Yesterday we went snorkeling at Maluaka beach, which is another of our favorites. But, we were too nervous to enjoy it, for different reasons, both stemming from the fact that the swells were moderate. What made me nervous is that I didn’t want to be directly over the coral because I was afraid of being slammed in to it on a downdraft (probably not the right word). What made Lis nervous is that the swells kicked up sand and made the water murky, which are the conditions that are more conducive to shark attacks. Plus this beach is the site of a few shark attacks over the last several years, plus we learned that Makena Landing, just up the coast, is home to some reef sharks (no idea if these are the same sharks that did the attacking – probably not, as their presence seems to be a draw for divers). So I kept wanting to go farther out to avoid the coral, and Lis kept wanting to stay close in to avoid the sharks. Too bad, because on good days we’ve had some amazing snorkeling here. Ah, well.

It was a beautiful day, though, and standing in the water looking at the sea and other islands, I got the idea to do a picnic lunch at one of the easily accessible Kihei beaches so Mom could experience it, too. So we grabbed some burgers at Stewart’s Burgers, then sat at a picnic table at Kalama Beach Park and watched some surfers. It was a bit windy, but otherwise very pleasant, and the burgers were good.

After lunch we went back to the condo to rest up for the evening’s activity, which was the hula show in the lounge at the Four Seasons, which we try to get to whenever we’re on Maui. It is a very low key affair – just a single, modestly attired hula dancer, accompanied by a couple guys on guitar. They used to include a torch lighting ceremony as part of the hula show, but now it takes place separately, with even less fanfare than the hula show. I miss it being more featured.

We sat in the lounge and ordered pupus and drinks and enjoyed the show and the open air lounge. When the band took their first break, we headed home. It felt like we had been out late, but when we looked at the clock, it was only 7:30pm! We didn’t last much longer than that – I think we were all in bed by 10.

This morning we were all up early, and Lis and I hit the snorkel beach early. We went back to Ulua beach this time, as we figured we’d be less likely to freak out about sharks there. The surf was a little lower, so visibility was good, and soon after entering the water, Lis spotted an octopus. In getting my attention so she could show it to me, she lost sight of it. But soon thereafter, I spotted it, too. He looked just like the surrounding coral when he was on it. Then he would take off and swim, turning a deep reddish-purple. Then he would land on some coral and immediately assume the color and texture of his surroundings. Once I saw a YouTube video showing an octopus doing this and wondered if it was doctored, it was so unreal.

Then our sea turtle came by again, and he was moving slowly enough that we were able to swim with him for a long time – really one of the best things on earth, swimming (at a respectful distance, of course) with a sea turtle. Eventually, though, he started heading out to sea, and we decided we’d best not go with him, so we headed back to the coral and the fishies.

We’d noticed before, and noticed again today, that there were a ton of what seemed to be baby fish at this reef. At Ulua beach there is often a person from a local society whose aim is to protect the reefs, and we asked her about it. She said yes, there are a lot of juvenile fish here. (She also said the reef is having a small bleaching problem due to El Nino (or maybe La Nina? I forget), but it should bounce back when (if?) the weather goes back to normal.) When we were de-sanding at the beach’s showers, another woman there said that the vast numbers of juvenile butterfly fish (literally hundreds of them) only happens every 15 years. Who knows if this is true, but it’s a fun story and we decided to believe it.

For lunch today we went to Pita Paradise in Wailea. The owner is Greek/Sicilian, and a fisherman who in the morning personally catches the fish served that day in the restaurant. So there are Greek and Sicilian family recipes and incredibly fresh fish. It was super good and not too expensive – we might go back.

After lunch we went upcountry. We wanted to check out the Surfing Goat Dairy, and we wanted to check out some of the art galleries in Makawao, particularly the Jordanne Gallery, as we had bought some of the artist’s work on a previous trip to Maui and thought it would be fun to check in with her.

It was a pleasant drive up the mountain, and we went to the goat farm first. Lis had her heart set on taking the every-half-hour tour of the farm, where they let you pet goats and taste cheeses. Alas, they only do the tour if at least 2 people sign up, and no one had, and neither Mom nor I could be talked in to traipsing around a farm in the heat of the day (it was about 2pm and about 85 degrees). Poor Lis! She did manage to talk one of the guys there in to a mini tour where he took her over to a goat pen and she petted a goat. Mom and I ate passion fruit gelato in the shade while we waited.

Then on to Makawao, which is a cute little town. Our artist’s gallery was closed, though – we could only peer through the glass at some of her artwork. Plus the general store no longer had the vegan pineapple upside down cake we’ve gotten there before. We went home through Pa’ia, with the intention of stopping at Pa’ia Gelato – but traffic was jammed and we couldn’t find parking. All in all, then, except for the drive itself, which was scenic, upcountry was a bit of a bust.

We had leftovers from lunch, and some wine in the fridge, which made for a lovely dinner on the lanai. And so another great day in Maui comes to an end.

On Tuesday Lis and my mom and I arrived on Maui. Our friend Jane was supposed to be coming, too, but she had a bunch of stuff come up at the last minute and had to cancel. This made us all very sad, but it was still exciting to be headed to Hawai’i (Miss you, Jane!).

Mom was last in Hawai’i in 1972, and has been wanting to come back since then, so Lis and I are pleased to be taking her. She (Mom) is a little bit trepidatious (word?) about Maui, because when she was here before it was stormy and miserable, but it’s the island we’re most familiar with, so we thought it would be best to come here so we’d have a better idea of how things are laid out and which things might be more taxing, as Mom doesn’t get around as well as she used to. (Aside: she does have a walker, which I made her get and which she hates, and which we were going to make her bring so she’d have more options. But she sneakily refrained from reminding me about it when I picked her up, and I didn’t remember it until we were at the airport and it was too late, and she had a slight but unmistakably triumphant smile. So, Mom 1, Lis & Mary 0.)

The flight was pleasant, and soon enough we were on the ground in Maui. We were at the back of the plane, and as we were waiting to get off, Lis said “What’s that smell?” It was Maui – the doors were open and all the scents of all the flowers were wafting in. Gotta love it.

We are staying in a two bedroom condo in the Grand Champions in Wailea. It’s comfortable and well laid out, and includes all the local guides that you would expect, and also an English-Hawaiian dictionary, which is fun. Mom and I have been looking up all the Hawaiian place names. For instance – kama’ole means ‘childless’ or ‘barren’, and kaiwahine literally means ‘sea’ (kai) ‘woman’ (wahine) but idiomatically means a feminine or gentle sea. Gotta love that, too :)

Yesterday I got up early and came and sat on the lanai and listened to all the birds (which is what I’m doing right now, too), and also all the power mowers and leaf blowers from the adjacent tennis courts and golf course. But on the whole, the birds outnumber the grounds crew, so it is mostly great. Then we all got up and had some breakfast, and then Lis and I went snorkeling while Mom stayed in and caught up on the news.

We went to Ulua beach, which is my favorite. But the surf was up a little – nothing scary, but enough to stir up the sand and make for somewhat poor visibility. Still, it’s just so great to be in the water, and we did see lots of fish. I thought some of the coral looked white and wondered if it was sick, but when I Googled it back at the condo nothing came up, so I’ll hope that all is well.

We snorkeled for about an hour or so, and then decided to head back in. As we were heading back to shore, a huge male sea turtle came lazily by in the other direction. He swam directly under us, I’d say about 5 feet below. And, because of the limited visibility, we didn’t see him coming – it was normal, normal, then BOOM! sea turtle. So exciting! We followed him for a bit, then headed in. I’ve decided to think that having a sea turtle materialized before your very eyes on your first snorkel is a good sign.

Back at the condo, we got dressed and headed out for lunch. The previous evening, we had eaten at the Maui Coast Hotel’s Kama’ole Poolside Cafe and Bar. We chose this because Lis had called one of our favorite restaurants, Cafe O’Lai, and asked if they had a happy hour. They said no, but their sister restaurant at the hotel pool did. It was nice to be all tropical and poolside, plus the food was affordable and excellent – we definitely recommend it.

For lunch, we went to Maui Tacos in Kihei, which we read about in one of the condo guides. It was cheap but good, and in the same strip mall as Snorkel Bob’s, where I wanted to pick up some sun protection shorts if they had any (I forgot mine at home, dangit!), and as Hawaiian Moons Natural Foods, where we wanted to get some ezekial bread and almond butter. The natural foods store trip was a success, but I struck out at Snorkel Bob’s, so still on my quest for shorts.

Then we went off in search of Hawaiian Shave Ice. We had never tried this before, or even been tempted to, but our friend Louise (hey, Louise!) came back from a recent trip to Maui raving about it, so we decided we better try it. Lis’ research said the best shave ice was Ululani’s, so off we went. Lis and I each got a micro shave ice (which was still huge), with optional ice cream at the bottom – Lis chose coconut, I chose macadamia. Mom was dubious and just sampled ours. Lis LOVED her shave ice and can’t wait to go back. I liked mine, and Mom remained dubious.

Ululani’s is next to a bakery, which is next to an ABC store – trifecta! We got some banana bread at the bakery and some booze at the ABC store, and then, with our basic food groups covered, headed back to the condo, where Lis took a nap and Mom and I watched game 7. I was disappointed that KC couldn’t pull it out (sorry, Rosemary!), but it was fun watching a historic pitching performance.

For dinner we went to happy hour at Manoli’s Pizza in Wailea, which was also affordable and good. So far, we are doing very well with our cheap happy hours ways! We watched the end of the game there, which was fun, except for the one sad lady in the KC shirt, sitting right behind the cheering ladies in SF shirts. But soon after the game ended, they were all chatting and laughing together – so there was a happy ending after all.

For years, we’ve had this plan – go to Scottsdale in the summer when it’s a zillion degrees, and get cheap rates at the Four Seasons. Then, just hole up in the air-conditioned resort. Last year, we finally did it, and it was great. And, we found that we didn’t even need to hole up all that much – the Four Seasons provides lots of shade and misters, so it’s quite comfortable to be outside even in the heat of the day. And the desert landscaping is beautiful and the food is great (though spendy) – our plan was a rousing success. We did wonder, though, if it would have been as successful if it had been more scorching hot. Only the first day or two was in the 100’s – the rest of the days were in the 90’s, and one day it only got up to about 87. What would it be like on those 112 degree days we’ve heard tell of?

This year, we were able to find out. As we flew in late on Saturday afternoon, the pilot announced that the temperature in Phoenix was 110 degrees. It was definitely hot, but as we were mostly moving from air-conditioned airport to air-conditioned rental car center to air-conditioned car, we were pretty comfortable. We stopped at a mall on the way to Scottsdale to get something to eat and a few things at a supermarket, but by then it was evening and, while definitely hot, there was no sun beating down from directly over head. (I guess being farther south affects this, too – by 7:30 pm it was full-on dusk – don’t usually see that in Portland until around 9pm.) We got to the hotel around 8pm and were comfortable ensconsed in our room by 8:30.

Sandra, our travel agent extraordinaire, had arranged for us to have a DYI sangria kit and chips and salsa awaiting for us on arrival, and it was all laid out in the room. It was a great little spread – they really pay attention to details here! But we weren’t hungry and decided to save it for later. We called down to the front desk and asked for a refrigerator for the room, which the poor maintenance guy had to lug up to us on his shoulder (we’re on the second floor of a building on a hill, so he had to climb lots of steps, plus it was still over 100 degrees out) – big tip for him! We plugged in the fridge and put away our sangria fixin’s for later.

So now to the heat part. Sunday and Monday were both 110-plus degree days, and we spent the bulk of both of them outside: meals on covered patios with misters going, and several hours of each day in a cabana by the pool. Both days were awesome, and the only time I felt really hot was in the walk from our room (which is at the edge of the property) to or from the lobby/restaurant area. But even then, the desert landscape is so gorgeous and so full of little critters (birds, lizards, even little bunnies) that you don’t care (or we don’t, anyway). It’s just so nice – I love it here so much that sometimes I even get a bit teary!

Sometimes I start to feel guilty about the misters, and the water being used. But, unlike other desert resorts, there isn’t much greenery here that requires watering – the vast majority of the landscaping is desert plants. So I figure they are probably using less water than comperable properties, and I’ve decided that that is going to be good enough for me :)

The pool area has a large upper pool, with a lower adult-only pool and a separate kids’ wading pool. I prefer the larger all-access pool to the smaller adult-only pool; the kids in the all-skate pool can be fun, while there are sometimes gross PDA’s in the adult pool. The best thing about the pool area is that it is ringed with cabanas. These are free of charge (except, I guess, the couple three that are really big and have ceiling fans and TV’s in them – thankfully, no one is ever watching the TV’s, or if they are, you can’t hear them) and even on Saturday, when the resort was at 80% occupancy, we were able to find one.

I’m not usually much of a hang-out-at-the-pool vacationer, but I really like hanging out at this pool. I think maybe it’s the cabana – makes it feel a bit like being in a tent; I can pretend I’m camping. Because it’s so hot, we have to get in the pool about every 20 minutes or so, but that is all it takes to be perfectly comfortable.

The staff at the pool are very attentive (more so at the upper pool – the lower adult pool I think is a little more out of the way and they don’t seem to make as many trips there) and regularly bring around complementary things like Otter pops and corn nuts. I feel for them, having to work in this heat, but there are misters all around the pool so hopefully they benefit from these, too.

When we arrived on Sunday afternoon, the attendant was taking Otter pops around, but stopped to help us get set up in a cabana with fresh towels and ice water. In so doing, of course, she had to set her bucket of Otter pops down, and they weren’t going to be long for this world in the heat, so Lis finished taking them around while the attendant helped us. The other patrons were amused by this, and the attendant was bemused by this. She said to me “I’ve never had anyone do that before”, but I couldn’t tell if she meant this in a “that’s so nice” way or in a “maybe she needs her medication adjusted” way.

Last night after our pool day, we came back to the room and had room service out on the balcony. We split a club sandwich and a salad, and broke out our sangria mix, and even though it was still over 100 degrees, we were in the shade and there was a breeze and the sun was going down and the sky was purple and the hills were pink-ish and it was awesome. No misters on the balcony, either, but still perfectly comfortable – I’m a little afraid that once we get back home I’m going to be cold for the rest of the summer, but Lis says she doesn’t think that will happen.

As we sat on the balcony sipping our Sangria, I heard a soft rustle and looked down just in time to see a bobcat walk by right below our balcony. Have I mentioned that I love it here?

Tomorrow we are heading out to Los Angeles, and the day after that we are boarding a Virgin Atlantic red-eye flight for Jolly Olde England. We are very excited. I have never been to Europe before – the extent of my international travel is Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Lis has been abroad a couple times (she is so continental), but not since she was in her twenties – so, fifteen years ago or so (you’re welcome, sweetie).

Here is our itinerary:

  • England – we are going to be staying in Reading, England, about 40 minutes outside of London.  When Lis was in college, she did a Study Abroad program thing and lived with a host family in Reading for a month.  We will be visiting them the first part of our trip.  Nothing fancy in terms of lodging – just the local Holiday Inn.  Note from Lis:  It actually sounds quite fancy – large pool, sauna, steam room, spa….
  • Amsterdam –  when we first started planning our trip to England and Germany, I begged Lis to include a stop in Amsterdam, as I’ve long wanted to go to the Van Gogh Museum.  We will be staying in a Bed & Breakfast right on a canal and just around the corner from the Anne Frank Museum and the Homomonument.  The B&B gets excellent reviews (Lis checks Trip Advisor for new reviews almost daily) and we can’t wait!
  • Germany – the original impetus for this trip was an art exhibition by David Hockney – we desperately wanted to see it when it was in London but couldn’t; then we learned it was going to Cologne and were ALL OVER IT!  The exhibit will be at the Ludwig Museum, and we’ve already purchased our tickets.  We’ve also been reading about Cologne, particularly the cathedrals and the Christmas markets that will just have opened when we get there – we think it sounds fun.  We will be staying at another B&B in Cologne – Bed & Breakfast Cologne – and the breakfasts are supposed to be out of this world.
  • England – then back to England, this time for some relaxation in the countryside.  We will finish up our trip in Jane Austen country, in the lap of luxury at the Four Seasons Hampshire – I shall pretend that I am at Downton Abbey. (Regular readers of our blog will know that we LOVE us some luxury travel, and will stay at the Four Seasons whenever we can afford it, and sometimes when we cannot).

At first we were a little bummed to be traveling in November, but I figure the weather will be similar to Portland in November and so at least familiar, plus I prefer off season traveling with its reduced crowds anyway, and now I’m pretty excited about the German Christmas markets.  Can’t wait to get started!

Second note from Lis:  I’m a little concerned about this “having to beg Lis to go to Amsterdam” business and how it might make me appear.  First, I would like to say that I believe there’s a little bit of hyperbole there.  Second, I will admit that I am the planner for all of our vacations, but this one is kind of my 50th birthday trip, even though I won’t be turning 50 for another 21 years.  Thus, Mary did have to work a little to get Amsterdam in there.

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.

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