Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

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.

 

 

 

 

Shoe boots made for traveling

Shoe boots ready by the door. (Photo by J Jacobs)

Shoe boots ready by the door. (Photo by J Jacobs)

Sometime a travel product is so good it should be mentioned on a travel site.

I admit I have bad feet. My high arch, wide foot, poor balance, bunions and hammer toes make it hard for me to find comfortable shoes and even boots.

But upon a recommendation I tried a pair of Arcopedico stlye L19 in black. Oh my. I’m not sure what is in the arch but I feel these shoe-boots were made with me in mind.

When I told a friend I was going to wear them downtown Chicago to cover an event, she said I was nuts to try something that I would not be able to change if it didn’t work out because I was an hour train ride from home.

Not only did they work just fine but for once I could forget what I had on my feet.

After checking on the product I found out that they are machine-washable even though they are water resistant. I also learned that this style is made of Lytech, a blend of Lycra and Polyurethane, that is a bio-degradable, vegan material unique to Arcopedico.

That info is fine but as someone who is always traveling I like that they are lightweight and pack well.

When I first tried them on I thought they looked too small, particularly with my wide foot. Maybe they expand but they fit fine. So I checked out the Arcopedico ® brand further. It features a Techno-Elastic upper section, an anatomic foot bed and a twin arch support system. Wow.

When I took a cruise to South America last spring, I went to a lecture in the spa about foot problems. The expert handed me a pair of arch supports to try which I liked a lot but lost on the plane home. These shoe-boots seem to have a similar arch support so now I have to look for more Arcopedico footwear.

Gues that shouldn’t be too hard because I learned they have been around since a Professor Elio Parodi created them back in 1966.

I will look for them next time in a store’s shoe department but I also found them on Zappos and Shoes.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Thanksgiving things to do in Chicago

You never know what characters you will see in Chicago's Thanksgiving parade (JJacobs photo)

You never know what characters you will see in Chicago’s Thanksgiving parade (JJacobs photo)

Chicago has been named by several publications among the country’s top three destinations. Among the reasons: great theater, good food choices, world-class museums and friendly people who are willing to help with directions.

However, if visiting family or friends they also have some ideas of what to do and where to go. The problem is how to fit everything in a limited time and what ought to be done ahead of time.

A lot of Chicago holiday events start Thanksgiving weekend even when it comes early such as this year, 2018, when it feels like it is arriving ahead of time on Nov. 22.

Tip: The day after Thanksgiving is a mad shopping scene downtown and on the Magnificent Mile (North Michigan Avenue) so work up a turkey-sized appetite by spending Thanksgiving Day downtown, instead. Then, head to where-ever your feast is for your yummy reward. The next couple of days see a play or explore an area near but outside Chicago.

A Macy's State Street holiday window

A Macy’s State Street holiday window

 

  • It’s OK to watch on TV but to do something different, splurge and reserve a seat in the VIP section in front of Macy’s State Street store. Visit Chicago’s Thanksgiving parade to reserve seats. The parade is 8-11 a.m. on State Street.

 

  • Do Macy’s State Street store holiday windows. If at the parade, take time to ooh and aah at the magical scenes in Macy’s windows. Started in Chicago by Marshall Field’s the department store windows have charmed shoppers State Street. Decorated with toys since 1897 and transitioned to holiday windows with Uncle Mistletoe in 1946, peering into the windows to see the stories and themes that Field’s and then Macy’s have is a beloved Chicago-area holiday tradition.Macy’s State Street windows will be decorated from Nov. 1, 2018 to Jan. 5, 2019.
Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza (City of Chicago photo)

Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza (City of Chicago photo)

  • No, don’t leave downtown yet. Walk a couple of blocks west on Washington Street (south side of Macy”s) to Daley Plaza between Clark and Dearborn Streets to browse eat and shop at the Christkindlmarket. Based on the holiday market in Nuremberg, Germany, the Chicago version has also become a Chicago tradition since 1995. In 2018 it is up from Nov. 16 to Dec. 24.

 

  • Over the weekend, use the Thanksgiving theme to see and then discuss “It’s a Wonderful Life: Live from Chicago.” The production, based on Frank Capra’s film, has also become a holiday tradition at American Blues Theater, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. The show features an original score and holiday carols. Plus, the Bedford Falls “residents” treat the audience to milk and cookies. The show runs from Nov. 15, 2018 to Jan. 5, 2019. For tickets visit American Blues Theater.
Miniature trains wind around Chicago buildings in Wonderland Express (J Jacobs photo)

Miniature trains wind around Chicago buildings in Wonderland Express (J Jacobs photo)

  • Drive north to the Chicago Botanic Garden to fall in love with the Wonderland Express. The train themes sounds like it maybe for kids but adults love it just as much because it includes terrific mock-ups of the Chicago area’s highlights from skyscrapers  and Millennial Park’s “Bean” to Wrigley Field and from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, South Shore’s Cultural Center and the B’hai temple in Wilmette. Don’t worry about the “snow falling inside on your shoulder, its harmless. Do stop in the adjacent greenhouses to see poinsettias and topiaries. The Botanic Garden  is just east of Edens Expressway at Lake Cook Road bordering Highland Park.This is a timed and ticketed event so for tickets go to  Chicago Botanic WEX.

 

Plan ahead, then go for it!

 

 

 

 

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