Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Where to go, right now: 'Tis the season in Chicago

The following was originally published in yesterday's The Morning Sun.

While Detroit is without a doubt seeing her best days in decades, the reality is Chicago still has the big city experience that one simply cannot find here in Michigan.
And with Thanksgiving and the Christmas season upon us, there is no better time to visit Chicago with the Magnificent Mile and its world-class shopping being the perfect destination to get everything on your gift list.
This famed stretch along Michigan Avenue is home to Neiman Marcus, Louis Vuitton, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Barbour, Chanel, Armani, Gucci, Saks Fifth Avenue, Ralph Lauren and so many others that you will need an empty extra suitcase to bring everything back. The German-style outdoor Christmas market (aka Christkindlmarket) in Dailey Plaza with its wooden huts selling traditional food, crafts and ornaments as well as the State Street flagship of the former Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) are also within walking distance.
For a sanctuary from all of the hustle and bustle of shopping, visit the Art Institute of Chicago. The admission charge ($23 for adults and $17 for seniors and students with under-14s free) is a bit steep, but the massive collection of art is well worth the visit. Just give yourself a half-day at the minimum, especially with surprisingly limited opening hours (10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursdays when it closes at 8 p.m.).
Trains run to Chicago from East Lansing, Flint and Grand Rapids, though Amtrak is notorious for its regular delays.
While the price of rail — $124 round-trip from East Lansing, departing the day before Thanksgiving and returning the Saturday after — is actually reasonable you can drive to Chicago in less time than the train (assuming the four-hour journey is delayed).
If you don’t want to worry about driving a car around a busy city, then catch the one-hour or so flight to and from Chicago’s O’Hare or Midway airports. Round-trip flights are as low as $231 on United and $248 on Delta out of Saginaw through December, according to multiple airfare searches on Google Flights.
The best place to stay for a classic big city experience is The Peninsula, located right off Michigan Avenue (how appropriate for Michiganders!) in the heart of the Magnificent Mile with many rooms overlooking Neiman Marcus. 
The Peninsula name may be unfamiliar, but it’s part of a world-class Asian brand known for having some of the best hotels in the business. Everything about the hotel — the service, the amenities and the overall value for money — are phenomenal and, frankly speaking, put many of the American hoteliers to shame. Be sure to book the special promotional rate of $475, which gives guests who book two nights a third free.
Do be sure to bring your ice skates, as the hotel opens a rooftop skating rink later this month with picture-perfect views of the Magnificent Mile, including the architecturally stunning 19th century Water Tower that could be mistaken for a small Gothic-style castle.
It’s no secret that many hotel restaurants don’t have the greatest reputation, but that’s not the case at The Peninsula, where many of those dining are non-guests.
Shanghai Terrace, the in-house Chinese restaurant, gets good reviews but as I’m not into Asian fayre I opted for The Lobby, the aptly named lobby restaurant. The food was good, but the prices were somewhat high. A better choice is Pierrot Gourmet, which blends French country with European café-style so well that one actually thinks they’re eating at a small bistro in Aix-en-Provence.
A block down Michigan Avenue from The Peninsula on the backside of the Ralph Lauren store is RL Restaurant, which is exactly what one would expect from namesake Ralph Lauren.
Not only was the service beyond exceptional, but the food — get the scallops — was reasonable in price and of superb quality. Best of all was RL’s elegant atmosphere with waiters wearing crisp white shirts, black neckties and aprons. The dining room, which has walls haphazardly covered in faux antique paintings and engravings, was a bit crowded at lunch with a few too many tables squeezed into its rather small space. You may want to consider either a reservation or dining on the bookends of lunch or dinner.
A short taxi or Uber ride from this part of Chicago is bellyQ, which features a hipster atmosphere and Asian fusion menu with a heavy emphasis on all things barbecue. The frisée salad with grilled peaches and wood grilled chicken is recommended.

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