Hotels in Chicago: Places to Stay and Play

The view from Cerise at the Virgin Chicago.
The view from Cerise at the Virgin Chicago.

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Chicago is one of those cities where you can find a perfect blend of old and new; modern and traditional; super luxe and tastefully simple. I’d like to think these dualities are also found in Chicago’s food, people, neighborhoods and hotels. I decided to take a solo trip to Chicago where I wasn’t going to meet up with a group of friends and colleagues, or travel with girlfriends or my main squeeze. This trip was perfectly timed so that I could clear my head after turning in some crazy projects at the office and also reflect on personal relationships and whatnot.

I visited Chicago right before the start of the warm season and found hotels that not only offered comfy places to rest my head after touring the city, but also offered enough amenities on-site where I’d actually want to just chill out and enjoy the property. All three of these hotels are situated among the hustle of the city, but also offer nooks and crannies where I could just get away and forget I was in a major metropolitan area. If you’re looking for hotels in Chicago that are perfect for the young at heart or the business person who wants to add some extra excitement to their accommodations, look no further.

For the hip, tech-savvy crowd

I was initially intrigued by the Acme Hotel Company when I started reading about how this property made news with all of its in-room gadgets and techy toys. Oh, and these guys are also touting the fact that they’re the first hotel ever to offer Google Glass to guests who book directly with them. Whether you’re an international traveler or just more cognizant about how much data your smartphone is using, you’ll absolutely love the fact that you can ask for a Hotspot To-Go so that no matter where you are, you’ll always be connected while a guest at the hotel. This perk is only offered to guests who book a room directly so make sure to keep this in mind if you plan on using a third-party vendor to book your stay.

And if that wasn’t enough gadgets to keep you connected, you can now borrow an Apple Watch from the front desk during your stay!

Located in the River North neighborhood and just a couple blocks away from the Mag Mile, the Acme is a great place for guests of all ages. My room was the perfect hideaway when I had to take a couple conference calls and it was also walking distance from some awesome Chicago eateries. My room had all kinds of smart TV hookups, both Apple and PC hookups, wireless audio systems, and super fast Wifi. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the adorable bathroom with the lipstick neon light. So freaking cool.

If you’re looking for hotels in Chicago with all of the conveniences, the Acme offers one of the coolest morning coffee services. I ordered my coffee service the night before with my specific delivery time and the cutest coffee thermos showed up at my doorstep in the morning. There’s no more putting on of real clothes to go to the hotel lobby to retrieve your caffeine, or having to fumble with an in-room coffee maker. You have your own thermos! (Just don’t forget to leave it behind everyday, or you will get charged extra.) Also, don’t forget to bring workout clothes and your bathing suit because the caged gym (yes, caged!) and hot tub are definitely worth checking out.

The Berkshire Chicago
Grab a seat at the Berkshire and booze it up with locals.

The hotel’s bar, The Berkshire Room, is definitely not one to miss. I grabbed a nightcap after checking in on the first night and I highly recommend going for the Dealer’s Choice (where you tell your bartender the spirit, flavor profile and glassware you want) and ordering up a couple light bites. The hotel’s cafe, West Town Bakery, offers coffee, pastries, sandwiches and snacks to get you through the day when you’re not stuffing your face with pizza, beef sandwiches and hot dogs from Portillo’s.

This art installation might catch you off guard if you're not expecting it.
This art installation might catch you off guard if you’re not expecting it.

Although the pièce de résistance might be the hidden art installation which is only seen if you have an interior room. Ten painted mannequins, which resemble colorful flying trapeze artists, are suspended from different heights and it’s absolutely beautiful. If you have a room facing the window, ask one of the front desk workers if you can get a peek of this thing. The juxtaposition of color and brick is definitely something you want to ask about.

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For the business professional who really knows how to play

I’m a very loyal customer of Virgin America so when I found out that their only hotel was in Chicago, there’s no way I would have missed spending a couple nights at the property. The Virgin Hotel, located right in the Loop, is one of those hotels in Chicago that is designed for the traveler who needs to get a little bit of work down during the day and who wants to party at sun down.

Get some work done at the Library with a coffee or a cocktail.
Get some work done at the Library with a coffee or a cocktail.
Commons Club at Virgin Hotel Chicago
Just one of the many seating areas at the Commons Club.
ommons Club at the Virgin Chicago
An adult-sized swing greets you as you enter the Commons Club at the Virgin Chicago.

I can’t say enough nice things about this place. The check-in was super easy, the service was impeccable, but the best part of the hotel is its communal areas. If you’re trying to get some work done while traveling, make sure to find a spot on the second floor at The Commons Club. One side of the floor is where you can belly up to the bar for a cocktail (did I mention there’s a daily hosted social hour where the hotel picks up the bill?!). But the other side offers a library with plush seating, outlets, desks and all kinds of nooks where you can take phone calls, hold meetings and have a quiet space to get work done.

I was lucky enough to stay at the property on one of the warmest nights of the month so it’s no wonder why the rooftop bar, Cerise, was going off. Apparently there was a line to get up to Cerise in the lobby, but the DJ was starting up, craft cocktails were pouring, and the crowds were thoroughly enjoying the weather and the company.

Virgin Hotel shower
Shower buddies and awesome bath products found inside the shower at the Virgin Hotel.

The guestrooms at the Virgin Hotel were so incredibly comfortable. The linens, the huge bathroom, the dressing room, the adorable messages, coffee station and everything were perfect. Drinks and snacks in the mini bar were actually priced the same as any other convenience store so it was a godsend not getting charged up the wazoo for items. And don’t forget to download the Virgin Hotel app to order room service from anywhere on the property, set your room’s temperature, communicate with concierge, and more.

For the person who really just wants luxury

Thompson Chicago
The view from the room at the Thompson Chicago.

I’ve stayed at luxury hotels all over the place and it’s definitely a treat and vacation all on its own. There’s nothing like opulence in your guestroom and five star service and the Thompson Chicago sets the bar pretty high. Located in the Gold Coast neighborhood aka Viagra Triangle (Google it!), The Thompson is perfectly perched in the middle of amazing restaurants, shopping and people watching. I was only able to spend one night at the hotel at the end of my trip, but I definitely found myself not wanting to leave. Rather, I spent most of my time in pajamas enjoying the amazing King-sized bed and stellar city views from my Superior Cityview room.

Salone Nico Chicago
I could have spent the entire day and night at Salone Nico.

Upon check-in, I received a couple drink vouchers to use at the hotel bar, Salone Nico. Just steps away from the check-in desk lies the most beautiful hotel bar I’ve ever seen. Salone Nico has an impressive cocktail list, but what’s even more impressive is the actual design of the bar. An entire living wall makes up for the main centerpiece of the space, along with a second level that overlooks the bar and its patrons. Velvet seating, dim lighting, light bar bites, I mean, how could you go wrong? I found myself hanging out at Salone Nico in the morning and evening and you’ll probably find yourself doing the same.

The service at the Thompson was bar none. I wanted to explore the hotel and lobby late at night and enjoyed conversation with the concierge for awhile. We chatted for close to 30 minutes about places I should walk to for coffee and lunch the next day and it honestly felt like I was just chatting with a friend.

While food, tours, shopping and drinking are plentiful, staying at amazing hotels in Chicago might have been my favorite part of my stay. Not only did I find time for leisure and relaxation at each of these properties, but all three of these places offered their own special perks and amenities crafted by their own distinct design and style.

Thank you to all of these hotels who really rolled out the red carpet!

Check out waterfalls and so much more on the Columbia River Gorge Tour with Oregon Tour Co.

Multnomah Falls
Hop aboard the Columbia River Gorge Tour to check out Multnomah Falls.

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

I can’t tell you how many people said I HAD to go on a waterfall tour after telling them I was headed to Portland for a few days. Beyond the insane food scene (and ahem, stripper and weed activities), the city of Portland is absolutely dreamy. From the mountainous landscapes to the bodies of water, it’s definitely worth venturing out of the city to explore the great outdoors.

We had the absolute pleasure of checking out the Columbia River Gorge Tour with Peter Woodburn of Oregon Tour Co. While I thought this tour would just be a scenic drive to visit Portland’s most famous waterfalls, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the history of Portland, its unique geography, rivers, and local fish species, all while exploring some of the area’s beautiful sights.
Oregon Tour Co. is a father and son operated tour company that brings locals and visitors along for a scenic ride. Peter and Pete (too cute, right?!) offer tours of downtown Portland, local gardens, wine country, Mt. Hood and the Oregon Coast.
The Columbia River Gorge Tour is more than just a waterfall drive-by tour. On our trip, we learned about the formation of the Columbia River, salmon spawning and runs at Eagle Creek, the giant sturgeon population, a bit about the local inhabitants, and so much more.
Latourell Falls near Portland
Latourell Falls near Portland is definitely a must see while you’re traveling through town.

Obviously, the main attraction was the stunning waterfalls. Multnomah Falls is the most popular in the area, but Peter showed us a handful of other waterfalls that were less crowded and equally, if not more beautiful than Multnomah. Hop aboard the tour and you’ll see my favorite, Latourell Falls. Hidden off the path a bit, Latourell’s stunning patch of yellow fungus makes this destination totally unlike the others. If you don’t mind getting wet, I highly recommend walking down the path a bit to the base of the waterfall. It’s totally unreal and completely magical.

View from above at the Women's Forum Scenic Viewpoint.
View from above at the Vista House near the Women’s Forum Scenic Viewpoint.

Columbia River view

For one of the best vantage points of the day was from our trek up the mountain to the Vista House near the Portland Women’s Forum Memorial. This is definitely a spot I would have never even known about and offers amazing views of the Washington/Oregon border and Columbia River.
The guys behind Oregon Tour Co. are super friendly and have an insane amount of knowledge about the area. If you’re looking to discover your own Portland waterfall tour, book a date with these guys. For more information, visit http://www.oregontourco.com.

Oakland’s Casa Cubana is where you want to go for cocktails, dessert + Cuban-inspired fare

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Cuban food is one of those cuisines that I have yet to tackle. There was never a huge Cuban population where I grew up, so finding out about a new Cuban restaurant in Oakland piqued my interest. I had the absolute pleasure of trying Casa Cubana in Downtown Oakland as their guest just a few months after they opened their doors. And this place is quickly becoming a staple in the neighborhood for bright and fresh cocktails, Cuban-inspired dishes, and delicious desserts.

Inside Casa Cubana in Oakland
Inside Casa Cubana in Oakland
Casa Cubana's Guacamole
Casa Cubana’s Guacamole

Walking inside Casa Cubana, you’ll be greeted by a massive bar, bright walls and colorful artwork by local artists. Start your night off with a Mojito and order some apps for the table. The Cuban Guacamole is served up with some plantain chips, or go with the Habana Cocktail, a mix of tiger prawns, cucumber, mango, avocado and tomato.

Casa Cubana's entrees

Main courses offer a little something for everyone. The Lechon Asado was a savory slab of pork shoulder, served with black rice and an orange, onion, fennel and garlic gastrique. So good. Seafood and chicken dishes are also plentiful so bring a friend for sharing.

Casa Cubana's Guava Cheesecake
Casa Cubana’s Guava Cheesecake

The standout for me was definitely the dessert. Our bartender and our server seriously would not stop talking about the Guava Cheesecake. Apparently diners come in specifically for this cheesecake and will even call ahead to make sure the dish in available. These guys are not messing around. Even if you’re not a guava fan, the creaminess of the cake pairs perfectly with the buttery crust and tart and sweet guava glaze. If you’re in downtown Oakland and need a sugary pick me up, you HAVE to try this dessert.

The service at Casa Cubana is warm and welcoming, the drinks are stellar and the vast menu will suit new Cuban diners and beyond. For more information, visit www.casacubanaoakland.com.

Best Restaurants in Portland – We check out PDX restaurants with serious Instagram fame

Written by and photos by Nadia Ibanez

Lately, my trips have been centered around food, with just a sprinkling of history and city tours. When I traveled before, I’d always search out the best shopping districts, find a cute little pastry shop, and manage to sneak in a massage or a manicure with my travel mates. But these days, it’s all about the food and booze.

When I started planning this trip, the top priority was to seek out and eat at the best restaurants in Portland. I researched on my own, got some tips from friends and screened through pages of Yelp. But this might be the first time that I leveraged Instagram to lead the way.

After just minutes of going down an Instagram black hole, I came across dozens of restaurants that looked absolutely amazing. From waffles and pastries to French food and famous chicken wings, I was salivating and bookmarking everything. And honestly, what better platform to go hunting for food in foreign territory than with Instagram?

Here are some of the restaurants I found using my favorite PDX food hashtags and some other gems we found along the way.

Instagram-Famous Joints You Need to Check Out

Pok Pok

People freak out over Pok Pok and its creative Northern Thai street food fare. I HAD to go to their original location on SE Division St. and try their fish-sauce wings for myself. I was told a number of times to go for lunch as the line can be much more manageable. The second that I step foot inside Pok Pok, I immediately felt like I was back at the food stalls in Jakarta and Bali. Servers are super enthusiastic about all of the menu items and specials and the casual, outdoor vibe might be just what you need after a long day of exploring.

The dishes at Pok Pok Portland are meant to be shared so either come incredibly hungry or with your food adventurous friends. Between the three of us, we ordered a little something of everything.

Pok Pok chicken wings
Always order the wings at Pok Pok.

You MUST order Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. These wings are marinated in fish sauce and sugar before being deep friend and tossed in a caramelized fish sauce and garlic sauce. Great on their own or with a side of coconut rice, these wings are definitely a standout.

We also ordered the Kung Op Wun Sen, a noodle dish with gulf prawns and pork belly baked with soy, ginger, black pepper and other Thai ingredients. The Neua Naam Tok was another favorite. This flank steak “salad” is served up with a bunch of fish sauce, lime, chili powder, cilantro, lemongrass and toasted rice powder. The grilled fiddlehead special of the day was amazing and off the menu. Make sure to ask about the specials of the day as Pok Pok focuses on seasonal dishes whenever possible.

Pine State Biscuits

For whatever reason, soul food is a major player in the Portland food scene. You’ll find chicken and waffles, biscuits and gravy and meat and three specialties all across the city. If you have a long day ahead of you and need a serious start to your morning, you must try Pine State Biscuits.

This locally famous joint has four locations across the area and will likely have a line outside the door whenever you go. Trust me when I say this place is worth the wait. Stop by for breakfast or lunch and you’ll be in awe of the biscuits piled high with bacon or fried chicken and a healthy serving of gravy.

Reggie Deluxe from Pine State Biscuits
The Reggie Deluxe…I can’t even.

The Reggie Deluxe seems to be everyone’s favorite with fried chicken, bacon, cheese, egg and gravy. Adventurous diners will love the Pine State Fried Club, a trio of fried grit cakes each topped with a slab of fried chicken drizzled with spiced honey, pimento cheese, country ham and white cheddar. Check the specials board whenever you arrive and you might find some fancy waffles or homemade pop tarts.

Lardo

Lardo's Pork Meatball Bahn Mi
Lardo’s Pork Meatball Bahn Mi. OMG.

Nothing makes me happier than a well-executed, no frills, locally-inspired sandwich place. I found out about Lardo during one of my late night Instagram black hole benders and I’m so happy I did. If you don’t order something porky at Lardo, you’ll still find something on the menu to dream about weeks after you leave PDX. The restaurant’s showstopper is the Pork Meatball Banh Mi and it’s f*cking unbelievable. Giant pork meatballs are stacked with pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumber and sriracha mayo on a fresh baguette.

I had to show some form of restraint and ordered the Lardo Fries which were tossed with fried herbs and parmesan. But the heathen in me was definitely eyeing everyone else’s Dirty Fries, which are topped with pork scraps (!!!) and marinated peppers. Once again, this place is great to go to with friends so order some beers and snag bites from each other’s sandwiches, while you sit outside and watch all of the kooks walk and bike by.

Voodoo Doughnuts vs. Blue Star Donuts

These guys need very minimal introduction. One is known for its colorful and quirky, available-at-all-times-of-day, donuts and the other takes an artisanal and seasonal approach to its flavors.

We stopped by Voodoo Doughnut super late at night and had our pick of freshly fried doughnuts. (Go for the Portland Cream doughnut!) This place is a hot tourist destination so don’t get trapped in a humongous line at peak times.

Blue Star Donuts
Just a small sampling of flavors at Blue Star Donuts.

Blue Star Donuts uses local and seasonal ingredients in their brioche-based donuts. I brought home all kinds of flavors ranging from Blueberry Bourbon Basil to Lemon Poppy Seed. It’s nearly impossible to buy just one of these bad boys unless you give zero f*cks about your waistline.

Salt & Straw

I’m pretty sure Portlanders, Portlandia-folk?, have made it their goal to keep the secret that Portland actually gets really amazing weather in spring and early summer. We visited in March and it must have been 75 degrees outside. So it’s no surprise that fancy ice cream is a thing in PDX and that there was a huge line nearly every hour and day at Salt & Straw.

Salt and Straw's ice cream flight
Salt and Straw’s ice cream flight

In proper form of a sweet tooth addict, we went for an ice cream flight so we could try a little bit of everything. The Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper flavors was one of my faves, as well as the Honey Lavender and Pear & Blue Cheese. It’s pretty easy to see that Salt & Straw is known for its unconventional flavors. Make sure you ask about all of their seasonal flavors as they are plentiful.

Amazing Portland Restaurants and Eateries We Found Along the Way

Huber’s Café

Huber's Cafe Portland
Coffee and a show at Huber’s Cafe

I was directed by a number of friends and strangers that a Spanish Coffee at Huber’s Café is a must. The place is cozy and intimate, but you can also belly up the bar at chat it up with bartenders, locals and passersby.

Don’t ask any questions; just go directly to Huber’s at any time of day or night. These things are seriously strong so you’ve been warned.

Bollywood Theater

We stumbled on Bollywood Theater after killing sometime in the Alberta Arts District and I’m so glad we did. The appeal behind Bollywood Theater is the fact that Bollywood videos are projected on the restaurant’s beautiful wooden walls and that everything is served on authentic Indian dishes and cups. But the street food dishes and small plates are what really lures people in and to visit again.

The Kati Roll at the beautifully designed Bollywood Theate
The Kati Roll at the beautifully designed Bollywood Theater.

The Kati Roll was such a good afternoon snack. Inspired by Indian street food stalls, the Kati Roll is a piece of flatbread with egg, your choice of meat, pickled onion and green chutney. The Lamb Samosas were another favorite and were filled with lamb, spiced potatoes, mint, onion, ginger and peas. Do yourself a favor and order an extra side of Tomato Raisin Chutney; you’re going to love it.

The Screen Door

If you’re looking for down-home Southern food in a hip atmosphere, The Screen Door is where you need to be. I heard about this place a while ago, looked for  their social media presence, and found out that these guys seems to be doing it old school via word-of-mouth marketing. The restaurant is nestled on a quaint part of East Burnside, but rest assured that the crazy lines will lead you the way to their front door.

You’ll find a little of everything on the menu. People seemed to love the Fried Chicken and Waffle stack and Po’Boys. We ordered essentially everything. but you MUST order a side of the Screen Door Praline Bacon, which is coated with pecans and cayenne brown sugar. I seriously could have just eaten that for breakfast. We ordered items like Shrimp & Grits, Huevos Rancheros and Eggs Benedict and they were all amazing. The brunch cocktails here are money so when in doubt, order a couple rounds of The Ramos Gin Fizz. Who knew gin, cream, egg whites, citrus and orange flower water could be so delicious?

When You Want to Try it All in a Single Day

My man and I had the absolute pleasure of going on the Best of Portland Food Tour with Eat Adventures Food Tours. Co-owner Angie Johnson graciously allowed us to join a trip and she somehow managed to show us a glimpse of nearly every type of PDX cuisine in a single afternoon. This tour is perfect if you’re not in town too long but still want a slice of everything.

You might think that Portland is just about their food carts and craft breweries, but there are so many things happening in between. In a matter of just three hours, we visited five different spots. Our marathon of eating and drinking began with appetizers at Southpark Seafood as we got to nibble on a board of house-made smoked fish, crackers and mortadella.

Enso Urban Winery Portland
Enso is absolutely adorable outside and is a perfect spot for wine tasting.

Other stops along the way included Ecliptic Brewing for some locally-made brews and delicious bar bites; an urban winery called Enso for AMAZING Rosé and some of the best bread and olive oil I’ve ever nibbled on; the Hapa PDX Ramen food cart on SE Division, which is also home to a handful of other adorable and delicious carts; and Ruby Jewel for some delicious ice cream sandwiches.

Hapa Ramen in Portland
Hapa Ramen in Portland
Ecliptic Brewery bites
Portland Breweries are plentiful and offer some amazing, non-conventional bar snacks. Order a few things from Ecliptic and you’ll be set.

The Best of Portland Food Tour is a fantastic way to learn about the history of Portland and how chefs and food trends have shaped the area to what it is today. Take this trip at the beginning of your stay as you’ll travel through several different parts of Portland with Eat Adventures. If you want to eat off of the beaten path and be among locals, book a tour with these guys immediately. You’ll be in good hands and with good company and Angie will definitely take care of you and your appetite.

 

 

 

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What to do and where to stay in Hawaii

Written by and photos by Michael A.

Are you figuring out what to do and where to stay in Hawaii? Here’s the perfect guide to your Hawaiian adventure for both the thrillseeker and the maxin’ and relaxin’ type of vacationer.

Exploring the Hilo Side of Big Island

Where to stay while Visiting Volcanoes National Park: Volcano Mist Cottage

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Beautiful and comfortable private outdoor seating area with easy to start fireplace while you listen to the beautiful calls of the rainforest
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Outdoor seating
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Outdoor Shower
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Your view as you wake up to the peaceful sounds of the rainforest
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Indoor electric fireplace in your living room
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Full kitchen for those of you who like to cook
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Bathrobes for that true vacation feel

Look at these pictures!!!! Talk about three perfect days in Volcano Village! Volcano Mist Cottage makes you feel like you’re in a private massage and spa treatment sanctuary for your entire stay. Volcano Mist Cottage is one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed. Situated a mere seven minute drive from Volcanoes National Park and only five minutes from local restaurants, this is the perfect place to stay when visiting this side of the island. Although many of you are familiar with both Kona and Hilo on the Big Island, the main reason people go to the “Hilo side” is to check out Volcanoes National Park because there really isn’t all that much to do in Hilo itself. If you were to stay in Hilo, the national park is about an hour away. You won’t want to spend the time driving each day so try to stay closer to the park. With that being said, there really aren’t too many hotels near the park (I mean very slim pickings). So, you’ll end up at a B&B or something on the smaller side. Read more