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Archive for November, 2018


The Blues Highway road trip was strictly over as we prepared to leave Chicago. However, a consequence of booking our transatlantic flights via Newark, because the fares were so much cheaper than to either New Orleans, or from Chicago, was that we were able to fit in a bonus forty eight hours in New York City before returning home.

An 8.35am flight from Chicago Midway meant that our single night in the master bedroom was a short but restful one. Despite the early hour, battalions of Southwest aircraft were already transporting passengers around the country.

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We had been to New York several times before, and had visited most of the major attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Empire State Building and the One World Trade Center/Observatory at least once. We had even seen in the New Year there in 2005 after walking the Brooklyn Bridge and having supper in McDonald’s on Broadway at 11pm! For this visit, we decided, therefore, to take it easy (to be fair, after nearly a month away, we were wearied) and spend our time wandering around mid-Manhattan, taking in the vibrant atmosphere of the “world’s capital”.

We had booked the NYLO (New York loft) hotel on the Upper West Side, a part of Manhattan we were not previously familiar with. We arrived at 1pm, and, unsurprisingly, our room was not yet available (the official check in was, after all, three hours later). We left our bags with the concierge and headed out for lunch on a cool, bright afternoon.

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After a light lunch at a local bakery, we walked the five blocks south and three blocks east to the entrance to Central Park alongside the Dakota Apartments, where John Lennon lived, and was shot, on 8th December 1980.

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We were able to witness the plaque that acts as a Garden of Peace along the pathway leading to the Strawberry Fields black and white Imagine mosaic, but we would have had to mow down several dozen, mostly Chinese and Japanese, youngsters to get anywhere near it.

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On the aforementioned visit on New Years Day in 2005 we had taken one of the horse and carriage rides around a segment of the park. There were many in operation this afternoon, and they looked beautiful, but we resisted the temptation to reprise our earlier trip as the cost nearly thirteen years before had been ruinous then.

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After flaking out for half an hour on the Sheep Meadow, scrutinising the ever-changing dance of the clouds above, we strolled through busy Bethesda Terrace to the celebrated Loeb Boathouse for a warming glass of Merlot by the Lake.

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I think a future New York visit might just take in dinner at the elegant restaurant.

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With check-in time at the hotel imminent, we decided to saunter back to our hotel on W 77th Street.

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As we walked along the lovely tree-lined pathway past Shakespeare Garden, there were signs that the Fall (Autumn) was fast approaching (it had seemed far away when we first set foot in the country).

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A beer at the St James Gate Irish pub on W 81st Street punctuated our trek back to the hotel, where we were instantly impressed by the friendliness of the staff on the door, at reception and at the concierge desk.

We had passed the Flying Fisherman on Columbus Avenue and W 73rd Street en route, and resolved to return for dinner. it proved a smart decision as we enjoyed a delightful seafood dinner. I don’t think I had ever eaten such massive prawns!

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Tomorrow, the last full day of the trip, would be more of the same – a leisurely jaunt around mid-Manhattan down to Times Square, with dinner at the Red Lobster (Janet’s choice) in the evening.

 

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Our last full day in Chicago began with waving off our San Francisco housemates. Their presence had re-energised us at a time when we were starting to dwell on the imminence of our return home.

Having already visited the attractions we most wanted to see, we decided that we would have a leisurely day walking around the city, particularly the riverfront.

Once Alicia, Jerry, Aiden and Ely had set off for O’Hare Airport, we finalised the packing before strolling to the Chicago train station, the nearest to our house, but still a decent hike.

We alighted at the Merchandise Mart, the world’s largest commercial building in floor area (four million square feet), and home to the city’s premier interior design trade showrooms. Only the Pentagon is larger in the United States.

But what was far more impressive than any of this was that it had a Pret a Manger cafe!

American sandwiches are great, don’t get me wrong, but they are just TOO BIG! It was so refreshing to have a proper English sandwich – two pieces of sliced bread hugging chicken, egg, avocado and tomato –  delicious! Manageable size too.

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I think the following photographs speak for themselves. We spent the next couple of hours strolling the riverfront and lakeside before returning to Millennium Park, where we had marvelled yesterday morning at The Bean with the kids.

We may have shed fifty degrees since the beginning of the trip in New Orleans, but we cannot have experienced a sharper, bluer sky than this afternoon.

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The Chicago Riverwalk is an open, pedestrian waterfront on the south bank of the main branch of the Chicago River, spanning from Lake Street to Lake Shore Drive. We sauntered almost the entire length of it. Restaurants, park seating, boat rentals and other activities are dotted along the walk, though the declining season meant that several were now closed – frustrating as I was by now in need of bladder relief!

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Although there were few other pedestrians around, there was a steady procession of river traffic.

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There were some spectacular buildings along the walk, though one with an obscenely huge five letter name memorialising the current incumbent of the White House, was not one of them.

Watching the elevated trains trundling over the river was endlessly fascinating.

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No buildings were more eye-popping than the two 65 story apartment towers at Marina City, a mixed use residential cum commercial building complex that occupies almost an entire city block on State Street on the north bank. The parking garage portion below the twentieth floor was amazing.

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At the end of the Riverwalk, we turned onto Lake Shore Drive and then Millennium Park.

Opposite the park we took up two stools at the bar of The Gage pub and restaurant. We had inadvertently timed our arrival perfectly, as within minutes, the bar was crammed with some of Chicago’s smartest citizens demanding tables or forming large, vocal groups around the bar.

And it was a great bar! Janet was so impressed that she declared immediately that she wanted to live in Chicago!

Aside from the impossibility of such a notion, neither of us would have expected before the trip that it would be the Windy City that would have such an impact. To be fair, the stunning weather helped. Had it been raining during our stay, we may have formed a different opinion.

But even so, Chicago had startled and thrilled us.

One final ride on the “L” to our Chicago stop, and we were walking back to the house, enjoying  intermittent glimpses of the receding skyline.

We had already decided to eat back at the house, feasting on the pizza leftovers from Pequod’s the night before. To be honest, it tasted better the second time around!

Though not as good as that Pret a Manger sandwich!

I’ll leave the last word to The Grinch.

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I had omitted to mention in my last post that, shortly after Alicia and Jerry joined us in our Chicago house, they presented me with my birthday presents – two t-shirts from their Land of the Sun store in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. I wore the Watchtower” tie-dye today, not only as a token of my gratitude but also because it was one I had been pursuing for some time, and was so excited to receive it.

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It was accompanied by a touching “card”, adorned with Aiden and Ely’s artwork.

Alicia was queen of the kitchen again, this time serving up scrambled eggs and bacon, providing us with the necessary fuel for what was to prove a long, exhausting but thoroughly enjoyable day.

Ely held court in his armchair while he waited for everybody else to get ready.

Our first port of call was Millennium Park, a former railroad yard in an industrial corner of Grant Park that had been reclaimed to celebrate the turn of the twenty first century. It is now a popular and successful attraction, especially for those interested in art, architecture and the performing arts.

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The extraordinary piece of sculpture, Cloud Gate, was the primary reason for our visit. Designed by British sculptor, Anish Kapoor, it resembles an enlarged, reflective kidney bean, prompting its nickname, The Bean. Wherever you stand on its perimeter, you experience a different, dazzling and somewhat disorientating reflection of the surrounding skyline.

Since the days of ER, one of our favourite US drama series, I had wanted to ride the “L”, the elevated trains that run overhead, providing a great rooftop perspective on the city going about its business.

We walked to the nearest station to Millennium Park, Adams/Wabash, serving, amongst others, the Brown Line, and took it in the direction of Kimball.

Aiden and Janet were happy to be riding the rails.

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Although most of the stations we passed through were quite plain, there were others with gorgeous murals.

We had learnt while standing in line for Willis Tower on the previous day that Jerry’s former business partner and his wife were also in town, and it had been agreed that we all meet up for pizza at 5pm today. With that in mind and time passing we alighted at Belmont on the North Side in search of lunch. Cheesie’s Pub & Grub opposite the station looked enticing, so we took our chances there. There was some confusion initially over what we should have, but my grilled cheese sandwich was certainly worth the wait.

Judging by the baseball memorabilia, we were in the vicinity of Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Chicago Cubs, World Series Champions in 2016 after a 108 year wait.

While we waited for our food, the boys and I had a few vigorous games of table (ice) hockey. Although Ely may have not been especially tactically astute, his more rudimentary, enthusiastic style made him a match for both Aiden and I.

Cheesie’s was renowned for its root and craft beers, of which Jerry partook, but less so for its coffee. The Osmium Coffee Bar a few blocks away was recommended and we made our way there. We were able to sit in the backyard where all the wooden tables were painted beautifully .

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We took the return to Adams/Wabash. Ely decided that he was no longer with us and needed his own space. We were not the only passengers to be charmed by his subsequent siesta.

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It was time to honour our reservation at Pequod’s authentic Chicago deep dish pizza restaurant. We arrived around twenty minutes early which allowed me the opportunity to do something I had been starved of on the trip so far – look around a bookshop. The large branch of Barnes & Noble called to me from across the street and I escaped from the rest of the party for a few minutes. I did not, however, make any purchases.

Oh, but I could have with more time and money!

We met Joyce and Artie and sat down to dinner. I’ll confess that both Janet and I prefer the traditional Italian thin crust pizza, but there is no denying that our cheese, extra cheese, onion and black olive deep dish version was tasty – and certainly, filling, so much so that we requested a “box” to take back to the house. Jerry and Alicia did the same with their meat pizza. But more of those leftovers in the next chapter.

The final instalment of the day returned us to the Blues Highway theme that had triggered this trip in the first place. Janet, Alicia and I had bought tickets to Blues legend, Buddy Guy’s club, for the evening.

Jerry had expressed his willingness to stay behind at the house looking after the boys. This might just have had something to do with his desire to watch the San Francisco 49ers at the Green Bay Packers live on television in peace.

But if that was the plan, it was thwarted before we even left the house to pick up our Uber. Despite ploughing through what appeared to be hundreds of channels, we could not locate a live transmission of the game. To add insult to injury for Jerry, we discovered that the blues club was showing it on several television sets!

After checking in at the club, we found what appeared to be the only empty table close to the stage – though we may have annoyed a large group of women who had begun to place additional chairs around it as we arrived. Playing dumb was a successful tactic.

I took the opportunity before the outstanding house band, led by singer and guitarist Jimmy Burns, began their first set, and our server arrived with the first gin and tonic of the evening, to look around. Original guitars and photographs of some of the greatest Blues musicians adorned the walls.

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Towards the end of the first set, it was announced that there was a special guest in the house – none other than the venerable owner of the club himself, Buddy Guy, a guitarist revered by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name but a few guitar gods.

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Belying his eighty two years, Buddy delivered a suggestive, knowing and brilliantly phrased performance. He had the entire audience smiling and applauding, in particular holding women young enough to be his granddaughters in the palm of his hand.

If this were not enough of a gift, he agreed to sign t-shirts during the interval between sets. Alicia and I soon joined other starstruck fans in line for this unexpected and thrilling experience.

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It had been a great evening, the perfect ending to a lovely second day in Chicago in the company of our San Francisco family.

The only disappointment? The 49ers went down to the Packers in the last three seconds of the game. In some respects, it was probably a relief that Jerry had not had to witness it.

 

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With the arrival of our “San Francisco family”, following their excursion to Jerry’s relatives in Mount Carroll, the road trip had taken on a new turn. No longer could we do whatever we pleased – we had to consider the needs of others, especially Ely and Aiden. And that was an exciting thought! Another new city with some of our favourite people and a glorious weather forecast!

Mind you, the day started inauspiciously as both Janet and I clambered out of bed, aching in just about every part of our respective bodies. At least momentarily, we were regretting our generosity in allowing Jerry and Alicia, with Ely in a crib, to sleep in the spacious master bedroom with ensuite, while we occupied the cramped second bedroom. Aiden had no such worries, as he had been given his choice of bunk beds, unsurprisingly electing to take the top one.

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After breakfast, we piled into Jerry’s hire car, set the sat nav and headed to the city. A cool but bright Sunday morning, there was little traffic, and we were able to park just a couple of blocks from Willis Tower.

As we stepped out of the car, the glistening windows of the high rise office blocks and the brilliant blue of the sky was a thrilling sight. As one of the displays inside the tower informed us, the world’s first skyscraper had its roots in Chicago. The Home Insurance Building was 138 feet tall when it was built in 1885, incorporating a ten storey steel frame structure.

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At 1,450 feet (442 metres) and with 110 storeys, Willis Tower is the second tallest building in the country, and, after One World Trade Center, the Western Hemisphere (as are the restrooms!). Originally called the Sears Tower, it was renamed in 2009.

As we knew only too well, access to most American attractions warrants a long wait, due more to their popularity than any inefficiency on the part of the operators. But they do try to entertain the paying customers while they wait.

Firstly, there is the obligatory photoshoot where, should you be willing to buy the resulting images, it will set you back $30-40 for large and small photos and maybe an accessory like a key ring or fridge magnet.

Then there is the pre-show, which might entail a short theatre presentation, as we enjoyed in the Ryman Auditorium in Chicago, and/or a series of descriptive tableaux or wall displays. It is cleverly done, and should you genuinely be interested in what you are about to experience, does soften the blow of the lengthy wait.

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However, this does not wash with young children, and Ely and Aiden were soon asking for snacks and refreshments. Fortunately, Jerry had spotted a concession point at the beginning of the line, and was able to assuage their irritation.

Once at the top, aside from the spectacular views, there were more informative and attractively presented plaques celebrating Chicago’s contribution to the world.

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The 360 degree views of the city were spectacular. It is claimed that, on a clear day, you can see four states in one day.

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I reported in the previous post that Ely and Aiden had immediately become attached to the miniature cars found in the house. For the entirety of their stay they could not be separated from their favourite vehicles. Occasional spat aside, they grabbed every opportunity to drive/race them on a smooth service, – even on the walls of skyscrapers!

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We then drove over to Navy Pier, the former military and freight terminal on the banks of Lake Michigan. It had been extensively renovated in recent years, including the addition of attractions such as a musical carousel, wave swinger and funhouse maze, all designed to attract families. Drawing over nine million people a year, it is Chicago’s most visited attraction.

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It is also now home to the Chicago Children’s Museum, though the weather dictated we should continue to enjoy the great outdoors. Besides, admission prices were steep – adults and all children over one year of age $14.95 and seniors (me!) $13.95.

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But before we did anything else, it was time for lunch. Coffees and burgers from the food hall were order of the day. Ely was happy – and his two cars were never leaving his sight!

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The Centennial (Ferris) Wheel cost $16 each. It might have cost another $13 but Ely regressed a year for the afternoon to ensure that he gained free entry. Anyone appalled at such deceit should note that he did barely pass the height restriction test, so comfortably passed for being under three years of age.

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Ely and Aiden loved it.

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Once grounded, however, Ely at least showed signs of flagging.

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From New Orleans through Memphis and Nashville and now Chicago, streetcars and trolleys had been a prominent feature of the cityscape throughout our trip.

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On one of our previous visits to Petaluma, Alicia had prepared just about the best steaks we had ever eaten, and we were eager not to let her go without repeating the treat. This necessitated a second visit to the local supermarket where Ely and Aiden once again left terra firma to be driven round the aisles by Janet – or was that Ely who was driving?

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I am also happy to report that I managed to avoid any further altercation with a wine display stand.

It had been a lovely day with our adopted family from the City by the Bay. Tomorrow, we would even busier with a trip to Millennium Park to marvel at the extraordinary Bean, a ride on Chicago’s cool elevated rail system, dinner at a celebrated deep dish pizza restaurant with friends of Alicia and Jerry, and an eventful evening in a classic blues club.

Phew!

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