Archive for the ‘Destinations’ Category

Holiday shop in London this year – Harrods and Fortnum and Mason await

Oxford Street, London during the holidays. (J Jacobs photos)

Oxford Street, London during the holidays. (J Jacobs photos)

Make London your December holiday trip. The city is always bustling but during the holiday season stores go all out with spectacular windows, sparkling lights that line buildings and crisscross streets and music everywhere.

Pack comfortable shoes, warm scarf, hat and fly off to Heathrow (great shopping airport for last minute gifts before flying back). Take the Heathrow –London Express for the fastest way in (reserve ahead) or the Underground (Tube) or taxi to your hotel after checking options at Heathrow transport.

You are likely to find a place near where you want to be within your budget at Visit London. I like Marriott Hotel Marble Arch because it feels like a boutique hotel but is on a main tube stop and within easy walking distance to gaily decorated Oxford Street’s shops.

Once unpacked and ready to go, forget taxis. Traffic is so bad above ground that the meter runs while you wait through three lights to proceed through one intersection. Pick up a map of the Underground stations but wear those walking shoes.

London loves its Harrods for luxury items and Fortnum & Mason for gourmet foods but also likes the trendy stuff in the Sloan and Chelsea areas and the fun of shopping its famous markets

OK, have at it.

Holiday windows in the Knightsbridge Sloan shopping area often tell stories such as Cinderella a few years ago.

Holiday windows in the Knightsbridge Sloan shopping area often tell stories such as Cinderella a few years ago.

Knightsbridge: Take the Tube, get off to shop the Knightsbridgbe-Brompton Road-Sloane Street District where you can wander Harrods. I like the Food Hall. Then, go into Harvey Nichols and Sloan’s other high-end designers, even if just to look.

Snap photos of the Harvey Nichols Christmas windows (like Macy’s windows). They often tell a story like Cinderella. Tip: At Harrods and other London department stores you’ll see fun “crackers” which are good stocking-stuffers but airports started disallowing them after 9-11 so get one just for yourself to pop in your hotel room.

King’s Road: Another Underground stop would be Sloan Square for King’s Road and the Chelsea neighborhood filled with designer and trendy shops and Duke of York Square. Browse fun boutiques, cafés and the Chelsea Antiques Market.

Oxford Street: You’ll love the lights overhead if shopping at night and the windows any time of day. They all definitely set the holiday mood for stopping at Selfridges and Marks & Spencer.

If you didn’t get chocolates at Harrods, look for a Thorton’s across from the department stores. It’s a chain with really good candy. You can also find the Debenhams Department Store (founded in London in the 18th century) and several good clothing shops on the street. Which Tube stop that accesses Oxford Street depends on what stores you want to visit. The Bond Street station is closest to Selfridges.

Regent Street: Famous for its holiday lights and shops the street maintains a retreat area where you can relax during the holiday season. If you don’t mind walking, you can use the Piccadilly Circus Tube stop to pop into Fortnum & Mason and go over to Hamleys, an amazing toy store to visit even if you don’t have to buy a kid’s present. Dating to 1760, Hamleys is among the world’s largest toy stores. There is also Liberty, a high-end store in an elegant Tudor building that offers cutting-edge and clever accessories.

Oxford Street during the holidays (photo take a few years ago).

Oxford Street during the holidays (photo take a few years ago).

Or use the Oxford Circus station to hit Liberty and Hamley on Regent and then Fortnum & Mason at Piccadilly.

Opened in 1707 Fortnum & Mason has served the Royals since Queen Charlotte. You have to go here for the old atmosphere and to pick up something to take home.

While in the area of Piccadilly Circus or Bond Street walk down Savile Row if interested in a hand-tailored suit. Among shops to visit there are Abercrombie & Fitch’s flagship store, Henry Poole & company and Gieves & Hawkes. Also, go to the boutique filled Carnaby Street.

Covent Garden: You’ll find three unique markets here. Look for arts and crafts in the North Hall’s Apple Market. The East Colonnade Market has jewelry and handmade soap. Products in the Jubilee Market in the South Piazza vary by day from antiques on Monday to general items other weekdays and crafts on the weekend.

Camden Markets: Save time to explore the markets in Camden Town at the Camden Town or Chalk Farm Tube Stations. There’s the Camden Lock Market at the canal which was the original craft-stall place in the mid 1970s. The Camden Stables Market has fashions.  Other markets including Inverness Street and Buck Street spread out across the area with clothes and other items. It’s a fun place to browse. https://www.camdenmarket.com/

You don’t have to load up the suitcase because the stores are happy to ship. But a good idea if you want to take presents back is to bring an extra bag. Remember airports don’t like wrapped boxes so plan to gift wrap at home.

Have fun shopping, browsing and seeing London during the holidays.

South Padre Island: A good winter escape

Meet Allison, an Atlantic sea turtle at a sanctuary on South Padre Island. (Sea Turtle Inc photo)

Meet Allison, an Atlantic sea turtle at a sanctuary on South Padre Island. (Sea Turtle Inc photo)

You likely have heard that a hoard of college kids invade South Padre Island during their Spring Break. But the rest of the year this narrow strip of land at the far southern edge of Texas is a perfect vacation spot for girls’ getaways, couples, families and retirees looking for a new destination.

Picture blue-green water to sooth the soul, glistening sand for a sunrise walk, terrific Mai Tais, Martinis and Margaritas to sip at sunset and yummy seafood for lunch and dinner.

For a change of pace there are cruises to see bottlenose dolphins, kite boarding to move with the breeze and sand castle building lessons to find your inner architect.

All those experiences (except for the kite boarding which maybe I’ll try next time) made my really brief visit to South Padre Island (often referred to as SoPadre), a memorable vacation.

I had heard of the destination but what spurred me to visit this fall was United Airline’s decision to fly from Chicago nonstop to the Brownsville International Airport on Saturdays. The airport is a mere 30 minute drive or shuttle ride away.

Hilton Garden Inn pool (GI photo

Hilton Garden Inn pool (GI photo

 

After arriving at the Hilton Garden Inn which has an airport shuttle, the first thing I did was step out onto the patio to inhale the warm air and collapse on a chair to gaze at the pool, greenery and gulf. Time out really means something on South Padre.

Second, was to don a bathing suit (unpacking could wait), dip a toe into the pool, relax in a cabana then begin to think about dinner. Vacationing on the Gulf of Mexico is a chance to indulge in shrimp, crab, scallops, oysters and fresh fish.

But what surprised me after three days of trying different, preparations for lunch and dinner at different restaurants was how good the food is on the island and Port Isabel which is just across Laguna Madre Bay.

Pier 19 had a terrific shrimp basket. Pirates Landing had a wonderful shrimp and oyster po’boy. I learned not to judge by appearance. The elongated shacks that make up Pier 19 attract the locals and the commercial looking Pirates Landing has good shrimp and salads.

Pier 19 was also well placed to take an Osprey nature and dolphin cruise on Laguna Madre Bay. Watching dolphins slip in and out of view was fun but the crew also emptied a net into a tank so that passengers could see and touch what was swimming in the bay. While waiting to board it was fun to watch the kite boarding on the other side of the pier.

Fun to watch dolphin from the Osprey Nature Cruise. (Osprey photo)

Fun to watch dolphin from the Osprey Nature Cruise. (Osprey photo)

Kites, period, are popular in the South Padre area.. B&S Kites is worth stopping just to say OMG when seeing their huge, wonderful shapes hanging from the ceiling. It’s also fun to watch people try to control these large kites on the beach.

What looks deceptively easier is building a sand castle worth of Disneyland. Playing in the sand isn’t just for kids on South Padre. Sand castle lessons are actually advertised on the island’s tourism site.

A group of us staying at the Hilton booked a sand castle lesson with “Sandy Feet,” an expert sand sculptor who used common silverware tools. We learned you don’t have to be among the kindergarten set to enjoy creating a sand castle.

Building sand castles is not just for kids. (Sandy Feet photo)

Building sand castles is not just for kids. (Sandy Feet photo)

What fun and a good way to work up an appetite for dinner! I had already enjoyed red snapper at Sea Ranch so went for sophisticated dining at South Padre’s new, upscale  F&B SPI (Food and Beverage South Padre Island). Both restaurants have terrific seafood appetizers and fresh fish. But I also loved the desserts (which I never order when home) at F&B.

Before returning to Chicago, I had to visit the island’s famed Sea Turtle Inc. sanctuary. So the next day I heard an excellent talk and saw some rehabilitated turtles swimming in tanks. To see Allison and Gerry, two Atlantic sea turtles, visit the center’s web cam.

South Padre Island is a major turtle protection and rehabilitation area. Alerts go out when baby turtles that their moms buried in the sand for protection start hatching and are guided into the gulf by staff and volunteers.

Sunset from Sea Ranch Restaurant and marina on South Padre Island. (J Jacobs photo)

Sunset from Sea Ranch Restaurant and marina on South Padre Island. (J Jacobs photo)

The island also has a bird center and sanctuary which is interesting to walk during spring and fall migrations but has birds landing all year round.

Also nice all rear round are the island’s wonderful sunsets.

 

 

 

 

First in series that updates “downtown” Chicago hotels

 

Chicago is high on the list of travelers destinations. (Photos by J Jacobs)

Chicago is high on the list of travelers destinations. (Photo by J Jacobs)

As a Chicago-based  travel writer I’m constantly receiving notices of new hotels going up, remodeling taking place at older, established hotels and changes being made regarding check-in conveniences, a TV’s room information and hotel  restaurant options.

They range from comparatively inexpensive to high end, large, convention-sized lobbies and meeting rooms to boutique size with small lobbies and little meeting space. And from casual, pick up and go breakfast bars to open-kitchen designed trendy-food emporiums.

There are about 25 ot choose from just in the Loop, another 13 hotels on and near the Mag Mile (Northern Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak Street (Oak is also considered the Gold  Coast). Another 25 hotels are in the River North Area just west of Michigan Avenue.

All of that means Chicago visitors have an abundance of choices.  Some travelers may consider that good news. Others might find it overwhelming. Fortunately, Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism website the hotel category is broken down by area type and other options.

But travelers should be aware that even when supposedly speaking the same language, hotel and room descriptions translate differently to listeners and speakers.

Having unpacked in all sorts of accommodations in the US and abroad, I have found that words such as roomy, with a view and convenient to sights and shopping, may mean one thing to a traveler and something different to hotel managers and public relations or sales agents.

I found out that a view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Lake Michigan in Chicago meant if you walked out onto the balcony and craned the neck you probably could glimpse the famed structure or crammed into a corner of the room and stood on tiptoe you could get a glimpse of Lake Michigan.

The big question is – are new and remodeled hotels meeting the needs and wants of business and vacation visitors today? The first quarter of the 21st century saw big changes in electronic communications and food and exercise trends.

Please give input in the comment area or send an email to jjtravelsmart@gmail.comof what you look for in a hotel. Email addresses will not be shared. Comments will be helpful when looking at other Chicago hotels.

The hotel series will look at new and updated downtown Chicago hotels starting with Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and  Hotel Julian,  two boutique hotels that opened in October 2018.

 

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and Hotel Julian

If looking for a new boutique hotel that is near some of downtown Chicago’s sights you will find two excellent options in Aloft Chicago Mag Mile and Hotel Julian.

I liked them both for different reasons but what surprised me when visiting them when they opened was room size. They both were what people in real estate use when describing small houses – cozy.

Compared to some hotel rooms I’ve stayed at in good European hotels, the rooms probably could be described as spacious but Americans might describe them as efficient. The room sizes and accompanying narrow desk and closet space are following a trend I’ve noticed in other recently redeveloped Chicago buildings turned into hotels such as the London House.

What the two hotels lack in room size, and size is merely a judgment call, they make up in good vibes and good location.

 

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile goes for modern art decor (Aloft photo)

Aloft Chicago Mag Mile goes for modern art decor (Aloft photo)

The hotel sits where the Museum of contemporary Art resided before it moved a few blocks north. It does not overlook Michigan Avenue in spite of its title but it is a few blocks east so is within easy walking distance of the Water Tower Place (indoor shopping mall), the John Hancock Building’s 360 Observation Floor, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Navy Pier (Includes Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Lookingglass Theatre and the Dreihaus Museum.

Restaurants of all cuisines and price points are also nearby.

For” time-out” from running around, the hotel has a pool, an airy fitness center that has two Peloton Bikes, a lobby where board games are set out ready to use and a bar where people in the neighborhood stop by.

Meet Corgan, a robot "bowtler" at Aloft Chicago Mag Mile. (Photo by J Jacobs)

Meet Corgan, a robot “bowtler” at Aloft
Chicago Mag Mile. (Photo by J Jacobs)

Its restaurant, Re:Fuel, is basically a pick-up and go type, self-serve food bar available 24-7 and WI-FI is free throughout the hotel. A hotel guest looked comfortable working on his lap top in the food bar area.

The vibe here is fun. Corrigan, a robot “bowtler” instead of a butler, mingles with lobby guests, tells jokes and when programed at the desk, delivers items to rooms upon request. there is also music on Friday and Saturday.

Visitors who appreciate modern art and good design that incorporates light and bright colors in halls, nooks, rugs and in room and lobby spaces will find this hotel to be a comfortable home while in the city. Aloft Chicago Mag Mile is  at 243 E. Ontario St., Chicago, IL 600611

 

 

 

 

Hotel Julian

Hotel Julian room. (Hotel Julian photo)

Hotel Julian room. (Hotel Julian photo)

The hotel has moved into and risen in the historic Atlantic Bank Building on the west side Michigan Avenue just north of Millennium Park.

Designed by famed architect Benjamin Marshall and completed in 1916, it had just 12 of its originally planned 17 floors built.

Now, the Oxford Capital Group that recently redid the London House building as a hotel at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, has beautifully redone the terra cotta clad structure and added five floors with floor to ceiling windows.

Confined by the building original bones, public and private spaces are narrow but from the gourmet “About Last Knife” dining space to the contemporary-designed rooms the descriptive word could be “sleek.” High ceilings make the rooms look and feel larger than they are. The fitness room is small but has a Peloton Bike.

Some rooms at Hotel Julian have a partial view of Millennium Park. (J Jacobs photo)

Some rooms at Hotel Julian have a partial view of Millennium Park. (J Jacobs photo)

A side benefit of adapting needs to space is that instead of an ironing board rooms have steamers. In our family this means not having to hang clothes in the bathroom and turning the shower to hot.

Positioned in the market as a luxury hotel, it has Frette linen and robes and Panpuri bath products designed for the hotel.

Named for the patron saint of travelers, Hotel Julian is well situated for visitors who want to see the Art Institute of Chicago or Cloud Gate (The Bean) and activities in Millennium Park while in town.

It is also near the Theatre District’s shows at Goodman TheatreChicago Theatre and the Broadway in Chicago productions at the Ford Oriental Theatre, all a few  blocks  west of the hotel.

Hotel Julian is at 168 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60601

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Midwestern fall getaways within four hours

 

You don’t have to drive across country to find gorgeous tangerine and magenta vistas. Four easy-to-get-to Midwestern areas, Galena, IL, Geneva and Door County, WI and Bloomington/Brown County, IN, put on a color show that attract leaf-peepers as September merges into October. Sure there is good color throughout the region but these areas also have fun shops and good accommodation choices. You do need to make your reservation now, however, because they are not a secret. Best plan is to go during the week to avoid the crowds.

Biking around Eagle Ridge on the outskirts of Galena. (Eagle Ridge photo)

Biking around Eagle Ridge on the outskirts of Galena. (Eagle Ridge photo)

 

Galena, IL

Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois at the Mississippi River, the town of Galena ripples down hilly streets and scenic roads. About a three hour drive northwest of Chicago, its hilly terrain is vastly different from Illinois’ Lake Michigan and prairie landscape. Leave time to  explore the Galena Territory where every road turn and over every hill there is another photo op and color-filled vista.

Shopping the town’s main street is delicious because there are wine-tasting places and yummy ice cream and candy shops. Check with your accommodations host for restaurants that have your favorite cuisine.

There are lots of good B&Bs in town and even a historic hotel. Or if looking for expansive color vistas consider Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa. Only 6 minutes from the village’s downtown in the Galena Territory, it has lots of room choices so is perfect for a family or girls getaway. Eagle Ridge also has horseback riding, hiking and biking trails and balloon tours.

Nearby, are a stage coach trail, fort and the scenic vistas of Galena’s Jo Davies County. There is usually a balloon, wine or other festival taking place in the area so with all the outdoor recreation and activities around you probably won’t need a book to fill slack time.

 

Play golf or just enjoy fall color at the Grand Geneva Resort on the outskirts of Lake Geneva, WI. (Grand Geneva photo)

Play golf or just enjoy fall color at the Grand Geneva Resort on the outskirts of Lake Geneva, WI. (Grand Geneva photo)

 

Lake Geneva WI

Do like Chicago’s upper crust used to do. Drive up to Lake Geneva across the Illinois border into Wisconsin. The town is still filled with estates but also has B&Bs and resorts. About 1 ½ hours north of Chicago, Lake Geneva has been a vacation destination since the 1800s.

Visitors can hear about the estates that border Geneva Lake. The lake here is called Geneva Lake but the town reverses that by calling itself Lake Geneva. Take a boat ride that also delivers the mail pier-side or an evening sunset cruise to hear about the estates or celebrate fall with a glass of wine.  The boat excursions are a good way to see some of the grand houses and resorts around the lake away from Lake Geneva. Motor boat rentals are also available.

To get away from the crowd after cruising shops and the lake and to see even more good color vistas, check the Grand Geneva for dinner or accommodations. It is just outside of town and the spa is a destination by itself.

A back road drive in Door County.

A back road drive in Door County.

Door County, WI

About four hours north of Chicago, the fun and scenic vacation destination of Door County is on a peninsula that pokes like a finger into the waters east of  the City of Green Bay. One side of The Door edges the watery way called Green Bay. The other side is lapped by the waves of Lake Michigan.

Bring a bike or rent one. Even though there are no traffic lights once past Sturgeon Bay where a canal allows boat traffic to cross, the car and pedestrian traffic of fall-color aficionados make moving from cute town to quaint town and good shops and restaurants to harbors and forest roads a bit slow on the Green Bay side. Driving the forests on the Lake Michigan side or crossing the peninsula between farms and fields is easier and just as colorful.

Bike or hike Peninsula State Park on Green Bay between Fish Creek and Ephraim. Go camera or smart phone ready to snap a ton of photos to download to Facebook or Instagram. To  try whitefish done the Door County way reserve a spot at a restaurant’s fish boil. Tip: check for the annual fall color festival then try to go the week before or after it for better chance at accommodations and restaurant reservations.

Hoosier National Forest in bloomington, IN puts on a fall color show. (Visit Bloomington photo

Hoosier National Forest in bloomington, IN puts on a fall color show. (Visit Bloomington photo

Bloomington/Brown County, IN

About three hours south of Chicago, Brown County’s boutique and arts-filled Nashville (no not TN) and Brown County State Park have arguably been a prime peeper destination long before other regional areas publicized their fall colors.

Possibly, it was because in neighboring Bloomington, which adds golds and oranges to its usual red and white colors, Indiana University students and their parents knew about Brown County’s fall transformation. But you don’t have to go to a football game here or take a class to become immersed in the area’s amazing fall kaleidoscope of color.

A good selection of accommodations can be found in Bloomington and Nashville. Tip: Look up IU’s football schedule so you don’t go that weekend. Better yet, go during the week anyway.

 

 

Jodie Jacobs

 

 

 

 

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