Category Archives: Travel

Hotel Dining: Chicago Mini Tour

Chicago - Travel

A while ago I introduced the idea of making your city, wherever you happened to be, a place where you could explore, the same as if you were on a vacation or trip. Personally I like to call them adventures and adventures that involve food are my kind of adventures.

Just recently I went out to dinner by myself. I was at XOCO in Wicker Park. It was good. I sat on the patio with a book and enjoyed a meal before running an errand and going back home. Not something I do all the time, but something that, when I have the funds, I enjoy doing.

Eating out is one treat that you do allow yourself when you travel. When I travel I have eaten out at fancy spots, as well as gone to the convenience store for the microwave meal and a box of cookies (try cooking a microwave pasta dish with instructions only in Swedish).

Luckily I live in Chicago, and it happens to be one of the best cities to eat out in. Yes I may be biased, but there are too many great places to count. This time, I’m writing about the underrated but very delicious hotel restaurant.

Normally when you go out to eat and you are at home you don’t choose a hotel. And when you travel, choosing the hotel as a place to eat feels like a cop-out. “I want to go where the locals go” you say. “A real, authentic spot, tucked away…with no tourists.” So the hotel doesn’t always win out.

Here are five places that not only have excellent food, but they give off a “tucked away” vibe as well as a “bustling local hot-spot” vibe. And depending on your mood each is equally valuable.

Let’s start in the order I discovered these wonderful restaurants. The Pump Room is a favorite among my friends, and is among one of the notable restaurants in the city. It’s made a name as one of the best spots in the city to eat dinner and enjoy cocktails. Any night of the week is a good night to visit Pump Room, you’ll never feel like it’s too early or too late (some restaurants don’t have the right vibe early in the week—others aren’t quite right for a Friday either—not so with Pump Room) and you’ll always get a spectacular meal. I was privileged enough to try some of Chef Ross’s creations at a menu presentation and each bite was more spectacular than the last.

Both W Hotel locations came out of nowhere for me. I’d never been to either hotel up to that point and didn’t know what to expect when I went to eat their new menus but I was pleasantly surprised—or more accurately pleasantly floored by what I tasted. The W Hotel City Center presented a menu inspired by tastes of South America—I still remember the vanilla ice cream and chocolate dessert garnished with tiny woodland mushrooms to this day. It made a refreshing change from the endless iterations of pork belly and bacon and was a menu honed enough to do more than generally claim that it was ‘farm to table’.

The W Hotel Lakeshore location boasts a beautiful restaurant, quiet and perfectly tucked away for when you want that kind of thing. The food is spectacular from the perfectly cooked scallops to the slices of fresh bread that came with a divine concoction of warm house made honey butter. Everything was presented in a way that wasn’t trying too hard and managed to be just enough to make sitting at a hotel looking out over the water on a cool, Chicago spring evening the perfect way to end a Tuesday.

If the W Hotel Lakeshore is where you go to escape, then NoMi Garden and Kitchen is where you go to see and be seen. In the summer especially, the beautiful rooftop is always busy—in Chicago it must be—we make the most of our short, sweet summers before hunkering down for winter. Sushi Heaven. That’s what NoMi Garden is. An oasis of seafood made to perfection.

The Westin Hotel in River North hosted the Windy City Bloggers for a happy hour and their outdoor space is a garden oasis in the middle of the city. It’s also inspired by a Japanese garden and is an amazing terrace space for an event or wedding. The Westin (and I am loathe to give away this secret!!) has a house made limited addition whiskey, as well as the most scrumptious sangria you will ever taste. Stop by the bar on the way home, or better yet an evening get together. This hotel is the perfect ‘rest stop’ for just that—a relaxing experience by the Chicago River in a peaceful space.

The “Arctic” Hare Trains: Dogsledding I

Essays - Travel

“Dogsledding exists at the intersection of skill and chaos…” —Burton Penner

I wake to the sound of howling and barking. It pierces the cold clear air. My eyes are open now and the bright sunlight comes through the trees and the snow sparkles in small dollops on top of spruce boughs. The dogs cease their howling song after a three or four minutes and now I’m fully awake but I dread moving out of my sleeping bag. It’s so cold. I’ve left the top of my sleep system open, being paranoid about condensation, so snow surrounds the inner lining of my sleeping bag. I move reluctantly, trying to get socks, fleece pants, jacket, and snow pants on, and finally put my boots onto my feet. I have left my boots open with my shell jacket laying over them, but they are still frozen stiff, and difficult to get into. I have to take short breaks in between layers to warm my hands. After 45 seconds my fingers turn bright reddish purple and become useless. I must re-warm them slowly in order to continue dressing. In this way the morning routine seems hurried and yet painfully slow at the same time.

The days all begin like this. I wake up to a clear sky, the trees overhead. Sometimes, during the night, if there is wind, the exposed portion of my face will be sprinkled with snow. Most days the sky is a light gray, but on the last day the sun comes out and the sky is an immaculate blue. After breakfast the sleds are packed and the dogs, who have slept tied to a stake line one next to the other, are hitched to the sleds. Wheel dogs first, then swing dogs, then the leads. Zeus lunges at his harness. He’s a swing dog today, second row on the left and impatient to get started. All the doggers begin the day with enthusiastic impatience, howling the sun up into the sky, then wiggling like slippery wet eels into their harnesses. They lunge happily forward into the day, into time, into the cold.

A word about the doggers[1]. They are attached by a short lead line to the stake line each night. They curl up into little balls on or beside a small pine bough bed, their tales over their noses. Eager to get into their harness each morning each dogger jumps and yelps and howls, putting their paws through the straps without trouble. If you bend their paws too much they yelp. They beg for belly rubs, and Frazier puts his nose in my face, not so much licking me as much as he is stabbing me with his nose. It stamps my face again and again until he jumps down to all fours again. Ethyl, usually grumpy and snapping at the other dogs, jumps up and puts her paws on my shoulders too. She is a beautiful white dog with dark brown-markings around her eyes and ears. I scratch behind ears, smushing her face close to mine. Cedar wiggles on her back twisting around and around until I scratch her belly too. Each and every dogger gets pets and pats and belly rubs each morning and night and every time the sleds stop. Their loyalty, their work ethic goes beyond the names. It’s clear our foremost duty on the trail is to stay alive to take care of the dogs. It’s this partnership that allows everything else to be possible. The way that you exist in nature when you dogsled is different than if you are hiking or kayaking or rappelling down a cliff. It’s more significant and very sharp. It requires faith in another living thing that you must impart without the aid of language. It requires grace and acceptance. It is tied inexplicably with the magic of a wintery cold landscape the same way the movement of a camel evokes the way that sand moves over dunes in the desert.

[1] The word is dogger to refer to one dog, and doggers to refer to multiple. Originally it referred to a worker who attaches dogs (as to logs), moves articles mechanically by dogs, or fastens articles (as stock to be machined) into dogs that will hold them for further processing. ‘Good dogger!’ ‘Come on dogger! Let’s go, HIKE!!’

I’m standing on the left runner of a sled, feet one behind the other in a kind of improvised fifth position. My sled partner, Bob, is on the right runner. We fly across the snowy lake. The dogs pant and pull, snapping up snow as the run in small sips. Sometimes the snow becomes sticky and slushy, melting into a sticky, gluey substance that makes the sled move in a sliding slow motion as if through honey or molasses. The runners collect this slushy ice substance and have to be de-iced twice a day by the end of the trip, which requires flipping them on their side and hacking at the ice with a small sledge hammer, then flipping the sled over again, making sure to be ready with the break. As soon as the runners touch the ground again the dogs take off, and if you’re not ready, your sled will be 25 feet away from you in a matter of seconds.

There is no need to steer the sleds, the doggers follow the trail ahead made by skiers and other sleds. Sometimes when the snow becomes thin, and the ice becomes visible and water starts pooling underneath, the dogs will avoid that section and reroute the sled moving back to the trail after the short detour. They know to avoid thin ice moving the sled effortlessly around it. It’s human error that puts the sleds through the ice.

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When people take a vacation, it’s an escape from reality. When they return to their everyday life it’s ‘back to reality’. I feel the opposite. Reality was pushing the sled up hills, over portages beside thin ice on the river, across large windy lakes, and through deep, thick forests that required us to break trail every day. Reality was the act of surviving, daily. The cold surrounds me all the time. I’m not cold necessarily, but it’s always there forcing me to pay attention to how much I’m sweating as I’m pushing a 300 pound sled, or skiing for five or six hours straight. How much water have I been drinking? Is it enough? Will I succumb to frostbite? Hypothermia? This is not even as intense as it could be—we have supplies, plenty of food and guides who know these woods inside and out. It still feels intense though. I am surviving in a harsh, frozen landscape where even silence feels stretched and brittle. It crackles in the air even over the whoosssshhh shusssshhhh the sled makes over the snow.

None of these things were too much of a concern, but they are there in your mind as you travel through the wilderness. My life is so close. It’s big and vast as the lake and the woods around me and so so full. Falling off the trail, falling through the ice, twisting an ankle, getting my boot caught under the metal-spiked brake on the sled…What better reality than the one where you are constantly thinking of survival, constantly breathing in clean air, constantly being physically and mentally challenged and constantly being pulled forward through this vast wilderness by a team of faithful dogs.

Bob puts his foot through the ice on our first day. It’s my fault. The ice is thin and our sled is tipping toward the river. I’m terrified of going into the water myself, as I know wet clothing is one of the worst things that can happen. It’s not like I can go back into the lodge and change. I pull and pull the sled but it’s as if I’m not doing anything. My boots are sinking further into the snow, and sliding further toward the river. In between trying to right the tipped sled I steal terrified glances at the cold brown water. It moves sluggishly under the thin layer of broken ice, there is barely a current at all. We finally right the sled, but I feel terrible that Bob has had to get wet in the process.

On the fourth day Bob tips off the trail falling a couple of feet down an embankment. It’s my fault. To make matters worse he’s one of the most experienced among us. Minus the guides, and Paul himself. Bob has been to Greenland, the Arctic, and Elsmere Island, Alaska, to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Being partnered with me means he’s had to put up with a lot. On the last day we switch sides, me on the outside as the smaller one, Bob on the inside to keep the sled on the trail. I still let him man the sled solo on the same section of river that we went over on day one. I am not going to take any chances. I’m also sad that I’m too afraid to go with him over the difficult terrain. The sled still tipped precariously over roots and rocks, even under Bob’s expert care. I ran after it, grateful for the chance to move my feet and perhaps warm my toes, which have become painfully cold over the course of the week.

It was not the only time I had to run as fast as I possible could after a sled. I sprinted after the sled after Donna and I (mostly I) lost control. I sprinted after it in heavy boots through deep snow. I pelted, hard for what was probably only 25 or 30 feet. Maybe less. I hear Donna scream after me. “Loose sled!!” My feet felt like lead and the snow feels like peanut butter. I’m not a sprinter. I’m not even really a runner. But it’s amazing what your body will do when your mind shuts off and all that is left is necessity. I catch the sled and push the break and the dogs slide to stop. Donna catches up and we resume our wild ride through the woods.

Dog tails. The long hair moves slightly in the wind. Sometimes the tails wag with enthusiasm. They are constantly curled like flags at full mast ready to lead the way at all times. These tails are curl around noses at night, and wave a greeting every morning. They are happy curly tails.

Thanks to Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge for the best dogsledding trip a girl could ask for, so excited to travel with them to Svalbard this spring!

Call of the Wild: Dogsledding in the High Arctic

Chicago - Fashion - Photography - Travel

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest of wilderness. — John Muir

I’ve never thought, “gosh it’s nice to be home”. I’m always just disappointed that I’m not traveling anymore. Which sounds a bit ungrateful and harsh, or that I’ve never known a real home, but that’s not the case. Home for me, like many other people, is my family. Home doesn’t need to be a place. If I had to choose a place to call ‘home’ it would be ‘everywhere’. Which sounds a bit silly. Traveling is when I feel the most at home.

It’s why I wanted to make this blog a ‘travel in your own city blog’, because it’s not always possible to go overseas. But I finally got tired of talking about potential trips and decided to just book one. So I did. I have wanted to dogsled since I was a kid. I remember looking up the Outward Bound trips, making a plan, but it never came to anything. My mom did an Outward Bound trip, and I grew up camping and hiking with my whole family– everything from camping, hiking, back packing and rafting we did it. The best kind of trip to take by yourself is not necessarily the one where you wander around Europe (I thought about going to Morocco or Barcelona) but this trip, once I found it, was perfect.

I’m going to Svalbard, an island belonging to Norway in the High Arctic. Training camp, offered for attendees of the Norway trip begins in 14 days. In Duluth Minnesota. For those of you that live in the midwest, or Canada, or really anywhere truly cold, will know that not only does this sound crazy– it probably is. I’ll be camping in the Superior National Forest, at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, in the dead of winter. I have spent the past few weeks doing lots of research, getting the low-down from my parents on how to dress, and hunting for sales online to make sure I get the best prices on clothing. I wanted to do training camp so that when it came to traveling to Norway I could enjoy the trip and not worry so much about how-to. This will be a new skill– I have never been dogsledding before and I want to learn how to do everything, from feeding the dogs, driving the sled, putting on the harnesses and putting the dogs in the right order on their team.

The outfits pictured are what will be keeping me warm in the negative temps and and in the arctic. I will be going to Minnesota, and subsequently Norway, alone, but I’ll be in a group, and I’m excited to meet new people and have an adventure.

All photos were taken by Jennifer Claire Photography.

Mini-Post Monday: Weekend Up North in Michigan

Photography - Travel

This year I decided to take a bit more initiative and do what I love best on my birthday weekend: travel. It wasn’t far, but it was to a well-loved spot in Northern Michigan where our family has a house. I could be mostly alone, cozy-ed up on the couch, and enjoy the last of the fall leaves before they all fell. Now they are under a good amount of snow, but I’m remembering my 26th as fun, relaxing, and just what I needed.

I made this decision in part because it was a teensy bit disappointing the year before and I didn’t want that to happen again. 24 was not much better. 23 either come to think of it… I sat at the kitchen table with a single cupcake, by myself. I even stuck a little candle in it so I could make a wish. But this year was not about being sorry for myself. I called my Aunt and arranged a mini family weekend during my favorite season in Northern Michigan. I did all of my favorite things. Read. Eat good food. Go to a book store. There was even a bonus boat ride. I didn’t want to set myself up to be disappointed this year; I’m not the kind of person that holds a big party any way. So I made the decision that life really is what you make it, cheesy as that sounds.