The Windy City. Home of Al Capone. Birthplace of American Gothic. Chicago is a city to which I’d never been and was very much looking forward to visiting. There were two catches – my trip was far too brief, and the week before there had been some unseasonably warm weather, which then decided to become some unseasonably cold weather. This was January. In Chicago. So, having once been to the Arctic Circle, I blew the cobwebs off my fur-lined Canada Goose Expedition Parka, packed a pair of swimming trunks and headed to the airport.
The first pleasant surprise on arrival was that the cab ride into the city – in a comically enormous 4 x 4 – took a mere 30 minutes. There was none of the agonizing exodus of queuing traffic that seems de rigeur in New York or London. The second surprise was a reminder of what -30C feels like. It’s don’t-breathe-in cold. Any skin exposed to the elements feels like a blade of ice in a second, the moisture in your nostrils crackles, and when the wind blows your primitive brain takes over any higher thought process with just one word: ‘Inside, inside, inside’. Oddly, there was no snow – the mercury was too low even for that – but you did notice that the usually dark grey roads and pavements had instead taken on a baked white look. It would seem that even tarmac freezes eventually. I was beginning to feel like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow.
Fortunately, there was The Peninsula.
The Peninsula Hotel itself sits just across from the Hancock Tower, and is a few blocks from the infinitely impressive Lake Michigan (which, incidentally, is only slightly smaller than England). The first impressions of the hotel were becoming enough, if not what I expected. You pull up to be greeted by charming doormen – only their eyes exposed to the weather – but on entering the hotel realize that the entrance is actually a floor below the hotel proper, and in fact this particular entrance feels as much a part of Tiffanys next door as it does the hotel. This commercial feeling goes on as you arrive on the first floor with displays of jewels, watches and other luxury goods tastefully arranged in display cabinets as you approach the hotel reception. It is not something I particularly care for as it feels slightly more upscale airport than top end hotel. However, once you are at reception, it all changes, and a class act begins.
The hotel itself has been recently refurbished, and I was lucky enough to be accommodated in one of their junior suites. Given the junior suite is about the same size as the average London two-bed flat, I dread to think how opulent the larger suites are. The new rooms exude thought and quality – everything is a fusion between modern American and Chinese, echoing the Peninsula’s origins; the long wall that divides the sitting room from the bedroom has an elegant Ming-like motif on it. Inside the proper old school desk drawers you find that the hotel has thoughtfully stocked it with not only paper, but a printer as well. And while the immediacy of wifi – which eludes many a high-end hotel – did not escape the Peninsula, what I will say in their defence is that they rectified the issue in minutes by installing a modem in my room with its own access to a superfast network.
Once plugged in I found the suite a great environment in which to work. Sitting at the desk, I had a view of frozen Chicago to my left, and the oversized flat screen TV in front of me – which, given the high spec of the room’s connectivity it was all too easy to mirror my work onto the screen to use it to run through the various presentations I was due to give.
It is also worth mentioning that the Peninsula Chicago has spent an awful lot of money upgrading all of its in room technology, and not just for business; the results outstrip any other hotel I have stayed in. In the bathroom, you press a button and it suddenly becomes a Zen room – the lights dim, and the sound of pan pipes and other relaxing music plays as you enjoy a soak in the oversized bath. And, ever thoughtful, there is a screen next to the bath that you can once again control most elements from. I would not, however, advise using the radio. Not one for Zen music I sorted through every radio channel in the world and picked one of a dozen listed Classical staions. Relaxing to Dvorak’s New World Symphony in the hottub was divine – the loud cacophony of excited Chinese voices at the end wasn’t. Yes, you can even get Shanghai Classic FM in the Chicago Peninsula.
Beyond the bathroom everything is controlled via an ipad. From it I could control every aspect of my stay – lights, temperature, TV, alarm, room service, bills, concierge. You name it, you could do it. Apparently the novelty factor of this has led to some guests asking for everything and anything that they can think of – so, not one to follow the crowd, I requested some cotton wool buds. Which arrived five minutes later. Sadly, I had no use for the said cotton wool buds, so I ordered a flannel. Followed by a steak, a spare cushion, two copies of the Tribune and a string quartet. Each arriving punctually. Apart from the quartet. I would have to wait for that.
On my first night at the hotel I wondered down to The Bar – practically, imaginatively, that’s its name – and it is an impressive and welcoming place. A long polished dark wood bar runs the length of the room. Behind it is an elegant backlit mirror creating a kind of chiaroscuro effect with the rest of the room, which itself opens up into a large comfortable space filled with the kind of sofas and chairs that you just want to sit back in and rest. The focal point of the whole room is a large roaring fire. If you do come here, ask the Venezuelan barman to make you an Old Fashioned, its worth a trip to the bar for that reason alone. And, unlike many hotel bars, this one has a great atmosphere: busy, yet relaxed and sophisticated. I was in my element.
Dinner in the Peninsula is, as you would expect, dependably good. The hotel has a choice of three restaurants; European, contemporary American, and Chinese. The stand-out for me, however, was the American restaurant. Aptly enough it gives onto the lobby, but it is a magnificent space. High ceilings, 20ft windows and at lunchtime a string quartet playing from a balcony overhead. It is a grand space that doubles up as the best breakfast venue I have been in, a meeting area during the day and full on restaurant at lunch and dinner. A nice touch on the weekend is that an enormous chocolate bar springs up, entirely complementary to the guests.
On the 19th and 20th floors is the Spa. A wonderful space as you would expect. I did not try any treatments, but I did have a swim in the pool, which has to rank as one of the most dramatic in North America. It’s indoor (thankfully) but gives onto a terrace that in summer must be a popular place to sit and relax. What makes it so impressive are the floor-to-ceiling windows – it might be -30c outside, but in the poolroom it’s a balmy 22c – so you can swim, drenched in winter sunlight with a stunning view across an icy Chicago.
It is worth making two final observations about the Peninsula. The service is impeccable – quick, kind and full of nice touches. But, as ever, it’s the little things that stand them aside from some other luxury hotels – details such as the way in which they always tie up your computer and phone cables with small branded ribbons; the small bow they always give as you’re met, and the permanently replenished and diverse fruit bowl in the room. The other observation is to see quite how smoothly and calmly everything runs – The Peninsula may have a set of large Lion statues at its entrance, but I rather see it as a swan. Elegant, regal and gliding through its day, but clearly beneath the service there is an awful lot of work going on to make the whole experience seem so effortless and graceful.
Outside, Chicago is a city with an endless amount to do. However, if you are tight on time, the three things I would recommend are to jump on the boat tour of the city to take in the architecture; take the elevator up to the top of the Hancock Tower to catch an incredible view of the city at night whilst simultaneously paying more for a glass of wine than is frankly decent; but most importantly of all visit the Art Institue of Chicago. It’s a veritable treasure trove of art and sculpture housing such greats as American Gothic, and works by Cezanne, Sisley, Renoir and Van Gogh to name but a few. The room dedicated to Monet’s is a genuine joy to experience. But, as for this flying business guest, I was simply happy to stay at my hotel.
For more information about The Peninsula, Chicago, including amenities for business, visit www.peninsula.com.