AIR Chicago Radio Station Launches Monday at O’Hare, Midway Airports

Just in time for the holiday season-amazing how that works!-this Monday will see the launch of AIR Chicago, “the first 24-hour-a-day airport radio station dedicated to keeping O’Hare and Midway travelers in tune with Chicago Department of Aviation information, airport traffic, weather, business news, smooth jazz music and much more.”

Travelers can access the stations through

Orbitz has predicted that O’Hare will be the busiest airport in the country over Thanksgiving, while Clear Channel estimates 85 million travelers pass through both O’Hare and Midway airports annually.According to a quote in a press release, local dignitaries are pleased:

“On behalf of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, we are proud that O’Hare and Midway, in partnership with Clear Channel, are the first airports to offer a radio station specifically devoted to keeping passengers in touch with real-time information,” said Rosemarie S. Andolino, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation. “AIR Chicago is a great example of our efforts to provide a ‘best-in-class’ experience for the millions of travelers who fly through our busy transportation hubs.”

And if you’re heading back to Chicago for the holidays and looking to discover something new, check out AOL Travel’s guide to what’s changed in the past year.

$56 A Night To Pitch A Tent? Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

Since when did camping become expensive? I live in Chicago and have spent a ridiculous amount of time researching places to camp over the Memorial Day weekend in the last two weeks. If I had planned ahead, booking a campsite would be quick and easy but we tend not to plan very far in advance, which makes travel during holidays complicated and sometimes expensive.

We wanted to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin this weekend, but alas, there are no tent sites available on a weekend there until August 30 (!) and a host of other state parks in that region, including Mirror Lake, Rocky Arbor, Buckhorn, Governor Dodge, Lake Kengosa, Wildcat Mountain and others, are also sold out for the holiday weekend. Most of the state parks in Wisconsin charge just $12-15 per night for tent sites, though they have a three-night minimum stay on holiday weekends and a $9.70 reservation fee.I checked into some private campgrounds around Wisconsin and was floored by some of the prices. A place called Baraboo Hills wants $56 per night for a basic tent site with water and electric (the most primitive site they offer) and they are actually sold out. And other more basic campgrounds are nearly as pricey – at Fox Hill the price is $41 per night, Jellystone Park Campground in Fremont wants $45 for tent sites, the KOA-Wisconsin Dells charges $40 and up and Sherwood Forest will set you back $43, plus 10.5% sales tax. Most places have a three-night minimum for the holiday and most, even some of the priciest ones, are sold out.

Capitalism can be an ugly thing when you’re trying to plan a last minute trip on a holiday weekend, along with 8 million other Chicagoans and at least a few million Cheeseheads. The bottom line is that the camping season in this part of the country is very short, and comparatively few people camp during the week, so campgrounds have to make their cash on the few peak weekends they have to work with.

Last summer, I stayed at a private campground near Devil’s Lake that charged twice the price of the state park, which was sold out. And although it was adequate, it wasn’t as nice as camping in the park itself. Private campgrounds often offer a lot more amenities than the state or national parks, like swimming pools and play areas, but if you’re just looking to commune with nature, you’re often paying more to camp at a place that may not be as beautiful and serene as a state or national park.

But while Wisconsin clearly underprices their state park campgrounds at just $12 or $15 a night for most basic tent sites, Illinois prices some of their parks much more aggressively. I looked into camping at Starved Rock State Park, near Ottawa, in the north-central part of the state, but they charge $35 per night for a basic tent site with a three-night minimum on holiday weekends, and were sold-out anyway.

Neighboring states charge less to camp in their state parks this weekend – Indiana charges $20, Michigan $14 and Iowa as little as $9. But every park with positive reviews on Campfire Reviews and other sites within a 3-4 hour radius of where we live seemed to be sold out for this weekend, even though the forecast looks iffy for most of the region. I thought I’d hit paydirt when I found a tent-site at a place I’d never heard of called the Johnson-Sauk Trail State Recreation Area in Kewanee, Illinois, but before I clicked the reserve button I noticed the fine print: there was no way to drive to this tent site. With a wife and two little boys in tow, I don’t think we’re up for trekking out to a site with our coolers and gear in tow, so it was back to the drawing board.

I kept looking and finally found a site at the Roche-A-Cri State Park in Central Wisconsin. I couldn’t find a single review from anyone who’s camped there online, there are no showers and we got the last tent site available, located right next to a pit toilet, but it’s a bargain at $14 per night ($12 per night for Cheeseheads, three-night minimum stay).

If you’re looking for a place to camp this weekend, I highly recommend you use the city search function on the Reserve America site, since it allows you to see what’s available near a given zip code or town. And check back frequently, because cancellations do pop up. Also, check You Tube, because there are plenty of helpful campers out there who have documented what the various campgrounds in the Midwest look like.

Be prepared for three-night minimum stays and prices that might be higher than you’re expecting. And if you want to camp at Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin next Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26, 2014), mark your calendars – you can book starting on June 23 of this year. But please don’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget and will be scrambling to find a place to camp (and complaining about high prices again) at this time next year.

10 Offbeat Things To Do In Chicago

If you’ve never been to Chicago, or you’ve only visited during the winter, which tends to last roughly from early fall through late spring, you have to see the place in the summer. As soon as the weather gets warm, the city’s residents flock to the lakefront and the place buzzes with live music, street festivals and places to dine al fresco.

The typical tourist itinerary includes stops at the Art Institute, Navy Pier, a boat ride on the lake or the river, Wrigley Field, the Magnificent Mile, and the Willis (Sears) Tower, among other places. If you’ve already been to these places, or you’d rather dig deeper and go further off the beaten track, here are ten more under the radar things to do in America’s Second City.

10. Jam Sessions at the Old Town School of Folk Music
Chicago is loaded with great places to hear live music but I have a soft spot for the city’s free jam sessions and this place is one of my favorites. They have two locations – one in Lincoln Park and one in Lincoln Square – that host live shows and classes. The Lincoln Square location has jams on Wednesdays from 12 – 2 p.m. and Thursdays from 7 – 10:30 p.m. and the Lincoln Park location hosts jams on Saturdays from 12 – 1 p.m. You never know who’s going to show up but it’s a great place to listen to live music and to meet locals. (Or if Bluegrass is your thing, head to the Montrose Saloon on the second Wednesday of each month for their open jam.)

9. St. John Cantius Church

Chicago has plenty of atmospheric old churches but I’m partial to this baroque beauty in the city’s hip Bucktown neighborhood. The church was built around the turn of the 20th Century by Polish immigrants and it has some incredibly beautiful stained glass. And if you love to visit historic churches, get on 90/94 West a couple miles north to check out the Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, another turn of the century beauty which still hosts masses in Polish on Sunday mornings.

8. National Museum of Mexican Art

I dig this museum, located in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, because the works of art tend to be colorful and accessible rather than abstract. It’s free and they have a terrific gift shop that is filled with great gifts that are handmade in Mexico, including loads of Day of the Dead themed items.

7. Bookman’s Corner

My wife refuses to step foot in this fire hazard of a bookshop but I’m addicted to the place. John Chandler, who has been selling used books “rare, medium and well done” at this Lakeview shop since 1984, is a character. It’s worth a trip to this place just to listen to him shoot the breeze with some of his regulars who stop in to buy and sell books on Saturdays. There are books everywhere, so watch where you step. I’ve had books come crashing down on my head here and if you pull something out of a big stack, the whole pile might come crashing down on you like an avalanche. But I always leave with something unexpected and the prices are unbeatable. Just don’t ask John if he has a specific book because trust me, he’s not sure.

6. Traditional Irish Music Sessions

I spent a summer in Galway in college and have been hooked on traditional Irish music ever since. Chicago is a great place to take in a free Sunday “session” where you’ll hear some great music and meet plenty of colorful Guinness quaffing locals as well as visitors and expats from Ireland and Scotland. My favorite Sunday sessions are at Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Evanston, a great little town just north of the city (3-6 p.m.), the Abbey Pub (4 p.m.), the Grafton (5-8 p.m.) and the Galway Arms (8 p.m.) (If you prefer classical music, try the free weekend concerts at the Julius Meinl Cafe on Southport.)

5. Neighborhood Beaches

On a sunny day, you can’t go wrong with any of Chicago’s beaches, but the Ohio Street and North Avenue beaches can be ridiculously crowded on warm summer weekends, so head further north along the bike path to carve out a little more space in the sand. If you’re a dog owner or a dog lover, you’ve got to check out the Montrose Dog Beach; if you’re looking for a gay beach, Kathy Osterman Beach is a good call; and if you want a beach with plenty of sports and recreation opportunities, check out Foster Avenue Beach. If you just want to photograph the city skyline, go south of the city to Promontory Point in Hyde Park. I like to cap off a summer day at the beach with dinner or drinks on the rooftop deck at Pegasus in Greektown, which has great food and views of the skyline.

4. The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank

Inside Chicago’s Federal Reserve Bank you’ll find this interesting little museum, where you can see and have your picture taken with old and rare coins and bills, including $5,000 and $10,000 bills. They have a free 45 minute guided tour at 1 p.m., Monday-Friday and on your way out you can pick up a bag of “Fed Shreds,” which is $300 worth of shredded, uncirculated money. (Good luck trying to piece your bag of money back together again.)

3. A Taste of Arabia in Albany Park

Take the Brown Line train up to Kedzie to get a flavor of this fascinating neighborhood, which has some of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the city. I love walking on Kedzie between Montrose and Lawrence to check out the Arab shops, bakeries and restaurants. My favorite places to eat on this strip are Al Khyam (Lebanese),Noon O Kabab (Persian), and Salam (hole-in-the-wall pan Arab). For after dinner sweets try Jaafer Sweets.

2. Richard H. Dreihaus Museum

A visit to Chicago’s old Nickerson Mansion will transport you back to the Gilded Age. I took a tour of the place with my family in March and was floored by the ornate stained glass, the Moorish inspired décor and all of the amazing period furniture. There is no better place to get a feel for how the city’s elite lived at the turn of the 20th Century.

1. Devon Avenue

You don’t have to leave the Midwest to travel to the Indian subcontinent. Just make your way to Devon Avenue near Western and you’ll be in a place where saris, turbans, and shalwar kameezes are the order of the day. This is often referred to as an Indian neighborhood but it’s both Indian and Pakistani. You’ll find Gandhi Electronics right across the street from an Islamic Finance Bank and both communities- Hindu and Muslim- seem to coexist nicely here.

Most visitors come here to eat. My favorite restaurants are Annapurna – a hole-in-the-wall spot which has a $3.49 lunch special – Hema’s Kitchen, which has a killer vindaloo, and Urban India, which has the best garlic naan in the city. While in this hood, I also like to walk down to the Georgian Bakery, which has great bread and Georgian specialties like khachapuri (a cheese pastry) and khin-kali (meat dumplings).

I also like to pop into the sari shops, the Indian video stores, the House of 220 Volt Appliances, which has suitcases big enough to store baby elephants, and the food shops, were you’ll find some treats that might make Andrew Zimmern blush. On Michigan Avenue, you’ll be tripping over other tourists, but on Devon Avenue, you’ll be tripping over 50 pound sacks of basmati rice and flowing saris. The choice is yours.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, Viewminder, Clint McMahon, and Swanksalot on Flickr]

The Richard H. Driehaus Museum: Chicago’s Downton Abbey

As a longtime Chicago resident, I’ve walked or driven past the Nickerson Mansion on Erie Street hundreds of times. But I never thought about going inside the place, which is now the Richard Driehaus Museum, until I read all the rave reviews of it on Trip Advisor. I had no idea that we had one of the country’s finest Gilded Age mansions and resolved to see the place for myself.

It’s easy to overlook historic sites in your hometown as you get caught in a routine, but every time I return home from a trip and feel a little sick about being home, I make a point of putting on my tourist cap and doing something I’ve never done before. On my first weekend back in Chicago after a glorious trip to warm and sunny Central America, I piled in the car with my wife and two little boys on a typically gloomy, cold March day to check out the Driehaus Museum.
The moment you step foot in this opulent place and feast your eyes on the main hall, with its decadently ornate grand staircase and dimly lit foyer, you are transported to Gilded Age Chicago, when this was the finest home in the city. If you want to see how the super rich lived in 19th Century America, look no further than the Nickerson mansion, which was called the Marble Palace in its heyday.

The mansion was built between 1879-1883 for Samuel Mayo Nickerson, (see photo) a self made millionaire who made his fortune distilling alcohol during the Civil War when it was used for explosives thanks to a shortage of gunpowder. Samantha, our tour guide, told us that the Nickersons original home on the site burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The family lived in hotels for most of the next dozen years and as they constructed their new dream home, using mostly skilled German-American craftsman, they used 17 types of marble in a bid to make the place the city’s first fireproof house.

Built at a cost of $450,000 and located in the neighborhood that was then called McCormickville, it was the city’s largest and most expensive home. (The Potter Palmer house, which was destroyed in 1950, later eclipsed it in terms of square footage). The three-story, 25,000 square foot mansion is filled with period antiques that belong to Richard Driehaus, the financier and philanthropist who bought the house in 2003 and spent five years refurbishing it before opening it as a “gift to the city” part time in 2008.

Driehaus, whose capital management company is headquartered in two stunning mansions diagonally across the street from the museum, is a showman who reportedly rode into his 65th birthday party on top of an elephant. According to Chicago magazine, he has one of the largest collection of rare Tiffany objects in the country, and many of his lamps, chandeliers and tabletop pieces are on display in the mansion.

Every room in the house has something of interest and even the quarters for the Nickerson’s 11 servants are noteworthy, but for me, the real jaw dropper is the art gallery, which has a stunningly opulent, domed stained glass ceiling and sculptures one would expect to find in a fine art gallery in Florence. Samantha told us that the Nickersons were keen travelers and on one of their trips to Spain they developed an appreciation for Moorish architecture, and you can see that influence in the house’s smoking room (see photo above) and in Mrs. Nickerson’s sitting room.

The house’s only relatively plain rooms in the house are the women’s bedrooms and this is by design because, at the time, men thought that if women had overly decorative bedrooms, they would be overstimulated and have nightmares. And even the bathroom near the
entrance has something you’ll want to photograph: a very cool reproduction of an original Thomas Crapper toilet.

We learned that despite the house’s grandeur, its value steadily declined in the years after it was built while Nickerson expanded his business empire, which included ownership of a dozen local banks. In 1900, the Nickersons decided to move back to Mr. Nickerson’s native Massachusetts (his family came over on the Mayflower, but he made his own money) and they sold the house to Lucius Fisher, a paper-bag manufacturer for just $75,000. In 1919, his heirs decided to sell it, but by that point the neighborhood was more commercial than residential and it took a collection of 30 prominent Chicago families who pooled their resources to buy it, in order to save it from demolition.

The preservationists donated the property to the American College of Surgeons, who used it as their headquarters until 1965 and then leased it out to various tenants, including the R. H. Love Art Gallery, which occupied the house until Driehaus bought it in 2003. He first visited the gallery in the 90’s, intending to buy a bust of Abraham Lincoln and became interested in the place. He never bought the bust, but eventually bought the whole place and refurbished it, restoring the mansion’s iconic stained glass dome and cleaning the exterior the building.

Five years after it opened on an appointment-only basis, the place is now open full time and it can also be rented out for occasions. They also have a host of lectures and special events, including a Christmas party for kids, a puppet show (coming up in April 28), and a Father’s Day celebration, which will feature a few of Driehaus’s antique cars. (And free admission for dads)

Visiting the Nickerson Mansion is an amazing little escape from the city that is just blocks away from the Magnificent Mile, which, if you ask me, is one of the city’s more overrated attractions. So take a break from all the chain stores on Michigan Avenue- you can find most of them at your local mall anyway- and travel back in time to the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Cochon 555 Pork Competition Turns Five, Kicks Off February 17 In Atlanta

Much ado about pork products is made on Gadling, with good reason. Even if you’re sick to death of pork-centric eateries, and lardo this and sausage that, it’s hard to deny the allure of the other white meat (I can’t tell you how many vegetarians and vegans I know who still have a jones for bacon).

For those of you wanting to attend the ultimate porkapalooza, get your tickets for Cochon 555, a traveling, “National Culinary Competition & Tasting Event Dedicated to Heritage Pigs, Family Wineries & Sustainable Farming.”

The 10-city tour kicks off February 17 in Atlanta, and will include stops in New York; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Miami; Vail; Seattle; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, before culminating in the dramatic Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 16. Notice that Colorado gets two Cochon visits? The South isn’t the only place that appreciates pork.

Cochon was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe to raise awareness about, and encourage the sustainable farming of heritage-breed pigs. At each destination, five celebrated local chefs must prepare a nose-to-tail menu using one, 200-pound, family-raised heritage breed of pig. Twenty judges and 400 guests help decide the winning chef. The 10 finalists will then compete at the Grand Cochon for the ultimate title of “King or Queen of Porc.”

Depending upon venue, attendees can also expect tasty treats like Heritage BBQ; butchery demonstrations; mezcal, bourbon, whiskey and rye tastings; specialty cheese sampling, cocktail competitions; a Perfect Manhattan Bar, raffles, and killer after-parties.

For additional details and tickets, click here. Partial proceeds benefit charities and family farms nationwide.

[Photo credit: Flickr user out of ideas]