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In the Heart of America

Why bother visiting the American Midwest? For in-depth knowledge of what has made this country so powerful; for first-hand experience of its people’s creativity and knack for the Good Life. Anything else? Yes. Profuse natural beauty…

Chicago – all jazzed up

The birthplace of skyscrapers and a cradle of jazz, the third biggest U.S. city has a history rife with culture (and not only with mob wars). Take at least three days to discover a chunk of Chicago’s unmatched heritage and nightlife! Start it at the top of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). Get a detailed multimedia presentation of its history, then a 360-degree view extending over four states and Lake Michigan. Dare to try the glass balconies and marvel at the incredible depth under your feet. Then behold another masterpiece of design: Millennium Park. Built atop railway yards, the 1.3 square kilometer, impeccably clean park features 13 imposing landmarks. The must-sees: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (a glass-ceiling ‘acoustic shell’ with live concerts), Cloud Gate (a jaw-dropping, amorphous structure of steel inspired by liquid mercury) and the Crown Fountain (a granite pool wedged between two glass brick towers displaying videos on their inward faces while drenched in cascading water). You will also find the McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink, the McDonald’s Cycling Center, and many other entertaining venues close by. Museum lovers should schedule a visit to the Field Museum (which lures visitors with the skeleton of the biggest T-Rex yet unearthed) or a jaunt to the Chicago Cultural Center to discover America’s first public library nesting under lavishly ornate arches and stain-glass domes. When it comes time for shopping, Michigan Ave becomes Michigan Awe: find everything from upscale brands to basement bargains in this bustling, flashy marketplace! Try also the shops in the less congested side streets. After a shopping spree, take a dip into Chicago jazz (or blues?) in one of the most respected clubs in the world. Select from: New Apartment Lounge (504 East 75th St), where drinks and music come in generous proportions; Checkerboard Lounge (423 East 43rd St), where Junior Wells often used to play in his heyday; or Andy’s Jazz Club (11 East Hubbard St) with an exquisite cocktail bar and an imposing line-up of jazz performers.

Denver – fun by nature

Once a city for oilmen, Denver has become an exciting High Mile City in the heart of the United States. The capital of Colorado has it all: highbrow museums, sidesplitting entertainment, and 205 parks. For a taste of the architecture, tour Colorado State Capitol, the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, and the Denver Art Museum (its Van Gogh exhibition opens on October 21). Art fans should also drop in on Clyfford Still’s oeuvre at the museum named after the American painter. For a different experience, visit Forney Transportation Museum to see more than 650 classic vehicles. The Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, a huge former air force hangar, houses historical artifacts from the aeronautic and space industry: next to 40 vintage aircrafts, you will also find an X-Wing from the Star Wars movies on display. It’s no paradox that a big city like Denver is also an ideal place for fans of nature. Do not miss out on the Denver Botanic Gardens – it is surprising how neatly the 15,000 species are arranged to create a sanctuary of harmony. Denver is also a perfect base from which to make forays to discover nearby natural wonders. Try Clear Creek rafting in Idaho Springs (30 miles off Denver); visit Rocky Mountain National Park for scenic drives, high-altitude hikes or rock climbing. Denver lies in the heart of the sixth biggest ski area in the United States with outstanding resorts. Echo Mountain falls closest to the city (35 miles away), but if you are willing to drive a bit farther, you can hit some of the best U.S. slopes at major ski resorts like Loveland (53 miles) or Winter Park (67 miles). Finally, two programs you should not miss: an excursion to Georgetown (47 miles from Denver), a picturesque historical Midwestern village with 200 restored houses from the 1870s sitting in a spectacular mountain valley. For a culinary treat explore Denver’s Beer Triangle. A tour to the Wynkoop Brewing Co., Great Divide Brewing Co., or Breckenridge Brewery is your ticket to becoming an aficionado of American ale.

“Houston, we have a program”

Houston looks like two metropolises that have merged, as its high-rise buildings are scattered in many different neighborhoods. Lesson: no zoning makes a city messy but exciting. For a full panorama, rise onto the 60th floor of the JP Morgan Tower downtown. Then take a good long walk to behold some architectural highlights: City Hall, the fountain in Tranquility Park, the Wells Fargo Plaza and the Toyota Center (home to Houston’s greatest sports teams). The refreshing spot of downtown is Discovery Green Park, where you can have a hearty Houston lunch at a place called The Grove. Houston has plenty of museums, but the most mind-blowing is the Space Center Houston, which gives you a close-to-life experience of living in outer space. Your kids can ride a moon rover and operate a real Apollo command module, at the Blast Off Theater you can come as close to being rocketed in space as a non-astronaut can get and observe the laboratories that simulate zero gravity conditions on earth. A highbrow tourist could wander for hours in The Menil Collection’s spacious, modern galleries before an evening performance at the J.H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts or at the Wortham Theater Center. Tourists with children tend to opt for the Galleria, a giant shopping complex boasting a year-round indoor ice rink. An amazing place to eat out is the Dharma Cafe on Houston Ave: daily menus vary enormously but the price is often fixed. Honeymooners can mark their trip with a heavenly steak dinner at the Strip House restaurant where expensive but perfect meat treats come along with ruby red wines. To taste the greater Houston area’s best fresh produce cooked up in bold creations, book a table at t’afia restaurant. To buy the same produce fresh and raw, head to the same spot Saturdays when the parking lot turns into a local Farmer’s Market. Dare to escape from town out to Bay Area Houston. Seven smaller cities and wildlife refuges line the 35-mile seafront. Taste succulent seafood in Corpus Christi, sunbathe on the sandy beaches of Padre Island, and wonder at whoopers in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

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