A leisurely tour on Chicago River is a unique experience for all ages, from about-tens to the near-centenarians. Great for multi-generationals and also for girls-day-out, before hitting the Windy City’s Mag Mile, along Michigan Avenue, for a spot of sophisticated retail.
In about 90 minutes, a river tour introduces what is arguably America’s finest display of historic skyscrapers. Led by a Chicago Architectural Center professional, the city’s top-50 buildings seem to share amazing stories. Take the Willis Tower, designed by one of the Chicago School. It was, at 110 floors, the world’s tallest building from 1974 until 1998 (it’s often called the Sears Tower as it was erected by Sears Roebuck, who pioneered mail order retail).
Virgin Hotels Chicago, owned by Richard Branson’s group, is in the 1927-vintage, 27-floor Old Dearborn Bank Building on North Wabash, 15 minutes’ walk from the Navy Pier terminal for a river tour.
GM of the 250-room hotel is Josh Schaeffer, an experienced pro with years of planning and organising unique guest occasions. This hints what it’s going to be like staying Virgin. It may be classic outside but inside it’s today’s fun and zany world.
Instead of usual hotel Reception there’s a Cigar Bar – no, no Cohibas allowed. Self-check-in is encouraged but since this space seems to be gathering spot for the Virgin Hotels team plenty of help is available, sometimes from Rapper types sporting an enviable display of gold jewellery. A full-size white Porcelain Watch Dog sits on the red-carpetted stairs: upstairs, clones, held in place by scarlet leads, stand guard, on corridors’ red carpets, outside some bedroom doors.
Virgin Hotels’ bedrooms are ‘Chambers’, and dressing areas can be separated from the rest of the space. Bedrooms are floors four to 24. Top-floor Chamber #2402, 80 sqm, has big-window views over raised tracks of The Loop, taking public transport around the immediate theatre-land – the hilarious comedy Drunk Shakespeare’s across the street. Love the display of all-taupe books on the white wall by the white freestanding bathtub. They are photos, but there are plenty of real books down in the versatile Commons Club library.
Welcome to Cerise, 26th floor inside-out eatertainment with views and more: Fridays, for instance, have live gigs at 5 and 9 p.m. Pair a Chicago Outfit, tequila, peach and lemon, with a grilled flat-iron accessorised with chimichurri and bordelaise sauces. Cleverly, the same menu’s available ground floor at the scarlet-hued Miss Ruby’s Diner. If you want to skip the red, the diner flows out on to Wabash pavement. And if you like it enough, guess what, Miss Ruby offers the same fare at breakfast, with additions. Try her vanilla bean yoghurt parfait and the knock-it-back flavourful sourdough. Live dangerously? Add a $6 (US) shot of, say, Bailey’s to the $4 unlimited-refills mug of coffee.