Chicago: Secret's out...have a blast in the windy city
Chicago has got a bad rap over the years. First they called it 'the windy city' (not exactly a selling point if you come from the most windswept little island in the world). Madonna, a Midwesterner who presumably knew whereof she spoke, dismissed it as a conservative backwater. Then, in 2008, the mere fact that Obama came from there seemed to count against him in some mysterious way, as if the whole place were still run by Al Capone.
Awkwardly placed between the coasts, it never seemed to lend itself to side-jaunts to LA or sunbathing in Miami or shopping in New York. It's a metropolis out on its own, by a lake, reigned over by Queen Oprah. Little wonder that, while it is one of the largest cities in America, it doesn't feature as one of the top 10 tourist destinations.
This is a great shame, however, because Chicago is a truly amazing city to visit: cheaper and cleaner than New York, not remotely as tacky as Miami, and far easier to get around than gridlock-ridden LA. All of my preconceptions about it were wrong.
It was never remotely windy while I was there (the moniker in fact refers not to the weather but to the 'hot air' supposedly spouted by the city's politicians around the time of the bid for the World Fair), but they had atmospheric conditions that I had never seen; banks of spectral fog interspersed with shafts of sunlight.
It was also easy to get to – United have begun their direct service from Shannon and brought me there in the kind of comfort that made it hard to leave the plane when it landed (or was that the Bellinis I drank en route?).
While other airlines seem manned by overly made-up cyborgs who would make a stiletto dash over your face in the event of the plane going down, United's stewardesses were kindly and auntie-ish – our first taste of the famed Midwestern friendliness.
They conveniently served all of the food in one go and then left me alone to fall into my sleeping tablet coma. The warm nuts were both delicious and a rich source of puns.
We stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel in the Loop (meaning it is inside the train loop that runs around Chicago), which, we were told, is home to Lady Gaga's boyfriend. The view from my room was spectacular, and the gym and pool were amazing. On our first day we ate at the Wild Blueberry Pancakes and Cafe (www.wildberry.com), which served the breakfast you dream of when you're wolfing down a dismal muffin. Everything came in a mound that obscured the person opposite you until you had eaten your way down.
Say what you like about America, but you have to love a culture that allows you to eat syrup with cream – at breakfast. The large portions kept us stuffed for most of the day (windy city indeed!) but at dinner we ate like kings as well, enjoying the fare at one of the city's best steakhouses, The Tortoise Club. The rib-eye was succulent and memorable (http://tortoiseclub.com/)
The best way to see the city is by boat. We took the famed Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise, which brings you through Chicago's great canyons of steel and glass. The docent (which is what they call the guide) was incredibly knowledgeable about each and every building and, as the sun came out and schoolchildren waved to us from the bank of the river, it felt as though spring had begun. Of course, my body was not ready for all of this happiness and reacted by getting sunburned.
Donald Trump's hair, once described as an "architectural marvel" by The New York Times, was not covered in the tour. However, given Obama's connection with Chicago, it was fitting that one of our first ports of call was the Chicago HQ of his arch nemesis. The Donald's right hand man in the Midwest is a Killarney Man with George Clooney-levels of suaveness called Colm O'Callaghan.
One of Colm's colleagues showed us an apartment in the tower that is on sale for a cool $32m. It was like a spaceship in the sky, providing 360-degree views of the city and a vantage point to gawp down at Oprah (who lives on the lake) and her mere billions. It was a home for a Bond villain with oil money.
Beholding all this, a travelling companion of mine provided a memorable review: "It's lovely, but not very ... cosy." I instantly imagined us 'warming up' those vertigo-inducing windows with some nice chintz curtains.
We did two things on our trip that I would never have voluntarily chosen for myself, but which ended up being incredibly good fun. The first was a tour of the Museum of Science and Industry (http://fieldmuseum.org/), the very mention of which summoned up images of Epcot Centre and dismal "how bread is made" exhibits. But don't be fooled. They have an actual German U-boat, captured at the end of the Second World War, complete with recordings of addled Nazis screaming orders at each other. It was haunting and the tour guide really involved us in the experience.
The other thing, which was well worth a look, was the Art Institute of Chicago. It contains the largest collection of Impressionist paintings anywhere in the world outside the Louvre. You could easily spend a whole day just on one wing. Like a true art aficionado, I was also able to identify the painting from Ferris Bueller's Day Off' – aka Seurat's Sunday Afternoon On the Island Of La Grande Jatte.
Freshly loaded up with culture, our next pit stop involved sport. I lived in America for four years, but baseball was one of those peculiarly American inventions, like Mountain Dew or the Jonas Brothers, which I never quite 'got.'
I've always been of the same view as a friend of mine who thinks that if you could conceivably smoke while playing it, then it's not a sport.
To this I would now add another rule: if it has a free bar while you watch it, then it's a sport, no matter what. Go White Sox!
The business class United flight really came into its own on the way home because, as you probably know, most flights back from the states go overnight. I only just managed to have my customary conversation with the person beside me (always more interesting than the movie – this one was 'a bone marrow mule' – she travels all over the world hand delivering bone marrow) before nodding off.
Chicago is supposed to be at its best in the summer and since I stopped off in NYC on the way home I also managed to dismantle the last of my pre-conceptions – that it's too far from anything to make side trips.
I'll certainly be back.
On June 7, United Airlines will launch a new non-stop service from Shannon to Chicago this summer operated by Boeing 757-200 aircraft featuring 169 seats – 16 flat-bed seats in United BusinessFirst® and 153 in United Economy®, including 45 Economy Plus® seats with added legroom and increased personal space.
United BusinessFirst® fares from €1,807 incl tax.
Sale end: June 4, 2013.
Travel period June 29 - August 27, 2013.
Minimum stay: Saturday night, maximum stay 3 months. Advance purchase 7 days.
United Economy Class fares from €515.
Visit www.united.com or call 1890 925 252.
Sunday Indo Living