CRUISING THE GREAT LAKES #12: Captivating Chicago, Part 2

I shot a lot of photos in Chicago!  What you saw in my last post was just a fraction!  Chicago is such a photogenic city, and shooting digital (rather than film, like I did in the good ol’ days), allowed me to photograph freely and delete rejects later.  Yes, I deleted a lot of pictures in my editing; however, there were many more that I kept.  Culling them down for my blog was difficult, but I thoroughly enjoyed the process!

Editing my photos and writing my blog posts has allowed me to savor the memories of our vacation for longer than I would have otherwise.  Sure, I’m back in my home office in Georgia, but as I edited, wrote, and read my drafts to Bruce; my mind traveled through the cruise ports and Chicago all over again.  Here it is, nearly one-month post-travels, and I have spent the past four weeks “traveling.”

To conclude, I will leave you with views of the Chicago skyline from above, along, and on the Chicago River.  If you would like to see larger versions of these photos, click on them for a full-screen view.

Marina City, better known as the “Corn Cob” has parking on the lover levels and a marina on the river (see below).
Merchandise Mart has its own zip code!
That’s our architecture tour boat reflected in the building.
Yes, that is real gold!

Thank you for joining me on my journey through the Great Lakes and Chicago! I hope you enjoyed my posts.

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:

Striking Gold in the Gold Coast

The Gold Coast Historic District, where our B&B was located, is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country.  So, rather than take the most direct route to visit the Saturday organic farmers market, we opted for the more scenic route along Deerborn Ave.  Wow; what a gorgeous leafy residential street of mansions, row houses, and pricey apartment buildings.

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Green City Market’s  ( www.greencitymarket.org ) mission is one that Laura and I could really get behind, “Green City Market’s mission is to improve the availability of a diverse range of high quality foods by providing a marketplace for purchasing sustainably grown food and to educate, promote, and connect farmers and local producers directly to chefs, restaurateurs and the greater Chicago community. We also support small family farms and promote a healthier society through education and appreciation for local, fresh, sustainably-raised products.”

This market was perfect; outstanding organic produce, wonderful cheese, beautifully baked breads, tempting freshly prepared crepes and dishes, gorgeous flowers- everything; even plenty of cute dogs to pet! 

 

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The quality was outstanding, so it was unfortunate our travels prevented us from buying a bag of produce to take home.  Instead, I opted for a pretzel roll, just like the ones I bought at bakeries in Germany, during my river cruise.  It was perfect match for the Goose Island Matilda Belgian Pale Ale that I sipped at Old Town Social (www.OldTownSocial.com), while cooling off with Laura.

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Before we continued on to Old Town Social, though, I couldn’t resist a quick stop at my coffee shop (But, I don’t even drink coffee!):

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Saturday in Chicago was another burner, so the crowds were large down at the shore; our final stop before throwing in the towel and heading back to the B&B to cool off.

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For our final dinner in Chicago, we landed at the India House ( http://www.indiahousechicago.com/ ), where we enjoyed outstanding Indian cuisine, before heading to the Navy Pier for a spectacular firework (and lightening!) show.  We had noticed (very) dark clouds off in the distance, while we were at the beach; the same clouds, I would assume, that erupted during the fireworks display.  It was quite a sight!  And, wouldn’t you know it?  As soon as the fireworks ended, the clouds burst open above us.  Thankfully, I had decided to bring my umbrella at the last minute…

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So, that is where the Chicago leg of our Illinois journey ends.  The following day, we were off to Crystal Lake aboard the Metra train.  Standby; the train will be departing soon!

Have You Been to “The Bean”?

After disembarking the architectural tour boat, I couldn’t wait to get over to Millennium Park to see Cloud Gate; affectionately known as “The Bean”.  The stroll through downtown was lovely, but my heart skipped a beat when I saw a thick stand of trees, just up ahead.  We were almost there and I couldn’t wait to get my camera out and start clicking away…

Cloud Gate, a huge bean-shaped stainless steel sculpture, designed by Anish Kapoor, was constructed between 2004 and 2006.  It is the centerpiece of Millennium Park; Chicago’s largest rooftop garden that takes up 24 acres of Grant Park.  Millennium Park is a 24-acre rooftop garden, you ask?  Well, yes, because it sits atop a parking garage and the commuter rail.  What an amazing use of public space!  And, it has become Chicago’s second-most favored attraction, after Navy Pier.

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I could have easily stayed at The Bean all afternoon and into the evening, thinking of various other ways to photograph that magnificent sculpture.  I could only imagine what fun it would have been capturing the city lights, at night!  But, I tore myself away, so Laura could show me the park’s fountain.  WOW!  How cool is this?

Crown Fountain is a video sculpture named in honor of Chicago’s Crown family and designed by Jaume Plensa.  The fountain is composed of a black granite reflecting pool placed between two transparent glass brick towers that use light-emitting diodes behind the bricks to display digital videos.

Other highlights of the park include Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the most amazing band shell I have ever seen:

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Lurie Garden was a lovely addition to Millennium Park.  The 2.5-acre public garden is a combination of perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees.  It is the featured natural component of the world’s largest green roof.

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After strolling through the garden, we ended our day at The Art Institute.  Stop by shortly for highlights of the exhibits we enjoyed , before wrapping up the evening with dinner at Frontera Grill!

Winding Our Way Through the Windy City By Boat

Before I travel, I do a lot of research on my destination; because it is something I really enjoy doing as part of the entire travel experience.  But, this time, I chose a different approach, because I was traveling with Laura.  She had been to Chicago before and had ideas in mind about what she wanted to see, this time around.  I was excited about going along for the ride!  And, we were meeting up in Chicago more to celebrate her upcoming 50th birthday, rather than mine, which had already been celebrated in California.  So, aside from finding our accommodations on Trip Advisor, I had only glanced a time or two at Chicago’s tourism website and quickly checked out “Things To Do” in Chicago, on Trip Advisor.

There were only a few things I knew I really wanted to do in Chicago; my must-see, must-do list.  Otherwise, I figured I would enjoy anything Laura would want to see and do; after all, she has been my best friend for 42 years!  So, what topped my list?  First of all, “Cloud Gate”, the huge sculpture in Millennium Park affectionately known as “The Bean”, because of its bean-like shape.  I knew it would be a hoot to photograph, so I had my heart set on it.  Meanwhile, I had my stomach set on sinking my teeth into a Chicago-style deep dish pizza.  In my mind, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.  In Chicago, it’s deep dish pizza!  And, speaking of food, which Laura and I do frequently, I wanted to treat Laura to dinner at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, for her birthday ( http://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/grill.html ).  Finally, I was sure Laura and I would agree on this one:  An architectural boat tour to learn about downtown Chicago’s varied architecture.  (And, if we made it to the Art Institute, it would be a bonus!)

Thanks to Laura scoring a Groupon, we got a great deal on that architectural boat tour that we were both really looking forward to doing.  So, we set out on foot after enjoying our first night and breakfast at our B&B, heading down Michigan Ave. (“Magnificent Mile”) towards the river.

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Wow!  What a gorgeous avenue; the most beautiful I have ever seen in a large U.S. city.  Gorgeously planted and maintained mini gardens surrounded each tree, along each side of the street, and there was no litter or graffiti to be found.  Chicagoans sure take pride in their city; at least in that part! (We never ventured out to the south side…)  But, the Magnificent Mile is also one of the wealthiest miles anywhere.  Sak’s, Neiman Marcus, Tiffany’s; the list goes on.  It it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.  Needless to say, my wallet stayed firmly in waist pack as we soldiered on (with blinders).

We arrived at the Wrigley Building early for our boat tour, so it was a perfect opportunity to take a stroll along the river and take in the sites of downtown.  What a fabulous surprise!  There was a point to me explaining my lack of research preparation for this trip, detailed previously; I had no idea Chicago had a river located right in between the skyscrapers of downtown!  Having skipped over any of the photos posted on the tourism website or Trip Advisor, I had no idea what to expect.  And, honestly, what I thought I might expect was something more like Manhattan, in New York City.  I figured downtown to be located on Lake Michigan and our boat tour cruising along the shore, to take in the sites of the skyscrapers.  After all, that is what our N.Y. boat tour was like.  Reasonable, right?  Noooo; it wasn’t like that at all!  A river runs right through downtown Chicago with skyscrapers and cafes lining each side of it.  And, beautiful bridges (all unique) cross the river at each block.  WoooHoooo!  It was love at first site.  And, at the very moment I laid eyes on this scene, I declared Chicago my favorite large city in the U.S.A ; other than San Diego, that is!)

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 The twin towers above are “Marina City” (aka “Corn Cobs”); a mixed-use residential/ commercial building.  It was designed in 1959 by Bertrand Goldberg; an architect who seemed to have an aversion to right angles.  When it was completed in 1964, they were the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world.

039-Trump Internationals Hotel and Tower

Trump International Hotel and Tower, named after The Donald, is a condo-hotel designed by Adrian Smith.  At 92 stories (1,389 feet), it is one of the tallest buildings in Chicago.

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The tallest building in Chicago, at 108 stories, is the Willis Tower, formerly known as the “Sears Tower”.  At completion, in 1973, it was the tallest building in the world.  Today, it is ranked 7th.

This is why I enjoy modern downtown skylines:

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See you next at “The Bean”!

May in Washington, D.C. & June in Chicago

It has been a busy spring:  4 crafts shows; swim meets at Georgia Tech, Geezer (Senior) Games, Greensboro (Nationals), and Athens; Griffin Choral Arts’ season finale concert; train trip to Washington, D.C.; and, a trip to Chicago.  Mix in some contract work, a handful (or two) of community events, and a 100+ miles of swim training, and, it made for a delicious spring that went by in the blink of an eye.  Happy summer, everybody!

Turning 50 in January kicked off what has turned out to be a fantastic year, so far.  So, my best friend, Laura, and I kept things rolling by meeting in Chicago to celebrate her upcoming 50th birthday.  In 42 years of friendship, this was the first time we had met up for a girls-only trip out of town.

Since we both enjoy staying at B&B’s, we decided to rely on our favorite travel website, www.TripAdvisor.com, to recommend one for us in Chicago.  Research led us to Gold Coast Guest House Bed & Breakfast (http://www.bbchicago.com/index.html ), centrally located in downtown Chicago.

So, Laura flew from California and I flew out from Atlanta, meeting up in the airport, to begin our adventure to a city she had visited before, but was new to me and on my bucket list.

Sally greeted us upon arrival at the B&B, a charming row house located on the edge of the Gold Coast, one of the priciest neighborhoods in the country.  It is quite charming and comfortable; just perfect for what we wanted.  And, the location could not be beat!

After settling in and being shown around, Laura and I headed out to enjoy drinks on the 96th floor of the John Hancock building; a short walk away through the lovely streets of downtown.  As we strolled down a small section of the Miracle Mile (Michigan Avenue), we passed by sports commentator, Peter Gammons,; probably in town for the Chicago Cubs vs. Boston Red Sox, game taking place that evening.

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Upon arrival, an ear-popping elevator ride took us up to the 96th floor bar, where we gawked at the view, as soon as we stepped out.  But, check this out…  When was the last time you used the restroom facilities anywhere with a view like this?  It brought hand-washing to a whole new level!

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More scenes of downtown, as we made our way to Big Bowl for a tasty dinner of Asian stir-fry.

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Next up:  Winding our way through windy Chicago by boat.  Check back soon!