Windy City Walkabout

I often stumble into conversations about travel. Folks tell me about their cruise along Vietnam’s Mekong River, their visit to India’s Taj Mahal, or climbing the Acropolis of Athens. Inevitably, I’m asked what the “coolest,” “interesting” or “most pleasurable” place I’ve been to is. I could say Dubai— well, cool it wasn’t; the temperature each day reached well over 100 degrees— Turkey was eye opening, as were the customs agents in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Know what my answer has been of late? West Virginia. That’s right: Wild and Wonderful West Virginia. The state’s beauty and serenity is vast, but that’s besides the real point: I am tired of people only talking about spectacular destinations outside of the U.S. Doesn’t anyone realize that we have some amazing places within our borders? It’s time people put their passports away and began discovering what the U.S. has to offer.

Millenium knickerbocker chicago

An older guest room at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago

That’s why I was so excited to take a trip to Chicago. If you are going to venture into Middle America, the Windy City is a can’t-miss destination. We stayed at the venerable Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago, which, in 2009, will have completed a $27 million renovation of most of the hotel.

The first phase, which included all guest rooms, is now complete. Our spacious and well-appointed one-bedroom suite was the perfect base for a Chicago-style weekend. The interior is elegant and comfortable and we loved the two back-to-back flat-screen TVs: one facing the living room, the other facing the bed. You could really see the restoration in the details of the bathroom. Service Note: When we asked for extra toiletries, instead of bringing up a few items, the bellhop gave us a bag filled with shampoos, conditioners, soaps and other items. Now that’s service you can believe in!

The new rooms are in stark contrast to their predecessors. Gone are the drab color patterns and anachronistic florid wallpaper, replaced by sleek and crisp design. Rooms are now much more in step with contemporary 21st-century design, which is now reminiscent of most new hotels.

Millenium knickerbocker chicago

A renovated guest room at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel Chicago

As noted, the bathroom was a big hit. It seems that the new style touch is to have the bathtub adjacent to the shower, running contiguous. We loved both, especially the rainshower system.

The hotel also has a cozy and relaxing martini bar, a great spot to have a drink and watch a ball game. It will get tinkered with, though, as part of Phase II of the hotel’s renovation, which should be completed by next spring. This final phase includes a new Grand Suite, a new fitness center, a champagne salon and revamped Martini Bar and a refreshed entrance and lobby area.

What won’t change is the hotel’s optimal location right around the corner from Michigan Avenue, a.k.a The Magnificent Mile and its surfeit of retail outlets. We had fabulous retail therapy in such stores as Bloomingdales and Apple.


A sumptuous Chicago dog

But what I was most excited for in Chicago was the food—hot dogs to be exact. First, the Chicago-style hot dog, which is quite particular: It is a steamed all beef hot dog topped with yellow mustard, green relish, onions, tomato wedges, pickle spear, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt served in a steamed poppyseed bun. So, where’s the best place to get one?

When we were in town, we headed to Wiener’s Circle (2622 N. Clark St; 773-477-7444), a Chicago institution known as much for its tasty dogs as for its somewhat tasteless scene, particularly after the sun goes down. Yes, one of the draws here is that the staff and customers exchange insults and obscenities during the ordering process. And, apparently, it’s all well and fine. It’s a Chicago tradition, but we, especially with kids in tow, recommend a day visit. Ed. Note: Sadly, after some due diligence, it appears that Wiener’s Circle, on December 19, was shut down by the Chicago Health Department (go figure!), after an inspection found that there was no hot running water… Stay tuned. Safer Bet: Murphy’s Red Hots (1211 W. Belmont Ave.: 773-935-2882). This spot is usually at the top of most Chicago-style hot dog reviews.


Weiner Circle in Chicago

Gourmands, on the other hand, will want to make a reservation at Alinea (1723 North Halsted; 312-867-0110), considered one of the premier restaurants in the entire U.S. Led by world-renown Chef Grant Achatz, a disciple of Thomas Keller and Napa Valley’s famed French Laundry, his “progressive American cooking” is a technique he uses to deconstruct familiar dishes and reanimate them in new flavorful ways. Like Ferran Adrià, his cooking is more a science than anything else, which is present in the menu that changes dishes at a rapid pace. This is a pure treat for anyone lucky enough to snag a table.


Alinea restaurant

We didn’t visit during the warmer months, if we had, one of our excursions would have been a boat cruise along the Chicago River, which is dyed a festive green for St. Patrick’s Day. And, if time allowed us, a climb up the Hancock Tower and its Observatory to check out the sights from high above the city.

So, before you make your next vacation plans, remember that the U.S has a bevy of great destinations to visit—like Chicago. Hey, if it’s Sinatra’s “kind of town,” why not yours?