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Yesterday was our first sea day. Sea days are our favorites – you’re just out on the ocean, with nothing in particular to do and nowhere in particular to be. Unless, of course, you’ve signed up for some of the ship’s activities, which usually are kind of stupid but on Crystal can be kind of fun.

We got up about 7:30 and headed to breakfast about 8:30. However, unbeknowst to us, it was actually about 9:30 – we knew we were going to have to move our clocks ahead one hour at some point, but we thought it wasn’t until Tuesday. We had breakfast in the Lido buffet, and our plan was to just get a little and go back for more if necessary. We had our leisurely breakfast out on the aft deck, and then Lis went back to get some bacon – but they were breaking it all down – it was 10:30, not 9:30, we discovered, and the Lido stops serving at 10:00. Ah, the beauty of a cruise – we just went to the pool area, where “Late Riser’s Breakfast” starts at 10:00, and had second breakfast.

We ran in to Sandra at second breakfast, and sat and chatted with her a bit. She asked us if we were doing the Free Slots Tournament at 2pm. We didn’t know what that was. She explained that it’s this tournament where the contestants get three minutes to wildly push the button (or pull the arm, if you are so inclined), and whoever ends up with the most points wins. Lis thought it sounded like fun and went to sign up. I had a manicure scheduled for 1:30 and so couldn’t do it.

(OK, an aside – I’m sitting out in the pool area as I type this, and the ship’s captain just strode by and said good morning to me. But he did it in such a strange pre-emptory manner – usually the staff say hello as they go by, but only if you are already making eye contact with them. The captain actually interrupted me and made me look up from what I was doing, and his whole manner was that of someone who thinks they’re making your day by talking to you. I was the only one on deck – he could have just walked on by. But apparently, when you’re captain, you can’t just walk the ship without making sure that everyone knows you’re the captain out walking the ship. (Nested aside – in case you’re wondering why we like to go on these cruises where people are so unpleasant; the vast majority of the passengers and staff on board are very lovely and friendly – we just make note of the exceptions because they make better stories.))

After second breakfast, we went to pick up a couple of free needlepoint kits that we read about in the daily schedule the night before – mine is a glasses case with a dragonfly on it, and Lis’ is a floral pattern coin purse. There was an associate needlepoint class later in the day, but I used to needlepoint as a kid, so we figured we could skip it. I’m looking forward to needlepointing out on the balcony on one of our upcoming sea days :)

After lunch I went up for my manicure. Sandra had procured for us $1,150 in cruise credit (as I said before, travel agent extraordinaire), and I had decided to spend part of mine on a manicure – I’ve never had one before, and thought it would be fun to have pretty hands for formal night. But it actually turned out to kind of bum me out. First, because sitting with my arms forward for so long started to make my shoulders hurt. But mostly, because it was depressing to imagine it from the workers’ perspective. I caught a glimpse of my manicurist’s schedule for the day – she was booked through 10pm that night, and I’m sure had been at it since the morning. I know that I benefit at the expense of exploited workers in everything from my clothes to my food, but I’m not used to actually seeing it up close. It was also slightly depressing/embarrassing to hear some of the things my fellow passengers were saying – a very sweet little old lady was asking the Romanian girl doing her hair questions about her life – she was particulary interested in where she got her cosmotology training – “Do they have beauty parlors in Romania?”

After my manicure I was heading back to the cabin when I happened to hear all this noise coming from the casino – it was the Slots Tournament. I wandered in to see how my sweetie was doing. It’s quite a sight to see a row of people madly pounding away on slot machines while a couple rows of spectators madly cheer them one. I found Lis – her turn was coming up. She did pretty well – made it to the final round, and ultimately won a “Crystal Casino” t-shirt.

We went back to the room to lie about and read. I attempted to check my email and post my last blog to Facebook, but the connection was slow and the blog was temporarily down, adding to my bummed-out-ed-ness – which was too bad; it had been such a lovely morning.

Around 4:45 Lis went to a Nordic pole walking class, and I gathered up my music and head phones and went up on deck. One of my favorite things in the whole world is to go up to the bow of a ship that is under way, listen to music, watch the sea and sing. It’s always windy at the bow, so most people don’t go there, plus the wind covers the noise, so you can sing off key with impunity. It is so awesome that sometimes it makes me cry. This time, at first, it wasn’t having the same effect – but eventually my bummed-ness wore off, and the old magic returned.

I stayed longer than I should have, and so had to rush to get cleaned up for formal night, but soon enough we were bedecked in our sparkly Sears finery and on our way. They showed us to our table – thankfully, we requested and got a table for two – neither of us felt up to making small talk with people we don’t know. We ordered the Chateaubriande, which we had had on our last cruise, and it did not disappoint – so tender I could literally cut it with my fork. Melted in your mouth – definitely the best bit of meat I’ve ever had anywhere. We couldn’t eat it all, and the idea of wasting it broke our hearts, so Lis asked about taking it back to our room. The (cute but slightly overly talkative) waiter gently but firmly denied our request, which was good, as I think toting around doggie bags on formal night is poor form.

At this point a group of five waiters gathered round our table and sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Then they placed a slice of birthday cake in front of me, and the head waiter kissed my cheek. Those of you who know my birthday is December 22nd might be wondering what gives. Well, when we booked the cruise, Sandra asked us if we were celebrating anything – Lis said, “Mary’s birthday is in December.” Somehow this got translated to yesterday (November 28) being my birthday. After the singing, our waiter brought us the dessert menu. There was a butterscotch pudding option that sounded lovely, but I already had my birthday cake. I was torn; the waiter said, “Have both – you only have a birthday once a year!” Who can argue with that – 2 desserts it was.

This is a jazz-themed cruise, so after dinner we went to one of the bars to listen to a jazz band for a while. It was very good, and they played actual classic jazz, as opposed to the Muzak that a ship’s regular “jazz band” usually plays. After that, Lis went back to the room and I went to the theater to watch Monday Night Football. New Orleans already had the game pretty well in hand (or seemed to – I haven’t checked the score today – maybe the Giants made a miracle comeback), so I only watched for about 15 minutes or so and then headed back to my room. The best thing about the game was watching football in formal wear. The worst was actually having to watch the commercials – it’s what led me to bail before the game was done.

All in all, a pretty successful sea day :)

Yesterday morning we asked the girl at the front desk of the hotel if she knew of a breakfast place with views of the bay (harbor? I’m not sure of the correct Long Beach lingo) and she recommended Claire’s, which is in the back of the Long Beach Museum of Art. We found the place, saw the umbrellas, and followed a guy and his kid back there – and in so doing, we learned later, basically cut in line and inconvenienced the restaurant staff – we were supposed to go in the main restaurant and check in with the hostess. They accommodated us without too much trouble, though, and then put up with us further as we insisted on rearranging the table to get some shade (I’m sure we were their favorites).

It was another gorgeous day – clear and warm, beautiful skies and seas, very little smog, very little wind; really spectacular – and breakfast was very pleasant. After breakfast, we decided to check out the museum a little, since we have reciprocal privileges there, due to our Walker Art Museum membership (faithful readers might remember that this is the membership we reverse engineered to get into the the Art Institute of Chicago). Even though our membership was only supposed to admit 2, the girls at the counter let us all in. The current show was a retrospective of video installations from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Video installations are not really my thing, but it was interesting enough, plus I was very pleased to have used our reciprocal privileges :)

Now it was time to check out of the hotel and head to the cruise port. Before we turn our attention to the cruise, though, I must take a moment to say how much I liked Long Beach. Maybe it was a function of the beautiful weather, but I thought it seemed a really cool town – I could definitely see coming back someday for a long weekend or something.

Vicki dropped us off at the cruise port (thanks for everything, Vicki! You’re a peach!), we gave our bags to the porter, and then headed over to the check in area. To my surprise, there were a bunch of people sitting in chairs, and we were given a ticket with the number 11 and told to sit and wait for our number to be called (they were on number 5). This surprised me because usually, on these smaller luxury ships, the embarkation process is pretty quick and there are very few lines – it’s part of what you’re paying the big bucks for. I groused about it a little, and then, to Lis’ horror and my own, I loudly announced “We wouldn’t have to wait like this on Regent!” – I mean LOUDLY – I practically shouted it. Lis shot me a look, and I said “I know, I know – I don’t know how that happened!” We were sitting kind of by ourselves, and I’m not sure that anybody heard me, but I still found it terrifying to contemplate that I might be becoming one of those old people who loudly blurt out whatever is in their heads…

(Speaking of old people, a digression: there are, as you may imagine, a large number of elderly people on the ship. Which means that there is also fair bit of the phenomenon of old, old people with young, young hair. This works well enough at a distance in low lighting. But up close in good lighting, the effect is NOT what the practitioner imagines. In fact, it is rather startling and mildly horrifying. The lesson to learn from this is, go ahead and dye your hair, but, really, let’s try to be realistic about it.)

Once our group was called (we waited about half an hour), we saw that the reason for the delay was that one of the metal detectors was out of order. If it had been working, we would have had our normal check in – so Crystal was off the hook. We went quickly through security, and were on the ship and checked in in just a few minutes.

We had lunch at the pool grill, and it was good, but not quite as great as we remembered from before; I suspect that we will find several things not as good as we remembered, since we have built Crystal up as practically the greatest food on earth since our last sailing, 5 years ago.

We wandered around a bit, and encountered this odd elevator behavior that we have run in to only on Crystal – people who refuse to make way when you are trying to get on. This man and woman were standing at the very front when the elevator doors opened, didn’t budge an inch, and then gave us the stinkeye as we were forced to push past them to board. It’s very strange. We wondered if it was some sort of rich person thing, but we’ve hung out with rich people on Regent and at the Four Seasons, and we’ve never seen anything like it, except on our last Crystal cruise. Go figure.

We went back to our room so we could be on our balcony to watch the ship sail away from port (one of my favorite parts of any cruise is sailing in to or out of port) and then got ready for dinner.

For dinner we had reservations at Silk Road, which is the Asian restaurant on board, affiliated with Nobu in Los Angeles. We had made a date to meet Sandra, travel agent extraordinaire, and her son David, and we had a really great time – especially since Sandra brought a bottle of wine for the table and told the waiter to keep the rock shrimp coming (I’m not much of a seafood person in general, but the rock shrimp were really, really good). Sandra’s wine, in addition to the Pinot Noir (from Oregon!) I had already ordered, and the champagne I’d had when we boarded the ship, meant that I’d had about 3 times the amount of wine I normally have, so I was feeling pretty good:)

After dinner Lis checked out the casino a bit (she wanted to see if they have penny slots – they do) and I walked around on deck a bit, and then it was time to turn in.

(Author’s note: no links in the next few posts, as the ship’s internet connection is just too dang slow for it…)

We are off on a 7 night Mexican Riviera cruise on the Crystal Symphony tomorrow (yay!!), and so flew in to LA today. Originally we were just going to stay at the Embassy Suites at LAX and then take a shuttle to the cruise port in San Pedro. Luckily, though, Lis’ college pal Vicki lives in the LA area, and proposed a plan – she would pick us up at the airport, we would all go stay somewhere fun, and then she would take us to the cruise port the next day.

Lis and Vicki did a lot of planning, and settled on Long Beach as the place to stay. I do not know the thinking behind this decision (I don’t think Long Beach is usually first on people’s itineraries), but I thought it sounded like fun – especially after Vicki suggested that we have brunch on the Queen Mary (permanently docked in Long Beach) on Sunday before going to the cruise port.

Our flight was on Alaska. While we were waiting at the gate, they announced that there were some first class seats available for a $50 upgrade – we pounced on them as quickly as possible, and found ourselves in first class, a very welcome little surprise. I had been a little cranky earlier (woke up with a headache), but this cheered me right up!

As everyone was boarding, a little boy and his mother started past us. The boy stopped in front of the still-empty first class seats across the aisle from us and said “I want to sit in front, momma.” She laughed and said “Me, too. But we need to keep going.” He had a very hard time accepting this – here were these perfectly nice seats, and they were just going to walk on by? She had to do quite a bit of cajoling to get him to move on back to coach. Poor boy – it’s hard when you run smack in to the world and its confusing ways…

Our flight was lovely, we arrived on time, and soon we were on the road to Long Beach with Vicki. It was a beautiful day – warm and clear and gorgeous. We checked in to our hotel – a boutique hotel in downtown called The Varden Hotel. It is a renovated 1920’s property, which means it is cool and tiny and neato and loud – the kind of place where you really couldn’t stay for more than one night.

After checking in, we headed out to look at the harbor. We drove down to the marina area, and sat on a bench for quite a while, looking out on the Queen Mary and watching the pelicans fish. I’ve seen pelicans many times before, but have never seen them hunt – they make these straight-down dives in to the water – very impressive.

After this we drove around the Naples Island area of Long Beach for a bit (it is one of Vicki’s favorite places) and then went to Parker’s Lighthouse restaurant for dinner. We sat outside and watched the sun go down, and then a crescent moon go down, and the Queen Mary was all lit up, and it was really great.

After dinner Lis and Vicki went to see The Muppets. I wanted to see it, too, but my energy, while greatly improved, is still pretty precarious, and I didn’t want to push things. They both enjoyed it very much – Lis says 2 thumbs up!

We decided against the Queen Mary for brunch after all (for a variety of reasons), and I was at first a little disappointed. But then I read on Wikipedia that she has been gutted and re-gutted since her retirement in 1967 – it doesn’t sound like there’s all that much of the original left (though I guess there are some restoration efforts underway), so I’m glad we’re not going. I think I’ll be happier with the images in my head from the Queen Mary book I read while on the Queen Mary II.

And so we’re off to bed, excited to spend some more time with Vicki tomorrow and then board our ship!

Link to photos

We had all kinds of big plans for our last full day in Chicago, but when the day actually dawned, we didn’t feel like doing anything but reading (Lis, by this time, had a little mountain of newspapers to work through), so that’s what we did until dinner.

For dinner, we had reservations at Alinea Restaurant. Lis had first heard of Alinea while listening to an interview on Fresh Air with the chef, Grant Achatz. He is in to making dining an all-five-senses experience, and Lis was intrigued, though certain that she’d never talk me in to trying it, as the prices are OBSCENE. Still, she took her shot – “What would you think about trying out this restaurant while we’re in Chicago?” She described the restaurant and the price, and to her surprise I said yes (I never know how things are going to strike me these days – had she asked at a different time I might have been adamantly against it – ain’t hormones grand…)

Luckily for Lis, my sanguinity held, and we were off to our fancy restaurant. We took the subway to get there, and since we had early reservations (we are as one with the early bird special set), we got to pile in to a big city rush hour subway car. My sweetie couldn’t really do the requisite body-ing, due to her injuries, so I plunged in and she followed in my wake. I always feel very urban when I’m pushing my way through a crowded bus or subway car :)

Alinea’s schtick is that they’re not just an expensive restaurant serving fine food – they take control of the entire experience – you just show up and do as you’re told. Which, if you can let go, is really quite fun. Also, the instant you step in the door your every need is attended to, mostly by strapping young men, though there was a very lovely young women who showed us to our table.

There were two men who attended us, and they managed to watch our every move (at one point, Lis dropped her napkin on the floor and was immediately brought a new one) without being obtrusive or creepy. They also managed to be simultaneously formal and friendly, and we didn’t feel too out of place, which had been my biggest concern. Frankly, I felt more comfortable there than in the public rooms of the oh-so-hip James hotel.

The menu was 17 courses (really, 19 courses, since the “English Peas” course had 3 courses itself – everything you could possibly think of doing to peas, including freeze-drying them). I’ve posted a picture of the menu here – after each course name there is a bubble. The size of the bubble indicates the size of the course (some courses are just one bite), and the placement indicates the taste – more to the right = sweet, more to the left = savory.

The first course came out, and it was steelhead roe, and I experienced a moment of panic – I hate roe, and am not fond of seafood in general, but I hadn’t realized until now that of course a fine dining establishment is going to do a lot of seafood. So I had a little talk with myself – “Just try everything – eat everything they bring you, no matter what it is.” I took a deep breath and ate my roe – and it wasn’t too bad, at first. Eventually it got too fishy, and so I just ate everything else, which was fruity and yummy. Also, when the roe fell off its watermelon gel base and landed on the plate, the plate and the lighting and the roe interacted in such a way that the roe appeared to be backlit – very cool.

And so we worked through our courses, all of which were good and some of which were spectacular – amazing explosions of flavor in your mouth. And the anticipation between courses was very fun – what would be next? And the presentation of each course was phenomenal – I thought waiting to see what kind of out-of-this-world utensil or serving dish the course would be in was just as much fun as waiting for the course itself (the restaurant website has a little slideshow of some of the offerings).

The very last course is called Chocolate, and we had actually seen a YouTube video of it, but the video doesn’t do it justice. In the video, the chef is drawing really cool things on the table with chocolate, and suddenly just ruins it by smashing this big ‘ol thing down on it (a block of freeze-dried chocolate mousse). In real life, this is the best part, for two reasons: 1) the military precision of the timing – at just the moment that the chef places the last bit of chocolate and stands up, a waiter rushes the mousse block out to him on a silver tray; and 2) the dry ice effect of the frozen mousse sends silvery wisps spilling out to the edges of the table, partially obscuring the chocolate design. It actually choked me up a little (I know, I know….).

After dinner I needed to use the restroom – I asked Lis, who had gone earlier, where it was. She said “Oh, don’t worry – they will show you.” I stood up, and our waiter was instantly at my side. I asked “Where is the restroom?” “Megan will show you.” The lovely young women who had showed us to our table re-appeared, and WALKED ME TO THE RESTROOM! The restroom itself had candles and low lighting and very mild incense and I felt like I should be getting a spa treatment in there. When I returned to the table, the waiter magically appeared again to hold out my chair for me.

We paid our (YOWZA!$$!) bill and left (they walked us to the door) and rejoined the masses on the train for the ride back to the hotel. It was a really fun evening.

Yesterday we were going to go back to the Art Institute, but we woke up to beautiful sunny skies and the forecast said sun, 74 degrees and low humidity, so we opted for the Chicago Architecture Foundation Boat Tour instead.

Lis had read nothing but good things about this tour while doing her (extensive) research for our trip, and our initial tour-guide cabbie had said that all of his fares had raved about it, so we were planning to do it if we could.

We followed our now-regular pattern of lying about in the morning and doing our outing in the afternoon. For lunch, we went to Lawry’s, where Cathy and Claudia had eaten dinner our first night in town. It is a very staid, English-country-house-dark-wood-interior type of place; just what we needed after the hipness of The James (though The James has been growing on us, after we adjusted to all its faults – we are loving our loft and media room!). The prime rib was very good, and instead of bread they gave us home made potato chips that were FANTASTIC and (unfortunately) addictive.

We made our way to the Chicago River in plenty of time for our 3pm tour, and boarded the boat (sadly, I didn’t get her name). We were early enough that we were able to get a good seat on the outside of the upper viewing deck. The docent was an older man, and at first I was afraid he was going to be boring – while we were waiting to set sail, he told us about some of Chicago’s early history at a level of detail that did not bode well. But, once he started talking about the buildings, all was well – he was enthusiastic and informed and funny in a geeky way, and we had a great time, and I took a million pictures (you can view a severely culled but still way-too-many collection of these photos here).

One of the things I really liked about the tour (other than being out on the water on a beautiful day) was his enthusiasm for modern architecture. I’ve never gotten modern architecture – they just look like boring boxes to me. But he clearly loved modern architecture, and was able to explain what was great about each building in a way that you could really see it.

There was one building in particular where this talent was in evidence. It was a bleak, utiliarian thing, and he said that most of the other docents, if they mentioned it at all, joked “Look away! Look at those buildings over there!” But he had a fondness for it, and pointed out its various features, and while it never stopped being unattractive, you could see what he was talking about. Plus, I was glad that the poor homely building, surrounded by beauties, had someone who loved it. :)

After our tour, we split up – Lis went to the Architecture Foundation store, and I went back to the hotel. Lis joined me about an hour later, and we went out in search of dinner. We ended up at The Big Bowl, and found that we had had a misunderstanding – I thought we were getting take out, and Lis thought we were eating there. We weren’t sure what to do, as I was really tired and wanted to go back, but Lis had been really wanting to have a drink with dinner. But then I remembered that we had our purloined airplane rum in the room – how about we get some OJ or something, and have drinks there? OK.

So, we got our food to go, and then I took the food back to the room and Lis went to Trader Joe’s to get some juice (those of you who are Lis’ Facebook friends know how this story ends). After a few minutes the room doorbell rang. I answered it and there was my sweetie, looking a bit shaken and clutching a tattered juice bottle – “I hurt myself,” she said, limping in to the room and showing me her abraded arm. “What happened?!?” “I tripped coming out of Trader Joe’s.”

She had skinned up her elbow and wrist, skinned and bruised her knee, and bruised her pinky finger. She had dirt on her chin and nose, but that washed off. Poor sweetie!

We washed her up and put neosporin on everything, called room service for some ice in a couple plastic bags, and then sat down to eat. She took ibuprofin and iced everything, had her dearly-bought drink, and then we settled down to another movie in the Media Room, this time Sleepless in Seattle. As before, it was pretty AWESOME – this time Lis was prompted to actually price the projector thingy (approx $1,300).

I’m happy to report that this morning Lis was not nearly as stiff and sore as she had feared, and that she should heal up nicely.

Yesterday we were both pretty weary, but wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago – the one tourist site that we both definitely wanted to hit (at one point, I was maintaining that it was the only site I was going to hit). So we rested in the morning, and headed out to the museum in the afternoon.

But first, we had lunch at CafeLux again. Nothing really noteworthy to mention here, except that after lunch the sweet, attentive waiter brought me my credit card receipt and said, very earnestly, “Thank you, Ms. Delawater.”

And so, on to the Art Institute. Prior to our trip, we had spent an evening reverse engineering the Art Institute’s reciprocal membership – we started with a list of all the museums with whom the Art Institute has reciprocal privileges, and then looked at all the museums with which those museums have reciprocal privileges, looking for the best deal. We hoped to find something that would get us in to the Art Institute and the Portland and Seattle museums.

We ultimately chose The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which also gets us in to the Art Institute, The Met and some others in NY, the DeYoung in SF, a bunch of museums in Sacramento, and a bunch of museums around the Pacific NW (but, alas, not Portland or Seattle). It is all very exciting – I’m thinking we should take a train trip to Minnesota next summer to visit our museum – not to mention all the trips to NY and SF I think this should justify.

At first, a very taciturn man at the Art Institute said we couldn’t get in with our Walker Art Center cards. I had just pulled out my iPhone to show him where on his website it said we could, when he looked at another page in his little book and said “Oh, here it is” and then (grudgingly, it seemed to me) gave us our tickets.

Lis wanted to go first to the Thorne Miniature Rooms – she had read about them online and was fascinated by them. And, indeed, they were pretty amazing. After a while, however, I had had my fill of tiny furniture, and decided to explore the other collections (I think Lis could have stayed in the Miniature Rooms collection all day).

I went to the second floor and looked at the Impressionists (lots of Renoir and Monet) and the early Europeans (fair amount of El Greco). I had a great time at first, but then ran out of gas and was mostly wandering aimlessly. It was still pleasant, but I didn’t do the really immersing myself in the works that I like to do when I’ve got more in me.

Met up with Lis about 20 minutes before the museum closed at 5 – we went and looked at Chagall’s America Windows and the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, then wandered the gift shop a bit before they tossed us out.

We’d both like to go back and explore a little more, particularly the Modern Wing, plus there are a couple paintings we didn’t see that we’d like to (Hopper’s Nighthawks and Van Gogh’s The Bedroom).

We had an indifferent dinner of burgers and fries in a hole-in-the-wall burger place across the street from the Museum, primarily because my out-of-gas-ness made it impossible for me to participate in looking around for something better. Then we headed back to the hotel.

I will mention here that we went to and from the museum by bus, using the 3 day bus passes we had purchased at Jewel-Osco for $14 each. We love using mass transit when visiting big cities (makes us feel less like tourists and more like part of the city), and The James is particulary well-situated for this – just a couple blocks from a bus stop that will get us quickly to the Art Insitute, Millenium and Grant Parks, The Aquarium, Planetarium and Field Natural History Museum, etc, etc

Once back at the hotel, we fired up the projector in the Media Room and watched How Do You Know with Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd (look closely to see Lis (Vanna) in the lower left corner of the picture). It was super great, partly because the movie was much better than I had been expecting (it was really quite good), and partly because watching a movie in the Media Room is AWESOME!!! We are going to watch another movie tonight, and even toyed briefly with the idea of “How can we do one of these at home??”

Yesterday was a pretty quiet day – we had breakfast and went to Marshall’s Home Goods, as Lis mentioned in the previous post about the James, and then Cathy and Claudia went home and we went back to bed.

Round about 2pm we decided that we might be needing some lunch, but we didn’t want much – especially since we had decided on an early dinner to avoid the hipster late diners. Cathy had told us that we needed to have an authentic Chicago-style hot dog at least once during our stay, so we went out in search of that. My sweetie Yelped, and found Portillo’s, only a few blocks away – and so there we went and had our dog (eagle-eyed readers will note that it is a Portillo’s dog pictured in the Wikipedia link re: Chicago-styled hot dogs).

We were charmed by the Portillo’s building – sort of a funky food court with lots of Chicago memorabilia and oddities on the walls and ceiling. The hot dogs were really good (and, Cathy, you will be pleased to know that I had all the fixings except the peppers).

Across the street was this huge McDonald’s I had seen a couple times before – old fashioned golden arches and huge (3 or 4 stories) with cantilevered glass and bronze statues of Ronald McDonald and such. We wandered over and took our pictures with Ronald and then went inside – definitely the coolest McDonald’s I’ve ever been in. The entire second floor was a coffee shop and McDonald’s museum of sorts. Very fun.

Back to the hotel, and back to lounging in bed until dinner. For dinner, we walked around the corner to Roy’s, one of our favorite places since Lis’ dad took us to lunch there in Carmel a few years back. Rather than bread, they put down a big bowl of edamame, which we were able to eat properly, thanks to the edamame eating lesson we’d received from Cathy on Saturday (thanks, cuz!!). Then we had salads and desserts, which were very yummy.

And then back to the hotel and back to bed :)

I will go out of my way to avoid anything hip, cool, or happening. I am not, and have never been, hip. So it was fairly alarming to find, immediately upon entering The James Hotel, that, despite the gazillion TripAdvisor reviews I had read, it had somehow escaped me that I had chosen a hip hotel for our stay in Chicago.

The lobby was teeming with Beautiful People, some of whom gave us a bit of a cold once over. The front desk people, however, were very lovely. They gave us a complimentary upgrade to a “Loft Suite”, which runs for something like $600 a night!! (Thank you, extradordinary Sandra at Plaza Travel!) Since our rooms weren’t ready, they stored our luggage for us and called me on my cell phone as soon as the room was ready. Then they asked us whether we needed help with our luggage, rather than whisking it away, requiring us to tip the bellman when we would have been perfectly happy to deal with it ourselves.

Anyway, when we walked into the room, we were wowed. Later I compared this to the first time we walked into our room at a Four Seasons and were definitely underwowed. It seemed like just an ordinary hotel room. It took about 24 hours for us to realize how spectacular the Four Seasons is. In this case it was somewhat the opposite. It took us less than 24 hours to realize that the James is all about form over function – something that always leads to me grousing and complaining.

The room is VERY large and set up a bit like a railroad flat, which might be why they call it a loft. The queen size bed is up on a platform at one end of the room with some very cool silver beads hanging down on one side to separate the bed from the living area. Both of us were quite delighted with the little cozy bed nook until bed time. That is when we noticed that there were not two separate lights on either side of the bed. Instead there was one very cool-looking, heat-producing horizontal light above the bed. As we read before bed, it became warmer and warmer, and when I was ready to go to sleep but Mary wasn’t quite ready, I still had a hot light blaring above me.

Mary complained about the light – I was annoyed but only slightly. But when my girlfriend said, “I hope this window doesn’t break because I keep falling into it,” I became a bit concerned. We are on the 14th floor after all, and I so don’t want to lose her. There is very little room on either side of the bed, but on her side, the floor actually has a sudden slope towards the window – hence the falling. Then there is the tv hanging from the wall at the end of the nook. Perfect viewing angle, but she must contort her body a bit to get past it. Finally there is the step up into the nook from the rest of the room. We both tripped over it, oh, I’d say about 5 times each, before we trained ourselves to remember it was there. Thankfully, no middle of the night falls.

There are two bedside tables, but neither has a drawer, and they are both very tiny, so they are both piled with our crap – well mine is – Mary is quite neat and tidy no matter the constraints of her bedside table.

The bed is VERY comfortable – absolutely no complaints there. The biggest issue for me is that all through the night of our first night, I kept hearing thumping noises, as if someone was slamming their door shut. It kept me from sleeping. Though there was a wedding party staying here, I could not imagine that anyone could be opening and closing their door that often. There was a thump once or twice a minute, but the thumps didn’t seem to follow any regular pattern. I was VERY tired in the morning. I could hear the thumps in every part of our suite, and I was a bit unhappy. I must say that Mary did not notice it, and neither did Cathy and Claudia who were in a loft suite exactly 6 floors beneath us. So, more on this later. Back to the room.

The main living area includes a large flat-screen tv, a fully-stocked honor bar (full-size bottles of booze, plus the regular mini-bar stuff, including a “Mile High Kit” which Claudia found particularly interesting and scandalizing), a little seating area with a small table and two chairs, and a sitting area with very modern, hip (read fairly uncomfortable) furniture. There is also a large seventies shag rug in the sitting area, which feels just heavenly on the feet after a long day of museum-going.

The piece de resistance is the “private media room” at the far end of the loft. It is a small room which is taken up entirely by a very comfortable platform bed. There is a bose player with surround sound speakers and a projector so you can watch your “media” on the wall. All very cool. I was very excited about watching tv on the wall and hooking up my iPad to the projector to watch Cagney and Lacey (Netflix) on the wall. There were no instructions on how to use any of it. When I called to ask, they sent a technician up to our room who told me that the only thing you can do is watch a DVD in there. Still cool, but you’d think they’d hook it up to a tv, and allow you to connect your own electronics to it.

We have discovered that the “private media room” is very lovely at certain times of the day when the sun comes in and shines on the bed. We both have spent some time there reading and sunbathing. I actually worried about getting a sunburn yesterday!

The bathroom has a separate shower and tub. I love that. But the shower is just a little smaller than a separate shower usually is, and when I opened the shower door after my shower, water got all over the floor.

One other form over function detail that bothered me is that there is a safe, but it is so high up in the closet that I have to stand on my tip-toes to reach it and I can’t see into it at all.

Anyway… Sandra extraordinaire also procured us a free breakfast every morning, and when on Sunday morning we went to catch the elevator down to breakfast I discovered the source of the thumping. The elevator thumps constantly as it travels. This was actually a relief to discover as it meant there was a possible solution. That solution would mean switching rooms. I can tell you that Mary was not at all pleased with that possibility as she had already unpacked and made herself quite at home. We temporarily tabled the discussion.

Our free breakfast was quite hearty. We were told that we could order the “James Classic breakfast” – no substitutions. The James Classic is two eggs, choice of meat, toast, juice and coffee. I am lactose-intolerant so I asked the waitress if my eggs could be cooked in oil, rather than butter, and I asked if the potatoes were cooked in butter. She said yes to the former, and that she thought the potatoes were cooked in oil. I asked her to make sure and she said she would.

A different person brought our plates and he handed them out as if they were all the same. I asked, “Are these eggs cooked in oil?” and he said yes. He didn’t speak very good English so I didn’t ask about the potatoes. A third person came to ask how everything was. I asked, “Are the potatoes cooked in oil or butter?” He said, “Oh, oil I’m pretty sure.” I still wasn’t very confident. A few minutes later he came back and said, “If it’s a lactose issue, I talked to the chef, and everything is cooked in clarified butter and clarified butter has no lactose, so you should be fine.”

I said, “You mean these eggs are also cooked in butter?” He said yes. I was not thrilled that it took me asking three different people to finally ascertain that my eggs were cooked in butter, not in oil, like I had requested. I also didn’t believe that clarified butter has no lactose. However, my darling girlfriend looked it up on the internet (and we all know the internet does not lie) and confirmed what I had been told. And, in fact, that is a very cool thing I have learned, because indeed I had no trouble with the clarified butter. But I should not have had to work that hard to find out whether or not my breakfast was going to make me sick. And what if I had been actually allergic to dairy and it was not a lactose issue?

After breakfast, we decided to head to the grand opening of Marshalls Home Goods a few doors down from the hotel. I wanted to put my newspaper away, so Mary, Cathy, and Claudia went on ahead and I ran up to the room. Coming down in the elevator it occured to me that if we were going to change rooms, I should let them know before they cleaned our current room. I explained the problem at the front desk, where they were VERY nice. There was only one other room available, on the top floor at the end of the hall away from the elevator, but next to the service elevator, which, I was told, rarely goes to the top floor. This was an ordinary sized room with two double beds – no separate sitting area, no private media room. It looked out onto the street rather than the “courtyard” ours looks out on. The deskman said he thought that noise from the street could be fairly loud also. He said I could make up my mind “whenever” and even wait until the next day if I needed to. Very nice and accomodating.

I headed on to Marshalls Home Goods where I laid out my dilemma. I really didn’t care about a smaller room or even separate beds, as long as I could sleep. But would the street noise be worse than the thumping noise? Claudia said that she thought she would prefer street noise. It’s not constant, and it can be kind of soothing. I totally agreed with that. Then Cathy pointed out that she had her fan on all night and didn’t hear anything. The air conditioning here is VERY LOUD, and I realized that ours cycled on and off all night long and when it was on, I could barely hear the thumping. I didn’t realize that you could run the fan continuously. Once Cathy pointed out that you could, she SAVED OUR MARRIAGE! I decided to give it another night with the fan on all night, and I am happy to report that I slept much better last night and we will stay in our huge loft suite with private media center.

All in all, I don’t think I would choose this hotel again. We both prefer staid luxury to hipster luxury, and there are so many inconveniences here in the service of being cool. But I’m happy for now.

Up early and on our way to Chicago. But, ere we leave the Quad Cities, let me talk up a few of its sites: We had lunch at Cafe Fresh in Moline, which was really good, plus they have this cream cheese pickle thing, which is a dill pickle smothered in cream cheese and wrapped in a slice of deli meat (ham, I think) – seriously yummy. And afterwards, we had dessert at Lagomarcino’s, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, and the best ice cream sundae I’ve ever had (very sad to read that Mr. Lagomarcino passed away the very day after we enjoyed his wonderful establishment).

I must also give a shout out to Lis’ kin – her Uncle Frank, Aunt Carol, cousin Cathy, and nieces (actually first cousins once removed, but whatever) Caroline and Claudia. They showed us a great time, plus Carol, Frank and Cathy have the best stripper names ever (Freckles Jackson, Briar Roxbury and Muffy Vielstrassa, respectively).

Note from Lis: I’m not sure my very well-mannered aunt and uncle would appreciate their stripper names being published in a blog. Just so you know, we helped them figure out their stripper names after Mary told them our cats’ most excellent stripper names (BonBon LeChocolat, Ginger Darlington, Tabby Gaston, and Lulu Petunia). My aunt seemed a little alarmed, so Mary explained the whole idea of stripper names and that is when we found out that theirs are the most fabulous ever (unlike my worst ever Roanoke 9th Avenue.) (Mary: I’ve always been pleased with my stripper name of Midnight Adams, but I think it pales in comparison to Muffy Vielstrassa…)

And now, on to Chicago. Cathy and Claudia drove us back to Chicago, and we got to The James around 12:30pm – too early to check in, so we left our bags with the bellman and went out in search of sustenance. Claudia had been wanting to eat at the Grand Lux Cafe, because of their Beignets, and it turned out to be one block away from the hotel – a sign from God, clearly. We ordered a bunch of appetizers and a couple salads and ate family style, then had the aforementioned beignets for dessert – they were divine. Claudia had picked out Lagomarcino’s for dessert yesterday as well – that girl knows her desserts!

We wanted to go to the Shedd Aquarium, but turned out they were closing early on that particular Saturday (bastards), so we went to the Adler Planetarium instead and saw one of their shows. Cathy and Claudia report being somewhat disappointed in the show, but Lis and I really liked it.

Afterwards we took a bus to Millenium Park to look at “The Bean” and some of the other sites. It was pretty cool, on many levels – the sites were neato, and the temperature was about 57 plus wind chill.

We walked back to the hotel along Michigan Avenue (AKA The Magnificent Mile), people- and building-watching along the way. I didn’t have my real camera with me, only my iPhone, but snapped pics anyway, and some of them turned out pretty well, particularly some of the shots of the Bean – I’ve posted them here.

We got back to the hotel around 6pm, retrieved our bags and went up to our rooms (we’d been upgraded to a loft – more about the room in another post, maybe). The plan was to stow our stuff and then figure out where to eat, but once in the room, my body made an announcement – “You are not leaving this room again tonight, Missy.” So, room service burger for me. Lis wasn’t sure what she wanted to do – by now it was nearing 8pm – but ultimately she stayed in, too, and had a burger as well. Cathy and Claudia ate at Lawry’s, across the street, which they said was quite good, plus had a funky 70’s ambience – I’d like to try it later in the week.

We are in Rock Island, Illinois, right now, fixin’ to head to Chicago in the morning. And how did this come to pass, you might ask?

Well, Lis has been wanting to visit Chicago for a while now. We actually had a trip planned for last year – the annual Square Dance convention was in Chicago, and we had a sleeper car booked on Amtrak, and were signed up for the fun badge tour, and it was going to be awesome!! But, alas, Lis’ mom got sick, and we had to cancel.

So here we are, one year later, minus the square dancing and the train, on our way to the Windy City. But first, we stopped off for a couple days to visit Lis’ aunt, uncle, cousin and nieces in the Quad Cities.

On Wednesday we flew from Portland to Chicago, on Southwest. Lis has about a million Southwest free drink coupons, so we evolved a plan. We packed an empty plastic screw top bottle in our carry on. Then I ordered 2 drinks (orange juice and rum), and when the flight attendants weren’t looking, poured the rum in to the flask (we are classy broads in that way). Lis was supposed to get drinks, too, but she wanted apple juice and wasn’t sure she could be believable ordering apple juice and rum. But, anyway, we have some booze for the fancy hotel :)

Our flight got in too late for the 3 hour continuation to the Quad Cities, so we stayed in Chicago. Originally, we were just going to stay in some chain motel by the airport, but then my Travel Planner Extraordinaire girlfriend scored us a room at the Sutton Place downtown.

We took a cab from the airport, and at first the cabbie ignored us completely – I figured “Oh, well – big city.” Then he fished around in this little cooler in the passenger seat, pulled out a couple waters and handed them to us, still without a word.

And then, all of a sudden, he turned in to our cheerful tour guide, pointing out the tourist sites, laughing at our jokes, getting in the correct lane so we could better see things, etc. He was very sweet. He also took a wrong turn right at our hotel, said “Oh, you would be there by now,” and TURNED OFF THE METER!

The Sutton Place was nice, but didn’t have free wi-fi and didn’t have coffee in the room, and I slept past the free coffee in the lobby, so that was a bummer.

Plus, the lack of wi-fi in the room meant I had to go down to the lobby to deal with a work issue (there is wi-fi in the lobby and hotel bar), and so inadvertently found myself in the middle of someone else’s job interview – these two guys in suits were conducting an interview with another guy in a suit. I was very bummed – it’s one thing to have to be exposed to a bullshit meeting, but a job interview is about a thousand times worse. And, I couldn’t leave until my own business was finished, because I needed the wi-fi. Very sad story indeed.

We checked out of the hotel, took a cab to Union Station (this cabbie ignored us completely until the end when, for a change of pace, he gave us a dirty look when we paid with a credit card), and took the California Zephyr to Princeton, IL, where Lis’ cousin and niece picked us up.

The train station was crowded and our train was delayed, but once aboard we had a lovely ride, and I was in an unusual (hormonal?) space where the heartland scenery kept moving me to tears.

We’ve had a lovely visit with Lis’ family, including two rousing games of Celebrity, and tomorrow will head back to Chicago, where we will spend the remaining 5 days of our trip at The James Hotel. Lis’ cousin Cathy and niece Claudia will accompany us for the first day – we have extensive plans to paint the town!! (In between our naps, of course).

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