Snowshoeing at Chicago’s Northerly Island

Sculpture at Northerly Island in the winter

Sculpture at Northerly Island in the winter

Chicago, IL–It’s a very snowy, cold winter, but that doesn’t mean you need to stay inside. Bundle up and head over to Chicago’s Northerly Island (yep, the former Miegs Field way over there by the Adler Planetarium) and rent snowshoes or cross-country skis for a little tromp along the lake. Rentals are available for $5 for two hours on weekends from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the fieldhouse, the former airport terminal. With the snow falling and traffic noise minimal, it’s very peaceful. Afterward, learn more about the park’s trail construction, which is due to be completed this year.

Don’t miss Polar Adventure Days–the next one is Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014–to participate in ice fishing, checking out live animals, and watch dog-sledding demonstrations. Snowshoe rental is free during the event, too.

All those folks who were mad at Mayor Richard M. Daley for bulldozing the old Meigs Field runway in the middle of the night in 2003 need to see how beautiful it is in the winter. Before it hosted Meigs Field, it was part of Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago as a lakefront park, and hosted the World’s Century of Progress World’s Fair 1933-34. It’s good it’s come back to its roots.

Snowshoes and skis available for rental.

Snowshoes and skis available for rental.

Chicago’s Ferrara Bakery: Original Italian Pasticceria

Outside Ferrara

Chicago, IL–Back in the 60s and 70s, you wouldn’t want to come as far as 2210 W. Taylor St., where Ferrara Bakery  is located. But that was then and this is now. The ever-westward march of the University of Illinois at Chicago and medical campuses have made the west edges of Taylor Street a safer place again.

The downside to this delightful bakery, established in 1908, are those pesky “pay to park” meters in front. If you come on Sunday (hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) the parking is free, however, and you can stock up on biscotti, fresh cannoli, and Italian cookies– even frozen soups and lasagna. But lunch is not served on Sundays. You’ll just have to come back on another day for the inventive salads and sandwiches, including their own handmade pastrami.

I tried a mix of the Italian specialty cookies, including frosted cucidadi, a fig-filled confection that should never be used in the same breath as fig newtons. The vanilla almond raisin biscotti are divine, as is the lemon-custard-filled pasticiotto.pasticiottoFerrara is a familiar name to Chicagoans, as the bakery’s founder, Salvatore Ferrara and his brothers-in-law established the Ferrara Pan Candy Company in nearby Forest Park. They make Lemonheads, Atomic Fireballs, and other delicious treats, which are also for sale at the bakery. It’s a double unique Chicago experience!Candy at Ferrara

Counter at Ferrera Bakery

Yep, it’s Hawkeytown

NHL_Chicago_Blackhawks_freecomputerdesktopwallpaper_1600Chicago, IL–The Stanley Cup is back in Chicago! I’m following @wheresthecup on Twitter to see if I can spot it in person this week. Looking forward to watching the parade on Friday, beginning at Grant Park. What a great day to be in this city!

Rebuilding Chicago’s Wells Street Bridge

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Wells Street Bridge rebuilding

Chicago, IL–By the time the summer visitors arrive, work on the Wells Street Bridge over the Chicago River will be history. The bridge carries the city’s famous El trains over the river to and from the Loop, road traffic over it, foot traffic alongside. And of course ferry and other river traffic flows beneath it. For those of us who have watched this fascinating rebuilding, it’s a feat of engineering.

New sections were built offsite, then floated on huge platforms to the old bridge. The original 1922 sections were cut away in two phases, and the final new section is being installed now. While Wells Street Bridge construction is not as famous  as the 1883 Brooklyn Bridge, it evokes similar reactions of amazement from passersby.

Next time you’re in the city, you might want to take a moment to reflect on the amazing architecture over the river as well as alongside it.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Cut off old section of Wells Street bridge.

Opportunity Knocks at openhousechicago2012

A view of the old Sears Tower from the original Sears Tower

La Casita de don Pedro

St. Adalbert’s in Pilsen

Chicago, IL--This weekend’s openhousechicago was a rare chance to see the original Sears Tower of Homan Square in Lawndale, a peek into the dusty projector room at a former vaudeville and movie house in Pilsen, and Jens Jensen’s office in Humboldt Park, among 150 sites open and free to the public. You just had to show up.

Even spitting rain wouldn’t deter me from heading to Homan Square, and take a tour of the yet-to-be-restored brick tower landmark at 900 S. Homan Ave. From the 14th floor, I could easily see the second Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), site of my first job out of college. Across the street, students offered guided tours of Power House High, in a building that once housed the power generators for the Sears campus. The school preserved a few of the ash ovens and conveyer belts that men worked in front of, as the enormous chimney burned coal to fire the plant.

From Lawndale, it was a short drive to Pilsen and home to Apollo 2000 Theater at 2875 W. Cermak Road. The Mexican community hosts lavish parties in the former vaudeville and movie house, but a tight stairway up to the projector room shows a world left behind–large projectors still sitting, empty film cannisters and boxes marked “trailer” sit waiting for the last picture show. Los Corrales, a restaurant next door to the theater, made a great lunch stop with reasonably priced food and excellent service.

St. Adalbert’s Church, 1650 W. 17th St., an Italian Renaissance style church originally built for the Poles who once lived in Pilsen, still offers a mass in Polish. Polish words are inscribed above the magnificent white marble altar. But Mexican families were there with babies on this weekend, as well as tourists like me taking photos of the artwork and the replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Heading northwest, the next stop was La Casita de don Pedro at 2625 W. Division. It’s a traditional Puerto Rican home with tin roof and front porch, and local residents gather for drumming workshops. The courtyard statue of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, honors the Puerto Rican who fought for independence and died shortly after release from a U.S. federal prison. Farther west, Humboldt Park’s restored 1896 stables building at 3015 W. Division, is home to the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture. The former office of famed landscape architect Jens Jensen is still being restored, but the panoramic views from the semi-circle shaped room span the park and even over to his former home, a greystone across the street.

Also in the 219-acre Humboldt Park: the Refectory and Boat House at 1440 N. Humboldt Drive, a Prairie-style building on the National Register of Historic Places  overlooking a lake, and well as the Humboldt Park Field House at 1440 N. Sacramento, featuring two gyms and a ballroom, flanked by marble columns.

North and east of Humboldt Park, Uptown hosted a number of venues, but time was running short. I ended my tour of the day at Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation at 5029 N. Kenmore Ave.. The last extant cathedral-style synagogue in the city, closed since 2008, reopened for this event. Climbing the old marble stairs to the sanctuary, where a glittering Italian mosaic ark stood, as rain dripped through the ceiling and left puddles on the floor. Rotting sills leaked air and light around the stained glass windows. Pigeons perched on the women’s balcony. Agudas Achim, an Orthodox congregation that serves an immigrant population in the nearby neighborhood, still hopes to save the building.

So many sites and so little time. Next year, I’ll be starting my tours of openhousechicago a little earlier.

Apollo 2000 Theater projection room

Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation’s mosaic ark

 

Spa Time at West Baden Springs, Indiana

Sprudel Bath at Spa at West Baden Springs

West Baden Springs, IN–The Sprudel Bath at the Spa at West Baden Springs takes you back to historic beginnings of the hotel. Here you can partake of the healing waters, filled with 22 minerals that give off hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide gas. The nose may wrinkle at this old-fashioned odorous soak, but oh, it is soothing. And it couldn’t be presented more beautifully in a private bathing room in the 14,000 sq. ft. spa. At $45 for a 25-minute soak, it’s one of the less-expensive treatments, and still includes time in the relaxation room and sauna. The mineral waters are reputed to relieve stress and pain, and I have to say I emerged a little shaky in the legs. Check out the crusty minerals–calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, among others–on the cold water tap. And if you’re tempted to sip a cup, just know that it does affect the digestion. “Pluto water” from the springs was once bottled and sold under the tagline, “When nature won’t, Pluto will.” 

Racine, America’s Kringle Capital

Racine, WI–An hour north of Chicago, 30 miles south of Milwaukee, Racine includes rolling farmland, a harbor on Lake Michigan, and lots of kringles. Due to the many Danish settlers here, the pastry made from 32 layers of flaky dough that’s hand-shaped became a popular item in local bakeries. Today you’ll find it comes topped with pecans (hands-down the most popular), or filled with fruit like Michigan cherries or blueberries, and of course, chocolate varieties. Though they’re known as a Christmas specialty, they are made year round here.  A video shows the process in super-speed.

I checked out two of the four main bakeries in Racine. First stop was at the original kringle bakery, Larsen’s in downtown at 3311 Washington Ave.. The bakery’s quite basic, and the folks quite friendly.  Kringles come packed in a box so they don’t get squished on the ride home. We chose strawberry-mango and pecan, but the flavors ranged from orange dreamsicle to chocolate filled. Kringle rating: outstanding.

Next, I went upscale to O & H Danish Bakery and  the Danish Uncle Marketplace at 4006 Durand Ave. They offered a large selection of flavors, and the place was bustling with people buying kringles and other baked goods. If you’re looking to shop a bit for home decor along with your baked goods, this is your place. O&H Bakery also offers kringles for sale in the Petro Truck Stop right off 94, but really, that’s cheating. You really need to venture into Racine for a real kringle.

Kringles cost about $8.50 each in Racine bakeries, and online range from $19-35 each.

There are other Racine bakeries offering kringles, and many of the suburbs around Racine sell them. Here are two other Racine outlets to try and enjoy:

Lehmann’s Bakery lays claim as the oldest continuously operating bakery in Racine, at 4900 Spring St.. They roll and fold the dough into 140 layers.

Bendtsen’s Bakery and Cafe at 3200 Washington Ave., draws coffee drinkers and pastry tasters every morning.

 

 

Best Tour in Key West

Harry Truman's Little White House on Key West

Key West, FL–There are lots of tours to take in Key West, like the Conch Train or Mel Fisher Museum. Most people put the Hemingway House at the top of their list. I’m a writer, so I had to visit.  And I have to say, I was fascinated with the famous six-toed cats that lounge all over the property. The cats, each a descendant of Snowball, a polydactyl feline given to Hemingway by a captain. According to our tour guide, there are 44 cats on the property, and half of every litter come out six-toed, half like all the other cats of the world. The polydactyl cats look like they’re wearing mittens, their big paws resembling the meaty ones of my English bulldog. The cats can lay anywhere they want–and do–at Hemingway House, on beds, desks, in the sun and under shady trees.  They have their own water fountain, made from the urinal removed from Sloppy Joe’s Bar during a renovation. It’s gussied up with an Italian olive jar spilled water into it, and lined up with terra cotta tiles. The cats don’t seem to mind either way.

Even with those crazy cats, Hemingway House didn’t top my list of favorite tours, though. Hands down, the best tour was at Truman’s Little White House. The decor is a step behind the styles of Mad Men, all 40s and 50s rattan furniture on the porch and poker table at the ready. It helps that the Little White House is air-conditioned while the Hemingway House isn’t (though Hemingway’s is more “genuine” as the author’s wife removed all the ceiling fans in favor of more stylish Tiffany chandeliers.) But what really makes it the best tour was Dave, our guide throughout the house. He knew his Truman history, the house history, and spoke with such joy and enthusiasm that it infected our entire group.  We learned more about the famous occupants, who came for both rest and reconnaissance. Truman had quite a sense of humor, bantering with the press and teasing them about what was in his private briefcase that he alone carried. (He carried his own case because he didn’t want anyone to break his 78 rpm vinyl records, which provided classical music to while away the humid evenings.) And there’s a replica of his famed “The Buck Stops Here” sign, which the guide will gladly tell you the history behind it. It’s hard to believe the place was about to be razed, was left to decay and ruin for 12 years before it was taken over by the state of Florida and rehabbed.

Check out the poker table and the breakfast bar, where “eye-openers” were served promptly each morning. You won’t get served here, but I imagine there’s a score of places open you can hoist a toast to Harry after your visit.

Hemingway HouseHemingway studio in Key West

 

Hemingway House polydactyl cat

Key Views of Key West

 

Sunset at Sunset Key, Latitudes restaurant

From the deck of the Western Union

Key West, FL–Really, there isn’t a bad view of Key West. But some views are not to be missed, like the sunsets from the torch-lit patio of Latitudes restaurant at Westin’s Sunset Key.  Watch sailboats float past an orange dreamsicle sky.

Be sure to catch the windblown panorama view from the top of Key West Lighthouse. I climbed the 88 cast-iron steps up the lighthouse, rewarded with a close-up of the pretty prism light above and magnificent island scenes below.  Made me wonder what it was like for the women lightkeepers back in the day.

Everybody likes to pose by the Southermost Point concrete monument at the intersection of Front and Whitehead streets. Maybe worth a snap, but not a wait in line.

My favorite view of Key West had to be sunset from the deck of the Western Union schooner, sails hoisted and full.

Top of Key West Lighthouse

Key West Lighthouse prism

Chicago’s Bald Eagles Hatch

Palos Township, IL–Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the only celebrated birds in town. A pair of American bald eagles recently built a nest in a cottonwood tree in the a southwest suburban part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and are raising a clutch of hatchlings there. It marks the first time in more than 100 years that a nest could be seen in Cook County. There are about 7060 nesting bald eagles throughout the country.

The eaglets haven’t left the nest, and it will be mid-May before they depart their aerie. The family is expected to stay in the area through the summer, and should return next spring.

To keep the family safe, visitors need to keep a 500 yard distance from the nest. Like any nesting bird, they can be very territorial. It can be seen by looking north across Tampier Slough from 131st Street, between Wolf Road to the east and Will-Cook Road to the west.

The forest preserve offers regular updates and video if you can’t wait.