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Chicago’s windy suburbs

Courtesy Chicago Skydeck

It’s a surreal experience. Take two steps, and you are suspended 1,353 feet above Chicago’s Wacker Drive, with ant-size people and tiny yellow taxis moving below your feet.

“There’s always something moving down there, and there are the varied colors,” said Randy Stancik, general manager of the Chicago Skydeck, where glass boxes known as the Ledge extend four feet from the side of the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in North America.

The Ledge, with its acrophobic view of Chicago’s distinctive skyscrapers and Lake Michigan shoreline, has been a hit since its debut nearly two years ago.

Thirty minutes away, you can be standing on firm ground surrounded not by towering structures of steel, glass and stone, but by thousands of trees.

“We are like a tree museum,” said Allison Phelps, public relations coordinator for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. “We have 4,128 specimens from all over the world. There are trees you might not normally see in your neighborhood.”

Although convention and visitors bureaus in the sprawling suburban area around Chicago recognize that their big-city neighbor is the primary draw to the region, they promote attractions such as the Morton Arboretum, with their easy accessibility to downtown and more affordable costs, to complement trips to the Windy City.

“We know groups want to do downtown, but there also are attractions out here that are unique,” said Julie Scholle, senior sales manager for the DuPage Convention and Visitors Bureau in Oak Brook.

“No matter how you look at it, Chicago is the destination. Combining an itinerary of the city and our area is really what works for us,” said Michelle Lobell, sales and marketing manager for Chicago North Suburbs Convention and Visitors Bureau in Prospect Heights.

Here is a look at a Chicagoland visit from the perspectives of some of these bureaus.

Chicago North Suburbs
The Chicago Botanic Garden and the Cuneo Mansion and Gardens are relaxing stops for groups headed into downtown from Chicago’s northern suburbs.

“The Botanic Garden is a great stop on the way into Chicago,” said Lobell. “It’s a nice stop that breaks up the ride. Cuneo Mansion, because of its proximity, is easy for our groups to go there.”

Originally built in the early 20th century by one of the founders of the General Electric Co., the Italianate Cuneo Mansion was purchased in 1937 by John Cuneo Sr., owner of the National Tea Co.

The house, which was given to Loyola University of Chicago two years ago, contains the Cuneo family collection of antiques, paintings by world-famous artists, tapestries, sculptures, silver and porcelain.

Guided group tours are available of the house and landscaped grounds and gardens; groups can also arrange for catered meals at the mansion.

Upon reaching downtown, groups can get a great view of where they came from atop either the Skydeck or the John Hancock Observatory; both have undergone extensive renovations in recent years.

“We want people to have an unforgettable experience with the Ledge,” said Stancik.

In addition to experiencing the Ledge, groups shouldn’t miss the Skydeck’s entry level, which has received a complete makeover; visitors can learn about Chicago pop culture, sports, architecture, history, food and music while waiting for the elevators that whisk will them to the top in 60 seconds.

Recent renovations of the John Hancock Observatory include a concierge service, audio tours and a new cafe, where groups can dine and watch the sunset or have breakfast high above the city.

Chicago North Shore

Gina Speckman, executive director of the Chicago North Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau, noted that the easy trip into downtown from her outlying area can be part of the experience.

“The same elevated train that takes you to Wrigley Field comes up to the North Shore, where it terminates,” said Speckman. “People can stay in Evanston and Skokie and get a beautiful view of the lake on the elevated train. That is half of the experience, and you don’t have to pay $40 downtown to park.”

Speckman said many people are surprised that the Chicago Botanic Garden is not in Chicago, but in the northern suburb of Glencoe.

The 385-acre garden has 24 display gardens and four natural areas situated on nine islands surrounded by lakes.

“They have tram tours; people really enjoy that,” said Speckman. “They have chefs come and do demonstrations on a weekly basis throughout the summer. Chicago has become such a foodie destination, and they are using produce made at the garden. The demonstrations take place in an open-air, amphitheater-type place.”

Another popular attraction along the North Shore is Wilmette’s Baha’i House of Worship and its surrounding garden.

“It’s on a beautiful piece of land and right on the lake,” said Speckman. “It’s architecturally unique and the only one in the United States and the Western Hemisphere. People come from miles around to not only tour the structure but the gardens, which are exemplary.”

No trip to Chicago would be complete without a stroll along the Magnificent Mile, from the bridge over the Chicago River to the Drake Hotel, where you can relax with an afternoon high tea and a good view of Lake Michigan.

You can shop in one of four vertical malls, stop in the Museum of Contemporary Art, see the view from the Hancock Observatory and eat in restaurants that welcome groups.

Chicago Southland
“In the southland itself, we have a number of different attractions,” said Bob Lukens, public relations manager for Chicago Southland Convention and Visitors Bureau in Lansing. “Hotel prices are significantly less expensive than downtown, and motorcoach parking is free out here. You can easily get to the city.”

Balmoral Park, a harness racing track, will do a buffet dinner for groups and dedicate a race to them.

“They will take them to the winner’s circle for a group photo,” said Kristy Benko, sales executive for the CVB. “It is one of our big things.”

At Lotton Art Glass in Crete, groups have the chance of watching glass artist Charles Lotton at work.

“He is nationally known for its cutting-edge work,” said Benko. “He works out of a pole barn. If he is working that day, groups can actually watch him work.”

For a relaxing lunch or just a bit of tea before heading downtown, stop at the Pickwick Society Tearoom in Frankfort, one of several small towns in the area with charming downtowns filled with antique and specialty shops.

“Its menu is based on ‘Little Women.’ All of the sandwiches are named after characters in the book,” said Benko.

Order a Laurie for a chicken salad on croissant, a Beth for egg salad on pumpernickel or a Prof. Bhaer for turkey, provolone and raspberry honey mustard on swirl rye.

From the southern suburbs, it is a half-hour ride into Chicago, where one of the first attractions you encounter is the massive Museum of Science and Industry, whose hands-on exhibits and 35,000 artifacts cover nearly 14 acres.

Housed in the only remaining building from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the museum is in the midst of a 10-year process that will eventually redo 90 percent of its exhibits.

Two of the newest exhibits are the $38 million Science Storm, which has more than 50 hands-on exhibits that use natural phenomena such as a 40-foot-high tornado and a 30-foot-long tsunami to demonstrate basic physics and science, and You! The Experience, with interactive exhibits about the body and health, such as a 13-foot-tall virtual heart that visitors can see beat in time with their pulses.

“Hands-on is what we are really known for,” said Beth Boston, the museum’s public relations manager.

The museum also has a German World War II submarine, a baby-chick hatchery and an authentically re-created underground coal mine.