Our Favourite City So Far And The True North

(39 days in)

Welcome back! It’s been a bit longer than I would have liked since we last updated you, but we’ve had some action-packed days. From where we left you, we’ve travelled through Chicago and Toronto (as well as Detroit, but not for long enough to do anything unfortunately). The former was my favourite destination so far, and the latter gave us an ever so slight change from the US.

106 Miles Later…
As regular readers will know, Chicago gave us a great welcome by rolling out the fighter jets to put on an aerial display for us. This may have been more for the Air & Water Show, but I’ll remain blissful in my ignorance. Luckily our hotel was right next to the Millennium Park, and this meant we could happily sit on the Great Lawn to recoup after the journey in and partake in our first American hot dog while taking in the aerial display. After making a quick stop at the Cloud Gate sculpture inside the park (that is more aptly referred to as the ‘Bean’), we headed up to the 20th floor and turned in for the night.

Our first morning in Chicago saw us up early. After purchasing a ‘Go Chicago Card’ through Groupon we headed straight to the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), the 14th tallest building in the world. Shooting up to the 103rd floor certainly gave us some stunning views of the surrounding city skyline as well as Lake Michigan and our own feet as we looked down through the glass floor to the Chicago River below. I enjoy being up high; I find something fascinating about looking down and seeing a city of people go about their daily lives as small as ants darting between grass blades. Even so, I always feel an odd sensation when stepping out toward any edge – it never fails to make me smile, but also momentarily replaces my legs with more of a pool noodle feel. Anyway, although we were there early there were still a huge amount of other tourists, so we didn’t stay long before making our descent.

Within the Millennium Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a bandshell and outdoor viewing area which was showing live coverage from across the US of the so-called “Great American Eclipse” (I understand that it’s the first coast-to-coast eclipse to happen in 99 years, but really? You can’t just claim a solar event for your country!). We had a wait trying to attain some eclipse glasses for this astronomical phenomenom (M: in Daley Plaza which, as a Blues Brother fan, pleased me greatly), and once we had secured the future of our eyesight we grabbed lunch and sat in the aforementioned park. Although it was quite an overcast day in Chicago, with our trusty paper specs we managed to get a pretty decent look at the eclipse even through the clouds, and even though we weren’t in the path of totality there was a notable temperature drop and a darkness that crept through the city. I wasn’t sure what I expected from the eclipse – on the one hand, I knew that we weren’t going to get the full shebang so wasn’t too excited, but on the other we could see a surprising amount through the heavy cloud cover. My attempts to photograph the event were pretty bad (turns out a mere camera phone can’t really focus on something 238,900 miles away) but with the live coverage being shown in the pavillion we felt the awe and wonder all the same (as well as more newscasters than I could count saying “it looks like the Moon has taken a bite out of the Sun”).

The Go Chicago Card allowed us access to three top attractions within the city, perfect for our limited time. I’m a big fan of the human race and all our accomplishments so with the tower done and the sun certifiably looked at (with the proper protection of course), we headed over to the Museum of Science and Industry. This was a short bus ride out of the city but we can forgive it that as it houses a full size replica of a World War II U-Boat, a 3,500 square foot model railway and (my favourite) a 1.5 million volt Tesla Coil. Alongside our entry ticket we were allowed to choose free access to one of the four special exhibits and, remembering my youth playing with BigTrak, we opted for the ‘Robot Revolution’. This exhibit was our first port of call and we managed a full hour inside it playing with:

  • Paro, a robot therapy seal,
  • A robot that mimics and reads facial expressions,
  • Another that could easily climb stairs (without jets, yes I’m looking at you Daleks),
  • A large six legged spider robot that made me feel every part a super villain

…and all kinds of other programmable inventions made for the betterment of our race (or playing robot football it seems). (M: We also beat a robot at blackjack – we’re definitely ready for Vegas.)

After making it through the exhibit without (purposefully) shoving any small children out of the way, we headed off around the rest of the museum: learning about the story of U-505, a U-Boat captured by the US towards the end of World War II; what our faces will look like in 50 years time (I’m going to need to stay out of the sun); and what a Tesla Coil releasing 1.5 million volts over a few seconds sounds like, among other things. Mostly we learnt of my compulsion to fiddle with any kind of button or dial that presents itself within a science museum (M: this isn’t even a joke – if left to his own devices, Pete will push/turn/pull every single interactable exhibit he comes across, whether or not he’s interested in the subject matter).

And as it generally tends to, the next day came around and with it the final of our three attractions – the Field Museum, and being the nature lover this was Megan’s time to shine. We made the half hour walk through the rest of the Millennium Park to get there – taking in the Buckingham Fountain for a little taste of home – and arrived at the 14 acre building. Once inside we were greeted by Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world and at 14 feet at the hip, she is rather impressive.

Again, alongside our entrance fee we were granted access to a special exhibit and chose the ‘Underground Adventure’, but also elected for additional entrance to the Jurassic World experience – with full-on animatronics, velociraptor costumes and a whole host of other dino facts, this turned out to be a great idea (but I really should have guessed how many children there would have been at a movie-inspired exhibit. We walked very slowly so as to leave the pack from the back and almost got lapped by the next batch – harrowing).

From there we made our way through the rest of the building – shrinking down to a 1/100th of our size we explored the dense soil beneath our feet (we may have been spoiled by Jurassic World as this exhibit was pretty disappointing and we were happy that we got into it for free – turns out there’s just a load of bugs and bacteria down there, who knew).  Then we went onto ancient Egypt, as the Field Museum has a 5000 year old tomb on display, and after that we traipsed through a practically endless hall of all the skeletons and taxidermied animals you could want. I think we underestimated the institute as it took almost the entire day to get around, and we were more than happy to head back to our newly acquired hotel room (after one night in the city we’d decided we’d need more than the two we had allocated and had booked another room right next to the Magnificent Mile).

Whilst checking in we were recommended Giordano’s, one of the best places for an authentic Chicago deep-dish pizza. This was another thing we underestimated, and the 50 minute cooking time should have given us a clue. We ordered the smallest size they have (which had 6 slices) and still had half of it to take back to the hotel room for a nutritious breakfast. But I would highly recommend this if you ever find yourself in the city, as if nothing else you can do some bicep curls with the dense leftovers.

Going North of the WallBorder
Sadly, adding another night to our Chicago adventure meant we had to take one away from our next destination, Detroit. Which also meant that once in the city that shares a river with Canada, all we had time for was laundry! So, apologies, but I cannot give any of my renowned cultural advice for this particular city.

Our next destination was the ‘True North’ – Canada. More specifically Toronto, which actually isn’t that far north at all. Luckily for us we have a friend who decided to move to Toronto from Surrey 5 months prior in order to broaden her horizons. This meant that, in what was to be one of most expensive locations hotel-wise, we had free accommodation – a huge weight off of our collective shoulders, and it allowed us to throw some more dollars (Canadian this time) at exploring the city.

Crossing into the country I was immediately, and not for the first time, confused by the imperial and metric systems. I had forgotten on the approach that Canada decided to not only use the metric system (M: I don’t think I ever knew this in the first place, and was initially shocked at how high the speed limits were) but also write all of the signs in French as well as English out of respect to French Canadians. But I put my fears aside and continued on to Ros’s.

For our first night in Toronto we were taken to dinner by Ros to catch up (this included some incredible tacos and the most over the top milkshake I’ve ever seen) and then onto a local pub to meet some of Ros’s friends. (M: we also got to witness a couple of very heated rounds of shuffleboard, a game which I wasn’t aware anyone below the retirement age played but hey, that’s Canada!)

By this stage our regular readers will be well aware that Megan is a goddess with a spreadsheet (M: *bows*). Every couple of days we sit down, run through our bank statements and what we’ve spent and she works out how over/under budget we are. To our delight, we found that we were still a decent chunk under budget for our trip so far. We put (some of) this toward a Toronto CityPass, which just like the Go Chicago card gave us access to a host of the top tourist attractions within the city.

First on the list was the CN Tower. Mirroring our experience at the Willis Tower we shot up to 1,136 foot and had some amazing views of both the city and the surrounding Toronto Islands. Between our own feet, through the glass floor we spotted our next stop: Toronto Aquarium. Aside from stroking a horseshoe crab, taking a moving walkway through the largest exhibit and convincing Meg that pushing a child into the ray enclosure would be a bad idea (M: he didn’t convince me, I just took pity on him), not much more happened here. We saw fish (M: and crustaceans, and cnidaria, and molluscs, and reptiles, and…).

To top off the action-packed day we then treated Ros to a baseball game (by ‘treated’ I mean that we got the tickets for free, but as I’ve so often been told, it’s the thought that counts). Toronto Blue Jays vs the Minnesota Twins. This was the first baseball game that we had seen at all, and I have to say that aside from the tiny seats, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Much like watching cricket it’s a game you don’t have to pay attention to 100% of the time so we had fun getting a few drinks in and catching up some more (we’re also apparently a bad luck charm as it’s the first game that Ros had seen the Blue Jays lose).

We’d been told that for a true authentic Canadian feel we should forgo Starbucks and head to the nearest Tim Horton’s for breakfast. So the next day we were up early, stopped in for a good start to the day and then, much to Megan’s continuous enjoyment, headed to the zoo. We spent almost the entire day there, checking out the panda enclosure (as you can guess this meant we saw two sleeping pandas and one that was almost sleeping), the grizzly bears, the polar bears, the penguins, the orangutan and, a creature that Megan can neither confirm or deny is her favourite, the sloth (who much like the pandas didn’t do all that much). (M: To maintain my reputation I’d like to mention that we saw dozens of other species that Pete has omitted for sanity’s sake.) In addition we got to experience another Canadian delicacy, ‘poutine’ – a pot full of fries, covered in chunks of cheese and drowned in gravy. It’s a new favourite of mine.

Originally our plan had been to accompany dear Ros back out to one of her friends’ for frivolities and to watch the big boxing fight that night, but after almost 7 hours at the zoo as well as the drive there and back, we opted to stay in and actually book our accommodation for the next few days.

A Constant Rain
With that our last morning in the True North was done. We packed our stuff up, thanked Ros one last time for the hospitality and headed to the nearest petrol station to spend the rest of our Canadian dollars (and grab our last Tim Horton’s iced coffee – seriously, I’ve seen the light, all others pale in comparison).

The final stop in the country was right on the border with the USA, Niagara Falls. It was about an hour’s drive from our current location but we had set off early as to have plenty of time taking it in. I love a good waterfall and was excited to see the biggest one (by water volume – 85,000 cubic foot a second) in the world. The first thing I noticed as we approached was that it wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be, and the second thing was that I didn’t realise it was in the middle of a town. This was purely my naivety on both accounts – of course you would build a town around a hugely popular tourist attraction, and of course the falls would be louder when you’re closer to them and not just driving nearby.

So, knowledge time – Niagara Falls is made up of 3 falls: The Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridalveil Falls (in biggest to smallest order), which are split over the American/Canadian border. We viewed these falls from the Canadian side, as everyone agrees it’s the better side for viewing.

We also hoped onboard the ‘Hornblower’, a boat tour that took you right into the belly of the beast, which is the Canadian version of the historic ‘Maid of the Mist’ tour. From here (as you can see in the pictures) I found that 85,000 cubic foot of water creates one heck of a spray and when you get really close, and wearing glasses no longer aids your vision. Once we were waterfalled-out, we found lunch, changed into dry socks and finally headed out of the country.

More on the Horizon
Phew, that bring us up to date. That was a lot to cram into a blog post and there’s surely a few details that I’ve missed, but we’re onto New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC so if I didn’t do it now, it would have gotten worse!

As ever if you have any suggestions for these next destinations, or comments on what we did and didn’t do in the above locations, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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