As we flew east and into the night, Alaska still showed its true colours with wonderful views of the high snow covered mountains of the St Elias-Wrangell National Park below us.
But we had to get some sleep if we were to be in good shape for our first day in Chicago the following morning - and we had only a 6 hour flight. Luckily, rest did come easily and we awoke to an extremely sunny morning flying over ordered, flat, agricultural land as we flew into Chicago. We took the train (the El) from the airport, changing trains in downtown before heading up to Fullerton which was near our hotel. Unfortunately, as our flight arrived early we were unable to get into our room until 3pm so left our luggage and went off to explore.
Our hotel - the Belden Stratford - was selected on price and location and it's certainly in a wonderful place. It overlooks Lincoln Park, the Zoo and is only a short walk from Lake Michigan. We grabbed a quick breakfast then sauntered over to and around the Botanical Conservatory across the road then made our way to the Lake. On this wonderful sunny day, everything looked marvellous - Lake Michigan a brilliant blue, with sun drenched beaches stretching southwards towards downtown and its high skyscrapers (Chicago is the home of the skyscraper) and the greenery of Lincoln Park on the right. After Alaska this was certainly different.
We then explored historical Lincoln Park (its built up area) area making our way back to our nearest El station to make our way into the centre called the Loop.Our aim was the Chicago River and one of its top tours which concentrated on the river and architecture of this part of the city.We may use too many superlatives in this blog but Chicago looked - and was - much better, and much more impressive than we had expected.
We were fortunate to get on a boat that was just about to set off and we were able to relax for 90 minutes while we were shown the River and the many building and architectural styles lining its banks - very interesting and enjoyable. It was then back to the hotel to unpack and refresh ourselves, particularly given that the weather was very warm. We ate locally that evening as we explored another part of Lincoln Park.
Next day was to be very full and we returned to the Loop to have the first of two 'cultural' days. Still impressed with downtown Chicago we made our way to Millennium Park and then to the neighbouring Art Institute of Chicago Museum. Millennium Park shows what a dedicated city can do to an area that was, until a few years ago, railway marshalling yards and car parks. It was planned for the Millennium but was finished 4 years late and over budget but is a real lesson what can be done for the city's population and visitor as it is a place which caters for all tastes. Mayor Richard Daley who has been in office for 21 years (his father was also Chicago's mayor for 21 years) seems to have the best interests of Chicago at his heart.He is frequently mentioned in connection with good things that he does and bad things that we won't allow and he is certainly leaving his mark on this city. Millennium Park has a number of highlights but one we wanted to see was sculptor Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (understandably nicknamed the 'Bean') which was commissioned by Richard Daley.It is 110-ton elliptical sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect the city's famous skyline and the clouds above. A 12-foot-high arch provides a "gate" to the concave chamber beneath the sculpture, inviting visitors to touch its mirror-like surface and see their image reflected back from a variety of perspectives - and is certainly impressive and exciting.One hopes his London Olympics sculpture will be as impressive.
Another impressive feature is the stainless steel BP Bridge which snakes across a main highway adjoining Millennium Park with the older Grant Park and lakeside.This will hopefully survive in name despite BP's role in this year's awful Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The Art Institute of Chicago Museum houses one of the best collections of art from across the world bit we decided to focus on impressionism and post impressionism art - which was predictably enjoyable. Modern art as always conflicts between enjoyment and dismay!With time to spare before moving into eating and drinking mode, we decided the weather was exactly right for the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, the tallest building in North America at 1,451ft. Views from the skydeck were supposed to show us 5 states and we were able to confirm the flatness of Illinois as the tower itself is several times higher than any of the natural features in the state!
Next day was another 'cultural' day but with a sporting and musical emphasis.We'd booked tickets to go to famous baseball stadium Wrigleyfield to watch the Chicago Cubs v the Cincinnati Reds. It was another scorching day and with hindsight our seats in the open air and sunlight in Bleachers were perhaps not the best decision. There was certainly some atmosphere in the stadium and especially in Bleachers which is an infamously rowdy part of the terracing. Before the game started, it wasn't unlike a rugby match and as players emerged they were cheered enthusiastically as they positioned themselves in the outfield.To be fair we found it hard to follow the proceedings as innings after innings went on with not a great deal of action in between. It seemed that folk were not paying much attention to what was going on out on the field and were more inclined to wander around the outside galleries buying beer and hotdogs, chatting to their mates, etc. It was a good day out atmosphere but as the day got even hotter we decided to split - we had a full night ahead of us.
We decided to eat in the restaurant attached to the hotel before heading out once more for our last night in Chicago. The food, service and ambience of Mon Ami Gabi were all excellent and it made a really good start to the evening. We'd selected the 2 clubs where we would sample Chicago's jazz and blues scenes and by coincidence both were in our neighbourhood. We started off at the Green Mill which was Al Capone's hangout after he'd 'taken control of' the north of Chicago from his rival. Surprisingly it being a weekday night, it was a busy and bustling with a great atmosphere. The band that night was blasting out swing music with lots of Glenn Miller oldies. After setting ourselves up at the bar we made our way to the dancefloor to bop away a couple of hours.
Next it was a short ride on the El to the Kingston Mines club which was one of the city's oldest blues clubs. That night Walter Scott - yes, Walter Scott - was playing with Willie White and we settled down to hear some good old blues again over a few drinks and a dance. After a thoroughly enjoyable, night, it was back to bed around 2am. Pity we could go on longer because we had to check out for our flight later that day.
Our last few hours in Chicago were spent in the Lincoln Park Zoo just over the road. As many will know we're not normally lovers of zoos but do seem to have visited quite a few in our time! This one was excellent, not just because it was free, but because the range of animals and the quality of their enclosures. One was particularly good in that within the same 'African looking' enclosure were giraffe, ostriches and gazelle.It looked as if we had just stepped into the Masai Mara. On the way to the airport we were fortunate we had a knowledgeable taxi driver who managed to negotiate an increasingly busy city getting ready for the Independence Day celebrations that weekend.As we approached the airport, the traffic on the highway into the city, 17 miles away, was still at a standstill. Our deliberate plan for a late night the night before was so we could sleep on the plane. However, there was a medical alert for one of the crew - which interrupted service generally - then a passenger opposite us had to receive treatment and oxygen.This hindered M especially from getting sleep. But soon we landed near the brown fields of England and home. What a great 5 weeks.
E & M xx