Important advice that every travel guidebook fails to mention

Travel guidebooks have it all wrong. They tell us about hotels and restaurants and sights we don’t want to miss.

What they SHOULD tell us has but five words:

“Get to know a local.”

2014-04-02-rize1.jpg

When that happens (and it’s a lot easier than you might think), real magic can begin. Locals, of course, know the best restaurants, have true insight about the must-see “sights” and will introduce you to things those writers of travel guidebooks couldn’t begin to know.

A recent example of this happened to me in Rize, Turkey. Rize is in the Black Sea region of Turkey and, as the guidebooks will tell you, it has stunning Alp-like vistas, ancient monasteries carved into cliffs and charming seaside villages, all of which you don’t want to miss.

But nowhere did any guidebook tell me about Cemal, Nazmiye and Fethi Yetkiner. This beautiful, open-hearted family invited me into their home one Sunday afternoon, fed me a meal that rivals the best of Istanbul’s many fabulous restaurants (and that’s saying a lot. Istanbul has really, really, really good restaurants) and made me feel like a treasured guest. Maybe I should rephrase that. They made me feel like an important part of their close-knit family.

Sure, I could have spent my day in Rize visiting the Rize Museum (according to the guidebook it’s an old Ottoman house complete with a weaving room and antiques) or the Genoese castle that, the guidebooks tell me, has its own tea garden.

But by instead hanging out with the Yetkiners, I learned a travel truth that is far more valuable. I learned about the connection that all of us humans have whether we speak the same language, whether we practice the same religion or whether we live thousands of miles away from each other. I also learned that the State Department doesn’t know everything.

The day before my trip to Turkey, the State Department issued a travel warning. It wasn’t a warning about the region where I was traveling, but nonetheless, it gave me pause. Plus, what news-savvy American hasn’t picked up the notion that we’re not likely to win any popularity contests with some Muslims? I don’t buy that kind of stereotyping, of course, but I’m a human with a reptile brain. I wondered, “Did I need to be on guard?”

Like most decisions made with my reptile brain, that question was so misguided, so off-base that I’m embarrassed to admit it here.

rize5

And to pay penance, I want to tell you how beautiful and meaningful my day was with the Yetkiner family. By the time I met them, I’d already been in Turkey for a week and I was getting accustomed to the call for prayer. Even in remote mountain villages where maybe two or three families lived, the Adhaan was piped over a loud speaker system. I had grown to love it, to look forward to it and to utter my own “wassup” to the Divine each of the five times a day it rang out from mosques and loud speakers across the country.

I also learned quite quickly that hospitality is an art in the Muslim world, a cherished virtue that encourages practitioners to view every person who comes across their path as sent to them by Allah himself. In fact, it’s next-to-impossible in Turkey to be in the general vicinity of another human being without being handed a fig or a hazelnut or a bowl of fresh yogurt made that morning from the milk of their own cow.

Hospitality is so over-the-top (commerce, it seems, is beside the point) that any crusty idea I ever had that foreigners are different or that life sucks or that the world is a going to hell in a handbasket were properly dashed against the inhospitable shores of the Black Sea, a region in Turkey that looks more like the Colorado Rockies than Lawrence of Arabia.

Sure, Nazmiye and Fethi disappeared for a few minutes every time the call to prayer sounded (to a room where they kneeled on their prayer rug) and our language barriers prevented us from burrowing deeply into long conversations. But none of that mattered. When they were off praying, I sat on their gorgeous balcony gazing over the misty tea fields, reveling in the beautiful chanting that reminds all who hear it, “There is more. There is more.”

rize2
When I faltered in trying to saying thank you (my “Tesekkur ederim” still sounds like something my 15-month-old granddaughter might say) for the five-course meal Nazmiye so generously prepared, she hugged me and let me know that she “got it” and that some things are bigger than words.

And after our feast (it’s really the only word that aptly applies), Cemal, who speaks perfect English, gave me a personal took of the tea factory (where he knew everyone and proudly provided anecdotes and perspective all guidebooks missed) and a craft factory (where prices were dirt-shockingly cheap), but he introduced me to most every one of his family and every one of his neighbors.
rize3
It’s an experience I will treasure forever. And a vivid reminder always that “there is more. There is more.”

You want to go where? The planet’s 10 most challenging destinations

There aren’t any travel brochures or last-minute deals for getting to the destinations in this article. Most of them, in fact, don’t even have airports. Or ports.

These solitary pieces of real estate are mercilessly remote, extremely hard to get to and, except for the members of certain destination collecting groups (Travelers’ Century Club or Most Traveled People), not listed on too many bucket lists. To get to any one of these is roughly the equivalent of a stamp collector finding an 1856 British Guiana 1 cent Magenta.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can get to these ten places, you will have developed so many desirable qualities that you can either A) apply for sainthood, B) have your pick of the guy or girl of your dreams or C) secure your own television talk show. At very least, you can fire your therapist.

1. Diego Garcia. This British territory that’s leased to the American military and halfway between Africa and Indonesia requires securing a permit, informing the U.S. you’re not a Somali pirate (so they’ll call down their missiles) and making sure the native Chagossians who were evicted from the island in the 1960’s and still not happy about it haven’t hitched a ride on your boat. It’s also considered wise to hire armed guards to make the journey with you.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll foster tenacity and possibly be able to encourage one of the 16 commands located on this remote island with the motto: “ONE ISLAND, ONE TEAM, ONE MISSION.” Plus, according to the latest conspiracy theory, you’ll be crowned a hero because that’s where the missing Malaysia Flight 370 landed along with its passengers.

2. Howland Island. Sure, this remote isle just north of the equator in the Micronesian Pacific has a stunning four-mile beach, but it’s windy, has no fresh water supply and hasn’t been inhabited (except by errant sea and shore birds) since World War II. Getting there requires filling out a six-page special use permit request and having the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says, “C’mon Down.” Let’s just say neither happens very often.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll develop persistence and be able to say, “na-na-na-na-boo-boo” to the memory of Amelia Earhart. Despite the fact that the U.S. government ponied up $12,000 to build three runways for the famous aviatrix’s 1937 flight around the world, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan never made it to this now-deserted island, creating a mystery that has spawned numerous books, movies and TV specials.

3. Baker Island. This tiny atoll that’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia has an overgrown, good-luck-to-any-pilot-trying-to find-it airstrip and technically qualifies as a Pacific island, but forget any notion of swaying native girls singing “Bali Hai.” It’s economic heyday occurred in mid-1800’s when guano miners, under U.S. federal legislation, took possession of the doo-doo encrusted dot. Back then, guano was a hot commodity used as fertilizer and saltpeter for gunpowder. Today, it’s part of the Baker Island National Wildlife Refuge, uninhabited and only visited by scientists and representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every year or two. To get there, you pretty much have to know someone and/or be willing to charter an 8-day, $60,000 boat ride from Hawaii. And even then, you don’t want to get too close. The low-lying reef around this island has bested many ships including 11 Navy ships that sank here during World War II.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll prove your financial worth, not to mention you’ll enjoy the rare chance to see a sizable colony of both green and hawksbill turtles, several species of endangered birds, the grave of an American seaman and a sad-looking clump of coconut palms established by the four Americans sent there in 1935 to colonize. Evacuated in 1942 during Japanese air and naval attacks, the colonists didn’t leave a Holiday Inn. Take a tent and lots of sunscreen.

4. The Balleny Islands. English whaling captains John Balleny and Thomas Freeman were the first to visit these desolate, frigid and utterly hostile Antarctic islands in 1839. Very few have been there since. Earthquakes are common (eight so far this year), volcanoes are still suspected of being active and they’re only reachable about 28 days of the year. New Zealand, that administers these islands as part of the Ross Dependency, has been attempting to the turn them into a Protected Marine Area, but, because these 160 kilometers of ice and rock are also governed under the Antarctic Treaty System, the proposition hasn’t gained a lot of traction. After all, who needs to protect a place without humans?

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll achieve fame. Or at least a place in the history books. So far, no one has yet climbed the 1705-meter Brown Peak on Sturge Island. Take crampons.

5. Scott Island. The first difficulty in getting to this tiny island with the two beaches is that there are imposters, a full three other islands with the same name. There’s one in Maine, one in West Virginia and one near Vancouver Island with a ferry service from Chemainus to Thetis, close enough to swim. No, the Scott Island we’re talking about is smack dab in the Ross Sea, a good 505 kilometers from the Antarctica’s Cape Adare and has nothing remotely resembling amenities. Even the two beaches are covered with ice most of the year. The other hindrance is that, until a 2006 mapping expedition, this Scott Island was believed to be 2.3 km south of its actual position. And finally, one of the only boats to ever get close to this craggy island is the MY Steve Irwin, the 19-meter flagship of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that throws butyric acid and other dangerous chemicals aboard Japanese whaling ships. Not to mention that members of the crew have been kidnapped and tied to “enemy ship” masts with ropes and zip ties.

Why it might be worth the bother: 1.You’ll attain environmental savvy. 2. You could be in the movies. The crew of the MY Steve Irwin and their conservation efforts are the stars of the Animal Planet Show, “Whale Wars” and 3. Apparently, it’s a desirable place to get married. On February 12, 2009, Andrew Perry and Molly Kendall, crew of the MY Steve Irwin, got hitched on top of a rock formation wearing matching orange all-weather Mustang suits with reflective trim.

6. Peter I Island. Located in the Bellingshausen Sea, 450 kilometers from Antarctica, this Norwegian dependency is surrounded by pack ice and nearly inaccessible 365 days a year. First sighted in 1821, it took 108 years before anyone was able to set foot on it. The Russian ship that first spotted it and named it for Tsar Peter I “The Great” couldn’t get within 25 kilometers. Neither could the French. Norwegian whaling ship owner Lars Christensen (the island’s 1640-meter peak is now named after him) financed a couple failed attempts before finally claiming it for Norway.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nurture international goodwill. On a 2006 expedition that was dubbed the most expensive expedition in the world and required getting dozens of financial sponsors, participants drank wine (in the same evening) with Chileans, Russians and Chinese scientists who manned the closest polar bases. They also met Nikolai Litau, an intrepid Russian explorer, who was circumnavigating the Antarctic on a 15-meter sailboat.

7. Eritrea. It isn’t the fact that most Western countries have issued travel warnings. Or that Somali pirates are rumored to have sanctuary. Or even the coup that occurred earlier this year. Getting to Eritrea, nicknamed the North Korea of Africa, is next-to-impossible because the government requires visas, but turns down the lion’s share of requests to obtain them. They happily take your visa application money, but granting the document that’s required for entry into this sliver off the Horn of Africa? Not so much. That might be digestible, sorta like playing the lotto, except that to even apply for a visa you have to have an air ticket which, of course, costs a bit more than the average lottery ticket. It’s also necessary to get permission, even if you’re a diplomat, to travel outside Asmara, the capital.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll obtain nerves of steel. Plus, the Eritrean coastline is pristine and untouched, Asmara has a truly remarkable collection of Art Deco architecture and the people, hailing from nine diverse and colorful ethnic groups, are, believe it or not, actually quite friendly.

8. Tokelau. There’s no airport and the nearest land mass, Somoa, is a good 30-hour boat ride away. Luckily, this three-island nation in the South Pacific does have its own boat, the MV Tokelau. But it’s a cargo ship with no cabins and it has a grand total of two toilets. So take blankets (locals do) and an umbrella. Plus, it runs an average of once a month, mostly to bring supplies to the 1411 residents who scratch out a subsistence lifestyle on the three islands, Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu. Even so, Tokelau was the first nation to use nothing but renewable energy. All three islands generate 100 percent of their electricity from solar power.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nurture grit and determination. And possibly win the prize of being the last to say, “goodbye.” This little nation, a mere five meters above sea level, is predicted to become the first casualty of global warming.

9. Nicobar Islands. This group of 19 islands is located in the Indian Ocean, south of the Andaman Islands and requires dealing with one bureaucracy after another. And just when you get the permit from Madras (Nicobar is a territory of India and has military installments), you’ll find the guard has changed or the helicopter is full and there’s no a new government official you need to contact.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll nourish your inner doggedness. Plus, in May of 2013, UNESCO named the Nicobar Islands a World Biosphere Reserve.

10. Bouvet Island. Just for the shot to get to this lonely pimple that juts out of the grey, forlorn South Atlantic costs $25,000. And even after you cough it up and board the icebreaker that travels there, your 25 G’s entitles you to but three chances. If Mother Nature fails to cooperate, that’s 25 grand down the drain. And just so you know, it’s 1000 miles further than Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited spot on earth.

Why it might be worth the bother: You’ll develop flexibility and the chance to be one of a few dozen humans to have left footprints there.

For some, that’s enough.

Flower to the People: ME London’s Radio features cocktails with edible flowers

Not since the Beatles came out with “She Loves You” has a London institution created this much excitement among the hip, young coolios of London’s West End.

Yes, I’m talking about Radio, the rooftop bar, perched atop ME London. Every weekend, block-long lines snake around the exquisite five-star hotel that has pulled down nearly every possible hotel award since it opened near Covent Garden last year. And every stiletto-wearing beauty, every Crombie-carrying hipster is waiting for their turn to ride the dedicated elevator to the tenth floor and Radio’s panoramic view of River Thames, Big Ben, the London Eye, the theater district and other icons of oh-so-cool London.

So how does a zeitgeist begin? In the case of Radio and ME London, it was already pointed in the right direction as the latest offering from Melia, the savvy, cosmopolitan Spanish hotel group. But it was also blessed with the leverage of location, wedged between Westminster and Trafalgar Square and butting up against the West End Theater District.

Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who pioneered radio transmission, had a telegraph station here in the 1920’s and some of the BBC’s early broadcasts were boomed from this location near St. Paul’s Cathedral.

But perhaps ME London’s biggest coup was timing and dumb luck. It opened just in time for London Fashion Week 2013, serendipitously across the street from Somerset House where the catwalk is set up and where more than 150 designers have exhibitions.

That Donatella Versace, Victoria Beckham and Diane von Furstenburg showed up at ME London to judge the International Woolmark Prize certainly didn’t deter interest in this stunning hotel that makes a fashion statement of its own.

Architects Foster + Partners, in their first hotel project, wrapped the 157 rooms, the two bars and three restaurants around a nine-story, white-marble atrium that soars to a distant triangle of natural light. The rooms, including 16 suites, have white leather panels, floor to ceiling windows and an interactive TV and lighting system that requires concierge instruction. From every vantage point, from the hotel’s dark hallways to the atrium’s nightly eight-minute light show, the design is fresh, original and worthy of every honor it reaped.

But what about all those beautiful people waiting in those lines? Was Radio really worth this kind of commitment, especially when a numerous selection of West End bars were within stiletto-wobbling distance?

Having the good fortune to stay at ME London (I was writing a story on the upcoming Banksy exhibition to be held here April 24-27) and to preview the bar that hundreds of people half my age were lusting to enter, I boarded the elevator that led to its vaunted heights.

My first clue that I was in for a treat was the size of the drink menu—12 pages filled with such cocktails as Thames River Iced ME (Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, Bacardi, El Himador, peach liqueur, lemon and ting), the AM/FM (Bacardi, Chambord, mint, lemon and passion fruit) and Flower in the Rain (Grey Goose, rhubarb, lemon, cranberry and strawberry).

The vodka menu had 15 offerings from Finland, Poland and, of course, Russia and the more than 16 imported whiskeys hailing from Japan to the U.S. bode well for our group’s party vibe.

But perhaps the most fascinating feature of the drinks at Radio are edible flower garnishes, a welcome sight after a record-setting winter. Not only do Radio mixologists take advantage of such fragrant elixirs as rose water, lavender and elderflower, but they top many of their gorgeous cocktails with a tantalizing reminder of spring and all that that entails.

Istanbul’s Ciragan Palace home away from home for the A-list

The moral of this story: “Don’t mess with whirling dervishes.”

Yes, we’re talking about the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. This Imperial Ottoman palace turned five-star hotel offers intrigue, romance, history and its own jetty and heliport for bringing in the A-list celebs who make the $40,000 a night Sultan’s Suite their “home away from home” while in Istanbul giving concerts (Madonna stayed here during the infamous breast-baring concert of 2012), hosting parties (Oprah threw a giant bash for her employees and their families in 2009) and resting up between basketball gigs (Kobe Bryant has stayed here twice).

Last month, it knocked Parisian landmark Hotel Le Bristol off its vaunted perch as the best hotel in Europe at the 2013 World Travel Awards–think Oscars for the hotel industry.

But this stunning palace alongside Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait hasn’t always been so lucky. Allegedly, when Sultan Abdulaziz had it built between 1863 and 1871, he got a bit overzealous, co-opting a monastery of whirling dervishes which resulted, curse or not, in a string of unhappy consequences.

Even though Abdulaziz hosted French Empress Eugenie de Montijo at the palace hamam (and, according to rumor, might have snuck in a dalliance with Napoleon III’s wife), he was only able to live at his luxurious new digs for a few short years before being deposed and found mysteriously dead at the tender young age of 46. His heir, nephew Sultan Murad V, lasted but 93 days before being declared mentally incompetent and forced to live under house arrest in the palace harem.

Disaster struck again in January 1910 two months after the second Imperial Parliament convened on the palace grounds. Except for its high marble walls and bridges, one leading to Yildiz Palace, and the famous hamam that hosted the French Empress, Ciragan burnt to the ground with all its luxurious furnishings, art work and rare books.

Luckily, luxury hotel group Kempinski broke the dervish curse when it restored the baroque palace, re-opening it to glorious fanfare in 1991. Today, the former palace, back to its original opulence, is divided into 11 ooh-la-la suites complete with 24-hour butler service and the famous Tugra restaurant.

And the decadence doesn’t end there. Lush lawns with gardens, palm trees and gazebos line a long promenade leading to the new “wing” of the palace where guests can enjoy a Moet & Chandon champagne bar, heated infinity pool and rooms with handmade carpets, spacious balconies and pillow menus.

Turkey’s Black Sea Region: Where Acts of Kindness aren’t Random, but an Everyday Reality

“Bu lezzetli!”

Learn this phrase if you’re heading to the Black Sea Region of Turkey. It means “this is delicious” and, I guarantee, you will use it more than “Hello!” “My name is_____” and “Where is the bathroom?”

Cuisine, throughout Turkey, is a point of deep pride and, particularly in the Black Sea region where it’s impossible to be in the general vicinity of another human being without being handed a fig or a hazelnut or a bowl of fresh yogurt made that morning from the milk of their own cow.

Hospitality is so over-the-top (commerce, it seems, is beside the point) that any notions you ever had that foreigners are to be feared or that life sucks or that the world is going to hell in a hand basket will be dashed against the inhospitable shores of the Black Sea, a region in Turkey that looks more like the Colorado Rockies than Lawrence of Arabia.

2013-10-01-12turkey4.jpg

It’s definitely not the place to give up caffeine, because every shopkeeper, every museum guide, every little old grandma wearing a colorful hijab (head scarf) will offer you a glass of tea (cay) along with a little teaspoon and a bowl of sugar.

And how can you refuse? The tea is grown right there on lush, green mountainsides in small family plantations. Ömer Faruk Öğretmen, the never-married tour guide who whisked us around to one little yayla (village) after another, says he averages between 30 and 40 glasses of tea per day. Just because people offer.

By the time you’ve had your second cup of the always-ready tea, you’ll be introduced to the whole family — second cousins and all — serenaded with folk music and invited back for dinner.

Over and over again, our little band of three Americans was invited into local’s homes not only for tea, but for full-blown meals. Even on deserted mountain roads, where we had to pause for chainsaw-bearing men to remove fallen trees that would otherwise have deterred our journey, young boys wearing rubber boots and Sponge Bob t-shirts appeared out of nowhere to offer pears they had just picked.

The nomadic herders of the Black Sea Region, ethnic Georgians, Armenians and Pontic Greeks, summer on ancestral lands throughout these isolated valleys. They earn their living off the land, herding cows, making cheese and harvesting tea, citrus and honey.

Although the Hamsis, as the locals are nicknamed (after the anchovy caught in this region) are often the good-natured butt of jokes in Turkey, their inexhaustible cheer, smiles and friendliness are wildly infectious, enough to sway the most cynical of tourists. Their local dance, the horon, an upper body shimmy modeled again after swimming anchovies, is said to have inspired Irish jigs and whether or not it’s true, I can attest that Michael Flatley has nothing on their exuberance.

One late morning, after a “one-hour drive” to the Santa Ruins, a crumbling 17th century village high in the Kackar Mountains, turned into three and a half hours, several farmers who were busy harvesting the last of their summer squash and ruing the wolves that had made quick work of one of their cows the night before, dropped everything to make us, their uninvited guests, feel welcome.

Ahmet Cukur showed us around the one-room shelter where he, his wife and three kids slept at night. He proudly showed us his gun, offering to shoot wild boar that he would happily send us if we wanted to start a business. He was Muslim and, of course, couldn’t partake.

2013-10-01-12turkey3.jpg

His wife — on the spot — whipped up an incredible lunch of muglama, a cheese soufflé-like dish made from corn flour, cheese and butter and rumored to deliver superhuman powers. She served it with just-baked-in-the-stone oven bread, grapes and a fresh salad of tomatoes and cucumbers that the kids picked that morning before starting a soccer game on a makeshift field that cascaded down the mountain. We dined outside on rocks and small wooden benches that Ahmet pulled from his home as the entire community stood around, offering jokes, handshakes and sincere invitations to come for the whole summer next year.

2013-10-01-12turkey2.jpg

Another evening, our driver who had been married just 14 days earlier, invited us into his home (completely unbidden) for a feast prepared by his gorgeous new bride. In Kavron, a little village above the tree line that looked more like Nepal or Tibet than Anatolia, we were graciously invited into the home of a 100-year-old woman, still spry, quick-witted and, of course, as welcoming as any concierge.

So, yes, the Black Sea Region has stunning Alp-like vistas, castles, ancient monasteries carved into cliffs and charming seaside villages with ancient Ottoman homes, but it is its people — it’s open-hearted, joyful people — that are the true treasure and the reason I may just take Ahmet up on his offer to return next summer.

Only in Chicago: The top 5 Things You Can’t Find Anywhere Else

Some vacationers look for Marriotts and McDonald’s, anything to uphold the status quo. Not me. I blaze into a city, a country, a destination looking for one-of-a-kind rarities, attractions I will likely have but one opportunity to see.

Chicago, notorious for its architecture including the world’s first skyscraper (the iron-and-steel-framed Home Insurance Building that was torn down in 1931), the world’s first parking garage (also now history) and skyscrapers big enough to have their own zip code, was more than happy to oblige my predilection.

Here are the top five things you can’t find anywhere else:

1. A puppet show on wheels. Unlike Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, the elusive Puppet Bike, a Chicago institution for 10 years, really exists. It was built by inventor/artist Jason Trusty and, if you’re lucky, you can catch the pantomiming puppets as they dance, pop out of trap doors, blow kisses, wave and give high-fives to audiences that quickly form whenever the bike spontaneously appears. Often sited in Chicago’s Loop, the Puppet Bike is a seven-foot brightly-painted box with a curtained stage, solar panels that power the ghetto blaster and disco ball and room (just barely) for one (maybe two if they really like each other) puppeteers.

2013-08-12-1puppet.jpg
Photo: Compliments of Puppet Bike

2. A museum that only Dexter could love. The International Museum of Surgical Science, a 1917, four-story mansion on Lake Shore Drive, shows off ancient Roman surgery tools, glass eyes, a case of fake legs, X-ray proof underwear, amputation saws and more than 600 paintings, prints and sculptures depicting surgery throughout the ages. As for Dexter, it might be difficult to pry him away from the paintings made from animal blood that, if you didn’t know, are actually quite beautiful. Opened in 1954 and run by The International College of Surgeons, this perfect-for-Halloween museum has more than 7000 medical artifacts including radiology pioneer Emil Grubbe’s first x-rays, a unique collection of heart valves, a pump invented by Charles Lindbergh for keeping organs functioning outside the body and a “Rolling Stones” exhibit with gallstones, bladder stones, kidney stones and other odd things pulled from the human body. 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive.

3. A perfume that creates jobs and drives economic growth. What do Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and the city of Chicago have in common? They all have signature perfumes. But in the case of Chicago, Tru Blooms, a limited edition perfume sold only in the Windy City, has a noble mission — urban beautification, job creation and support of local economies. This sophisticated perfume is made from roses, lavender and violets grown in 22 parks around the city including a half-acre plot in Grant Park where Lollapalooza is held every year. Suffice it to say, it’s a win-win for everyone. Growing the flowers that are eventually distilled into the perfume’s essential oils creates more than 100 jobs, neighborhood green spaces and an economic driver that’s local and unique to Chicago.

Although it won’t be long before other cities take the idea and run with it, Chicago was the first to launch their own limited edition scent. As Debbie Roever, director of marketing said, “Similar to wine reserves, once this batch is sold out, we cannot replace it.” Last year’s harvest produced 2150 bottles of numbered units. It’s a marketing bonanza that Chanel would kill for. Pre-orders for the exclusive 2013 edition begin online October 14.

4. Giant dancing hot dogs and yellow arches that represent two ends of the American fast food phenomenon. The first McDonald’s franchise, that opened in suburban Chicago in 1955 (the first non-franchised McDonald’s was in San Bernadino, CA) is now a museum showcasing the history of the fast food behemoth, the largest in the world with more than 34,000 locations in 119 countries. As for me, I’d rather get fast food at Superdawg, a classic Chicago drive-in with a grand total of TWO locations. Started in 1948, Superdawgs have been called the Rolls-Royce of hot dogs which is saying something in a town that has more hot dog stands than burger joints. Maurie and Flaurie, the 12-foot fiberglass hot dogs dancing on the roof in their Tarzan-Jane outfits, oversee the iconic drive-in’s vintage Order Matic speakers and carhop waitresses.

2013-08-12-superdawg_2004night.jpg
Photo: Compliments of Superdawg

5. A hall of fame for gay athletes. On the same day pro basketball center Jason Collins came out and Barack Obama hailed his bravery, a Hall of Fame for LGBT athletes and their allies was launched in Chicago. The first 26 inductees including tennis icons Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, golfer Patty Sheehan, Olympic diver Greg Louganis, boxer Orlando Cruz, umpire Dave Pallone, skater Johnny Weir, Collins and the late MLB outfielder Glenn Burke were introduced on August 2 at Chicago’s Center on Halsted. It’s a first from a town that’s famous for LGBT firsts: having the first openly-gay baseball owner (Laura Ricketts owns the Cubs), starting the first gay rights organization (Chicagoan Henry Gerber started the Society for Human Rights in 1924) and publishing the first American magazine for gay rights (Friendship and Freedom). Hats off to Chicago for leading the charge!!

Where to stay:

The Peninsula. Look for the hotel’s signature guardian lions that are believed to have mythic protective powers. The Chicago lions, flanking the door on Superior Street, just 18 discreet steps from the Magnificent Mile, don’t just provide powerful Feng Shui. They harbor a certain, shall we say, reputation. Guests might be put off at first by all the questions at reservation. The Peninsula just wants to know which direction to head when providing that extra mile. For example, if the reservationist discovers a guest is in town to golf, a selection of golf magazines will be stocked in his room. Peninsula’s pageboys, the guys in the white pillbox caps, are employed for the sole purpose of running errands whether that’s filling a prescription, walking dogs or taking an American Girl doll to have her hair fixed for a birthday party.

When they found out my most recent book just made the New York Times bestseller list, they left in my suite a cake decorated to look just like the book.

2013-08-12-peninsulacake.jpg

Fairmont Chicago, Millenium Park. You can practically see the Fairmont in the mirrored surface of Cloud Gate, the Anish Kapoor sculpture that’s nicknamed “The Bean” and has appeared in more than half dozen Hollywood films. The 687-room Fairmont is that close to Millenium Park, where you can catch free movies, concerts and yoga classes. The Fairmont, hailing from the esteemed Canadian brand, has undergone a recent renovation including its top floor suites that are all connected and housed a—shh, don’t tell– top tier performer during Lollapalooza.

Here’s to a great beach vacation in….Chicago

Summer’s coming to an end and you’re torn. You want a weekend at the beach, but you could also use a little culture, a bit of big city shenanigans.

Why not have it all in the beach town of… Chicago. The third largest city in America has more than 26 miles of free, public beaches (more, in fact, than Bermuda), all with gorgeous views of Chicago’s stellar skyline. Let me just say that Oprah did NOT abandon Chicago because of its summers.

2013-08-05-ChicagoAttractions_CCTBBeachHancock22.jpg
Photo: ©Choose Chicago

But even better than all the beach volleyball, the laidback vibe, the bikes, the piers and the soul-warming sand is that you can walk or ride a bike (look for the powder blue fleet of 700 DIVVY bikes that can be rented for a mere $7 a day) to Michelin-starred restaurants, two world-class conservatories, fabulous museums and shopping that plays in the major leagues with New York, London and Paris.

I’m more of a blue jeans kind of gal so I chose a first night on the town at Second City, the iconic comedy club that spawned everyone from John Belushi and Gilda Radner to Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. From North Avenue Beach where you can even get WiFi while perfecting your tan lines, it’s a short three-quarter-mile stroll. Can someone say, “piece of cake?” You probably rack up that many steps just walking back and forth from your beach towel to the lake.

I’ve been to Second City several times and it never disappoints. Unlike Saturday Night Live that over the years has recruited more than a quarter of its staff from this Chicago institution and tends to be uneven, Second City is consistently, pee-your-pants funny.

Started in 1959, this comedy improv troupe that holds no cow sacred combines improvised and scripted scenes with new material generated through audience suggestion during the unscripted second act.

On night two of my beach vacation to Chicago, I caught the Tony-award winning Book of Mormon, not an easy feat since it has rolled over Chicago like a deviant tidal wave.

From 12th Street Beach, the beautiful sandy beach where Chicago’s second World’s Fair was staged, it’s a short two-mile bike ride to the Bank of America Theatre where the Trey Parker/Matt Stone send-up of organized religion has been selling out night after night.

The Chicago production that some claim outdoes even the original (Trey Parker did direct when it debuted there last December) runs through October.

So why decide? In Chicago, you can beach and big city in one great weekend.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,106 other followers