Sunday, July 16, 2006

Pier 39 vs. Baby Pier

Because we had a guest in town, we visited the attractions at Navy Pier (or as Nutmeg dubbed it, "Baby Pier") for the first time this weekend. I was prepared to be underwhelmed -- "I bet they'll have the same exact stuff as Pier 39," I said as we entered the large indoor mall that leads to the Pier. Sure, we had just enjoyed letting Nutmeg run through a lovely, clean fountain clad only in a diaper, whereas any San Francisco fountain is surely running with heroin and cholera and inaccessible due to the piles of passed-out people around it, but I figured that was a fluke.

Sure enough, the first business I saw was the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which they also have at Fisherman's Wharf. As the indoor mall went on and on, things looked bad. "Build a Bear Workshop," fast-food Chinese place, Chicago souvenir shop, etc. But when we finally stepped outside toward the end of the pier, I was impressed. With the sun low in the sky, the ripples on Lake Michigan were that beautiful platinum-blue. Hundreds of boaters were out there enjoying the hot day. Besides the Ferris wheel, which you can see for miles around, there was all kinds of entertainment, some of it free. There was a large beer garden with a live band, and another stage where a cut-rate improv troupe and an amateurish magician were performing. We walked down the Pier, and I was amazed by how wide it was. There was just so much lakefront, and because we were out on the lake, the temperature was perfect despite the fact that it had been a brutally hot day. There were several diferent tourist boat companies with boats leaving every half hour or so, and we took one of these, for 12 bucks a person, and got a little recorded tour of the skyline just as the sun was going down. We ate hot dogs, funnel cake and ice cream.

What really struck me was how perfectly this place took advantage of Chicago's summer climate. It stuck you out on the lake to cool you off, and gave you plenty of space to just enjoy the gorgeous summer evening. I saw plenty of women in pretty summer dresses, which made the place reminiscent of the old days. I could imagine them walking arm-in-arm with sailors. It also made me realize that locals as well as tourists come here, because how often do you see a well-dressed tourist? At 10:15 p.m., everyone sat down on the benches and stone steps and watched a fireworks show just as good as what many places have on the 4th of July. Navy Pier has it twice a week in the summer. By this time of night in San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf is practically deserted, because even in summer, it's just too cold down there after dark to enjoy being outdoors.

And what is there to do down there after dark anyway? Instead of free entertainment on stages, the Wharf has quasi-scam artists pretending to be robots and the Bush Man making money by scaring unsuspecting tourists. Even if the weather were nice, Pier 39 is so fully enclosed that you don't even have the sense of being outdoors when you're on it.

Navy Pier even had a few features that we didn't get the chance to check out this visit: a children's train, a stained glass museum, and the Shakespeare Theater (where my friend Matt is often performing). Oh, and another thing you'll never believe: There are plenty of clean, indoor bathrooms, that -- despite the large crowds on this gorgeous summer night -- had little to know waiting. Honest to God.

Pier 39, of course, does have two redeeming qualities that Navy Pier could not replicate: the sea lions and the mini donut stand. If only we could somehow transport these two features to Navy Pier, I think it would be the world's most perfect toursim and entertainment destination, for the brief four months or so that it's not snowed in.

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