Traveling by train is on the rise again. Amtrak is scaling up its services adding luxury cars on select lines. With airports so congested and hectic, traveling by train is a great alternative for traveling with teenagers. The best time to plan is now for a summer journey to Chicago. The city’s array of sports, architecture, art, and outdoor music festivals can put a smile on any doubting teenager’s face.
When my teenage son requested that we go to the Lollapalooza alternative music festival in Chicago, I had my doubts. Although I had never heard of this festival, I imagined it to be a blend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Voodoo Music Festival set in the Windy City. He warned me, however, that it was neither and that it showcased a great deal of indie and techno rock, which he claimed I would not like or understand. In my attempt to be hip, I agreed to go adding a few variations on the trip.
We would ride Amtrak’s "City of New Orleans" and rent a deluxe sleeper car with full dining service. In Chicago we would stay in a suite at a luxury hotel and spend some time shopping and dining on fabulous Michigan Avenue. With this agreement in hand, I knew I would not have to spend our whole trip wearing a backpack and flip-flops as my fashion statement in this haute couture city. However, I had no idea what a musical awakening I was to encounter on this perfect teenage journey.
The WPA art that adorns the walls of the Amtrak train station in New Orleans is vivid and bold. You can feel the undercurrent of the city’s soul in these massive murals. The station is somewhat dingy and is filled with backpackers, international tourists on a budget, and regional characters taking the Gray Line bus. The first class train section on Amtrak leaves all this behind with its crisply dressed porters and amicable staff. The double deluxe car is spacious and offers private window views on both sides of the train. There is enough room for a family of four to sleep comfortably at night and spread out during the day. For two people, this car feels like a living room with an ever-changing view.
Curling up to a good book as the landscape of America goes rolling by is a great way to bond with your teenager. Unlike the harried pace of airports, the train ride is slow (yes, I mean really slow) and offers opportunities for discussions on its route past historical landmarks, exotic wetlands, and endless fields of corn and cotton. The belly sides of sleepy towns swish by as the sun sets on the horizon.
White linen service is offered in the private dining car with an admirable selection of well-presented entrees and desserts. Tables are shared for parties under three, which makes for interesting meetings with fellow travelers of the rail. Many guests, we discovered, are regulars on these trains and take trips all across America and Canada. The cost of train travel is far less than air, taxi, and hotel combinations. Our round trip tickets including the upgraded suite and meals were around $250 a person.
Porters turn down beds after dinner and the gentle humming of the train rolling along the tracks is like a bedtime lullaby. After a leisurely breakfast and lunch, the train screeches into downtown Chicago an hour late. No one seems to worry about the hour, as time is not of the essence on this kind of trip.
The architecture of Chicago evokes a feeling of awe. Stately stone buildings with art deco carvings tower over Michigan Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile. The deep blue water of the Chicago River weaves through the city, crisscrossed with gracefully arched pedestrian friendly bridges. Chicago is big but it is walkable. In fact, the best way to take the streets in stride is to walk through Millennium Park, cross the Chicago River and look up at the buildings. The wide streets, open spaces, and grand architecture define this city as all American.
Public art with stunning architecture abounds in Chicago. Millennium Park, created in 1997, has an enormous sleek steel amphitheatre designed by Frank Gehry. Known as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, 120-foot high billowing ribbons of steel form the roof of this magnificent outdoor concert space. Free public musical events are held here throughout the year. Two enormous rectangular waterfalls, the Crown Fountain, dominate the Michigan Avenue side of the park. Look closer and you realize that there are 50-foot tall videos of faces spouting water slowing moving behind the waterfalls. An equally large, shiny elliptical sculpture is located in the inner pathway of the park. Identified as "The Cloud Gate," this stainless steel wonder offers boundless reflections of the city skyline with the viewer included in the image. The renowned Chicago Art Institute is flanked on one end by the Millennium Park and on the other side by Grant Park. The backside of Grant Park offers a full view of Lake Michigan Avenue with its sailboats and many yachts cruising the harbor.
Grant Park was the setting for the annual Lollapalooza alternative music festival. Against the backdrop of Lake Michigan and surrounded by the artful architecture of Chicago’s skyline, the festival grounds spanned the beautifully landscaped park highlighted by bronze fountains and arbors. This verdant setting for the festival was certainly different compared to the New Orleans Fairgrounds Racetrack.
Eight to ten stages surrounded the park, which had a glorious fountain shooting up to the sky in its center. We made our way to the big stage at the back of the park to get a seat for Daft Punk. We got really close to the stage and took over the space with a blanket. When the band came onstage, large kaleidoscopes of lights began flashing with the music, which sounded like a computer game. Then two French space rangers came out and started mouthing flat computer sounds. The crowd grew thick and wild around us as though the new leaders of the world had arrived. A large band of tall, shirtless German guys surrounded us and began punching their fists in the air and jumping to the beat of the computer music. In fear of being trampled, I began to jump up and down wildly throwing my fists in every direction to protect our space. Thirty minutes later I was still jumping and began to realize that this techno beat was catching. I felt like a blip on a computer screen clicking with the cogs of the hard drive. My son was elated that I was so into it, however, he did not realize I was trying to protect us from the crowd. I know now that I have become a techno music convert. Does this make me a techno fan? You bet.
From stage to stage we roamed listening to the music of Spoon; the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah; Iggy Pop; and Patti Smith. We dined on an incredible array of local ethnic cuisines offered at the festival food booths. On the final night, surrounded by baby strollers of aging fest fans and sleeping children on their mother’s laps, we watched a fireworks display over the park to the tunes of Pearl Jam. The glowing lights of Chicago’s architecture were spellbinding. We were surrounded by the grandness of this city in a park, where large lighted stars hung from the trees.
The hotel we chose was appropriate for the trip’s purpose. We had a stunning suite at the Hard Rock Hotel right on Michigan Avenue overlooking the Chicago River and the ever-changing waterfalls of the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. The slick contemporary décor in pale grey was awash with light from the many large windows that surrounded this corner suite. Large screen TVs were in both rooms, and the bathroom had a high tech theme of glass walls and stone. The service was over the top with every need taken care of, including a much-coveted invitation to a rock party being held at the hotel by one of the bands that performed at the festival.
The shopping along Michigan Avenue is to die for. Like a star-studded street of fashion, the signature stores of famous brand names such as Gucci, Chanel, Lalique and many others line the avenue. Ralph Lauren’s store, covered in dark wood and plaid fabric, has a great little restaurant that emulates an English men’s club. Over-stuffed sandwiches, pungent cheese plates, and escargots made up our menu selection after a day of exploring. Steak houses are big in Chicago; Smith & Wollensky has a select spot overlooking the Chicago River. The outdoor terrace is overflowing with flowers in the summer and offers a prime spot to watch the many narrated river cruises passing by.
Of course, we had to attend a Chicago Cubs baseball game. The cab ride from the hotel to the stadium gave us an opportunity to take in the beaches and running paths that curve along Lake Michigan. The game was all American with Polish hot dogs and beer-drinking fans.
Teenagers can be a lot of fun on a trip if you tailor it around their interests. A train ride to Chicago for Lollapalooza is a winning ticket.