23.08.2013 - 25.08.2013 27 °C
Our very keen hosts had loaded up the fridge, put out toiletries and towels out for us, and offered real "hosting" for our first air bnb America experience, including a handwritten black board sign which stated how delighted they were to have us stay! On previous holidays we air bnb in our own private apartment, but here our budget stretched to a private room only, which is very different, and we found many American hosts wanted lots of interaction with their guests, even to enjoy dinner together! Enter a reserved English couple, who will probably be out everyday until late at night, oops. Apparently air bnb is quite new to America, and lots of older families whose children have flown the nest rent out the spare room. Their place was pretty cool though, the hosts are a young couple, so we were a little jealous of their amazing apartment. Situated in the Wicker Park area of Chicago we dumped bags and made a beeline for the shore of Lake Michigan. We kept calling it the sea, its so big.
The city's canals weave through the buildings
A long boat trip round the city and out to the lake gave us a good starting point, we were very lucky with clear blue skies and supped a cold smoothie/beer on the harbour, taking in the now tacky Navy Pier, and the shiny sky scrapers dotted around the city's canal systems.
We went to Chicago with no expectations, and we were pleasantly surprised. Our kind of nightlife revolved around the Wicker Park / Division area, and we had some of the best tacos we've ever tasted at the heaving Big Star, where Michael spotted Henry Rollins, and we washed them down with cheap beers, the cocktail days of NY long gone. A few bars in, we stumbled upon Phyllis' Rock (read dive) Bar. Hours later, we were transfixed watching a lifelong, half-talented (but confident of playing a 10 minute 'Free Bird' solo) wannabe banging out any dad-rock requests from Roy Orbison to Pink Floyd (much to the dismay of his make shift band, who to be fair had strong improvisational skills) we found ourselves whooping and singing (shouting) along with the audience*. The first of many dive bars in we knew we wanted to try more of these across America, cheap PBRs, stereotypical bar maids, flickering neon signs, the only thing missing was the smokey saloon atmosphere. Between the classics, Mick interjected half funny jokes about his wife, (am sure she doesn't exist) and in the early hours he dedicated the last song to us, and we all danced around to the Beatles. So much fun.
Our second day saw our exploration of the city - Chicago has a lot to offer and we started with a huge brunch (who needs three eggs benedict on scone bases?!) and a trip into the city - North Lake Shore Beach, which was insane: a huge Ibiza style party, tons of volleyball, and a great stretch of sand - our first beach time so far, and Michael obviously took straight to the freezing lake. Right near the beach is an amazing free wildlife centre and zoo, after an hour or so sunning, we popped in and really couldn't believe it was free, as it was bloody ace!
It was Saturday, and a stroll around the shore saw us getting nearly wiped out by enthusiatic roller-bladders, skateboarders, tandem, tri and unicyclists, but we caught a spectacular sunset, and the city's al fresco nightlife appeared at sundown with beachside strings of festoon lights twinkling against the dusky skys, and happy hours aplenty.
We got a bottle of red wine (in obligatory paper bag) and turned our attention to the looming culinary excitement - a proper Chicago deep-pan cheese pizza pie. Picked up said pie (from #1 recommended on Trip Advisor obvs), and took it to Millenium Park to sample.
The park is home to the huge 'Bean' sculpture, where every tourist and his family are snapping away their reflections, mirrored in the lights of the cityscape. We managed to catch one of Chicago's free outdoor concerts, which had ballet dancers and a full philharmonic orchestra on offer that evening, and thousands of "Chi-Town" residents pile down to the events every weekend. Anyway back to the important point - 1.5 inches of deep, thick savoury pastry, filled with so much mozzarella and cheddar cheese, topped with tomato sauce. Insane, and definitely not a pizza, we managed three heavy slices each and took the rest down to the shore to catch the again weekly, free, fireworks display over the moon and the harbour at 10pm. Chicagoans are so proud of their city, they have a very strong community, there are many discounts, cheap galleries, shows and offers for its residents. We began to think that London really doesn't offer a lot to its people. That last slice of cold pizza beckoned (usually a late treat) and as our teeth sank in, it felt like we were chomping on a baked cheese cake. Nail in the coffin, we're not fans of the pie.
The open air concert grounds
A walk back through the park saw the perfect Bean photo-op with no one in sight, bar plenty of harmless, nutty characters.
We didn't see our hosts at all, and the next morning set off for our 31 hour train journey across four states to Whitefish, Montana, where glaciers and bears await us...
*audience of 5