Saturday, May 06, 2017

Toe-tapping in the Windy City (cont.)

Sunday - Day 3
The show room at Lincoln Park Conservatory
On Sunday morning, we decided to wake up with the flowers at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. After a filling breakfast, it was off to see what Chicago's green thumbs had wrought. We arrived shortly after they opened at 9 a.m. Admission is free, and there's plenty to see! The first large,  interior space is warm and humid, suitable for tropical plants. There's a nearly obscene-looking sausage tree there, in addition to tons of cycads (some older than the city of Chicago itself). We strolled through ferns and koi ponds, hunting for the tiny plastic dinosaurs placed strategically among flora that might have been around during prehistoric times.

After enjoying the lovely orchid room, we gasped at the giant blooms in the show room. This large, light-filled space boasted mounds of colorful hydrangeas, azaleas, hyacinth, lilies, and other flowering plants, nested amongst paths and small pools. Giant hanging baskets dripped flowers from the ceilings, as well. Loved, loved this space.

Amazing entryway at the Driehaus Museum
Still jonesing for more to do, we decided to check out the Richard Driehaus Museum, a private home that was purchased by a wealthy art collector, restored, and then opened as a museum to showcase some of his collection. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! Ok, Richard Driehaus is a very successful investor who has obviously amassed an incredible fortune. He's also a passionate arts and architecture  enthusiast. He MUST have more money than God, because this place is exquisite. Heavily ornamented and fully restored, much of the house features gorgeous surviving furnishings. Some of Driehaus' personal art collection of extremely fragile French posters (think Toulouse-Lautrec), hang in exhibits on the second floor, in what would have been the family bedrooms.

Amazing sculpture, fixtures, art, furniture, and architecture are on display throughout the house. This place reminded me a bit of the Frick in NYC. If you want to stroll around airily, pretending to be a rich, 19th-century banker, this is the place. As is so often the case, my only regret is that I wasn't wearing a sequined evening gown in which to be photographed on the marble stairs in the glimmering entryway. Tragic.

In the room where it happened . . . 
By this time, we were getting hungry for lunch. We decided to grab a bite at Cochon Volant, which was about a block from the PrivateBank Theatre (where we had tickets for the 2 p.m. matinee). As it was the weekend, the day called for brunch! I had the avocado toast and eggs, and I couldn't have been more happy with them! Large serving, delightful flavor, and completely satisfying! We savored our coffees before settling up and walking the block or so to the theatre.

Having purchased our tickets in advance, it was a quick trip to get into the PrivateBank Theatre lobby, then seated. I cannot tell you how giddy the audience was to see this show. I've been to a lot of shows. I've been to a lot of Broadway shows. But never have I seen the selfie madness that was the 20 minutes or so in the house before Hamilton! began. Everyone seemed to want to get a photo of themselves with the set in the background. Everyone was instagramming the program, the stage, themselves. In other words, folks, I had found my tribe.

The lights went down, the music came up, and for the next 3 hours or so, we all forgot every petty thing we'd been worrying about and lost ourselves in this production. It's as good as everyone says it is. The lighting is genius. The way the production uses minimal set and set pieces to greatest advantage is smart and tight. Performances are amazing. (Daniel Breaker as Aaron Burr is the deft hand that guides the whole show. Alexander Gemignani as King George is an absolute SCREAM! Chris De'Sean Lee as Lafayette/Jefferson worked the crowd. There isn't a weak link in the cast. Incredible, incredible work is being done here.) I paid more for this theatre ticket than I've ever paid for any theatre ticket. And it was worth every. red. cent. Cathartic.
The lacy light court at The Rookery

After the show, we stopped back at the hotel a bit to get off our feet. Then, it was dinner at Remington's! We trekked a bit through the chill to get there, then slid into a cozy booth. I chose the delicious branzino with a glass of red wine. Then, we *may have* split the skillet cookie for dessert.  Perhaps. Then, bed!! Aaaahhhh!!!

Monday - Day 4
On our last full day in the city, we took our time getting ready in the morning. We had a late breakfast at the hotel, then made our way to The Rookery for an 11 a.m. tour. I'd been wanting to tour this space ever since I read Devil in the White City, a riveting book by Erik Larson about the Chicago World's Fair and the calculating serial killer who worked its edges. If you do much touring around Chicago, you'll see this book pop up in all sorts of gift shops, and I highly recommend it. Fascinating. (FYI - I read a while back that Scorcese and DiCaprio have optioned the tome's film rights. We shall see . . . )

The offices of Burnham and Root
At 11 floors, The Rookery was one of the first skyscrapers in Chicago. Its architects, Burnham and Root, put their office space on the top floor to demonstrate that it was safe. The two architects went on to design and build all of the buildings for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. During the tour, you learn about the building's history, including Frank Lloyd Wright's renovation of the building's light court entryway in the early 1900s. The knowledgeable guide talks you through subsequent renovations and restorations, and the tour ends in a restored office space of Burnham and Root's on the 11th floor. I loved this building and our tour, and you could tell our guide did, too! Such an amazing piece of Chicago history. The Rookery is still being used as an office and commercial space today, and I'm glad it's being preserved and enjoyed all these years after its construction.

We decided to go old-school for lunch, stopping at The Berghoff for weiner schnitzel! Service was quick, prices were reasonable, and we left with full, satisfied tummies! And we were going to need the fuel. Our next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago, and it takes stamina to explore a museum of such size.

After paying admission, we had about four hours to devote to it. Because we enjoy different types of art, we split up to maximize our time. I headed straight for the Thorne Miniature Rooms on the lower level. Such detail! Such craft! So unbelievable! While there, I also explored the shimmering paperweight collection.

Chagall's America Windows
(the theatre panel)
Then, it was off the the first floor, where I took in the Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan collections before tracking down Chagall's America Windows and testing out the acoustics in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room (which I had all to myself). I admired the Greek, Roman and Byzantine art spaced around McKinlock Court (Hellooooo, Bust of Antinous as Osiris!) and tried to be really, really quiet in the Ando gallery before heading to the second floor.

Must-sees for me on this trip were Hopper's Nighthawks (contrasted with Motley's Nightlife, which hangs nearby), Whistler's Mother (which wasn't here the last time I visited), and Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. There was a new armory since my last visit (and you know how I love fancy weapons), so I checked that out, and I also spent time in the medieval and Renaissance galleries.

I'm not much for modern art, but I did swing by there for Mitchell's City Landscape. And somewhere in here, I accidentally stumbled across a special exhibit - Helio Oiticica. There's an Eden installation there in which you take off your shoes and then walk through a series of created rooms, over sand, water, rocks, straw, all kinds of things. You encounter small, private spaces, You brush against flora. You hear birds. This is totally NOT the kind of thing I'd normally do, but I threw myself into it and LOVED it. Immersive. Unique. Interactive. Genius.

Whistler's Mother! New since my last visit!
After spending all afternoon at the museum, we were POOPED! We decided to rest our barking dogs at Russian Tea Time, where I had the lovely fruited quail (served with mashed potatoes and garlicky spinach) with a nice glass of red. I finished up with a napoleon for dessert, then we called it a day!

The next morning, it was shower/breakfast/pack/fly, and I was home! What a great trip in a great town! I can't wait to come back to Chicago (though I WILL hope for better weather next time)!




Toe-tapping in the Windy City

The gorgeous lobby at the Palmer House Hilton. 
So, anyone who knows me knows I am a HUGE theatre nerd. I love, love, love live theatre. I love being entertained and letting shows wash over me. I love thinking about the choices the director, technicians, and actors made to produce the show I'm watching.

As you can imagine, I've been swept up in the Hamilton  mania. Now, I've had NO problem waiting to get a chance to see the show. Let's face it - Broadway shows rarely make the leap off the arts page and into more widespread popular culture. I was more than happy to wait and let people who rarely go to live theatre file through, in hopes that they might become theatre devotees and help keep the arts alive.

But frankly, it was time. Around the first of the year, a work colleague reached out to me, inquiring if I'd like to make a quick trip to Chicago to see the show there. Happiness! I'd been to Chicago before and love the city, so it was an easy choice.

We added a few days to make a mini-vacation of it. Here's what we did:

Friday - Day 1
Cloud Gate in Chicago's Millennium Park
I got into town just before lunch and headed to the hotel we booked - The Palmer House Hilton. We chose this hotel because it's in a fantastic location (heart of the tourist district, nearly across the street from the PrivateBank Theatre, where Hamilton is playing) but also because my traveling companion loves history. In addition to being a lovely property, the hotel has a long and storied history that is tied tightly to the story of Chicago. The famed peacock doors and opulent lobby are a sight to behold, and the rooms are comfortable. (We chose a room with two double beds and two bathrooms, a genius selection for two women traveling together. Plenty of space for getting ready in the morning.)

I had a lovely lunch in the hotel restaurant, the Lockwood, as I waited for my friend to arrive (mushroom pasta, with creme brûlée to finish). We routinely ate breakfast at the Lockwood during our stay, as the weather was chilly and rainy. (Morning is a tender time. I'm not traditionally up for cold rain until I've got something delicious in my belly in the a.m.)

Once she arrived, we settled our things at the hotel and then headed out for a quick walk. She'd not been to Chicago as a tourist, so we had some basic sights to see. We started at Millennium Park and Cloud Gate, otherwise known as "the bean" for obvious reasons. Like every other tourist, we walked up to the bean, observed how it reflected us, the city, other people. We walked underneath it into a fun house of reflections. I've experienced the bean before, but it never gets old!

Thirsting for knowledge at the Chicago Cultural Center
We also checked out the concert pavilion and Crown Fountain. To keep our history vibe going, we took a turn through the Chicago Cultural Center to admire the Tiffany dome. After stopping for a quick drink at Tavern at the Park (We tried the CloudGate cocktail, minus the expensive jewelry surprise!), we headed down Michigan Avenue. We took in the bridge, the really cool base of the Chicago Trib building, the Wrigley building, and all of the lovely spring plantings along the Mag Mile.

We ended our short hop at the historic Water Tower, one of the only structures in Chicago to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Then, it was back to the hotel for a break before dinner. That night, we had a quick dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant - Vapiano. You go in, get a card, then order pizza, pasta, salads, or antipasti at the front. Then, they cook your food and bring it to you. It's like a deli, but more substantial food. Portions are HUGE, and prices are low. The only tough thing - it's loud and crowded in here! Nevertheless, we enjoyed our pasta (I chose a delicious, creamy chicken carbonara.) and wine and then hit the hay.

Saturday - Day 2
GIANT sculpture from Middle Eastern temples at
the Oriental Institute Museum
After another delicious breakfast at the Lockwood (spendy, but yummy, and so comfortable and easy - I chose an omelette this time), we hopped in a cab to check out the Oriental Institute Museum. I'd never been to this museum before, and indeed, I'd never even been to this part of Chicago before. It's gorgeous! The museum is on the campus of the University of Chicago, a lovely place full of brick and stone buildings, climbing ivy, and pedestrian paths. Flowering trees were already in bloom, and if the day hadn't been so gray, drippy, and chilly, I would have loved to explore this part of the city more on foot. As it was, we hustled into the museum for some interior discovering.

The museum owes much of its collection to the scholarly partnership is shares with historic sites throughout the Middle East. Students and scholars from the university participate in excavations in the region, for which they are allotted some of the items uncovered. The museum has a large collection of pots, tools, seals (I thought these were really cool.), and sculpture, in addition to some truly huge and impressive pieces recovered from temples and palaces. They also have an Egyptian collection, with a few mummies, some airy papyrus, and stone friezes. We spent a couple of hours here, taking in the collection and browsing the gift shop.

One of Wright's famous stained glass
windows at Robie House
As the weather was still miserable, we abandoned our plan of eating lunch in a nearby Italian restaurant and walked the scant block to the Plein Air Cafe for lunch. The tiny cafe was packed, but we lucked out with a table, settling in for salad and sandwiches. (I can vouch for the prosciutto and manchego baguette, served with fig jam and arugula - delish! And the vanilla latte I had with it warmed my very soul.)

We relaxed a bit over our warm cups, then popped right across the street for our 1 p.m. tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. I'd toured Taliesin West back when hubs and I visited Arizona, but other than that, I hadn't toured any of Wright's buildings. This private home is a little gem, sheltered by trees and open to its surrounds. The tour starts in the gift shop/courtyard area, then winds around the house to the lovely front porch, and then to the entryway. The outside of the structure has been fully restored, and efforts are underway to restore the home's interior as well. Gorgeous wood paneling and stained glass, coupled with Wright's penchant for close spaces that open into large ones, make this a lovely stop.

Light, open sitting room at Robie House
After soaking in the architecture a bit, we hopped a car back to the hotel for a quick break. We wanted to be well-rested for dinner at The Gage, which I was very much looking forward to. It was a delight! I had the roasted elk rack entree with roasted brussels sprouts and a big glass of wine. I finished it off with a piece of sweet strawberry pie. YUM. Prices aren't cheap here, but you get what you pay for. My food was amazing (and the wine pour was generous), our server was attentive without being annoying, and we left the restaurant full and happy!

More to come . . .


Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Weekend in Magical Orlando (cont.)

Pasta at Vivo Italian Kitchen! 
I spent the next day in my conference sessions, learning, networking, and typing tons of notes. That night, however, after our sessions were over, I had other plans. I took a quick Uber to Universal CityWalk. And, boy, was it crowded! After going through security and navigating the sea of humanity surging through the shopping, dining, and entertainment district, I found what I was looking for - Vivo Italian Kitchen. I was seated quickly and settled in for squid ink seafood pasta and a big glass of red. Delicious! This meal totally hit the spot. It was filling, tasty, and at a very reasonable price point.

By this time, the crowd outside had thinned. (Thank God.) I ventured out and explored CityWalk a bit, snapping pics and fondly remembering our fall vacation here. Then, it was off to Blue Man Group. I had tickets for the poncho zone, and I wasn't going to miss a minute of it! I hadn't seen Blue Man Group live since my first trip to Las Vegas, about seven years ago! I scooted up to the will call desk, claimed my ticket, and headed in. In the front rows, plastic ponchos are draped over each seat. I happily donned mine (It was a bit of a struggle. Now I know how George Bush felt at the Trump inauguration.) and settled into my seat.
The blue men are so sweet! They stay in the
lobby after the show and take pics with fans!

The show cranked up, and the concept was just as fun as I remember. Three blue men played the drums, made art, and interacted with technology in a show that was surprising, disconcerting, funny, and human. There was a lot of audience interaction, which kept the crowd's interest high. Wonderful!

When the show was over, I took a cab back to the resort and settled in to bed.

The next day was another bonanza of professional development. That evening, the conference had partnered with Disney to host a networking event for us on the "beach" outside. It was so fun! Tables and chairs were set up in the sand, the food and drink were both terrific, we had a DJ, and Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Captain Hook, and Smee joined us for photos! What fun! Nobody does events like Disney, and we all felt special!

After it was over, I headed back to my little bridge for the fireworks, then sank gratefully into bed. We had half a day of coursework the third day, then myself and another conference attendee walked the boardwalk one last time, picking up slices of pizza for lunch and making a last round through the shops for souvenirs.

Disney sure knows how to paaaarrrrty!!
Then, it was pack, airport, home! Hopefully, the next time I visit Orlando, I can bring my little tribe with me. It's been four years since we went to Disney, and I KNOW there are oodles of rides that Clay wasn't tall enough to enjoy then that he'd love now. Can't wait to return!

A Weekend in Magical Orlando

The Yacht Club lobby.
Back in the fall, I won a free conference registration at a professional development event. I used that freebie to attend a conference in sunny Orlando, Florida, figuring that I'd talk my little family into coming along for some fun.

No dice. Hubs was on call that weekend back at the ranch, and I couldn't take little man without someone to watch him while I attended the conference sessions and networking events. Undeterred, I decided that *I* would still go down early for the weekend and enjoy myself.

I flew into Orlando around lunchtime and caught a cab to Disney's Yacht Club Resort. I'd never stayed at this property before, so I was interested to check it out. It's so lovely! Built to evoke a New England-style yacht club, the expansive lobby features model boats and a huge, spinning globe so you can chart your adventures. My room was a spacious double with a lovely little balcony. The resort hugs a bay, with a lighthouse pier jutting out into the water. From the pier, you can catch a free boat shuttle to the boardwalk (replete with restaurants and shops), Epcot, or Hollywood Studios. Epcot, the Boardwalk, and the Dolphin and Swan resorts are all clustered around the man-made bay, very close by and easily walkable along the resort's many trails and pathways.
The Boardwalk, lit beautifully at night!

I unpacked my things, freshened up a bit, and headed out in search of lunch.

I found it at Beaches and Cream, a cute little sandwich shop at the resort. It's retro-themed, and in addition to lunch fare, it also serves ice cream. (Lots and lots of ice cream.) I took a seat at the counter and ordered a snappy grilled cheese and tomato soup. The food came out quickly and was delicious, if a little pricey. (You are at a resort, after all.)

Sated, I decided to toss on my swimsuit and check out Stormalong Bay, the resort's pool. I'd heard it was one of the best at Disney World, and I wasn't disappointed! First of all, it's BIG. Several swimming areas are connected, traversed by small bridges and centered around a windmill and a raised, covered patio featuring a pool table. At one end of the pool, a huge pirate ship functions as a water slide. There's also a hot tub, a pool bar, and free lockers for your things. Plenty of chaise lounges and umbrellas dot the area. (And as I discovered later, this isn't even the only pool at the resort. There's another, more standard hotel pool also on property. Not as gee-whiz, but also virtually deserted.)

Drinks at bluezoo!
I swam most of the afternoon and got some sun. I also walked a bit around the resort and took a quick turn on the free boat shuttle, just to orient myself and take in my surroundings a bit. It's a lovely area.

I went back to my room to shower and get ready for dinner. I had reservations at Todd English's bluezoo, a short walk away at the Dolphin resort. A beautiful stroll in the evening air, and I was there. I started off with a delightful sweet cocktail called the bee's knees (made with local honey), then moved on to the grouper, which was served with a rock shrimp risotto and an amazing sauce. I ate up every bite!! Delicious! Plus, the dining room is atmospheric, and the service is wonderful.

After dinner, I decided to walk around the boardwalk. I'd heard that street performers appeared there in the evenings, and I was treated to a quick magic show and a fun juggling act! In addition, views around the bay are lovely in the evenings, as all of the resorts and shops are lit brilliantly.

I'd heard that a bridge on property offered great views of the Epcot fireworks each night, so I headed over there at 9 p.m. Lovely! You can't see the low part of the Epcot show from there, but you can see all of the big fireworks. A great vantage point for a free show! After that, I walked along the "beach" and back to the hotel for lights out.

The next morning, I was up early. I had a ticket to Discovery Cove, and I was excited to get there! I decided to go to Discovery Cove instead of the Disney parks because I hate waiting in line. I happened to be visiting Disney at a really high-crowd time (spring break), and I didn't relish the thought of so many lines and crowds at the park. Discovery Cove, however, caps admission to its park. So it's never more crowded than it ever is (if that makes sense). So, a day of marine wildlife it was!

Discovery Cove is GORGEOUS!
I caught a quick Uber to the park and checked in, getting my badge for the day. From there, it was off for a full (and yummy) breakfast on site: eggs, bacon, potatoes, pastries, french toast. They had it all. You pay to get into the park, and all your gear, lockers, meals, drinks, and snacks are included. They have plenty of towels for guests and even fish-friendly sunscreen! It's nice not having to think about any of that! After breakfast, I got the lay of the land. The great thing about Discovery Cove is that it's plenty big, with plenty to do, but it's easily do-able in one day. After getting my bearings, I suited up in my free wetsuit for my first activity - a swim with the dolphins!

My group of 9 or so folks followed our trainer out into one of the dolphin pools, where we met LaToya, our dolphin for the morning. For the next hour or so, we learned about dolphins, stroked LaToya's smooth, soft skin, and watched her show off. She splashed, waved, and talked to us. She also did some jumps and other tricks. At the end, we each got to swim with her for a short distance and have our photos made with her! It was so fun! Discovery Cove has about 55 dolphins on site, and they rotate them out for guest interactions so the dolphins have plenty of time to rest and relax. When you buy your ticket to Discovery Cove, you can either include or exclude the dolphin experience. I highly recommend including it! I had such fun!

This is my sweet dolphin, LaToya!
After the dolphin swim, I checked out my free snorkel gear and headed for the Great Reef, where you get to snorkel with oodles of fish and non-harmful rays. When I first got there, there was almost no one in the water. It was amazing to swim through the "reef" alone, with fish all around you and rays gliding silently by. The reef is big enough that even later in the day, when it got more crowded, you could find pockets of solitude within it. Really, really cool.

After enjoying the reef, I headed over to the bird aviary. There are a few of them, and there are plenty of Discovery Cove employees around who can give you food to feed the birds. Birds would perch on your hand or your shoulder to eat! So fun! And there were so many to see!

Then, I explored the freshwater oasis, where you can see otters and marmosets. The otters weren't very active while I was there, but I got up close and personal with the marmosets, who were all hanging out in full view. I also stumbled on the oasis bar around this time, opting to try a mango cocktail to wet my whistle.

I wasn't yet really hungry for lunch, so I checked out Serenity Bay (a "beach" pool, with sand and a waterfall) and the Windaway River. (It's kind of like a lazy river, but HUGE, and with really deep parts. You use pool noodles to float through it. You can also snorkel through it.) I really loved Windaway River. It's gorgeous, and it wends through the aviary. I saw huge peacocks resting in the trees, their tail feathers dripping down like a cascade of jewels.

By this time, I was hungry! You can choose from a wide variety of food, with both traditional fast food and much healthier options available. (It's also all-you-can-eat!) I had beef tips with veggies and rice, then a piece of cheesecake. Yum!

After lunch, I hit the reef, the oasis, the bay, and the river all again. I also explored the resort more on foot, swung in a hammock, and got some sun in a chaise lounge before deciding to call it a day at around 4:30 p.m.

A quick Uber ride later, I was back at the Yacht Club, freshening up for dinner. I was meeting up with a fellow conference attendee for dinner at the Yachtsman Steakhouse. Katie and I met in the waiting area for the restaurant, were quickly seated, and then enjoyed steaks and pinot while we got to know each other and discussed our work and life. The steak was rare, the pinot was dry, and the company was great!

More to come . . .