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STAYCATION REVIEW The Ritz-Carlton: Class, comfort by Water Tower
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler

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I have stayed in many and varied hotels: As a pretty utilitarian sort, I never expected to stay in the Ritz-Carlton ( 160 E. Pearson St.; ). Recently redesigned with a chic, modern, yet still opulent feel, the Ritz invited me to spend the night and check out the spa the next morning, and I wasn't going to say no, so here's what happened.

—Location: The Ritz sits a few blocks inside the north end of the Magnificent Mile and top of part of Water Tower Place. In fact, there's a stop on one of the hotel elevator that takes you directly into the mall. So, overall, it's well-located for a shopping trip. Our room overlooked the old Water Tower and, to the east, Navy Pier and the Museum of Contemporary Art—a view my partner found amazing.

The multiple elevator situation: There's an elevator from the Pearson Street entrance to the lobby and, around the corner, elevators inside the lobby that actually take you up into the hotel. It can feel a little confusing and also like you might have spent 50% of your stay in an elevator, but I don't see another solution for the space.

—Feel/atmosphere: The downstairs entrance, the actual lobby and the space around it are striking, with vibrant, dark and light patterns on plush carpet. I also loved the bold art that highlights the lobbies, hallways and rooms. The clientele's mood at the Ritz appears equally split between people having a upscale, relaxing dinner as well as people who have important business mergers in the morning, and the space seems to accommodate both nicely.

The staff is overall, unfailingly attentive. They would like to do whatever they can for you, which was helpful in smoothing over some communication issues. I got champagne when I checked in, but I would have preferred more information about the hotel layout, such as where I could find the spa. In one of my many trips in the many elevators, I ran into Ricardo, who took time out of his day to ask me how I was doing and if I was enjoying myself. Later, in the Club Lounge, he remembered me and did everything he could to help my partner and I get some dinner after hours. Even when I asked him about the enchanting, spicy perfume in the bathroom, he called the spa to figure out if it was for sale.

Our room, a suite on the 21st floor, was gigantic: there was actually a French door between the bed area and what could have passed as a living room in a Chicago apartment. There were two sinks and a walk-in shower in the bedroom, plus a tiny refrigerator and espresso-making area in the hallway. My partner and I were concocting a plan to steal our king-size bed by the next morning. It was a hotel bed that actually delivered on the promise of luxurious comfort, pillowy without being overbearing. The sofa and chair in the room were surprisingly comfortable too, although worn a little bit on the arms.

And if you put on a Ritz-Carlton bathrobe, you will not want to take it off—they are thick, almost quilted, and don't have the slightest bit of roughness to them.

—Amenities: From a previous visit, I can tell you that the Italian steakhouse, Torali, is quite delicious, with vast options for fine alcohol, delicate appetizers—the bigeye tuna crudo was a great mix of salty, smooth, tangy flavors and textures—and of course, a fine juicy steak. Their rooftop bar is also daringly designed, popping with blue light: it was a little too cold and windy for us on our visit, but on a nicer day I would visit for aesthetics alone. There is a small cafe in the lobby serving La Colombe coffee, small appetizers and sandwiches, and oatmeal and butterscotch cookies. With its free wifi and proliferation of sofas, armchairs, and tables, the lobby is an inviting place to hang out, and the cafe helps feed you while you're there.

For this visit, we were supposed to take our dinner in the Club Lounge—an exclusive area available with certain rooms. It offers breakfast, lunch and dinner at certain times, and has snacks and beverages throughout the day. This too is stunningly well-decorated with casual style and another great view—my partner said she would happily live in it for a week.

However, we weren't told when the Club Lounge served meals and, thus, when we arrived at 8 p.m., a not unreasonable time for dinner in our view, we had missed the food. Luckily, our friend Ricardo hooked us up with a lovely white wine and some tasty leftover hors d'oeuvres, including a mini-asparagus quiche, a pork slider and what my partner described as "smoked salmon on a first cousin of a Triscuit". ( She really liked that one. ) The caramel pudding was a favorite of ours, too.

Breakfast the next morning, offered at 6-11 a.m., was the most hearty and varied complimentary breakfast buffet I've had in a hotel, with fresh fruit, bacon, eggs, about five different toast options, and a lox and bagel station. The bacon was really good. At breakfast, we also saw another couple make the same mistake we made about dinner, so it seems that in general that Club Lounge services need better explanation. ( And might I suggest lengthening the meal times by at least a half-hour? )

At the spa and workout facility, both the pool and exercise room struck me as small but well-equipped and, from the treadmills, you get another great view of the city. They also have steam rooms and a sauna. About my spa treatment: Initially, I was supposed to have a massage, but at the last minute was offered a 50-minute facial instead. I am definitely more of a massage person—soap and water is about all that happens to my face—but Daniela was very understanding of my total confusion regarding this rite of spa passage. Despite doing some heavy-duty maintenance on my chin, she and the spa's aromatherapy helped set a relaxing atmosphere. Her attention to detail was clear—I had written on my pre-treatment sheet that I had shoulder tension and despite the fact that I was getting a face treatment, she obviously took some time with my shoulders. The products she used felt fantastic—I actually liked the sonic treatment—and I keep enjoying my very smooth skin. I would certainly do the 80-minute facial in the future. It's possible to visit the spa without staying at the hotel, as long as you don't mind adding $10 to the bill.

—Bottom line: It's definitely an aesthetically excellent hotel to experience. I could actually see the Ritz-Carlton working better as a spa staycation than a home base during a trip—since you won't want to leave the bed or take off your bathrobe.

Note: This hotel visit was based on an arranged invitation.

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