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CULTURE SEEKERS: STAY at the HILTON CHICAGO

HILTON CHICAGO

At the onset of summer I resolved to explore my own backyard — Chicago — as if I were on vacation: taking the tours, knocking around the famous buildings, rediscovering the museums. And having lived here nearly 10 years to the day, this summer has been my best summer yet.

One weekend I totally immersed myself in my tourist roleplaying and stayed at the Hilton Chicago, a grand dame of a property that finished construction (to the tune of $30M) in 1927. Two years ago it underwent a $150M renovation.

Location, location, location – Conrad Hilton

I primarily chose the Hilton Chicago for its South Michigan Avenue location: no other hotel in the Windy City is better situated for delving into Downtown’s wealth of cultural offerings. The property lies within a 20-minute walk of:

And I could easily take the Red Line there from my condo in Lincoln Park.

THE CONRAD HILTON SUITE

Where do I even start to describe the Conrad Hilton Suite? It’s Chicago’s largest and most expensive ($7,000 per night) room and the 5,000-square-foot space encompasses two floors. It includes 16-foot lakeview windows, a baby grand piano, a billiard table, three balconies, three bedrooms, and a helipad.

Unfortunately I did not stay in the Conrad Hilton Suite! I only dreamed of staying in the Conrad Hilton Suite! One day, though.

THE DALEY SUITE LIVING AREA

I did, however, stay in The Daley Suite and had access to the concierge floor, which serves complimentary beer, wine and appetizers at happy hour; as well as breakfast. The food and drink is not haute dining but, hey, it’s free.

The Daley suite living area is spacious (maybe 40-feet in length?) with tasteful decor (silver, beige and violet) and attention to detail: rugs, textured wallpaper, satin pillows, books, decorative accents, books, etc. I especially liked the dark wood floors. Carpet in hotel rooms is kind of nasty when you think about it.

Hilton Chicago Daley Suite living room

Hilton Chicago Daley Suite Living Room

The floor-to-ceiling windows (that open) are the space’s best feature, offering a view of Lake Michigan and Grant Park that stretches from Lake Point Tower and Navy Pier on the left…

View from Hilton Chicago Daley Suite

…to The Museum Campus on the right.

Museum View Hilton Chicago

 

DALEY SUITE BEDROOM

The view extends into the bedroom. The bedroom lacks for nothing: comfortable bedding, robes, safe, mini-fridge, outlets near the bed (a detail that sounds minor, but a lack of outlets within reach of the bed is the number one complaint of travelers over on the Flyertalk Hotel Pet Peeve conversation), full-length mirror, and flat-screen TV: pretty much what you would expect from an upscale hotel. Do I detect the scent of almond?

The bathroom boasts marble surfaces, Restoration Hardware fixtures, and a large shower.

Hilton Chicago Daley Suite Bedroom

 

EXERCISE ROOM, POOL AND OUTDOOR DECK

There’s absolutely no excuse for working out or swimming indoors during the Chicago summer when the Lakefront Trail, Magnificent Mile and North Avenue Beach await you. However, I concede that our winters are a little rough and that this pimped-out exercise room and pool may come in handy from December through March. Hell, from November through April.

Hilton Chicago Exercise Room

Hilton Chicago Pool

 

 

This Hilton Chicago secret rooftop deck was a pleasant surprise, a little oasis I had no idea existed. I can justify lying around here during the Chicago summer.

Hilton Chicago Rooftop Deck

 

COMMON AREA

Having organized, like, a million medical meetings in my lifetime in sterile, fluorescent-lit basements I especially appreciated the beautiful function space with its murals, gold leaf, marble and ornate staircases. The Hilton Chicago is a heavyweight, historic hotel and even if you’re just staying there for pleasure you’ll find exploring the common areas and meeting floors, including the hotel mini-museum on the south side of the lobby, worthwhile.

Hilton Chicago great hall

I also applaud the Hilton Chicago for providing several common areas for lounging, working (wi-fi is free in the lobby), sipping a cocktail, and/or people-watching (I’m usually guilty of all at once).

Hilton Chicago South Bar

FOOD OUTLETS

Sure the Hilton Chicago offers several food outlets — a bar and grill, Kitty O’Shea’s Irish Pub, a gourmet market (serving gelato made fresh daily) — but do you think I ate at them? No! I did not! Instead, I wandered around The Loop: sucking the marrow out of Chicago — picnicking in Grant Park while listening to the orchestra, munching on popcorn, red hots and pizza — just like I vowed to do this summer. The season was wonderful, and I’ve gained the pounds and likely hardening arteries to prove it.

The Hilton Chicago was the ideal base for canvassing my very own, beloved Chicago cultural scene and you know I will be carrying on about my hometown discoveries in future posts right here. Stay tuned.

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KASBAH DU TOUBKAL: HOSPITALITY PERFECTED

IMLIL

Our car speeds up the Atlas Mountains, past sheep grazing in green fields, through small villages, over streams, navigating turn after serpentine turn. The drive scares Ellen but I’m enjoying the view. Our reckless/confident (depending on which one of us you ask) driver came recommended by the lovely staff at the Riad Malika, and the cost is $80 one way for the hour journey to Kasbah du Toubkal from Marrakech.

We stop at the village of Imlil.

Village from Kasbah du Toubkal

Mules (“Berber Mercedes” as the Kasbah du Toubkal website refers to them) haul our luggage from Imlil to the property, a ten-minute walk.

Kasbah du Toubkal Mule

KASBAH DU TOUBKAL

Play:

 

Booking the Kasbah du Toubkal was easy: Ellen and I emailed with their office in the U.K., which never seemed to close, always responding immediately to our questions.

A group of young Berber men (the Kasbah du Toubkal employs only from the community) receives us. They are respectful, polite and friendly, such a welcome change from the borderline-harrassment we frequently received in Essaouira and Marrakech. The staff here has obviously mastered the art of genuine hospitality reminiscent of the wonderful treatment I received from the Bedouin in Jordan.

Ellen and I are escorted to the library, where we are presented with chilled diet cokes from a silver tray as we learn about the Kasbah du Toubkal and review our hiking options. These guys don’t overlook any detail — including a Hello! magazine to leaf-through while we wait so I can catch up who’s sleeping with whom in the U.K. (I need to know these things). There’s wi-fi service in the library as well.

Hello Magazine

The Kasbah du Toubkal offers accommodations in every price range, from a $40 cot to its sumptuous (that view!) garden suite, which can accommodate six people. Ellen and I opted for the deluxe suite for 250 Euro a night.

Kasbah du Toubkal Room

The room is average size, and not particularly luxurious, but we’re elated. It radiates coziness and charm. Someone very deliberately laid out our slippers and towels, turned on the bathroom lights, stocked our mini-fridge with American beverages (more Diet Coke), and filled bowls with dried fruit and nuts for us. We feel welcome here.

Our view from the deck is spectacular, a far cry from the Crate and Barrel store blocking the view from my front window back home in Chicago.

Kasbah du Toubkal Balcony

Lunch is served in an open tower overlooking the Atlas Mountains from 360 degrees. The tower, lined with benches and pillows, becomes our favorite place to hang out, read, and observe our fellow guests.

Kasbah du Toubkal from Above

The first afternoon we hike the Atlas Mountains by ourselves and get lost. We meet a kind, kind man selling beverages from a small wooden concession stand who closes up shop to escort us back to the resort.

Friendly Man

The second day we hire a hiking guide.

Atlas Mountains flowers

Dinner is served in tagines (clay pots) in the dining room, where we sit side-by-side with the other guests over candlelight. The ecolodge doesn’t offer alcohol, but we’ve come prepared with our own wine, as have all the other boozy guests. Friends are made. Everyone moves to the library to polish off our bottles, then the pack migrates outside for a stargazing session. The atmosphere is so clear and pure in the Atlas Mountains that the path back to our room is naturally lit.

Kasbah du Toubkal Dining room

Of the hundreds of hotels I’ve stayed at in my life traveling extensively for work and pleasure, the Kasbah du Toubkal is definitely in my Top Five. Prior to our trip Ellen and I seriously considered staying at the sleeker and sexier Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson’s Retreat down the road, and we probably would have if the price had been right. I’m sure it’s beautiful, and swanky, but I doubt it could match Kasbah du Toubkal in terms of genuine hospitality and charm. And those qualities are priceless.

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MAGICAL RIAD MALIKA in MARRAKECH

MARRAKECH

Our taxi deposits my friend Ellen and me at the entrance to a dusty alley. To reach Riad Malika, he tells us, we should turn left, then take a right, followed by another left. Pulling our oversized bags behind us, we turn left at a pile of mule dung, take a right at the leering adolescent boys, followed by another left at the overwhelming stench of cat piss.

And we’re at Riad Malika!

We knock. Pause. No answer. Knock. Pause. No answer.

This is NOT an auspicious start.

Ellen punches at the buzzer with her index finger. A little stressed after enduring 4,000 miles in itty-bitty seats, suffering through endless episodes of the The Big Bang Theory inflight entertainment, and enduring this 98 degree Marrakech weather neither of us has much patience, not that either of us are relaxed under the most ideal circumstances.

“We need to be nice,” I remind Ellen as much as myself.

The door opens.

RIAD MALIKA

We enter Riad Malika and all is right with the world.

Amil couldn’t be sweeter. He apologizes for taking so long to answer the door (he was tending to some plants on the upstairs deck) and ushers Ellen and I into the gorgeous courtyard, encouraging us to relax at a table with a cup of tea. The courtyard is everything Marrakech isn’t: calm, shaded, quiet.

Breakfasts are served on the balcony by an attentive staff who are happy to help with recommendations, directions or bookings.

Riad Malika Courtyard

Every wall, nook and corner of Riad Malika reflects the impeccable taste of its owner, a Frenchman (of course) who has lived here for 35 years.

Riad Malika Sitting Room

The muted lighting, artwork, and collection-worthy furnishings create a dreamlike surrounding.

Riad Malika Mirror

The scent and sight of the tropical plants, fruit trees and bright flowers add to the surreal effect.

Riad Malika Decor

A rooftop deck overlooks the medina. Jemaa El Fna, the main square, is an easy, 15-minute walk away. We’re happy with the location of Riad Malika: close to the chaos but not in the middle of it.

Riad Malika Plants

Most guests gather at the pool during the heat of the afternoon to compare restaurant recommendations and share rug-buying stories from their morning shopping expeditions. We all know that we’ve been ripped-off, we’re just trying to determine whether or not we succeeded in being ripped-off less than our fellow tourists.

Riad Malika Pool

You’d never know it’s 100 degrees outside Riad Malika when you’re relaxing by the pool. I would kill for that poster I’ve been lusting after all afternoon.

Riad Malika Pool Feet

The deck is a wonderful place to hang out as dusk descends.

Riad Malika Pool Deck

I can see the balcony to our room, the “Suite Royale” (which cost only 180 Euros per night during high season), from the pool.

Looking up at Riad Malika guestroom

Ellen and I just laugh when we see our Suite Royale (which we refer to as the Suite Royale from here on out). It’s enormous and decorated chock-a-block from floor to the 15-foot-ceiling with art deco furniture, bizarre art, Eames-era treasures and intricate North African detail. I’m a minimalist by nature, but at Riad Malika, Moor is More.

Riad Malika Room

Of course we have a fireplace. There’s a second one in the bathroom, which is larger than some hotel rooms I’ve stayed in.

Riad Malika Living Room

And our own grand piano.

Piano at Riad Malika

And retractable sky roof! The morning Call to Prayer drifts in through it, which bothers Ellen but I find it hauntingly soothing.

Riad Malika Retractable Ceiling

Ellen and I stop at the feted, famous La Mamounia for a $25 drink during our stay in Marrakech. It’s opulent. It’s immaculate. It’s impersonal. Yes, La M is fabulous, but it’s just so commercially, pretentiously, self-consciously so, like Gwenyth Paltrow. And a single room rate is three times the rate of our winsome Suite Royale. Even if money were no issue, I’d rather stay at the charming, magical Riad Malika any day.

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