10 Chicago Suburbs That Don’t Suck

bahai temple wilmetteTravel writers don’t spend much time waxing poetic on the joys of American suburbia – and for good reason. Spending time in the suburbs of most American cities is about as exciting as listening to a filibuster attempt on C-Span. Unless you enjoy the numbing sensation that comes from driving past row upon row of characterless houses, strip malls as far as the eye can see and the identical array of chain stores and restaurants one sees all over American suburbia these days.

But Chicago is different. There are plenty of soulless bedroom communities and quite possibly the lamest historic district in the country, but there are also a number of places that are brimming with character and things to do. Most visitors to Chicago never set foot outside the city center and that’s a shame.

If you stay in the city, you’ll miss out on some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most impressive creations, one of the country’s best independent bookstores, the Bahai Temple, some beautiful beaches and a host of shopping, dining and cultural attractions in very manageable, walkable towns that are accessible via Metra and/or CTA. (But if you prefer a scenic drive, take Sheridan Road up to Chicagoland’s North Shore.)I’ve lived in Evanston and River Forest, so this is a subjective list based upon my experience in the north and west suburban communities that I’ve had an opportunity to explore during my seven years living in the region.

Evanston

evanston illinois lake michiganThis big, diverse community directly north of the city along Lake Michigan belongs on the itinerary of every visitor to Chicago. It’s home to Northwestern University, some 61 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and six sandy beaches. The pedestrian friendly downtown is filled with nice bookstores, cafés, shopping and restaurants and there are beautiful homes scattered among several historic districts within the town. Evanston also has an amazing library, which allows patrons to take out up to 75 books a time (seriously).

Wilmette

Wilmette is another great lakeside community with a terrific old school cinema, and an endearing little downtown that has a Mayberry-esque charm. Business Week rated Wilmette as one of the top ten places to raise a family in the country and it’s also a great place for visitors to take a long walk or bike ride. Don’t leave town without checking out the stunning Bahai Temple on Linden Avenue.

Winnetka

If you drive through Winnetka with a clunky old car, you might get a few funny looks, as this is one of the poshest communities in the Midwest. Right now, there is a 27,000 square foot home on sale for a cool $27 million in town, and there’s also a modest little, 7 bedroom, 11 bath, 15,000 square foot fixer upper at 319 Sheridan Road that comes in at a just under $16 million.

But it’s still worth a visit despite the pretension. Every town should be fortunate enough to have a great little downtown like this one. It’s filled with interesting, independent shops and restaurants. The town also has three nice beaches and its flagship bookstore, the Book Stall, was voted the best independent bookshop in the country by Publisher’s Weekly this year.

Highland Park

This is another exclusive North Shore community that’s worth a visit thanks to its nice downtown and jaw dropping mansions. Michael Jordan and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins own homes here and Corgan recently opened up a tea shop in town as well.

Highland Park may have the most expensive home in the region for sale at 2700 Point Lane. In case you’re in the market, it’s a 9 bedroom, 19 bathroom- yes 19 bathrooms, just in case you have a hockey team over and they all have to go at once-32,683 square foot monster priced at $29 million. Oh, and there’s a 15 car garage to boot.

Lake Forest/ Lake Bluff

Lake Forest is another elegant lakefront community oozing with wealth and charm on the North Shore about 30 miles north of Chicago. The downtown has a European flair and boasts some nice restaurants and distinctive retail. Take a drive or a bike ride around the residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown and you’ll feel like you’re lost in the pages of “The Great Gatsby.” Lake Bluff has a nice beach, a public green and an old time corner store.

In Lake Forest, check out the mansions on North Mayflower Road. At the moment, there’s a 10 bedroom, 16 bath 24,000 square foot home priced to move at $12 million at #405 and a cute little 7 bedroom, 9 bath number at #255 that’s a steal at just under $8 million.

Oak Park & River Forest

river forest homeOak Park is a unique, left leaning community due west of the city, accessible via CTA’s green line or Metra, that prizes its diversity and its Frank Lloyd Wright connection. Wright started his career in Oak Park and you can visit his studio and check out a host of homes he built in the area. Oak Park has the largest concentration of FLW homes in the world.

Oak Park is also the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway, and the Hemingway museum , located right around the corner from the Frank Lloyd Wright Studio. Oak Park also has three distinctive retail districts, but the real attractions here are on the side streets, where you’ll find an array of beautiful homes, many in the Prairie or Victorian style.

Due west of Oak Park, River Forest is another distinguished suburb with more Frank Lloyd Wright houses and dozens of other stately homes on huge lots along wide, tree lined streets that are nothing like most planned community suburbs built today. The residential area between Lake and Augusta and Thatcher to Lathrop is filled with classy, unique homes.

Riverside

Riverside is a splendid little community, just south of Oak Park, with a lost in time downtown, an eye-catching water tower, and some noteworthy architecture. The town itself is a National Historic Landmark that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as one of the region’s first planned communities.

Elmhurst

This appealing little community in Chicago’s western suburbs is noteworthy for its appealing, pedestrian friendly downtown that has a cool, 1950s feel to it.

La Grange

La Grange is another western suburb with a terrific, old school downtown and some nice old Victorian homes. Less pretentious than nearby Hinsdale, it boasts an awesome BBQ joint and a classic old cinema. La Grange used to have what was quite possibly the country’s most ludicrous marketing campaign. A few years ago, someone had the bright idea to put up banners all over the town with the words, “Ah, La Grange!” One can only hope they didn’t pay an ad agency too much to come up with that clunker.

Naperville

OK, so Naperville has a lot of sprawl, but it’s also got a killer downtown, with a great riverside bike path and a beautiful, huge man-made beach and pool. The area around North Central College is perfect for a nice stroll.

Other Chicago suburbs that are worth a visit: Forest Park (home to loads of bars and a great St. Patrick’s Day celebration), Glen Ellyn, Glencoe, Woodstock, Hinsdale, Wheaton, St. Charles, Geneva, Frankfort, Western Springs, Highwood and Tinley Park.

[Photo credit: Flickr users Sandeep, rseidel3 and Chicago Geek.]

Gadling hotel review – Hotel Arista, Naperville, IL

The Hotel Arista describes itself as “eco-chic”, and after my first stay here, I’ve got to agree with that description. The hotel is located in the western Chicago suburb of Naperville. About 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, the hotel is easy to reach as it is right off the expressway.

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How the Hotel Arista does “green”

The Hotel Arista is the first LEED certified hotel in Illinois. Being LEED certified means the hotel underwent a extensive “green audit” by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Thankfully, staying in a “green hotel” does not mean you need to sleep on hay and brush your teeth with ash and salt. In fact, the majority of green efforts at the Hotel Arista were very well implemented, and some of them actually made my stay even more enjoyable.

The green initiatives are twofold – the majority of them are behind the scenes, while others are out in the open.

In the public spaces, almost all lighting is LED, greatly reducing energy usage. Room climate control is only activated when a guest checks in, which means the system no longer needs to heat empty rooms. The hotel restaurant recycles all its cooking oil, and the chef grows his own herbs in a garden in front of the hotel.

In the rooms, wall control panels instantly control all the lights – these panels are next to the door, in the bedroom and next to the bed. With one push of a button, all the lights are dimmed. All rooms feature large floor to ceiling windows, greatly reducing the need for additional lighting. In addition to this, some of these windows can be opened, allowing fresh air into the room.

The toilet is a dual flush model, all bathroom paper products are partly recycled and the sinks feature low flow faucets.

To me, one of the most impressive methods of recycling is that the hotel supplies all its left over newspapers and magazines to a local shelter as bedding for the animals and their unused in-room amenities to a local homeless shelter, along with sheets, table linens and other items. Newspapers are delivered in a cloth bag, hung from the door each morning, instead of plastic liners.

All these initiatives mean the Hotel Arista uses 31% less water, and 21% less energy than a comparable property, and as I mentioned earlier – you never get the feeling you are being forced to be “green”.



Geek heaven

The Hotel Arista takes in-room technology to a whole new level – and was one of the best equipped hotels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in. My room was equipped with 2 42″ flat panel HD TV’s, one of which offered an easy access connection panel.

The TV channel lineup was equally impressive – offering a huge lineup of HD channels, including multiple premium movie channels. Additional features on the TV included a full hotel amenity guide, bill preview and room service menu.

A third TV is in the bathroom – behind the mirror. A splashproof remote control means you can fill the tub and watch the news.

The desk is equipped with a Cisco 7875 color IP touch screen telephone. The phone was updated with software offering instant access to maps, news, weather, voicemail-to-email interface and a full interactive hotel guide. The bedroom has a cordless IP phone.

Hidden behind the desk was an Ethernet cable offering access to the hotel broadband service. Speeds during my test were excellent – almost 30 mbps down and 25 mbps up. Wireless access is also offered, with a good solid signal and great speeds. The Ethernet cable could do with a label or some other way to let guests know where to find it.

There were no outlets above the desk, so I had to use the only spare outlet under the desk and use my own splitter to charge my phone and power my laptop.

The hotel offers a great lineup of extras for in your room – during your stay (or even before you arrive), you can request a Wii, Wii Fit, a DVD player and a variety of chargers and cables. This is the first time I’ve actually seen Blackberry chargers available for guests.

The Wii in your room is fantastic if you don’t plan to venture outside (and during my stay, the weather kept me indoors). My Wii was delivered in a Nintendo carrying bag, and came with Wii Sports and the Wii fit platform.

Thanks to the front panel hookup, I was up and running in about 5 minutes. There is something oddly cool about playing Wii Sports in a large room with floor to ceiling windows on the 12th floor.


Hotel amenities

The hotel has several on-property amenities, including an in-room spa and an award winning restaurant. A fitness center offers most of the equipment you’d expect from a good hotel health club, including showers and lockers. In addition to this, the staff can deliver fitness equipment to your room.

The hotel lobby is well designed, and features a discrete check-in desk and spacious “living room” with complimentary coffee and newspapers. Hotel staff were always around willing to help with doors and luggage.



In-room comfort

To be comfortable in my room, I only need a couple of things – a good bed, decent climate control and an easy to set alarm clock. The room provided two out of three. Like many hotels, the Arista installed the iHome iPod alarm clock, but since these are probably one of the most complicated to program, I opted to set an alarm on the Cisco IP phone (which was much easier to program).

Climate control in the room was very good – each room had its own thermostat. Guests who hate dry air can request a humidifier.

The bed was great, and the modern look and feel of the hotel meant I got a nice comforter instead of the horrible hospital style sheets found in other hotels.

Next to the bed is a control panel for turning off all the lights, and switching to nightlight mode, and on each side of the bed is a flexible nightlight. With one push of a button, all the lights dim and your nightlights can be turned on.

The minibar had a limited selection of beverages, and several snacks. Prices were surprisingly decent at just $4 for soda and $6 for most alcoholic beverages. Next to the fridge is a small snack tray and coffee maker. The hotel refers to its minibar as the “Nosh Box”, and items are located in the minibar, in the bathroom (bath salts) and next to the bed (face mask, sleep aid, intimacy kit).

Unlike most hotels, the minibar at the Hotel Arista can be designed to fit your personal needs. You can request more (or less) of products, add your own personal favorites, or request your own cocktail kit.

The bathroom in my room featured a stand-alone tub and a walk-in shower. Bathroom amenities are from the Gilchrist & Soames brand, and offered everything from a shaving kit to mouthwash. In other “green hotels”, I’ve noticed a trend towards wall mounted dispensers, but I still prefer good old tubes and bottles, so I was happy to see the Arista stick to these.

One of the more convenient features in the bathroom is floor lighting – dim light shows your way to the toilet for those middle of the night trips to relive yourself.


The Naperville area

Opening a luxury hotel in Naperville may have some people scratching their heads – the location is not exactly conveniently located anywhere exciting. That said – there is something to be said for staying away from the city.

At just 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, it is perfect for a romantic getaway.

For just $289, you get a 2 room king suite, Champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, a couples in-room massage and breakfast for two plus early arrival/late departure. That is at least $300 cheaper than a similar package in a downtown luxury hotel.

Within 10 minutes from the hotel are the Aurora premium outlets, where you can treat your significant other to something from the Coach (or Sony) store. Just down the road from the hotel is the Fox Valley mall, with over 180 stores.

And finally, starting at just $309, you can combine your stay with a round of golf at a local course.



Final thoughts

I’ll be going back to this hotel – even though it is within driving distance of where I live, it offers the kind of peace and quiet in a luxury surrounding we all need every now and then.

Their romance package is extremely well priced, and any couples in the area should seriously consider saying “I love you” in the luxury of their own two room suite.

The green features are perfectly balanced – you know they are there, but you don’t feel they get in the way. There is ample free parking around the hotel (including plenty of street parking).

You’ll find the Hotel Arista at 2139 CityGate Lane in Naperville. Their web site is at www.hotelarista.com.