Surprise vacation

A couple years ago friends of ours took a trip with a "surprise travel agency", which was not a thing I had previously known existed. Basically, you give them dates and a budget, fill out a dating profile interest survey, tell them what cities you've been to recently or visit regularly already, and they plan a trip for you. A week in advance you get a long-range weather forecast and some packing suggestions/hints. The day before you get an updated forecast. At the time they tell you to be at the airport, you get email with your boarding passes and find out where you're going.

(Ok, they also send you a paper packet a few days in advance, containing things like attractions at your destination, where your hotel is, information about your return flight, and so on. They tell you not to open this until you get to the airport. You could cheat, but we didn't.)

The folks we used, Pack Up & Go, describe what they do as "weekend getaways", but somewhere in the FAQ is the information that, yes, you can tell them when your weekend is, so we were able to book a Sunday-through-Tuesday trip. They did a good job of planning an interesting trip that took into account our survey responses including write-ins. We used write-ins to flesh out broad categories that were checkboxes: yes we like live music but not loud music, yes we like museums and we are, in particular, science and technology geeks and prefer history to paintings, and a couple other things like that. With our survey we sent a pretty strong "culture good, learning great, beaches and sports not interesting" signal. We also noted that we needed vegetarian food options; by saying "options" we meant to convey that one of us cares, but we learned that we should be more explicit next time. (Not bad -- just that Dani would not have otherwise gone to a vegan restaurant, I don't think.)

So, with that preamble, we went to... Chicago! Which neither of us has ever been to.

(Aside: the email with our boarding passes said: "we know your friends went to Chicago too, but we think it's a great choice for you". I did not know that our friends had gone to Chicago; they talked about a different trip with this company. I guess they liked them too, then. :-) )

They put us at a hotel downtown so getting around was easy, and got us "city passes", which are books with tickets to several museums and other attractions. We used everything in the book except the tickets for an observation deck. In addition, we bought passes for one of the "hop on, hop off" bus companies (there are two), for a general tour and some transportation. We re-learned that these are good for guided tours and terrible for transportation (slow); in the future a one-day pass supplemented by public transit or Uber would work better.

On Sunday, after dropping off our bags at the hotel we started with that bus tour, getting off at a museum complex. Within walking distance of each other are the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Field Museum. That is the order in which they closed on Sunday (4, 5, and 6PM), so we took them in that order. I found the planetarium's exhibits to be a little disappointing; there wasn't a lot there for people who already know the basics. (Of course you have to have entry-level stuff; I was just hoping for the second level too.) The ticket included two shows on the "dome" (these are the ones that are typically some flavor of "tour of the sky" projected on the domed ceiling). One of them ("Planet Nine": the guide started by asking how many of us knew what the Kuiper belt was) was very good. The other ("Imagine the Moon") was fluffy and probably aimed at children. When you're standing at the ticket counter choosing which two of four you're going to see (and trying to figure out which show times work), you don't get much information. Oh well.

From there we went to the aquarium and saw lots of cool aquatic life. This ticket, too, included a movie, one choice of two; we took the one about reconstructing a dinosaur-era "sea monster" (I forget which, sorry), with an extant fossil as the anchor point. The film talked about what we know or could speculate about this creature's growth/lifespan, diet, migration patterns, predators, and death based on this record. Pretty neat!

By this point, while we could still go to the Field Museum, we decided we wouldn't be able to spend enough time there before it closed. We went back to the hotel, checked in, and browsed the many theatre options for that evening. Based on a bunch of paragraph-sized descriptions, location, and what still had tickets available, we chose Oslo, a Broadway show I'd never heard of making its Chicago debut that week. (Not a touring company; a local production.) It was an interesting, fanciful, I assume largely-fictitious rendering of a backstory to the Oslo peace talks between Israel and the PLO. The production was technically excellent and most of the actors were very good. (I found the presentation of one main character to be overwrought.) Apparently, according to the program, we were seeing a preview, with the official opening a few days later. Um, ok -- it's not like we got a discount, so I'm not sure what that spin is supposed to convey.

We had two more museums on our list that we knew we'd want to spend time at, the Field Museum (good reputation for natural history in particular) and the Museum of Science and Industry. We started Monday at the former and Tuesday at the latter so we'd have plenty of time. Both days we got breakfast and then headed museumward; we have now learned that museum fatigue is a real thing, and in retrospect we should have (each day) gone straight to the museum and planned to have lunch in the museum. Yes it's museum-restaurant food, but that means you can take a break and then go right back to museum-ing. Lesson learned. Mind, we spent about three hours at each, so it's not like they got short shrift; I just think we could have organized that better. Both are, as I expected, excellent and engaging museums.

The Field museum admission included -- you guessed it -- a choice of one movie. This and the aquarium one were 3D, by the way, and that worked reasonably. We chose the one about the discovery and reconstruction of Sue, the most complete T-Rex extant and also a holding in their museum. (I knew of Sue from science-fiction fandom (no kidding).) I don't remember what the other choice was.

The cloudy morning had cleared up by the time we were done at the museum, so we went to the lakefront and booked a riverboat archaeological tour, with a docent from a local non-profit dedicated to Chicago architecture. The tour was fascinating; alas I was not taking notes on the various architectural styles that were presented, so I'm at the "ooh, neat" level and not the "can talk competently about different styles" level. :-) One thing I saw there that I've never seen before is buildings designed to produce interesting reflections of other buildings. Think "mirror polish" but with tinting and curves (so there's controlled distortion).

We were going to go to the Skydeck after the riverboat tour, but during the tour the sunny sky we started with turned to low-hanging fog, so we didn't. And we didn't get back there on Tuesday, but it wasn't a high priority for us so, eh, sometimes the weather defeats you.

Pack Up & Go had booked us a dinner reservation Monday night at Althea, a vegan restaurant. This was high-end artistic vegan; the menu mostly did not include dishes that are naturally vegan but, rather, vegan imitations of non-vegan foods. Both the "cheese" plate and the "cheesecake" were fascinating and tasty. My chickpea fritata was decent; Dani's risotto curry was excellent. (I was going to get that one, not thinking he'd go for curry, so I switched to the fritata at the last minute.) We wondered about a restaurant that closes at 8PM but when we got there we saw why: it's on an upper story on high-end-stores row, you have to walk through Saks Fifth Avenue to get in, and Saks was closed when we came out.

The Museum of Science and Industry is not downtown but out in the suburbs somewhere. The admission includes, you guessed it -- no! Not a movie this time but our choice of one of a few "experiences". One was about wearable computing but we figured it'd be calibrated lower (don't know if that's true). We chose the reconstruction of a coal mine, on the principle that this is about as far from stuff we know about as possible, yet clearly "industry", so we should choose this one. Irony: to get to the coal-mine exhibit you walk up the steps to the very top of the museum. I kept thinking: shouldn't we be in the basement? But this was clever: we took an elevator down and then later a short "train" ride, and they did manage to create a decent illusion without having to dig new sub-basements. I learned things about safety (or the lack thereof, usually) and machinery.

There were a lot of interesting exhibits at this museum, and one thing they do really well is multiple modes with multiple entry points. For example, they have an exhibit about weather systems and the extremes that come out of them. You could read stuff and watch short videos, but you could also use a touch-screen interface to adjust atmospheric conditions to "build" a tornado and then watch a simulation of it. (And yes, everybody aims for that one house in the field.) Or you could "build" a tsunami by calibrating root cause (e.g. volcano), distance from shore, and one or two other things and then watch it run in a water tank. Many of the exhibits were multi-modal like this, and the interactive stuff wasn't just for kids -- it was accessible and interesting to adults too. Kudos.

We had fun on the trip and are likely to take another trip with Pack Up & Go. I wonder where they'll send us next time.

For a few photos, see this entry.