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.
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.
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.
Fairmont Hotel. 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.