By Sally Scott
If you go to Chicago, and you should (add it to your bucket list), take in The Doughnut Vault on Franklin Street, a tiny hole-in-the-wall outlet where locals in the know go to buy what are arguably the “best doughnuts in the world”.
The dispenser opens for a few hours, until the wares are sold out. Doughnut addicts then have to wait another 24 hours for their next fix. There is a Twitter page, which tweets how the numbers are looking and when they are ready.
The tiny shop is just one small reason this “wonderful town” Mr Bennett sings about is, well, wonderful.
And if you are Chicago-bound during the season to be merry, let’s just say that Chicago does merry with bells on.
If you like OTT Christmas, Chicago is your kind of town – to the point where “treetops glistening” and “sleigh bells in the snow” are the order of every day.
Being a northern hemisphere city, the weather plays ball. It is cold, the expectation of snow constantly in the air – and folks really are “dressed like Eskimos”.
Sartorially, you could get away with fur (strictly fake, you understand) from head to toe should the mood take you.
As for the shops, they’re just laden, inside and out, with decorations and glorious gifts. Be prepared to be constantly checking the rand-dollar rate.
Oh, and if you must, Chicago does seemingly endless takes on reindeer-patterned knitted jerseys – the sort Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy wore with trepidation. It’s enough to make Christmas-phobic Scrooge scream.
I have to admit I’m one of those sods who blares Christmas schmaltz in October. It certainly beats the duh, duh, duh of the merry minibuses. Hence festive Chicago had me at ho, ho, ho.
Digressing from the festive, temporarily, historically this is the town where the infamous Al Capone, conducted his equally infamous St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929.
On the movie front, as buffs will know, Chicago is also where Jake and Elwood Blues, the glorious bumbling duo of The Blues Brothers, pursued by Illinois’ finest, took on their “mission from God” to save a Catholic orphanage.
Architecturally, Chicago is the original home of the skyscraper. The city is chock-full of them, one of which is the iconic John Hancock Centre on North Michigan Avenue.
The centre, which soars over the fabulous Chicago skyline, is the remarkable work of chief designer Bruce Graham and structural engineer Fazlur Khan.
Any time of the year in Chicago, the John Hancock bar and restaurant, up on the 95th floor, is a must. Post-cocktails, do the ladies loo too.
Having spent 20 minutes gazing out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at the sun setting over an extraordinary sweep of structural designs below, I can vouch for this loo’s view. I can’t speak for the guys’ facilities, but I imagine they are similar.
The centre’s open-air skywalk, with its fascinating Chicago “history wall”, is also a great sightseeing perch.
Views from the skywalk include the revered Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, the city’s much-loved major league baseball team, plus Lake Michigan’s meandering shoreline and the lakefront’s Navy Pier.
In the festive season, the pier features a Winter WonderFest with indoor ice skating, inflatable slides and the like. When the chilled wind sweeps off Lake Michigan, some touristy things might be taboo but, in the right weather, the pier offers the lot, from a giant Ferris Wheel to museums, a “Shakespeare theatre complex”, shops, a mini-golf course and even a maze.
One of the biggest Chicago draws, sun or snow, is Cloud Gate, better known to locals as “The Bean”.
Set in Chicago’s Millennium Park and sculpted by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor, the curved Bean is a huge (more than 110 tons of polished stainless steel plates) kidney bean-shaped structure. And unless you are far too posh to play, you will find yourself posing by the Bean, grinning inanely at your reflection against the other reflection, the city’s iconic skyline.
The park, a popular concert venue in summer, is also home to a sparkling free ice rink over the Christmas period.
Foul weather or fair, the Lincoln Park Zoo (founded in 1868), where every tree over the festive season is strung with fairy lights, is also a winner.
All the usual zoological sights are on offer. Coming from Africa, The Regenstein Centre for African Apes might be a little “coals to Newcastle” for us, but those soulful gazing gorillas are magnificent animals, as are the polar bears. It was the first time I had seen bears swimming under water.
Casting about for other sights to see, in winter five-star museums abound and, along with the fabulous, if somewhat pricey merchandise shops, all the museums have their own take on Christmas.
At the Museum of Science & Industry on Lake Shore Drive, the halls are decked and sparkly trees, holiday singers and dancers make an educational visit festive.
The museum also features “global culture”, trees decorated by members of Chicago’s ethnic communities.
The Chicago History Museum, at 480ha, might take a visitor, gazing at each exhibit a month to explore – think similarly for the Art Institute of Chicago.
The latter is home to works of art spanning 5 000 years of human history. Then there is the Field Museum. One of the many delights include “the remarkable Sue, the world’s largest, most complete, and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex”.
Bizarrely, The Field Museum also houses the infamous African “man-eating lions of Tsavo”, immortalised, or demonised (take your pick) , in the Val Kilmer/Michael Douglas helmed The Ghost and the Darkness.
Set in the late 1890s, the movie focused on the “hundreds” of labourers, working on an African railway, who fell prey to these lions.
Eventually shot, their bodies were sold, for $5 000, to The Field Museum. And there they are, stuffed and a bit mangy.
Needless to say, nearly every “sight”, including the John Hancock Centre, has its own “winter wonderland”. If Santa is not “flying in” somewhere, he’s at a shop, on a train or on ice. The guy gets around.
Finally, you can’t visit the States and not shop at Macy’s. In Chicago, it’s Macy’s where the focal Christmas tree stands.
The annual lighting ceremony takes place at the end of November.
For a visitor from SA, used to sweating over an inappropriate hot turkey feast, Chicago offers a traditional, truly glorious Christmas.
Last year, two days before the big day, I tripped down Chicago’s State Street, grasping my colourful shopping bags (often even the smallest purchase merits a bag almost better than what’s inside) when carol singers, in voluminous dresses and bonnets, appeared.
They sang like angels and looked as if they had stepped from one of those snowy cards no one in Africa should ever send.
That night I went to a home in the suburbs. Every roof in that road groaned under lights and we ate chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Back in Durban, a Christmas-phobic friend, on learning of my joy, sent two words, via Facebook: “bah humbug”.
Flights from Johannesburg. Choice of airlines ranges from British Airways to United Airlines, Air France, American Airlines, Delta, Iberia, British Midland, TAM Linhas Aereas and US Airways. All involve one stop. - Sunday Tribune