Sunday, May 26, 2013

2013 Bike The Drive

Today was the 12th annual Bike The Drive event in downtown Chicago.  20,000 bikers signed up for this event where the fifteen miles of Lake Shore Drive between Hollywood Avenue in the north and 57th Street in the south is blocked-off for bikes only.  Bikers were allowed onto the course beginning at 5:30 a.m. this morning.  I parked in the south Grant Park garage, exited the garage on my bike and turned east on Jackson Drive.  I reached Lake Shore Drive just a few minutes after the 5:30 a.m. beginning of the event.  I certainly was not alone on the road but since I was among the earlier starters, there was plenty of room.  Also, the fact that this is not a race and does not feature a mass start, makes for easier riding.

My event participant number

Route map from the event brochure

After a couple of days of cloudy weather here in Chicagoland, today's weather was mostly clear and sunny but temperatures were cool and a breeze made it feel even cooler than the actual temperatures in the low 50's.  This is my third time doing this event.  Pam and I did it with friends in 2010 and 2011 but I was on my own this year.  The event bring out all sorts of bikers.  I saw more than a few tandems and a few riders on classic older bikes.  There were also several bike club groups riding together as well as families.  As I headed north, the taller buildings of downtown gave way to beautiful residential buildings that face Lake Michigan.  The sun rose shortly before 5:30 but I did not feel much heat from its rays.  I had on long biking pants as well as a windbreaker jacket and I was glad I did.  A few hearty or foolish soles had on shorts and t-shirts.  The predicted high temperature for the day was only 66 and it wasn't close to that yet.

I entered the course as it opened a few minutes after sunrise
North of the downtown "Loop" area

Some of Chicago's best beaches lay along our route.  There were already plenty of beach walkers and joggers out.  I noted plenty of race personnel standing along the route keeping an eye on things as well as first aid riders and repair riders ready to assist any bikers.  I did not see any accidents but I did see them loading one person who had evidently had some trouble into a car.  I previous years I had started the event later in the morning along with a crowd of riders.  Starting earlier got me a better parking spot and a less crowded roadway but less favorable weather conditions.

I skipped the rest stop at Bryn Mawr Avenue and went on to Hollywood Avenue after Lake Shore Drive bends west.  I did a u-turn at Hollywood and started back south.  With eight miles or so under my wheels, I was thoroughly warmed up and felt my speed pick up as I made my way south back towards downtown.  At Monroe Street I got off of Lake Shore and headed west to Columbus Drive where I turned south and then got off of Columbus onto Jackson before turning back onto Lake Shore to continue south.  We passed Museum Campus and then Soldier Field before passing beneath part of McCormick Place, the giant convention and exhibition hall.

Southbound back toward the city
Approaching downtown

This ride was made possible by the sponsors and by Active Transportation Alliance but, in a very important way, it was made possible by Daniel H. Burnham (1846 - 1912).  His 1909 Plan of Chicago called for a 20-mile long public park along the city's lakefront.  He was a visionary but certainly not alone.  A quote in a publication by the Canal Commission in 1836 is often incorrectly attributed to Burnham.  It stated that the lakefront should be "... public ground - common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever."  McCormick Place is the only building that violates that edict but many argue that Lake Shore Drive itself violates it.  Some would like to see the Drive itself removed entirely to make the lakefront a truly grand park space.

It doesn't look like Daniel Burnham spent too much time on a bicycle
I know I was moving along at a good pace but the trip seemed really quick this year.  Before too long I was in the neighborhood called Hyde Park.  My mother's family started out in Hyde Park in the 1920's and 1930's so parts of it are familiar to me.  The feature of the area that is probably most familiar to Chicagoans and visitors alike is the Museum of Science and Industry.  It's the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere and is housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts building from the World's Columbian Exposition that was held in 1893.  It is one of the few buildings from the Exposition that was built as a permanent structure.  Chicago is known as "The Windy City" and one of the most commonly accepted explanations for that term is that it was used often by a New York City newspaper editor to describe the bragging of Chicago politicians and other boosters as we competed to be designated as the site of the Exposition.  I had stopped along the way to take a few photos and drink some water so I did not feel like I needed the rest stop at the turn around site at the Museum so I was back on my way north for the final leg of my journey in no time at all.

Some of the best views of the city are from northbound Lake Shore Drive
Getting close to the finish
Into the concrete canyons

A few folks come out to this event on bikes that are ill-equipped to handle a 30 mile ride but it is more common to see riders who are themselves not ready for the ride.  I did not see anyone riding in the van labeled "sag vehicle" but more than a few folks looked like they were not there to do the whole ride.  There were designated places to for people to enter and exit the route.

Some of the best views of the city are looking north from Lake Shore drive as you approach downtown and today was a great day to enjoy the views.  I saw several groups of people stopped by the roadside to pose for a photo with the city rising in the background.

I finished my ride before 8:00 and exited the Drive on Monroe to circle Grant Park again before heading to the parking garage.  More than a few folks were entering the riding area via Jackson Drive to begin their rides.  This is where you see the accidents happen when people are going in several directions or pulling over to rest or to try to meet-up with someone.  I saw one close call.  I headed back down into Grant Park Garage to retrieve my car and head home after a great ride.

At the end of the ride

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Along Florida's Shell Coast

The southwest coast of Florida from Fort Myers to Marco Island has long been a favorite destination of ours.  A warm winter climate, good restaurants and spectacular white sand beaches bordering the Gulf of Mexico make it a wonderful place to go, especially when the icy winds of a Chicago winter howl.  So far this year, however, we'd enjoyed another mild winter in Chicago with one of the longest stretches of a lack of measurable snowfall in recorded history - right up until I dropped Pam at the airport for her trip to Fort Myers on Sunday, January 20th.  The day before we had a high of 47 degrees.  On Sunday the high was 28 and on the following day, with Pam safely down in the Florida sunshine, we had a high of 15 in Chicago with snow forecast for later in the week.  I was stuck at home while Pam was applying copious amounts of sunscreen and enjoying a week of perfect weather while she and her pal Jan (from Toronto) were having a great time in the Sunshine State.

I headed to the airport a week after Pam left for my flight down to Fort Myers (set your airfare search destination to airport code RSW).  The security lines were already getting long but I stepped up to the TSA's Pre-Check line and breezed through security.  Travel Tip:ð I can't say enough about how easy this program has made this aspect of travel for me and I urge you to check it out.  That said, Pam reported seeing long security lines in Fort Myers for those boarding flights and there is no Pre-Check program in Fort Myers yet.

Pam's sister and brother-in-law have owned vacation property in this area for over 20 years and were kind enough to lend us their current place in Estero for our time down there.  I arrived in Fort Myers in time to enjoy a couple of hours with Jan before she headed back up to Toronto.  The weather was superb with sunny skies and temperatures near 80.  By the time we got home a couple of weeks after my arrival, we agreed that our time down there this year featured the best weather of any of our trips.  In three weeks there this year, Pam experienced one morning of light rain showers and temperatures that never felt cold.

This 3-foot alligator could be found just outside our back door on most afternoons
The Philharmonic Center for the Arts ("the Phil") in Naples is much more than just a concert hall.  We keep an eye on their website to see what is on their calendar when we plan to be down there.  This year we stepped over to the Daniels Pavilion, a smaller theater across a courtyard from their main venue to attend a performance by Lonesome River Band.  It was a great evening of bluegrass music by this award winning group.  The Philharmonic Orchestra was performing in the main auditorium so we knew things would be crowded at the Phil.  Travel Tip:ð We made dinner reservations at Brio in a neighboring mall so it was easy for us to get a primo parking spot at the Phil, stroll over to Brio for dinner and know that when we came out of the concert, it would be easy to hop in our car and head back to Estero.

The beautiful Gulf coastline offers miles and miles of white sand beaches and lots to see and do.  It is common to find your gaze drawn to the sand as you look for shells that are frequently found on the beach.  As a matter of fact, don't forget to pack the Tivas, Keens or other firm-soled sandals since much of the beach is covered in shells.  Both resident and migratory birds can be found in great numbers along these shores.  During "high season" the population of this area swells greatly.  Driving and locating parking can tax your patience.  Pam purchased a beach pass for the rental car which made it a lot easier and somewhat less expensive to park as we explored the beach walking opportunities.
The Gulf shoreline of southwest Florida offers a mix of developed beachfront as well as some undeveloped stretches

Even during the busy season it is not difficult to find a quiet stretch of beach
An infinite number of greens and blues

One of our favorite things to do is to park at a public garage near the Ritz-Carlton and walk a couple of miles in each direction up and down the beach.  We cap off the experience with lunch at the wonderful Gumbo Limbo restaurant at the beach in the Ritz-Carlton Naples.  It's a great spot for a sunset cocktail as well as lunch.
The Gumbo Limbo at the Ritz-Carlton is easily accessed from the beach and is a great lunch or sunset cocktail spot

We visited with former work colleagues who have relocated to Osprey as well as Cape Coral.  Of course, all of this driving up and down the coast meant that a rental car was necessary.  In trying to keep the expense from getting out of hand we decided to rent from an office located off of the airport property since the rates they quoted were substantially below those offered for rental from companies located at the airport.  Travel Tip:ð Plan your travel carefully and be prepared with contingencies since many offices away from airports do not have the same hours as those offices at airports.  Enterprise had an office not too far from Pam's sister's place.  As their commercials say, they will pick you up and take you to their rental office so, after taking a taxi the short distance from the airport to the condo and spending the night, Pam had Enterprise pick her up at the condo complex entrance (they won't pick you up at the airport) and take her to their offices where she picked up the car.  Travel Tip:ð If you read the fine print in benefit brochures offered by the credit card companies, you will note that while many cards offer automatic insurance coverage if you use the card to pay for the full rental, many cards limit that coverage to two weeks or less.  Apparently Pam's American Express covered her for the entire period of her three week rental.

The Cocohatchee River is one of the major waterways in the area and offers many recreational opportunities.  We elected to take a brief cruise on the river with Naples Marina and Excursions (12345 Tamiami Trail North, Naples).  Our captain Denis came to the Naples area many years ago from his native Belgium.  There was just one other couple on the boat with us so it felt like a private tour.  For a little over two hours we cruised down the Cocohatchee to its mouth on the Gulf and saw lots of wildlife, including a few dolphin and many, many birds.

Red tide is an algae that can be present at high concentrations in these waters from time to time as it was during a part of our time there.  In the event of an onshore breeze and especially when breaking waves cause the toxins released by the algae to become airborne, people can experience symptoms.  Humans can experience breathing discomfort when exposed to the toxins and those with asthma, emphysema and other breathing disorders should watch the newspapers carefully for news of an algae bloom.  Sea creatures can suffer greatly from red tide which can kill fish.  We experienced one day of exposure to red tide which caused a slight cough but no other reactions.

Collier County's Clam Pass Park is one of the most pleasant beach parks anywhere.  We drove there one day and walked down the .6 mile long boardwalk that meanders from the parking lot to the beach.  Those who might prefer not to walk can take advantage of the free tram service that drives you down the same boardwalk in a golf cart.  At the end of the boardwalk is a beach side grill and a concession stand that rents beach umbrellas, chairs and other items for those who do not bring their own. 
Walking the boardwalk out to Clam Pass
Kids' toys artfully arranged by the concessionaires at Clam Pass
An osprey looking for its next meal
Some guests pay to use an umbrella at the Waldorf while some just fly in and sit atop one for free
Everyone loves to stroll along the shore

"The Phil" is more than a concert hall.  The complex includes the Naples Museum of Art.   Their current primary exhibition (open through April 13, 2013), "Painting Women", explores the role of women in art and features works by Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lilla Cabot Perry, Helen Torr, Edgar Degas, Gretchen Woodman Rogers and others.  This is a very good museum and visitors to the area would be wise to check their website to see what is showing whenever they are in town.  The last Wednesday of each month features free admission during what they call "art after hours" from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park is another favorite of ours.  It is located on one of the last undeveloped barrier islands on the southwest coast of Florida.  We enjoy a long walk along the beach along with a stop at Doc's Beach House for a bite or a drink.  In addition to superb beach walking, the park is home to a population of gopher tortoises.

A gopher tortoise at Barefoot Beach Preserve County Park
Beach side tables at Doc's Beach House

Our visit was timed to coincide with our 20th wedding anniversary so as a treat to ourselves, we redeemed a few hotel frequent guest points to enjoy a few nights at the Waldorf Astoria in Naples.  Visitors to the area in the past will recognize this as the old Registry Resort.  A number of years ago it was transformed to the Naples Grande but is now a Waldorf under the Hilton set of brands.  The location right next to Clam Pass is wonderful.
Naples Pier

On our actual anniversary we had dinner at Baleen located in the LaPlaya Beach and Golf Resort.  We dined outdoors on the porch and watched the sun set over the Gulf.  It was a perfect way to cap our visit to southwest Florida and to toast our 20 happy years together.  Here's to many, many more!
A Gulf sunset from our table at Baleen on our 20th anniversary

P.S.: Fore more than 20 years we have enjoyed all that the wonderful Shell Coast of Florida has to offer and we expect to return here again and again.  So much so, in fact, that we spent a good deal of our time there this year tooling around the area with a realtor.  We located a property we like and are under contract to make it our own so count on more than a few blog posts from this beautiful spot in the future.
Miles and miles of beaches to be walked