Super stylish and historic: the superb Intercontinental Hotel Chicago

CHICAGO- One of the best things about travel to me is stepping into a really cool hotel with great atmosphere and history and thinking, “Wow, this is my home the next few days.”

That’s exactly the way I felt when I walked into the Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile in this great city the other day. I didn’t know much about it before I got here, but I came away from the trip with this being my favourite hotel in town.

The Intercontinental Chicago Magnificent Mile on Michigan Ave. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

The 42-story south tower was built in 1929 as a playground for the Shriners, and you’ll find wonderful exterior touches such as Gothic Arch windows, Art Deco-style friezes and a Masonic-looking dome on top of a creamy stone tower on Michigan Ave., just a block from the Chicago River.

Inside might be even more regal, with a soaring lobby and a spiral staircase. It’s quite modern at the check-in desk, where they’ve put in large TV screens that show what’s happening on the street outside or display photos of boats on the Chicago River in real time. I’ve never seen something like it before, but it really emphasizes a sense of place and gives an older hotel a jazzy, modern, “I’m with the social media thing” feel.

They have not one but two concierges who have been honored with the Clef d’Or or Gold Key, a huge honour in the business and a level of certification not easily obtained. I chatted with both of them, both women, and found them hugely helpful and delightful to talk with. I also thought the doorman outside had perhaps the warmest, kindest smile I’ve ever seen on a human being.

We had a lovely corner room, with views out onto Michigan Ave on one side and then facing south towards the river on the other side. The room was quite large, with a few scattered black and white prints; giving the room a bit of a minimalist feel that made it seem even bigger. Given the space I probably would’ve put a sofa in one corner, but we had all we needed, including a large-screen TV, a mini-bar, a coffee maker, plush robes, a lovely shower and tub and a large washroom; not something you see a lot in older properties. The bed was divinely comfortable.

The lobby at the Intercontinental Chicago is a beauty. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

The second floor features incredibly ornate carvings and a crazy beautiful staircase, which you can see if you wander into the entrance of Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse on the second floor. We tried Jordan’s bar at lunch and were treated to one of the best crab cakes ever; huge, juicy chunks of sweet meat and not even a trace of filler. We also shared a steak sandwich with fries on the side that would’ve been filling for two people on its own.

There are tons of great photos of Jordan on the wall of the bar, including shots of him with former President Bill Clinton and playing basketball against the likes of Magic Johnson. There’s also a shot of him in his brief baseball playing days in the mid 1990’s when he had taken a respite from professional hoops. It happened to be a time when I covered baseball for the Toronto Star, and I got to interview him at spring training and talk with him about his difficulty adjusting to major league pitching, something he never quite did.

The Intercontinental breakfast buffet was superb, with everything from French cheeses to salami, turkey sausage and duck rillettes. The omelette chef did a great job on my eggs, supplemented by the best salsa I’ve ever had; just right spicy green tomatillo salsa that the chef apparently makes himself. I only wish they bottled the stuff!

One of the most stunning features is the swimming pool, reputedly a favourite of Olympian and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller back in the day. It’s got tons of great light and carved arched walls. The gym downstairs is impressive and there’s a full spa.

The swimming pool at the Intercontinental Chicago is a stunner. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

The location also is perfect; a three-minute walk to the Chicago River and right next door to the Tribune Tower. The Navy Pier is a 15-minute walk to the west and Millenium Park and “The Bean” sculpture a short walk to the south.

Don’t miss the Art Institute of Chicago when you go. We also did a great kayak trip on the Chicago River with Urban Kayaks, a fabulous architectural and cocktail bar tour with Chicago Detours, a great food tour with Chicago Food Planet and a fantastic and-then-some tour of Wrigley Field prior to seeing the Cubs beat the Washington Nationals. More on those later in these pages and at www.canoe.com/travel.

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