Category: Chicago (Page 2 of 2)

Croissants In The Club: Sheraton Chicago Review

I was provided with a hotel stay at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers to facilitate my review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

We stayed at the Sheraton Chicago and spent a lot of time in their Club. Our clubbing experience mostly involved quietly drinking sodas and eating granola bars.

Sheraton provided our group with two rooms connected by a door, each with two queen beds and a bathroom and access to the Club Lounge, hence all of the club references.

We flew into the O’Hare airport and took the train to the hotel’s closest stop. From the train stop, we walked for about 10-15 minutes through downtown Chicago. Parking in Chicago can be difficult, especially in downtown Chicago. If you are driving to Chicago and want to stay in a downtown hotel, expect to budget anywhere from $40-$60 a day for parking. Really, it’s easiest not to have a car if you want to stay downtown. Our train tickets cost $5 from the airport to the hotel and about $2.50 vice versa. O’Hare and the train stop closest to the Sheridan are on opposite ends of the line, but it’s an easy 30-minute ride. There are lots of stops, but the ride goes by quickly. We noticed a lot of people carrying luggage through the downtown area, so don’t feel sheepish about doing so.

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The hotel is massive and the lobby is attractive. You’ll find many sitting areas, big glass containers of fruit-infused water, and flowers. At least two conferences occurred in the hotel during our stay.

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I’m one of those people who is OK with my own filth, but totally freaked out by other people’s. But in all honesty, I found the hotel to be very clean. Obviously, the hotel staff was aware they were hosting bloggers, but I didn’t notice anything untidy from the lobby bathroom to the elevators.

Here’s the view from our room:

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And glimpses of our bedrooms and bathrooms:

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Who doesn’t love artwork above the toilet?

As a word of caution, your hotel room may contain a motion-activated tray of tempting la cart snacks. This little jar of cookies was so cute that I grabbed it after noticing the sign that said guests are charged for snacks lifted from the tray. If you or your child accidentally picked up one of the snacks, you could try talking to the staff like we did. I’m sure this happens all of the time.

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We stayed at the Sheraton for one night. One of our trip coordinators has a connection with the hotel who surprised us with some evening snacks. I don’t turn down free champagne.

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We spent a lot of time in the Club Lounge located at the 33rd Floor.

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The Club Lounge is a beautiful space equipped with comfortable furniture, granola bars and fruit, chilled sodas and bottled water, wifi, pool tables, televisions, coffee and espresso. According to the website, the lounge also provides business travelers with meeting space and some office supplies. The view’s nice too.

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Guests with Club Lounge access are invited to enjoy a continental breakfast and evening appetizers. We caught the last half of the appetizer hour on Thursday evening and found chips and salsa, mini egg rolls, beef skewers, and cheese platters. I think guests can order beer, wine, and cocktails from the server for an additional charge. If you want to catch the food at its freshest from the kitchen, arrive near the beginning.

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The lounge breakfast included pastries, fruit, granola & greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, bagels (toaster provided), and a steaming kettle of hot oatmeal. I especially liked the coffee, yogurt and granola & mini croissants.

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I loved how these croissants tasted like real butter and had some lacquer on the outside. I’m experiencing croissant withdrawal and ate my fair share.

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Overall, I found breakfast thoughtful and adequate. If you have Club Lounge access, you’d be wise to grab breakfast here. The evening appetizers are pretty substantial and could provide a light meal.

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So how does one get Club Lounge access? It appears the Sheraton Chicago provides a lounge access upgrade with room reservations. I searched for reservations on a random June weeknight for a similar room with Club Lounge access and found it cost about $395 prepaid & $418/night with a flexible reservation. The Club Lounge access upgrade might cost about $44 more per day. This upgrade could be worth it for those sharing a room with at least one additional person who plan to take advantage of all of the food options, and business travelers. Starwood Preferred Guests also get free club access if they are platinum members (meaning they booked 25 stays in a calendar year).

Keep in mind that if you are not a Starwood Hotels & Resorts preferred guest, internet is not included in your room rate and will cost an extra $15-19 per day. As far as I can tell, you can receive the free internet as a preferred guest by registering online and booking your room through their website or app.

In conclusion, I enjoyed my stay at the Sheraton Chicago and can’t describe anything I didn’t like. Obviously, the hotel was expecting bloggers. The space was beautiful, staff greeted us warmly, and treated us to perks we weren’t expecting like Club Lounge Access and champagne.

The only drawbacks I can think to mention are that the trays of snacks in your room are motion-activated and that the hotel could possibly be cost prohibitive. Jake and I have found that hotels accessible to touristy areas of downtown Chicago (or any large city) provide smaller rooms, cost more per night, and don’t include as many amenities in their basic nightly rate. If you want to stay within walking distance of Navy Pier, Millennium Park and Michigan Ave, the reality is that you’re going to pay more for this convenience. Plus, there’s the whole cost to park your own car downtown. Expect to pay $60 a day for valet parking or at least $40 to self park in a downtown ramp. It’s really easier not to have a car if you are staying here. The public transportation to and from the airport is affordable and easy to navigate.

If the Sheraton Chicago is within your budget and you want to stay downtown, I feel confident telling you to go for it! If it’s not, there are lots of hotels and bed and breakfast in cool neighborhoods near the downtown area that provide good values and amenities, too.

Thank you to the staff at the Sheraton Chicago for hosting our group and giving us full access to the hotel’s amenities. 

Flying To And From Chicago on Air Choice One: Highs & Lows & Things You Should Know

As part of a bloggers tour with the Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce, I was provided with a free boarding pass to Air Choice One to facilitate this review. All thoughts are 100% honest and my own.

I come from a family of pilots, but I’ve never ridden on a small plane.

My dad and brother have offered to take me up in two-seater planes many times, but I’ve always refused. I’m prone to motion sickness and avoid things that move (where I can’t drive or sit in the front seat) such as boats, busses, trains, and small planes.

So, how did I end up on a Cessna? The Clear Lake Chamber of Commerce partnered with North Iowa’s new air carrier Air Choice One and invited eight North Iowa Bloggers on a trip to Chicago. The trip was intended to demonstrate how easy it is to travel between Mason City and Chicago and spread some Clear Lake love. When Jake and I moved to Mason City in June 2013, the airport actually sat vacant until Air Choice one began offering flights November of 2014. Now, one can either fly to Chicago or St. Louis on a Cessna for about $150, roundtrip.

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Although some of my friends have flown on Air Choice One, I missed the part about the planes being Cessnas. I’d seen their photos showing off their spacious leg room and had this mental image of something like this 65-passenger CRJ-700.

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We arrived at the Mason City airport two hours early. It shares the building with the Jefferson bus terminal and restaurant called Them People At The Airport Cafe.

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Yup, that’s really the name. Them People replaced Bumbleberry Bakery (Yup, that’s also the real name, too) about the time Air Choice One began its contract.

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Donna’s mustard to my ketchup. The prices are very affordable (like $4 for a breakfast combo) and I love the colorful flooring.

Unlike MSP, our airport may only host one airline that flies to two destinations, but there’s free parking! When I tweeted about our free airport parking, a Twin Cities friend replied that she didn’t even know how to comprehend that statement. The same person who prints your boarding pass and examines your luggage may also usher you onto the plane. For big city folks, flying out of a small regional airport is really a unique experience.

I remembered Beth had flown Air Choice One before so I asked her, “Hey Beth, are there snacks on the plane?”

“Um, no,” she responded. “It’s a really small plane.” I shrugged but kept picturing that CRJ-700.

“There’s also no bathroom,” someone added. “Just a camper potty and a curtain.”

“WHAT? NO BATHROOM? HOW CAN THIS BE?” I wondered. We passed through security, which enforces the same protocol as any large airport. One has to toss their bottled water here and there isn’t anywhere else to buy a new one. I slurped water from the bathroom sink.

“Hey Sara,” I asked, “Is there beverage service on this flight.”

“Um, no.” she responded.

Imagine my surprise, when I saw our plane pull up to the terminal.

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What is this? A plane for ants?

I was really glad I took that motion sickness medicine an hour before. We filed out onto the tarmac.

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Obviously, we had to take a photo with the pilots before boarding.

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Donna and I switched seats with two of the taller gals and sat in the back. If I sat up as tall as possible, I could touch my head to the ceiling. We looked around and did not see the camper potty, but did notice the curtain which means we rode to Chicago in the bathroom.

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Our in-flight reading: The new Clear Lake Chamber magazine.

I’m not gonna lie. The flight to Chicago was bumpy. The weather created some turbulence that almost overpowered the motion sickness medication I took. I had a difficult time on this leg of the flight. We landed at the O’Hare Airport and an Air Choice One rep guided us from the tarmac to the main terminal where we took the train to our hotel downtown.

The actual flight home on Saturday was much smoother, but we experienced some glitches. For, we weren’t supposed to fly home on Saturday but on Friday! We had arrived at the airport early Friday afternoon just as the weather began pouring rain. Air Choice One’s ticket counter is located at the very end of the hallway where the ticket counters end. A Shel Silverstein poem came to mind.

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At some point when we were scrambling to find a ticket agent, we asked an airport employee to point us towards Air Choice One. “Air Force One?” he asked in disbelief. “Not exactly,” we responded. He asked where we were flying to and when we replied, “Mason City, IA” he asked “Why the hell would you want to go there?”

We live there.”

Hopefully some of our North Iowa enthusiasm rubbed off on him:)

Flights everywhere were cancelled or delayed. An Air Choice One rep informed Libbey of Chamber that our flight could arrive 30-minutes late, but that they’d text us the details. We waited. A half-hour after our flight was supposed to land, we had still heard nothing so we called the airline who told us our flight was cancelled. We asked why they hadn’t provided an update about the cancellation and they replied they were just calling us as we were calling them.

Air Choice One had two flights scheduled to return to Mason City the next morning, but the early flight was partially booked. We knew we wanted to send the mothers of young children home first and drew straws for the last open seat. Three bloggers had to return home on the late flight the next day.

Stormy weather affected airlines across the board. I was not frustrated that the flight was cancelled due to bad weather, but that the airline did not communicate this in a timely manner. Since our flight was cancelled due to weather, we were responsible for our meals the next day. The rep from Air Choice One did offer a coupon for a hotel that provides discounts to stranded travelers, but the Clear Lake Chamber generously secured our lodging.

Since flights everywhere were cancelled, many tried to board the hotel shuttles.

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We met some chaos as we attempted to board the first shuttle. Our group of eight found seating, and people continued to file onto the shuttle after the seats were filled. The driver announced he was unable to drive if people were standing. “The next one will come in 15-20 minutes,” he pleaded. Nobody wanted to get off the shuttle. It became clear that the people who were standing simply would not exit, so two of us bloggers followed Sara off the shuttle so it could at least leave the station.

Another one arrived shortly after and we found a seat. The shuttle incident made me feel like I was at my wit’s end, but I was encouraged by my companions’ calm demeanor. They’re experienced travelers who are accustomed to navigating unexpected bumps in the road.

We stayed at a very clean and very quiet Doubletree hotel. The Sheraton Chicago had a club room lounge where we enjoyed free snacks and sodas, so we jokingly asked this front desk staff member if they, too had a club room. He very sternly informed us about their “no partying” policy. We giggled and quietly ate our warm Doubletree cookies before going to bed.

The good news is that both flights to Mason City were on time the next day and each left a little earlier than scheduled. Unlike our flight to Chicago, our passage home was smooth sailing. We’re very thankful to the pilots for getting us all safely home to Iowa. After all, this was the most important thing.

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Photo Credit: Travel With Sara. Waving goodbye to the three bloggers left behind at the O’Hare.

As I mentioned in my post introducing this Clear Lake Chamber-sponsored Chicago series, our community warmly welcomes Air Choice One. We’re two hours from the Minneapolis and Des Moines Airports and appreciate having a the option to fly to Chicago and St. Louis. My personal suggestions to Air Choice one are to communicate delays and cancellations with their passengers in a timely manner, via phone call or text, since the company doesn’t provide updates their website. I also hope Air Choice One continues to interact with their customers over social media. Someone needs to be available to answer tweets and Facebook messages promptly, most especially when flights are scheduled. I’ve noticed an improvement and hope they keep up the efforts.

Air Choice One is a convenient and affordable option for transportation to and from Chicago and St. Louis. The ticket agents and pilots were exceptionally friendly and personable. However, keep in mind that this is a small airline before booking. They don’t have reciprocity with other airlines and don’t provide lodging or food vouchers for flights delayed due to weather. Cessnas fly at a lower altitude than jumbo jets and so they are more affected by weather. Also, this airline offer fewer flights each day and can only carry eight passengers per flight. Therefore, if you get rescheduled, you may not get home as soon as you’d hope (which could be said for bigger airlines, too).

Also, your mom was right. Always pack an extra pair of clean underwear. I’m sure glad I did.

Thank you again to Air Choice One for providing boarding passes and the Clear Lake Chamber for inviting me on this trip!

Chicagoland Aventure Part II: Villa D’Citta, Taco Joint, Homeslice, Grace’s African Restaurant, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

Book the cheapest room in the most luxurious bed & breakfast.

This is what I did at Villa D’Citta, an Italian-themed bed and breakfast located in Lincoln Park across the street from De Paul University.

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The villa did not have conspicuous signage and even its neighbors might never know it’s there. I chose it based upon its Tripadvisor rating and culinary amenities.

Mmmm Food
Freshly baked cookies every day. They even rotate the flavors. Chocolate chip on the first day and chocolate-chocolate chip on the second.

The fridge was stocked for guests’ snacky needs. We were invited to make our own paninis at any time from a variety of Italian meats, cheeses and condiments like pickled peppers. There were also bottles of chilled water with fancy stoppers to take to our room, lemonade, iced tea, plus a drawer full of tea bags and Intelligentsia coffee.

We checked out early on our last morning to beat the morning’s rush hour traffic, but enjoyed sausage eggbake with a crunchy crouton top and warm blueberry muffins on the first. The kitchen also stocks granola and milk and the giant bowls of fresh fruit aren’t just for decoration.

Accommodations
Our room was the least expensive because it’s only large enough to fit a queen-sized bed and nightstand and the bathroom is located next door. But we did not mind these things. The bathroom was private (we were given a key to lock it) and contained a fancy glass shower with stone tiling. We were out so often that we only needed our room to sleep and watch television in the evenings.

Other Likes
I was amused by the villa’s combination of extravagant and quirky decor like the rock face in the courtyard (pictured above) and a pair of glass skull pen holders at the check-in table.

The Villa’s manager Cathy worked especially hard to make sure everyone was welcomed and settled.

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Jake and I stumbled into the Taco Joint out of hunger. We realized we hadn’t eaten all day and it was there.

The Poc-Chuc taco was the best thing we ate during the whole trip, and we ate a lot of delicious food. It’s listed as the special taco of the day for Mondays and is filled with marinated pork loin and habanero salsa. Jake tried his taco first and made such a dramatically happy noise the moment it hit his tongue that I thought he was over-exaggerating. I know there are countless places to eat tacos in Chicago and can’t speak for the rest of the Taco Joint’s offerings, but the Poc-Chuc was the best taco I’ve eaten since my trip to Puebla. Yup. 

I ordered their Happy Hour/Lunch Deal. For $12 you choose two tacos, guacamole or rice & beans + a margarita or Modelo. For me, two tacos was enough and the guacamole came with a generous basket of corn and fried plantain chips. They’re made with small corn tortillas but don’t skimp on the meat. My margarita was hella strong. Jake liked his grapefruit margarita lined with a spicy salt. It took a while to walk these off.

The ceviche made us happy. Fresh and limey. Speaking of Limes, I hear there’s a lime shortage, but would have never known here as I saw the bartender peeling and juicing piles of them.

Home Slice

Jake and I visited Chicago before we were engaged. It was Jake’s first time and we did more touristy activities like stay downtown, wander Michigan Ave. and go to the Hancock Observatory.

We had discovered more of the Dahlens were also in Chicago, so we had an impromptu family reunion at Gino’s East. Later, we visited Portillo’s for beef sandwiches with hot peppers, our first Chicago dog and chocolate cake. Jake was slightly bummed that it looked like we weren’t going to have time to return on this visit so he embarked on an evening pizza run.

He chose Homeslice and ordered a small Cheese Burglar ($8), simply topped with mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and marinara. It was cheesy, greasy goodness on a thin, airy crust. The service was memorably friendly all around and a server offered us ice waters during our short wait.

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Cousin Brian returns! This time, he and his friend took us to Grace’s African Restaurant (Interesting review from 2011) to try Ghanaian food

Brian’s friend Stephen is originally from Ghana and attended college in Chicago where he met his wife. Both of them traveled to Ghana for work last year and Stephen will lead a trip again soon. He thinks this restaurant prepares food most closely to his mothers’ and was excited to introduce us to some of his favorite dishes.

I found it interesting when they described how Americans and Ghanaians talk about food differently. Brian said in Ghana, people considered it strange when he asked them questions about the food, such as asking about name of a sauce or the ingredients in a dish. On the flip side, Stephen said he thought it was strange seemed to ask him so many questions about his food in America, such as how he wanted a food item cooked or served.

At Grace’s, we left our meals in his Stephen’s hands. He recommended the peanut soup with fufu, a pounded mixture of plantains and yams with the texture of bread dough. We learned how to cut small pieces of fufu with our fingers and use it to scoop up the soup and goat which tasted like lamb. The peanut soup was spicy enough to induce a sweat and the fufu didn’t have a strong flavor.

Brian ordered a dish that came with Waakye, a dish made of rice and beans covered in a spicy red sauce, fried chicken legs, spaghetti, salad, and a dark red sauce. The red sauce reminded me of berbere while the darker sauce was spicier, sweeter and funkier. We learned it’s often made with ground fish.

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I could say Ba-Ba-Reeba all day. Before we went to Chicago, I read about Ba-Ba-Reeba on My Name is Yeh and we were tickled to see that it was down the street. One glance and Jake was dead-set on going. How could you forget a name like that?

At the B&B, we enjoyed breakfast with a couple of gentlemen celebrating their marriage. They described their reception at Ba-Ba-Reeba and praised the food. This sealed the deal.

Sangria is $6/glass, red or white. And it’s not poured into small glasses, but substantial glasses with tiny, floating cubes of fruit. You can also buy $2 Pintxos instead of whole appetizers. I tried a chorizo-wrapped date stuffed with cheese which arrived on a skewer.

Jake ordered the shaved brussel sprout salad with toasted marcona almonds and manchego cheese. It was a big portion for $6. The slightly sweet dressing reminded us of fancy coleslaw. Marcona almonds are the best.

I still had a belly full of fufu and wasn’t as enthusiastic as Jake about ordering paella. A server scraped it from a shallow paella pan onto two plates with a flourish and each contained a mountain of it. The menu offers paella by the serving and our seafood version cost $15/each. I wouldn’t want to eat that much rice in one sitting so I’d hypothesize that two servings would more accurately feed three. The bay scallops and shrimp were plentiful and tasted fresh. There was less monkfish, but the small pieces that were there were delicate in texture and flavor.

Our first paella experience was a win. I can’t describe exactly what seasonings I tasted, but they were complex. We never got tired of the flavor and it was far from one-note. Plus, the paella is garnished with lemon wedges and aoli. I dunked everything into the aioli, considering the experience a wonderful excuse to eat garlicky mayonnaise. Is this how you are supposed to eat it?

The End
And thus ends our mini[honey]moon a year late to Chicago. We loved connecting with old friends and family in this larger-than-life city and eating lots of new foods.

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