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Trip Report Combating Cabin Fever: An Escape to the Windy City (Chicago with Pre-Teens)

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Where: Chicago with a friend and her pre-teen daughters

When: Two days in February 2014

Why: After being housebound by what seemed to be a never-ending winter (enough already!), it was time to bundle up and brave the elements.

Weather: Our overnight visit was perfectly timed between the winter storms which had been plaguing the Midwest. Chicago in February, fortunately, did not live up to its moniker. We were blessed with beautiful weather in which to explore some of the best Windy City offerings. Temps soared into the mid 30s and it was sun, sun, sunny!

Getting there and around: We were traveling from West Michigan on one side of Lake Michigan to Chicago on the other. Though it’s only three hours by car, we opted to let someone else do the driving and journeyed via train. The price we paid for Amtrak tickets for two adults and two children wasn’t much more than what we would have incurred for gas and hotel parking had we made the trip by car. Unfortunately, Amtrak leases its passage into and out of Chicago on tracks owned by freight companies, and I don’t recall ever traveling to the Windy City via train without a delay. This time proved to be no different. Though scheduled to arrive at 10:30 that morning, we didn’t roll into Union Station until nearly an hour later.

Once in Chicago we did a lot of walking, but also hopped on the El. This was the girls’ first experience using Chicago mass transit and they loved it. We also relied on cabs when the El proved inconvenient to our comings and goings or later at night. Amusingly, the girls got the biggest kick out of signs displayed in the backseat: “$50 fee for vomiting in taxi”! Try to explain that one to ten-year-olds! I love chatting up people when I travel and learned our cab drivers originally hailed from Eritrea and Morocco in Africa and Bosnia in Southern Europe. It was interesting to hear stories about their arrival in the United States and life in the Windy City.

Hotel: The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel in the South Loop was our home away from home while in Chicago. The Beaux-Art landmark was designed by the architectural firm Marshall & Fox and named for Timothy Blackstone, president of the Illinois Central Railroad, whose mansion had once stood on the site. For many decades the Blackstone was considered to be Chicago’s premier luxury hotel. I’m all about swanky accommodations! Opening in April 1910, it was a favorite retreat for movie stars, sports legends, international royalty and 12 U.S. Presidents. The hotel is actually famous for the political cliché “smoke-filled rooms”! The Blackstone was shuttered in 1999 then transformed with a $128 million renovation. When I made my reservation, hotel staff graciously accommodated my request for an upgrade with no extra charge. It never hurts to ask! Our room on the 17th floor afforded us a spectacular view of Grant Park and Lake Michigan and was literally priceless. Now partnered with Marriott, I was able to use reward points for our stay. We like free!

Sights: I typically don’t travel with children, but managed to come up with a game plan that would entertain travelers of all ages.

Opting to lunch at the top of the John Hancock Center (details below), we had spectacular views from the 95th floor. Since the price of lunch approximated the fee for admission to the building’s observatory only one floor below, we were able to kill two birds with one stone. We were packed into the dedicated elevators like sardines, but they move at 1,800 feet per minute and zipped us to the restaurant in only 40 seconds. The girls were amused that their ears popped on the way up!

Located across the street from the Hancock Center and housing kid-friendly stores, Water Tower Place was a must-stop. The girls are on the brink of outgrowing American Girl, but still wanted to show me around. Having no children of my own I never had reason to set foot in the store before. I was surprised at how much there was to do in the two floors of doll heaven. Magazine cover pictures, afternoon tea at the café, a hair salon and hospital specifically for dolls, and outfits, accessories and furniture galore. What an experience … and amazing marketing success! The only thing we walked out with was their current catalog, but it was a fun visit for all of us. We also checked out the neighboring Lego Store. I was impressed with its sculptures, especially the display window which features Lego creations of some of Chicago’s most well-known architecture.

I’ve passed the Fourth Presbyterian Church on numerous occasions during previous visits to Chicago, but never gave it a second thought. An open door prompted us to take a peek inside this time around. The congregation was organized in February 1871 through the merger of two older congregations, and occupied two earlier church buildings before moving to Michigan Avenue. The cornerstone of its present site was laid in 1912 and the building dedicated in May 1914. Except for the Old Water Tower, Fourth Church is the oldest building on Michigan Avenue north of the Chicago River. With my love of historic architecture, this 100-year-old building did not disappoint. The church is not a copy of any one structure, but rather combines what architect Ralph Adams Cram saw as the best of English Gothic and French Gothic styles. Much larger than it appears to be from its outside façade, the interior is stunning!

No visit to the Windy City is complete without a theater experience and we decided upon Chicago Children’s Theater production Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money. This R&B musical mystery is based on the novel of the same name by Newberry Award-winning author Christopher Paul Curtis. It follows the adventures of 10-year-old Steven, self-proclaimed spy and president of the Flint Future Detectives Club. Interestingly, when I tried to purchase tickets online before traveling to Chicago, I learned that CCT only sells an allotted number via their website. While they can be purchased at the box office on the day of the show, we were visiting from out of town and wanted to ensure we’d be able to get them. I placed a call to CCT’s administrative staff and explained our situation; they accommodated me by assisting with ticket purchase by phone. With an incredibly talented cast, score featuring new music by Motown legend Lamont Dozier and his son Paris, and a plot with morality messages, Mr. Chickee’s entertained and educated all of us. I also loved the venue, The Ruth Page Center for the Arts. Located in Chicago’s Near North Side, the small theater is housed in a 1927 Gold Coast building and allows for an intimate experience. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house.

I originally suggested a visit to Shedd Aquarium, but the girls wanted to see The Field Museum instead. I think they were intrigued by coming face to face with Sue. With 58 teeth and a killer smile, she’s 67 million years old, 42 feet long and 13 feet high, and the largest, most complete and best T Rex ever discovered. I last saw her when she was first unveiled in May 2000. She’s still just as impressive! We also opted for the special exhibit “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.” More than 27 million descended upon Chicago in 1893 to attend the six-month run of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a showcase of architecture, culture, technology and peoples from around the world. I never knew that The Field Museum and its extensive collection originated from the 1893 World’s Fair and the artifacts displayed there. It was established to house the exhibits and collections post-fair for future generations to enjoy. Displays that amazed fairgoers some 120 years earlier were showcased in this exhibit, many of which have rarely or never before surfaced from the museum’s collection. And more amazing architecture was displayed in The Field Museum’s neoclassical style. Good choice, girls!

Restaurants: I avoid chain restaurants like the plague and instead prefer to indulge in local flavor. Chicago is a foodie paradise with a delectable spread of places to dine. Again, with younger travelers in tow, we had to include eateries that would not only comply with the uniquely Chicago prerequisite, but appeal to their discernible taste buds as well.

As previously mentioned, The Signature Room at the 95th in the John Hancock Center provided us with something we aren’t able to do at home: Simultaneously enjoy a meal and fabulous views of the city and Lake Michigan 95 floors below. Because we arrived in Chicago behind schedule due to train delays, we were going to be late for our noon lunch reservation. I had no problem moving it back 45 minutes with a quick call to the restaurant. While reservations are encouraged, window seating requests are not taken in advance nor guaranteed. We did ask for a table with a view upon arrival and only had to wait about ten minutes to be accommodated. The stunning Chicago skyline and vista from the floor-to-ceiling windows were well worth the wait. Fine dining, of course, often comes with a fine price tag, but a reasonable buffet is offered during lunch on Fridays and Saturdays ($20 for adults and $11 for children 12 and under). The chef’s choice on the day we visited featured southern fixin’s and fares, and fit the bill for most of our party. I opted to order off the menu and was quite pleased with a roasted salmon fillet. Amazing food and outstanding attentive service … even thought the place was mobbed. “The restaurant Chicago looks up to” was a great introduction to Windy City dining!

Burgers, fries and milkshakes served by rude wait staff that randomly dances on the counter? Admittedly, I knew Ed Debevic’s was touristy, but I also knew the girls would get a kick out of it. We had told them in advance this place had an intentionally surly attitude, but they either forgot or weren’t really prepared for what they encountered. They were mortified when the hostess asked, “So, how old are you brats anyway?” We stifled a laugh and assured her they had indeed been warned. Mediocre food, but fun atmosphere for kids and kids at heart!

Breakfast on Sunday morning was bound to be a challenge wherever we went, but Yolk was on our way to The Field Museum and destination of choice. Amazingly, we happened to time our arrival just right and were immediately seated. It got quite crowded as the morning went on with lines out the door. But is it any wonder? As Yolk so aptly advertises, “there’s way more than just eggs here.” In addition to scrambles, eggs bennies and omelets, they offer specialty pancakes, waffles, French toast and crepes, as well as juices and their own private labeled premium coffee. And what customer service! Our server was efficient and friendly. Win-win! A really good pick for a breakfast place in the Windy City!

In a city known as the pizza capital of the world, Gino’s East was our choice for a deep dish pie. Their story began in 1966 when two taxi drivers and a friend, frustrated with rush hour traffic, decided to open a pizzeria. The original Gino’s East became an instant legend with local Chicagoans, national celebrities and visitors from around the world. We dined at the South Loop location in the Printer’s Row neighborhood near our hotel. Yes, each pizza is handmade and you have to endure an agonizing 45-minute preparation. But it is oh so worth the wait. Delish! We passed the time by watching the Olympic games on television screens encircling the eatery, and enjoyed an artisan cheese and charcuterie board featuring seasonal fruit compote. This was the perfect way to wrap up our Windy City getaway before catching the train back home.

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