forward deck below the bridge
Bridge Tour
Top deck behind the bridge
Top deck looking aft
Top aft deck looking forward
Port side of The River Grill, located below the top deck. This was a casual dining restaurant where we enjoyed breakfast and lunch, rather than dining more formally in the dining room.
Starboard sie of The River Grill.
Promenade deck
This is how calm the water was on Lake Superior, a notoriously rough lake where the Edmund Fizgerald (and hundreds of other boats) sank.
The tavern was located forward on Deck 2 with the lounge mid-ship.
Our crew (and their adorable towel creations!)
Jose, our cabin steward
Diane, the shore excursion manager was one of my favorite people on board.
The dining room as located on Deck 1. This was the lobby before entering the dining room, and I thought Ross and his staff made great use of it! Every night, they lined up every single item on the menu, beginning with the appetizers. I had never seen this done on a cruise ship, and I thought it was a great idea! Being able to see the item with a description eliminated the need to ask questions of the service staff and to better decide what to order.

Just in case you weren’t tempted enough by the main entree’s I showed you earlier, here are a few of the appetizers I ordered during the cruise: