You've heard of a glass-bottomed boat, right – the kind of vessel that allows you to peer down at marine life? Well, we're aboard one of the first dinner cruises on Chicago's new Odyssey Chicago River and it's tempting to describe the high-end, purpose-built ship as a glass-topped boat. Its transparent roof shows off panoramic views of one of the most architecturally famed skylines in the world.
Odyssey Chicago River is Chicago's first five-star floating restaurant, complete with white tablecloths, high-end service, a hotel-style bar and its own chefs who cook everything served aboard in a fully equipped galley/kitchen.
I'm lucky enough to be invited upfront to join the captain. It's midwinter in Chicago, and it should be snowing, but it's unseasonably warm and there's not a snowflake to be seen as we glide past the massive Trump International Hotel and Tower. Don't mention climate change, anyone!
As we power against the flow of the river towards the famous ferris wheel that marks the shores of Lake Michigan, the captain points out one piece of architectural history after another. We see the former headquarters of the Chicago Tribune, soon to be turned into luxury apartments; the Wrigley building, with its high-level bridge; and the landmark Jewelers' Building, also known as 35 East Whacker. They were all constructed after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and introduced the word skyscraper to the modern lexicon.
As the captain explains, however, Chicago's true engineering miracle was reversing the flow of the Chicago River. The feat of engineering took place in the late 19th century, in the name of improved sanitation and water supply, and has been compared to the construction of the Suez and Panama canals.
Although the Chicago River is only 250 kilometres long, it provides a vital link between the Great Lakes, which flow into the North Atlantic, and the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This was the key reason for Chicago's rapid expansion as a transport hub – it was once a bigger port than New York – and the rapid increase in its population through the 1800s.
No self-respecting Chicagoan would have lived by the river before 1880. It was literally a floating cesspit, filled with excrement flowing into Lake Michigan. Confronted by cholera and the poisoning of Chicago's water source, the city invested a fortune in reversing the river's flow via a series of locks and sanitary channels, creating the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Tonight, the river smells as sweet as the Seine and its skyline is as architecturally spectacular as Shanghai.
The 43-metre Odyssey Chicago River was built in Florida and delivering it from the boatyard to Chicago took 14 weeks, via a reverse Huckleberry Finn adventure from the Mississippi Delta to the shores of Lake Michigan.
Entertainment Cruises, the ship's parent company, began in 1978 and now has 48 vessels in 11 locations, carrying 2.3 million passengers a year. Its Odyssey brand – the flagship of the company fleet – already operated in Boston, Lake Michigan and Washington DC before it launched its Chicago River version in September 2018.
The galley is churning out delicious treats when I visit. Tonight's on-board function is a corporate launch and trays of seafood specials and sparkling wines are being served. Sadly, however, none of the fish served comes from the Chicago River.
The city's most infamous mayor, Richard Daley – mainly remembered outside the US for his hosting of the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention following the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – once promised fish from the river could soon be taken home to eat safely. Half a century later, locals are still waiting for the all clear.
Winters in Chicago can be bitter but the captain of the Odyssey Chicago River explains that – global warming aside – this stretch of the Chicago River will never freeze over again. All those skyscrapers either side of us distribute excess warm air via pumps into the river. New Orleans here we come!
Steve Meacham was a guest of Air New Zealand.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop from Auckland to Chicago three times a week, with multiple connections in Australian cities. See airnewzealand.com.au
The five-star Langham Chicago was designed by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and has won multiple awards. See langhamhotels.com