Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

The magical Midwest and a whistle-stop tour of the Great Lakes

SUNDAY LIFE - travel feature 
Chicago
Chicago
Chicago and the Sky Deck atop the Willis Tower
Milwaukee, Wisconsin at night.
The Fonz cast in bronze
Chicago and the Sky Deck atop the Willis Tower

Visiting the Great Lakes region of North America for the second time confirmed that it’s a great place to see.

I love New York and San Francisco, but the Midwest’s Chicago just blew me away.

First time in the Great Lakes took me to Hell and back — Hell being a town in Brighton, Ohio.

This time, a visit to Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis was among many culinary treats; meeting its owner was another.

The Art Museum in Milwaukee is up there with the Sydney Opera House in terms of architecture — absolutely outstanding – as is its art collection.

The Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul are cosmopolitan and chic.

Back in the Windy City, there’s no better place to get a great view of Chicago, Illinois, than from the Sky Deck atop the Willis Tower (formerly Sears), which was the tallest building in the world for 23 years and was the tallest in the western hemisphere until the new World Trade Center recently eclipsed it.

From its heady height of 1,353 feet and after an educational tour en route about its famous citizens — including President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant – one gets a clear perspective of the megalopolis that is Chicago.

Afterwards, see the city’s skyscrapers on an architectural First Lady river cruise — our guide was exceptional.

Chill out on a visit to the Millennium Park downtown and treat yourself to a meal in the buzzing Irish-owned Gage’s on Michigan Avenue.

Pizzas are rumoured to have started in Chicago and we sampled some delicious ones at Giordano’s on N. Rush Street.

How many Americans have proudly made the trip to Wrigley Field to watch the Chicago Cubs show how it’s done? We toured this very impressive stadium, which was built through the generosity of the eponymous chewing gum chief.

After a long drive, it was an introduction to another city – Milwaukee.

You may be familiar with a song that goes ‘What made Milwaukee famous, made a fool out of me’ no doubt referring to their famous beer tradition.

Forget that — what should make Milwaukee famous from here on is its phenomenal new art museum.

Overlooking Lake Michigan, this iconic contemporary architectural gem, designed by Santiago Calatrava, has a 90-foot-high glass-walled reception hall and a wing-like sunscreen with a span the same as a 747’s.

In terms of architecture, it’s outstanding, and its collection, housed in more than 40 galleries, is also most impressive. They couldn’t drag me out!

Remember ‘Happy Days’ with The Fonz? Well, that cafe they all hung out in was in downtown Milwaukee and there’s a tribute to the show’s star Henry Winkler on the RiverWalk where you can see the Fonz cast in bronze, all 5’3” of him!

And you can’t visit this city without checking out the unique Harley-Davidson museum, a must for baby boomers and young alike.

See Elvis’ first motorbike and experience a virtual ride on a Harley before you go.

There’s plenty to check out here and after what was described as an x-rated brewery tour round the Lakefront Brewery (naughty, naughty but funny too) we headed off to join the locals in their traditional Friday fish fry at the Palm House.

I’d never heard of Sheboygan but we called there for surfing on Lake Michigan and a snippet of life in small-town America.

Surfing was far too cold an idea for me, so instead I was accompanied to the local Kohler Art Centre, which housed the most unusual and thought-provoking collection I’ve ever seen, including a video of a Chinese girl sharing an onion with her mother and father by mouth ... disturbing.

Curling’s big in this part of the States, and we visited Green Bay Curling Club to learn what it’s all about. The game, throwing what they call stones, along an ice rink with the help of brooms, came from Scotland.

I’ve limited sporting knowledge but even I had heard of the world-famous Green Bay Packers and was actually excited to be taken on a private stadium tour of Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

It’s vast and, even when empty, one can imagine what the atmosphere must be like with a packed stadium of 70,000 screaming loyal fans who understand every nuance of the game.

Naturally, it’s a huge tourist attraction and ‘tailgating’ is big business. That’s where fans meet up way before the game to picnic, barbeque and sink some beers.

One entrepreneurial local who’s cashed in on the trend is the lovely and very glamorous Debbie Jacques. Now an empty-nester with three bedrooms going spare, Jacqui adores hosting game events and parties and can even accommodate up to ten out-of-towners in her pristine home across the road and ‘Under the lights of Lambeau’.

Long drives are part of the territory and after another, we arrived in Wausau, Central Wisconsin.

A skyride chairlift was a good way to see the autumnal splendour of the trees in Rib Mountain State Park, where Granite Peak is a popular ski area with tourist facilities.

A hard-hat visit to the almost complete, largest curling facility in the United States, followed before dinner at the Great Dane Brewing Company, where cute little guide Dan Weber treated me to such a variety of own brewed beers, I soon felt like a cougar.

Alas and alack, it was off again en route to Eau Claire, which made me think of Gilbert O’Sullivan!

Eau Claire is where we were introduced to kubbing (pronounced koobing), a game that came stateside from Scandinavia.

The kubbing pitch was only part of a giant indoor sports facility which, it was nice to observe, was evidently well-used by the local community. There were scores of lively flaxen-haired tots with yummy mummies in tow. We tried the game, which involves throwing wooden rectangular blocks and wooden batons and, most oddly, I won!

Before I’d get too big for my boots, we were out of there and on our way to a place called Redwing which, funnily enough, is famous for making shoes and boots — big ones. They made a size-20 pair for a teenage Chinese giant!

One of the undoubted highlights of a trip to the Midwest is a visit to the largest shopping mall in America.

That’s the aptly-named Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

If retail therapy is your thing, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to shopping heaven.

The mall attracts more than 40 million visitors a year and offers almost 8,000 hotel rooms throughout the city.

We stayed conveniently across the road in the Best Western Plus.

This giant mall is brilliant for kids, with Sealife, acres of Lego and Nickelodean Universe that includes 24 kiddie rides. Here’s somewhere to really shop till you drop, and you can eat in any type of restaurant from Cowboy Jack’s to Asian to the sophisticated Napa Grille where we sought refuge, food and wine.

It was coming towards the end of our visit to the states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota and, determined to make the most of our last destination, we toured its capital St Paul by Segway on a fine crisp and dry afternoon.

As with the Segways now in Belfast, you stand on and they move with the help of your body and an inbuilt computer ... what good fun!

This sophisticated city’s famous fathers include F Scott Fitzgerald, whose home on the famous Summit Avenue we passed, and former president Hubert Humphrey, whose life-size bronze is one of several we saw in the city’s park.

Rice Park in downtown is older than Central Park and Falls Park area is where to head for kayaking on the Mississippi.

We were fortunate to have a private tour of the Xcel Energy Stadium, home of the Minnesota Wild (National Hockey League) and major music venue.

The Twin Cities are definitely not identical, but have equal appeal.

St Paul is a classy, cultured city and so it seemed fitting to end our Great Lakes trip with a visit to the first night of Billy Elliot in the Ordway Centre of Performing Arts.

The Great Lakes boasts the greatest bodies of fresh water on our planet and the people of the Midwest are possibly the friendliest you'll ever meet in the U.S of A.

FACTFILE

For full details of Great Lakes contact Cellet Travel Services Ltd. www.cellet.co.uk Tel:0845 6020 574

Explore Minnesota: www.exploreminnesota.com

Chicago Architecture River Cruise: www.architecture.org

Overnight at Greenbay: www.underthelightsoflambeau.com

Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis: www.hellskitcheninc.com

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