The end of the year – although I had just got back from a trip to Europe a short while ago, I had felt the urge to still go somewhere in 2012.  I had been thinking of going somewhere for New Years Eve, as I had the previous year (to Montreal), but was wildly indecisive.  There was so many options available to me within the US and I was even thinking of heading to Hawaii, but I kept watching as mileage requirements kept going up higher and higher as the departure date rolled in closer.  The other half of the puzzle was finding a good hotel deal; that alone was why I didn’t venture way out to Hawaii.

Then it became the day of departure – Saturday, and I still had not booked anything.  No hotel, no flights, nothing.  It looked like I wasn’t going to be going anywhere.  Then, at the last minute I found a good deal on a hotel and an award ticket, that while a bit on the high side I could stomach.  It was 2.5 hours before departure time by the time I made my decision, so I quickly packed my bags and headed out to the airport.

Saturday, December 29
I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare.  It didn’t take long to pack my bags or get through security; the 2:30pm flight on Delta was actually the last flight of the day due to the reduced schedules during the holiday period.  The flight itself wasn’t bad even if I had missed out on the upgrade due to my last minute booking.  I had the first row of coach, so the legroom was nearly the same, just didn’t get drinks or anything.  For the short ECP-ATL flight on a DC-9 I can deal with it; besides I had been upgraded on my flight to O’Hare already and that’s what I cared about (Side note: when ticketing on I had to call the Platinum Medallion line as the website apparently kept trying to upgrade me before ticketing was completed and got thrown into an endless loop that resulted in my ticket having to be issued by an agent).

Delta Air Lines DC-9-50 at ECP

A typical layover in Atlanta followed with a short stop in one of the many Delta Sky Clubs before settling into my seat on the Boeing 757 up to Chicago.  Unlike the Atlanta-New York/Newark flights, there’s no meal up front.  However, it did go by pretty quickly thanks to the in flight WiFi and it was otherwise a standard domestic flight.  Nothing eventful happened nor was there any turbulence.  Making my way through the terminal I found the pier that Delta is on to be very quiet, but as I passed through many United gates it was quite the opposite; they were still running at full steam.  Eventually, I found the CTA station and after getting my ticket made my way on to a waiting train into the city.

Never Seen A Sign Like This In An Airport…

Perfect Timing – A Train Waiting At The O’Hare CTA Station

The ride on the ‘L’ wasn’t too terrible; I made it into downtown in about 30 minutes.  It took me a little while though to find my hotel, the W Chicago – City Center, thanks to getting turned around and finding myself going in circles.  However, once I got my bearings, the walk was quick and soon found myself checking in.  The agent working the desk this evening said all the usual things about ‘Thanks for being a Gold Member’ and asking me for what Welcome Amenity I wanted (Give me free Internet!), but also asked me upfront if I wanted to participate in the Make a Green Choice program.  Essentially at several Starwood hotels (and I had not noticed that the W had been participating in my last few stays), if you decline housekeeping, you get bonus points.  Since this was a two night stay, this in my mind is a no-brainer.  However, what I found interesting was that the front desk agent noted that when people opt in that it gives them more of a reason to ‘Upgrade’ someone’s room.  The claim here is that it helps the hotel out, since it’s one less room that needs to be cleaned on a given day.  I’ll buy that somewhat, but I would think that my Gold status would be sufficient on its own.  Either way, once I got up to my room, I wasn’t entirely disappointed.

I was given a corner room and I suppose that it was either a Spectacular Room or a Cool Corner King Room.  Not entirely sure, since there aren’t really any good pictures that I can find online of the two rooms to try to figure out which one I had.  Either way, I found the room to be very nicely sized, on the opposite side of the property from the train, large windows (which unfortunately looked out to a building right next to the hotel and the Marriott across the street), and a comfortable W bed.

W Chicago City Center – Bed

W Chicago City Center – Work Area

With this trip being super-last minute I didn’t have anything planned, nor had I done any research, so I walked down the street to the Elephant & Castle Pub and Restaurant.  I guess that place is a small chain, and it was ok, but entirely dead inside.  In fact the whole area seemed rather quiet that night.  As for the food, it was ok, and unfortunately I remembered how I’m not the biggest fan of Boddington’s Pub Ale.  Oh well.

After dinner I figured I would head back to the hotel and have a few drinks at the hotel bar.  It wasn’t very busy and I guess on the plus side, Starwood’s mixologist for Chicago was apparently working that night.  Sure, I wasn’t there for mixed drinks, but he knew the beer offerings from the local breweries very well and next thing I know I’m going through many different beers.  There were many that were pretty standard fare, but the Goose Island Sophie was different.  It just didn’t necessarily feel like I was drinking a beer; definitely light and rather noticeable carbonation.  Not necessarily bad, and probably a good break from the usual strong IPAs that I seem to chase after.  In other words, I probably wouldn’t have ordered that beer on my own, so there’s that.  I was down there for a good while, but eventually I made the decision to not make this a super late night and stumbled up to my room – there were a few things on my list that I wanted to cross off the next day.

Sunday, December 30
I slept in a bit, but not too late as I wanted to head to the Sears Tower Willis Tower to make a visit to the observation deck.  Once roused from bed, I enjoyed breakfast at the restaurant in the lobby of the hotel, IPO, where I had the eggs Benedict while watching the activity on the street outside (not that it was very busy on weekend morning in downtown Chicago).  The food was decent and it helped that like many restaurants in Starwood Hotels, there was a discount for SPG members; so that helped out.

The Willis Tower was a short walk from the hotel and since I got there relatively early I didn’t have to deal with a long line to buy a ticket or take the elevator to the very top.  Stepping out on the observation deck, I found myself with a pretty decent view of Chicago and the surrounding areas.  It wasn’t super clear so I couldn’t see across Lake Michigan or to other points way out there, but of Chicago itself it was a great view.  I stared out several of the windows trying to find several Chicago landmarks before heading to Western face of the building where they had installed the glass viewing platforms.  As I waited in line I watched as people were reluctant to step on glass that looked straight down 103 stories; many tried to grab on to the wall or just couldn’t get over standing on the glass that high up.  For me though there was only minimal hesitation.  Being an Engineer, I know the amount of work and calculations that would have gone into designing that feature, so I pretty much figured I could trust it to not collapse and falling 103 stories down.  It was an interesting view though.  It gave a floor to ceiling view out west in addition to the obvious view down below.

The Willis Tower

It’s Only 103 Stories Down…And That’s My Feet


Downtown Chicago And Lake Michigan

After staring down at the earth below, I made my way back down, passing large lines out the door of the building to get to the Sky Deck.  From here I figured I would go to the Navy Pier since I had never been there, even when I came to Chicago as a little kid.  I guess you could say that I didn’t find it very exciting, but I did walk my way all around the outside.  The only real highlight for me was a small pile of snow….well that and I guess the greenhouse where I felt like I was back in Florida.  Other than that, there wasn’t much open outside and the stores inside just didn’t interest me much.

Navy Pier

For lunch, I hailed a taxi and headed over to Mike Ditka’s at the Tremont Hotel.  It looked pretty good and was recommended to me so I figured why not.  It was busy with a football game on, but still didn’t have to really wait to get a table.  I wound up ordering the Spicy Chili Cheese Polish and a beer; while incredibly messy, the meal was pretty good.

Spicy Chili Cheese Polish

After lunch I made a quick run back to the hotel before heading a little north of downtown to an REI store.  The day before had been the member’s only sale of used gear and returned equipment, so I figured I would see if there was anything still left to rummage through.  Luckily, there was still a good amount of stuff they were trying to get rid of, and to help with that there was a 50% discount applied as well.  Most of what was left was odds and ends, gear that was definitely worn, and broken returns.  However, I found a rechargeable battery pack that had USB ports on it that had a broken tag on it and with the discount would be like $2.  I’m willing to risk $2 and of course if there is anyone that could fix it, an EE like me would probably have the best chance.  On top of that I picked up an Explorist GC GPS unit for ~$35, which although I don’t really Geocache anymore I figured might make a decent cheap replacement for my old Garmin eTrex that has been having issues for a while now.  The best part was the GPS was essentially new and that battery pack worked without any issue.  Can’t complain with that.

Again it was back to the hotel so I could drop my haul from REI and then I booked a quick ride from the hotel to the Adler Planetarium using the W’s Acura car service.  I’ve wanted to try this in the past at other W’s that I have stayed at since it’s a free car ride within a certain radius of the hotel (varies by city), but I have always run into a problem with there being an extended wait for a car that is available.  In NYC for example, why would I wait 45 minutes when I can walk to most nearby places in that time or by way of subway or taxi?

Anyways, they were able to get me squared away with a driver immediately to get me over the Planetarium, which didn’t take very long….thankfully, since the entire car ride is essentially an Acura sales pitch.  They play some videos on the SUV you’re riding in and obviously engage in conversation about the features of the car as they take you to your destination.  But for it being free, I don’t mind at all.

I can’t remember if I had ever made it to Adler Planetarium when I came to Chicago as a little kid, so I figured I would try to take in as much as possible.  I paid for a planetarium show and separate show as well as the general admission.  A foursquare check-in special even got me a free Apollo 17 mission patch.  I queued up for the planetarium show first; I wanted to try to get as centered as a seat as possible so I could see as much as possible without anything seeming too distorted or being forced to look all over the place.  I also didn’t know what to expect for the show.  I guess I figured that while it would be probably interesting, I didn’t have any expectation that it would be remarkable.

It’s probably for that exact reason, that I found myself incredibly in awe.  I mean just wow.  Starting with the stars and Earth, they map out fairly recent data that is received from NASA across our big blue marble in space as well as showing recent events such as a volcano that where one satellite passed was dormant and when another satellite passed a few hours later it was in mid-eruption.  Probably the best part was the zoom up on the planet as it rotated, you felt like it was right there, which is completely strange since you know you’re on Earth already…

There was the ‘adventure’ through the cosmos as well, taking us spectators through the galaxy and to places beyond.  The best part is probably the return trip where from the furthest reaches of the universe it zooms in on Earth.  No better way than to highlight how small of a speck we are in the grand scale of things.  After the show I just walked out in complete amazement.  The quality of the show was top notch and very informative.  Even two months later as I finish writing up my report on my trip, I think back to just how good that was.  Simply put, it alone made my trip.

Afterwards I toured through several of the exhibits which included a Gemini Capsule, artifacts from the early space programs (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), several rather old telescopes, and many other exhibits. After another show, Undiscovered Worlds, which was about exactly what it sounds like, I decided it was time to find dinner, so I headed out into the cold.

Gemini Capsule

A Rather Large And Rather Old Telescope

It was at this point I realized that I had not planned on how to get back to the hotel once I was done here.  I didn’t see any taxi’s waiting about, but I did see a CTA bus, so I jumped on that.  Luck would have it that it got me fairly close to the hotel, so I could look for dinner.  After searching for a little bit and not able to make up my mind I figured I would just let someone else do it for me.  It’s a rare thing that I use the concierge at a hotel, but my indecisiveness was strong tonight, and that’s what they are there for.  The set me up at a steakhouse called Rosebud Prime that was within walking distance of the hotel.  I figured that I might as well go all out since the 2012 had been a pretty good year personally and professionally, and besides how can you say no to steak?

The Bar At Rosebud Prime

It wasn’t very busy, and I wasn’t exactly dressed as nicely as the rest of the patrons, keeping my zip-up hoodie on while I ate at the bar, but it wasn’t exactly busy either.  So who cares.  The streak was almost perfect; seasoning was good, and cooked pretty darn close to what I specified, and very juicy.  Perhaps I don’t eat at very many nicer steakhouses, but I was a bit surprised when my bake potato was dressed up with the toppings I wanted by the waiter on a cart.

My only other plan for the night was to head to the Signature Lounge at the 96th in the John Hancock Center.  Located on the 96th floor of that building, it’s a bar offering views of the city stretched out below and the rest of the skyline.  Of course, it’s going to be a popular place, and once I got to the 96th floor I found myself having to wait in a line.  Of course I haven’t really had to wait in a long line for a bar in a while so in my head I figured that I would be at the front of the line in maybe 20 minutes.  I was way off.  An hour into standing in line I had got to the front, but apparently getting a seat for one was next to impossible.  Not even a bar stool was open.  After waiting even longer the guy guarding the line had pity on me and told me that at the very least I could walk up to the bar to get a drink, but I would have to come back to keep on waiting for a spot.  Apparently you can’t stand and linger here if you haven’t been given a seat.

Eventually a seat did open up at the bar counter and I ordered another local beers while gazing out into the nighttime Chicago Skyline.  However, once I was done with that beer, I decided to just head out.  While it was a nice view and all, I just don’t know if it was overly worth it.  Really, it was probably the wait that did it for me.  Maybe on a future trip I’ll try again, but we shall see.

Nighttime Chicago From The Signature Lounge

Another cab ride and I was back at the hotel.  I decided to visit the hotel bar again and continue my sampling of the local beers that they had on tap and in bottles.  It was a little more busier than the night before, but still not nearly as busy as I would have expected.  Not like that’s a bad thing, but I wasn’t able to stay for long before last call.

Monday, December 31
My trip was already starting to come to an end; I had a flight from Midway shortly before 2PM that afternoon, so there wasn’t much time to do much.  I started out again at the restaurant in the hotel lobby before venturing out.  I figured I would stick to outdoor venues within the downtown area, so I boarded the L and rode over to Millenium Park (which honestly I could have walked, but oh well).  I saw the giant polished metal thing (not sure what it is called), had something fly into my eye which took probably 10 minutes for me to flush it out, and then saw the giant face screens.  Again, not sure what those are called either, but I decided to head over to the other side of Grant Park to Lake Michigan.  There wasn’t much to see other than the Chicago Fire Department Scuba Team in the water for some reason.

Faces – This Just Confuses Me

That Shiny Thing In Millienium Park

Chicago Fire Department Scuba Team

Even after those few things I was realizing that I needed to get back to the hotel, make sure I was packed up and head to the airport.  I walked back this time, gathered my gear, checked out and was back on a train headed towards the airport in no time.  I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get out to Midway, so I erred on the side of caution and wound up getting to the airport about 2 hours before my flight.  Security didn’t take very long and it seems that Delta and a few other airline priority passengers apparently get sent through the crew line, which was not congested at all.  I picked up some pizza for lunch (sadly, I couldn’t find a Chicago-style deep dish slice anywhere to go) and waited at the gate until boarding was called.  Fun fact: The last time I had been at Chicago Midway Airport was so that I could board my first commercial flight ever: MetroJet Operated by US Airways Flight 2781 to Washington-Dulles.

Looking Back At The W Chicago – City Center

L Train Approaching Quincy (To Midway Airport)

Southwest Had A Flight To ECP While I Was On The Delta Flight “To” The Other Panama City (Both Were Obviously Not Non-Stop)

I luckily had been upgraded already, so I was on board in Seat 1B pretty quickly.  There was my usual pre-departure beverage of Coke Zero, and once everyone was boarded we pushed back on time and took off for Atlanta.  Like the flight up there wasn’t a meal service other than the snack basket that gets passed around, and for the most part it was a good average Delta flight.  Our arrival was a little early giving me a little bit longer of a layover.  I made a short stop in the Sky Club before catching my short flight home to Panama City.  Unfortunately, that flight was on a CRJ200, which somehow I’ve managed to avoid in/out of ECP for many months now.  As a result, no upgrades, no service or anything.  Not that this is exactly a horrible thing since the flight is only about 40 minutes long.  Just sucks how cramped those seats can get.

Anyways, for a super last minute trip, Chicago was a good call, especially since I had not been there since I was little kid.  There’s a lot more to the city than I experienced in my short time there, so I think I’m going to have to have to go back.  It probably won’t be like what NYC is to me, but the next time I see a good deal there I think I’ll jump on it.

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