Cindy and I went into Chicago for a late summer getaway and we decided on this trip we'd play tourists. We'd never really done anything really touristy in the past - boat tours, riding the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier, checking out some things that we knew were there, but never bothered to stop and look at. Actually, one time we did go to the Shedd Aquarium and it was pretty good. But usually, the weather has been poor in the summer and very cold in the winter, so we've never had a time when the weather was perfect for us to go and do and see in Chicago. That is, until a late August weekend earlier this past summer - the weather in Chicago was just perfect.
Now, I'm not big on tours where you're forced to be cooped up for more than a half-hour and chained to being there if things begin to get boring. Call it attention-span deficiency, I guess. When Cindy proposed taking an architectural boat tour of Chicago, I was a little apprehensive. I knew Chicago pretty well, I thought I knew the history pretty well, I expected it to be something sort of ordinary and schlocky. But this was Cindy's idea and she really wanted to do it. So I decided to bite the bullet and go with her on this boat tour.
Looking at the forecast in the coming days, it appeared we would have wonderful weather in Chicago during our time there. I bought tickets in advance on-line from Wendella Boat Tours, located on the lower level at the Michigan Street bridge over the Chicago River (see map). And when the day came when we were going on the boat, you couldn't ask for a better day - light winds, brilliant blue sky and temperatures in the 70's. The boat tour would take us up the Chicago River and down the south fork for a bit, then back out to the lakefront and a trip up and down the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
We took the 11 a.m. tour and the sun was high and bright in the sky when we took a seat on the upper deck of the boat. We didn't even take into consideration that we were going to be out in the sun for 90 minutes and didn't put any sunblock on our faces (an oversight that we would regret the next morning). Our tour guide was a man, I'm guessing in his late 50's or early 60's who was a Chicago native and reminded me of the actor Brian Dennahy.
The boat tour started out going west on the Chicago River and past the Trump Tower (below left), past the twin towers at Marina City (below center), then past the Merchandise Mart. The guy giving the tour, Bob, was pretty good at pointing out some of the buildings, their architectural style and giving a brief history of each of the buildings along the way.
Now, I like to think I know Chicago by the back of my hand - and I probably do when it comes to getting around the downtown area pretty easily. But it dawned on me about 10 minutes into the boat tour that even though I had heard of and been past many of the buildings downtown, I had no idea as to the historical significance of many of the tall buildings that I literally take for granted.
After taking a jog down the south fork of the Chicago River, going past buildings that housed the Lyric Opera, Union Station, and Boeing, we did a 180 degree turn in front of the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower (above right). (I, like many others in Chicago, still refer to it as the Sears Tower.) Bob was pretty interesting to listen to and I was beginning to enjoy myself just lounging back in the sun and listening to his narrative.
Heading back east and out toward the lake, another thing that I didn't know - the Chicago River and Lake Michigan are separated by a lock system. The lake is two feet higher than the river and we had to sit for about 10 minutes while we were in the lock as water was pumped in from Lake Michigan to allow us to reach the height of the lake. I always thought that the river flowed unimpeded into the lake.
Out on the lakefront, it was just beautiful. There was hardly a cloud in the sky, there was little to no breeze and the lake was almost as smooth as glass. And I got a look at the Chicago skyline like I had never seen it before with my own two eyes. We went north past Navy Pier, turned around and then went south a ways before heading back into the Chicago River lock system, then pulled up to where we started and got off.
I've got to say that while I was overly apprehensive that I could thoroughly enjoy myself on a boat tour like this, the 90 minute tour was well worth the money (about $25 each). So much so, that I told Cindy I wouldn't mind going on it again. She was amazed. "Really? I'd like to do it again, too!" But we both agreed that it would be hard to find a day to do it that duplicated the weather conditions of that particular day.
After the boat tour, we caught a taxi that took us out to Navy Pier. Cindy has always wanted to ride the Ferris wheel at the Pier and I had decided to do whatever her heart desired during our trip to Chicago. This was our summer "getaway" as we lost out on a trip to Michigan when the money we had saved up to go had to go toward our new furnace and air conditioner.
We'd been to Navy Pier before and I thought it to be a tourist trap of the highest quotient. I wasn't particularly keen on hanging out at the Pier for any amount of time, but with the weather so beautiful, it was a perfect day to do so. Actually, it had been years since we'd been out there and they had taken a lot of the schlocky tourist trap stores and venues out of the place. It was sort of enjoyable to walk around the place to see what was new.
The line to get on to the Ferris wheel was not long and the only touristy thing about it was that they took your picture before you got on, then if you wanted a copy of the picture, they'd charge you $14 bucks (I think it was). We definitely didn't do that.
Now, Cindy is deathly afraid of heights and I wondered why in the world she wanted to go on the Ferris wheel when she sat there so stone rigid during the slow trip up, around and down. The Ferris wheel at Navy Pier is 150 feet high at its apex and it takes 7 minutes to travel one full revolution. One thing I didn't know is that the Ferris wheel is open year round (except Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as when there's inclement weather). I wondered how cold it could really get in the dead of winter along the lakefront and to be up in that thing. But it did afford some pretty nice views of the Chicago skyline and looking out toward Lake Michigan and the pier complex.
After getting off the Ferris wheel, we took a perimeter walk around the outside of Navy Pier. Even though school had started up for many kids (it seems school started abnormally early this year for many school districts), there was still an abundance of families at Navy Pier that particular day. Still, it wasn't overly packed and the kids weren't such a nuisance.
We took a cab to go get a late lunch, then back to our hotel to rest up for our evening activities. One thing I wanted to do was since it was so beautiful out I wanted to go up to the Sears Tower, whoops! The Wilis Tower and go to their observation deck. We've tried to get up there on a couple of occasions in the past, but it was either closed for maintenance, or the winds were too high and they had it closed down. Once again, Cindy's fright of heights came into play and she said, "We'll see..." Or in our family parlance, that usually means, "No way!"
After a walk up the Magnificent Mile along Michigan Avenue on a beautiful evening, then dinner at Gaylord (look for an upcoming Road Tips entry on that visit), we took a cab down to Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. The cab driver didn't understand us very well and let us out on Michigan Ave. rather than taking us to the side streets by the fountain. We had a healthy five minute walk to the fountain. And we walked rather briskly as it was getting close to 10 p.m. and we weren't certain when the fountain shut off for the day. (For the record, Buckingham Fountain runs from 8 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. during the non-freezing seasons.)
Now, this is one thing that I've always wanted to do - go to Buckingham Fountain at night. The other times we've been in for Chicago getaways, it's usually the dead of winter around Cindy's birthday, or the weather has been cold or rainy (usually both!) in the summer. The beautiful day had transformed into a beautiful night and there was a number of people doing the same thing we were - hanging out at the fountain and taking pictures. With the changing kaleidoscope of colors from the lights in the fountain, and the beautifully lit Chicago skyline in the background, Buckingham Fountain at night didn't disappoint. We wandered around the fountain for about 45 minutes, taking pictures and just staring at the ever changing light and water show in front of us. I can't believe in all the years I've been going to Chicago I'd never been up close to Buckingham Fountain at night.
After a brief thought about going up to the Sears Tower (Dammit! There I go again - the WILLIS tower) for a look-see on the observation deck, we both thought it was best that we go back to the hotel as we were both beat and sun-burned from our day outside. Chicago is such a world class city that sometimes we take for granted how beautiful and interesting it really is. It was kind of nice to just slow down for a day, take in some of the sights and learn more about a city that I really thought I knew pretty well. But at the end of the day I realized that in all my years of traveling to Chicago I had probably only scratched the surface of completely knowing what the city has to offer.