Sunday, September 22, 2013

Short Note - Direct Flights from Indy

I just heard that United, my favorite airline, will be offering direct flights from Indianapolis to San Francisco.  Those flights begin in January.  Yay!

Mackinac Island

If you live near the Great Lakes area, you’ve no doubt heard of Mackinac Island in Michigan.  If you live farther away, you might not know anything about this American beauty.  A visit to the dreamy isle of Mackinac is like a trip back in time to another century.
 
What makes this tiny island worth visiting?  The beauty!  The history!  The fun!  There is so much to do and so much to see there.
 
Mackinac sits on Lake Huron, right where it borders Lake Michigan.  There are no bridges from the mainland to the island.  Most people arrive via boat and that boat is usually one of the large commercial ferries that travel in and out of the Mackinac harbor from early morning until sunset.  There is a very small airstrip there but it is used mainly by the locals.
 
Let’s start with the natural beauty of the place.  Every inch of the 3.8 square mile island is now a National Historic Landmark and approximately 80% of the island is now a Michigan state park.  Trees and flowers blanket the isle, as do surprises like this natural rock formation.
 
 
 
As if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, mankind has added a few wonderful touches to compliment nature's striking background.  The most notable site when approaching the island is the Grand Hotel.  Once you disembark, you will come across a darling village full of charming Victorian bed and breakfasts, wonderful restaurants and small shops.
 
 
 
There are no cars on the island.  Only emergency vehicles are allowed and a tour guide told us that there are only three of those.  There are only three ways to get around the island, those being by foot, by bicycle or by horse.  Over 500 horses are kept on the island.  Even the UPS deliveryman uses a horse-driven wagon.
 
 
 
Bikes are absolutely everywhere, too.  Not only do the locals use them for their daily transportation but thousands of tourists rent the two-wheelers every day.
 
WHEN TO GO
 
The tourist season is short, running from late spring through early fall.  Spring temps remain cool well into July.  We went in June, just after the Lilac Festival.  It was a lovely time to go because the lilacs were still in full bloom.  The air was fragrant with the pleasant combination of lilacs and fudge with only an occasional whiff of horse poop marring the experience.
 
WHAT TO WEAR
 
Mackinac Island is all about tourism and traditional tourist gear is what most folks wear.  Most people wear casual shirts and pants.  If you dress up for a day on Mackinac, you’ll be out of place.
 
You can even visit Grand Hotel dressed casually.  While the hotel dictates dressier clothing for dinner, most people wear casual clothing during the day.
 
HOW TO GET THERE
 
If you don’t have your own small plane or a boat, you’ll have to take a ferry to reach the island.  There are several in the area and they run all day long.  The prices and times are similar.  The two main companies are Sheplers and Star Line.
 
WHERE TO STAY
 
If you are a boater, you can sail there and dock at the harbor pretty reasonably, which is what we did.  We stayed for three nights.  Staying on our own boat in the harbor was considerably cheaper than staying at one of the local inns.  The harbor is well equipped with a bathhouse, large restrooms and even boasts a small but excellent coffee shop right at the end of the dock.
 
 
 
If you prefer more glamorous accommodations go for Grand Hotel.  Many of American presidents and celebrities have visited this historic landmark.  Two movies were made on the hotel grounds.  However, it is not for the budget-minded.  Just walking into the hotel will cost you $10.00 per person if you aren’t checking in.
 
It is cheaper to stay on the mainland and ferry over for the day.  However, if you intend to stay on the island for two days or more, staying on the island will be more cost effective.  There are several nice ones to choose from.  I have yet to read a bad review about any of the facilities there.
 
WHERE TO EAT
 
There is no shortage of good places to eat on the island.  Don’t miss the Grand Hotel lunch buffet.  The cost is $40.00 but the $10 hotel admission that you paid is deducted from the price of your lunch.  It is pricey but the food was very good.  The cocktails are just as pricey but they were among the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.  Lunch at Grand Hotel is worth the price.
 
 
 
There are a lot of good restaurants right on the main street of Mackinaw.  We enjoyed several.  Just ask one of the tour guides or follow the crowds and you’ll find the best ones.  Honestly, we did not have a bad meal during our three day stay on the island.
 
WHAT TO DO
 
First and foremost, take a horse and carriage tour.  You’ll quickly learn the layout of the island along with its interesting history.  Can take a group tour for $24.50.  Private tours also available at a slightly higher cost.  The tours take you all around the island and the guides are very informative.
 
Another fun little activity you can do is tour Fort Mackinac.  It’s not hard to find because it sits on the highest point on the island.  At $11.00 per adult, the self-guided tour is affordable and it is interesting.  The best views of the town can be experienced from the Fort.
 
Shopping is a popular activity on the island.  Like with most tourist areas, you will find cheap hats and tee shirts.  If cheap is what you seek, look for the shop with the yellow bags.  I can’t remember the name of the shop but nearly every tourist in town can be seen carrying those yellow.  That particular shop sells a lot of Kitschy souvenirs there.  If your tastes run are a little more sophisticated, there are plenty of local higher ends shops to sell artwork, clothing and nautical souvenirs.
 
Another popular activity is bike riding.  Bike rental stands are plentiful.  The bikes all have baskets for your gear.  Some rental places even provide you with bottled water to take along on the ride.
 
If bikes aren’t your thing you can go horseback riding.  If you prefer not to straddle a horse, you can rent a horse-driven carriage.
 
If you prefer to get around on your own two feet, there are plenty of places to hike, both on the village streets and on wooded paths.  While you’re out walking, stop in at the tiny public library.  It is just the cutest library I’ve ever visited.  They also offer Wi-Fi and a daily used book sale.  Visitors can also walk the Grand Hotel gardens without paying the entrance fee.  Just enter from the lower end of the gardens where they border a public park.
 
Mackinac Island is a beautiful, fun, safe place to visit.  It is a great place to go whether you are seeking fun activities for your family or a romantic getaway for you and your sweetie.  It really should be on everyone’s bucket list.
 
Oh, and whether you go to Mackinac Island or Mackinaw City, it is always pronounced Mackinaw.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chicago

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter to Chicago to celebrate the young one’s 16th birthday.  Oh, what a wonderful time we had in just two short days!
 
Chicago has everything anyone could ever want in a big city.  Do you seek both high-end and bargain shopping?  The Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue covers both ends of the spectrum.  Are you interested in excellent restaurants?  There are plenty of those within walking distance of the Mile.  Is art your thing?  Great art is everywhere, including in the city parks.  Do you want to take your family to an educational museum?  Chicago has those, too.  Are waterfront views and beaches what you crave?  Good old Lake Michigan borders the entire east side of the city.
 
We started our day by dropping our car and our luggage at our hotel, Mile North on Superior Street.  Mile North Hotel could not be more conveniently located.  It’s just one block east of the famous Magnificent Mile.  When you step out of the hotel and turn to your right, you see Neiman Marcus and Saks.  The location cannot be beat.  Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived but we were able to leave our bags with the bell captain.
 
We started our Mag Mile trek with lunch at the Neiman Marcus restaurant, Zodiac.  It’s a nice white tablecloth restaurant that somehow manages to maintain old-fashioned grace and dignity with a modern, upbeat style.  Neiman’s starts each meal right by providing all diners with popovers, strawberry butter and chicken consomm√© just moments after everyone is seated. The servings were generous and the food was of a very high quality.  Lunch for four people at a cost of just over $80 was a bit pricey for a quick lunch but the food and the atmosphere were worth every penny.
 
While we were eating lunch, my girls spotted Topshop from the large dining room windows and wanted to go there as soon as possible.  After exploring all three floors of that store, we visited H&M.  Both of those stores were packed to the walls with young girls lining up to try on clothes and later to pay for those treasures.
 
Once we finished round one of our shopping, we returned to Mile North to check in.  We were thrilled with our room.  I was pleased to see that it looked exactly like the promotional pictures on their website.  It was beautiful, clean and quiet.  I’ve read some reviews about this hotel wherein people complained about noise from the street but we heard nothing from outside of our room.  We stayed on the seventh floor, right above the main entrance.  The bedroom was about the size of a standard American hotel room but the bathroom was quite large.  Everything appeared to be new and spotlessly clean.  The beds were wonderfully comfortable.  There was a refrigerator in the room, as well as a safe.

After a brief rest, we returned to our shopping.  There’s a Disney store on the same corner where Saks and Neiman’s sit, so we did a quick tour through that.  We went on to Forever 21, Chico’s, Nordstrom’s, Nike and several other stores.  My favorite store on the Mile is the multi-story Crate & Barrel.  It’s huge!  I’m a sucker for the C&B bargains and walked out carrying boxes of fun household goods.
 
By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set and we were burdened with packages.  We returned to the hotel to unload our purchases and to freshen up for dinner.  It was great to have our hotel just right around the corner when we needed to rest and refresh.  We were surprised to find that our room had been serviced and our beds turned down while we were out.

Our plan was to go to Giordano’s Pizza (two blocks from our hotel) for dinner.  However, by the time we got there it was nearly 9:00 on and the place was packed.  Even the line to put your name on the wait list was painfully long.  We were told that the wait for a table was 90 minutes.  I know from my previous visits to Giordano’s that it can take as long as 45 minutes to get a pizza after you order because it takes that long to bake from scratch.
 
While Giordano’s pizza is excellent and I highly recommend the place, we didn’t want to wait over two hours for dinner, so we implemented Plan B, which was to have dinner in the hotel restaurant, Ferris & Jack.  We were not disappointed.  I had a fabulous grilled cheese sandwich layered with apples and bacon.  It was not crowded so we were able to enjoy a lovely, quiet dinner.  Dinner for four, plus cocktails for three, came to $95 but that’s pretty reasonable for a dinner in Chicago.
 
We checked out on Sunday morning, once again leaving our luggage secured with the bell captain and our car with the valet.
 
We walked down to Millennium Park, which was a bit of hike but it was a balmy morning and the sidewalks were nearly deserted, so it was a pleasant walk.  We wandered around enjoying the art and taking pictures for most of the morning.  “The Bean”, officially known as “Cloud Gate” drew the most tourists.  You can see the world reflected from multiple angles in its shiny surface.
 
From Millennium Park, we walked toward Navy Pier.  The regular pedestrian walkway to the pier was closed for construction but the detour took us through a high-end residential neighborhood centered around a small park that was just as charming as could be.  We found a nice little coffee shop across the street from the park and stopped in for drinks.  We strolled along the River Walk and crossed the bridge that put us out right at Navy Pier.
 
Navy Pier is a hub of activity on a nice summer day.  It is a family-oriented place and the weather was perfect.  I think every family in Chicago decided to visit the pier that day.  There are plenty of amusements on the pier and several activities going on there all of the time.  This particular weekend marked the end of the Tall Ships show.  On Saturday night, there had been a Taylor Swift concert and countless little girls were walking around sporting Taylor Swift tee shirts and backpacks.
 
You will find no shortage of places on the pier to pop into for a quick bite.  We chose Harry Carry’s.  The food was good enough but not particularly noteworthy.  The service, however, was excellent.
 
The Cirque Shanghai 2:00 show was a great way to end our weekend.  At $132 for four tickets (bought on-line in advance) it was a bargain.  Although it was a great way to end our trip, it would have been better to see the show at night.  Some of the magic of the lighting was lost in the daylight of the pier’s open-air theatre.  Still, the show was incredible and it is a good, inexpensive way to see a Cirque show.  The bad news is that the show only runs during the summer months.
 
When we returned to Mile North to retrieve our bags and our car, a bellman walked by and heard me mention to my girls that we would get the car as soon as I dug the claim ticket out from the bottom of my purse.  Without being asked, he jumped right to service, volunteering to retrieve both our luggage and our car.  Everything about our stay at was flawless.  I will definitely return to Mile North.