Yesteryear’s Luxury: Rochester Inn & Sheboygan Falls, WI

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Rochester Inn

Today the road has brought me to Sheboygan Falls, WI.

At long last, it was vacation time!  But what a change in plans.  Originally, I had been gearing up for a trip to England which would have begun next week, but that plan had to be put on the back burner.  So if I couldn’t be in England, I decided I would experience a bit of New England in the Midwest with a visit to Rochester Inn owned and operated by Ray and Kelly York.

I was struck by an incredible sense of déjà vu as Green Bay, WI had been the last place I visited before normalcy got upended in March.  And the route to Sheboygan Falls is identical except for the last 45 minutes.

The trip started off rather well.  I had a clear stretch of road.  I enjoyed a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, in Kellogg, IA and arrived at the same Hampton Inn in Cedar Rapids that I had stayed at when I visited Green Bay.

Again, I had a very restful night, though I was somewhat disappointed by the breakfast.  During the week, they still serve a hot meal, but during the weekends, they serve a to go bag.  Mine had a banana, a honey bun, and a bottle of water.  One would think that the hot meal would be served during the weekend and the to go bag during the week, but my best friend thought they were catering to business travelers during the week which was an angle I had not considered and could very well be correct.

Saturday was gray, murky, and rainy.  But it was still an enjoyable drive.  I ended up arriving in Sheboygan Falls earlier than planned and was hungry so I stopped at a McDonald’s to eat a sandwich and small fries while I read another mystery in a Sherlock Holmes pastiche I had been reading.  Then I drove around the town for a bit before arriving at Rochester Inn.

Rochester Inn is located in the Cole Historic District and had been built by local businessman and pioneer, Charles Cole, in 1848.  The building had been built in the Greek Revival style and was originally a trading post and general store with the Cole family living on the second floor and the third floor being used as a meeting place for the Midwest’s first temperance society.  It is also believed that the building may have served as the town’s post office as Cole had been the postmaster.

The building had been several other businesses before falling into disrepair.  In 1986, it was restored to its original grandeur and became a bed and breakfast.

The inn is reminiscent of a New England inn at the turn of the century and if you want seclusion and social distancing, this is the B & B for you.

Possessing only 6 suites, Rochester Inn is the first inn I’ve visited that has no common area outside of the entry hall which I suspect is normally used for checking in and out.  The inn is currently utilizing a socially distant self check-in process and I found an envelope containing a welcome letter and inn keys waiting for me when I arrived.  I made my way up the back stairs and reached my room, the William Brian Donlevy suite.

Rochester Inn is famed for its two floor suites and I was hoping this would be the one I would be given.  Without question, this is the most luxurious suite in which I’ve stayed to date.  The first floor features deep blue carpeting adorned with symbols that reminded me of my old Webelos badge along with a leather couch, an elegant coffee table, and two armless easy chairs.  On a table by the door, I found a plate of cookies containing caramel or butterscotch chips (perhaps both) which I munched on while walking upstairs where I found a four poster queen-sized bed, writing desk, vanity area, and bathroom containing a very deep two person jacuzzi tub.  Flat screen TVs are located both upstairs and downstairs with the upstairs one having a DVD player and a DVD library is available in the main hall.

After getting settled, I relaxed for a bit before heading out for a little walk in the historic downtown area and the nearby neighborhoods.

Sheboygan Falls strikes me as a very well to do town due to the quality of homes I saw on my amblings.  It also contains a large number of parks and I spent a bit of time at Sheboygan Falls View Park looking at the town’s namesake falls.

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Dinnertime had arrived and I made the brief journey to Duke of Devon in nearby Sheboygan.  Duke of Devon is an English gastropub that practices pretty good social distancing.  I sipped on a ginger ale while enjoying a cottage pie which is a beef stew with tomatoes, marmite, and a mashed potato topping and it was quite tasty and filling.

After dinner, I returned to Rochester Inn where I spent the evening relaxing before retiring for the night.

I rose quite early the next morning and watched a little TV while I waited for my breakfast to be delivered.

As I stated earlier, there are no common areas in this inn which means no communal dining room.  Breakfast is delivered within a thirty minute window that you mark on a card and hang up on your door.  For those who must leave early, a continental breakfast can be left for you if you need to eat on the go.

At about 8:45, a tray was delivered to my room.  It looked splendid and the food tasted even better.

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Herb infused eggs with ham and cheese, fresh fruit, cinnamon croissant, with apple cinnamon jam, and OJ.

The meal consisted of a glass of orange juice with fruit and a cinnamon croissant that was so good that I literally leaned back on the couch and tapped my toes along with a casserole dish of herb infused eggs with ham and cheese.  There was also a small serving of apple cinnamon jam.  Now I’ve never been a jam fan, but this was so good that I spread it on my croissant to increase the cinnamon goodness.

After breakfast, I drew a bath and decided to try the herbal bath salts.  It smelled like a field of flowers and I don’t know if it helped me to relax, but the perfect temperature of the water certainly did along with the massaging power of the jets.

After the bath, I started visiting the local parks beginning with Falls Park.  I enjoyed gazing at the eight foot high waterfall while watching the red and gold leaves of the trees in the park.  I spoke to my best friend for about an hour before the charge on my phone wore out.  Then I headed to Settlers Park where I saw a pond full of mallards swimming and honking away.

After a morning of exploring, I returned to the inn where I found a new plate of white chocolate chip cookies waiting for me which I enjoyed while doing a little writing and Facebooking.

About a quarter of six, I decided to walk into town and have an early dinner.  My choice was Fat Cow Pub & Eatery.

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Fat Cow Pub & Eatery

Very few people were in there which made distancing even easier and I decided for some local fare with the Cheese Curd Stuffed Cheeseburger.

This was a fantastic choice.  It was served on a garlic aioli bun with lettuce, pickles, onions, bacon, and a bit of BBQ sauce.  Juicy, filling, and just plain delicious.  Feeling contented I returned to Rochester Inn where I organized some photos, watched The Blind Side, and hit the hay.

The next morning found me enjoying another leisurely soak before I got back to writing this article.  A knock at my door at 8:50am brought a tray that consisted of fruit, OJ, little smokies, and Pecan Encrusted Cinnamon French Toast with authentic Wisconsin maple syrup.

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Pecan Encrusted Cinnamon French Toast with fresh fruit, little smokies, and OJ.

And with another satisfying meal tucked away, I was ready to relax for roughly an hour before heading for home.

But if you find yourself near the Sheboygan Falls region, do yourself a favor and spend a night or two at Rochester Inn.  You’ll enjoy some timeless elegance with some splendid meals and you can enjoy a bit of simplicity with the town’s numerous parks.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. Continue reading

Secluded Splendor: Tuck U Inn at Glick Mansion & Atchison, KS

Tuck U Inn at Glick Mansion

Today the road has brought me to Atchison, KS.

Labor Day weekend had arrived and I felt the need to get away to someplace quiet and restful.  A look through my trusty spreadsheet and I realized it was the perfect time to visit Atchison and Tuck U Inn at Glick Mansion owned and operated by Chris and Loman Wildy.

I had been meaning to visit Atchison for quite a while, not only because of Glick Mansion, but because the town also contains a community theatre, Theatre Atchison, where I plan to one day review one of their shows.  However, with the pandemic currently throwing a wrench into the world of the arts, I decided to at least visit the town and inn.  (I would later learn that Theatre Atchison is mounting a 20-21 season.)

Theatre Atchison

It was the type of drive I like the best:  no interstate.  Nothing but highways and going through a small town or two before I arrived in Atchison.

Atchison is actually notable for a number of items.  It has a deep history, once had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country, was the birthplace of Amelia Earhart, and is considered the most haunted town in Kansas.  In fact, across the street from Glick Mansion is Sallie House, the most haunted house in Kansas which has been featured on many shows.  It is available for self-guided tours and overnights, but one must sign a waiver to enter the house as there is a chance for injury in the abandoned domicile, though one hasn’t happened since the last tenants in 1993.

Sallie House. This is reportedly the most haunted house in Kansas.

I entered the town around 4pm and made my way to Glick Mansion which is located in Atchison’s historical district.

When I think of a classic B & B, Glick Mansion is the vision that pops into my mind.  This Victorian mansion was built by George Glick in 1873.  Glick had been a successful attorney and farmer and was also active in state politics as he was elected to the Kansas legislature in 1862 and served in that capacity in 14 of the next 18 years.  He also served one term as governor starting in 1882.

When I arrived at the mansion, I was let in by Chris and led into the entry room/den where I filled out some paperwork and selected a breakfast time in order to be socially distanced from other guests.  But when Chris opened the door to the living room, I felt as if I had stepped back in time.

Period correct furniture and property fill the massive living room whose centerpiece includes a baby grand (I think) piano.  Chris showed me around the abode and enlightened me on some of the history of the house and town as I gazed on the historical beauty of the inn.  Eventually, Chris led me to my room, the First Lady’s Room.

This had been the governor’s bedroom and it is a beaut.  From its elegant Victorian furniture to its queen sized canopy bed, this room practically shouts comfort.  The bathroom is especially impressive as it was once the sleeping porch of the Glicks.  Yes, you read that right.  The Glicks believed sleeping outside was healthier.  Not only does the bathroom contain a fireplace, but it also holds a jetted tub.

After getting settled, I took a little walk around the town.  I could definitely see the extreme wealth for which the town had once been famed as there are a lot of old money houses in the area.  As I later learned from Loman (who is a fount of knowledge on Atchison’s history), the town once had 57 millionaires and 11 women who were worth half a million.  That latter fact was the most interesting because this was during a period when women were not encouraged to work nor were allowed to inherit, so how did they accrue their wealth?  They either had to be working covertly or illicitly.

The truth was that they were doing a bit of both.  A restaurant near the riverfront was a brothel back in the day and that is where these women worked.  Atchison had been a big port town that often had 3 steamboats in dock to get supplies.  So the women would hit up the steamboat personnel when they docked and the money rolled in.

I needed some dinner, so I made my way to Paolucci, a bar/restaurant/deli.  I decided to go with their house special, a chicken romano sandwich which was grilled chicken seasoned with Romano cheese and topped with bacon.  As I wanted some vegetables, I also had the tossed salad with Paolucci’s homemade ranch dressing. 

Paolucci

This meal was a jackpot.  The vegetables were fresh and crisp and the homemade dressing was out of this world.  The sandwich was perfection on a bun.  The chicken was so juicy and the seasoning made each bit a little bite of Heaven.  With a satisfying meal tucked in, I returned to Glick where I had a long conversation with Loman before retiring for the evening.

In the morning, I drew a bath and the water gets very hot very fast, so it was a case of actually bringing the water down to my preferred temperature.  The jets were just what I needed as I’ve been using a new tabata workout regimen and my lower extremities were aching and the jets massaged the soreness out of them.

I enjoyed breakfast in the sun room where a small dish of honeydew and strawberries awaited me with goblets of orange juice and milk.  The main entrée was a sterling plate of Eggs Benedict with a side of seasoned asparagus.  It was an incredible meal with presentation that was a work of art.

Afterwards I began my explorations of the town and started with a visit to Benedictine College.  This small Catholic university only contains about 2,000 students and has a lot of elegant buildings including St Benedict church.  I halted my campus amblings prematurely as I saw a sign saying that through Sept 15 on-campus students were to remain on-campus except for necessities and off-campus students were to remain off-campus to help insulate against COVID, so I thought I should abide by the decree and drove around the campus instead.

From there I wandered about the town.  The town is still slowly reopening from COVID so certain venues only have limited availability.  This meant I was unable to make visits to the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and the Evah Cray Historical House as they are only operating a few days out of the week.  However, I will visit these places when I make my inevitable return to the town.

So I spent an afternoon reading Sherlock Holmes, writing, and watching Ratatouille which I selected from the inn’s movie library.

About 6pm, I felt ready for dinner so I went downtown to Maria’s Mexican Restaurant.  Again, I found another winner of a meal.  I tried the Burrito Fajita and it was delicious especially when enhanced with a side of properly seasoned rice and refried beans mixed with a bit of queso.

With a nice dinner digesting, I returned to Glick Mansion where I watched The Mask of Zorro, took another bath, and read Sherlock Holmes until oblivion claimed me.

I had a feast waiting for me in the sun room the next morning. Chris had prepared a bacon, egg, and cheese quiche along with some kiwi, strawberries, and what looked like a miniature orange with a side of fried potatoes. There was even a bit of dessert with a strawberry turnover.

Thirty minutes later I had another leisurely meal under my belt and I returned to my room to put the finishing touches on this article.

This has been one of the best inns I’ve visited since I founded the Corner and it gets my highest recommendation for a visit. It’s a classic B & B where you’ll be surrounded by vintage comfort, enjoy some fine meals, and have some wonderful hosts in Chris and Loman. You truly will leave this inn as a friend and can enjoy some of this town’s history or even do a little ghost hunting if that’s your forte.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

On the Road Again, Part II: Stauer House and McGregor, IA

Stauer House

Today the road has brought me to McGregor, IA.

And welcome to Part II of this article.  As McGregor was only a half hour south of Lansing, I decided to make a visit there in order to spend a night at Stauer House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Donna & Robert Staples.

McGregor is a throwback to yesteryear.  Like Lansing, everything is located on Main Street and a cornucopia of shops are available including antique shops, eateries, a rare book shop, a sweet shop, and even a local drugstore.  Like a small town of yesteryear, a lot of places close up early or are not even open on the weekends.

Close to the town for a visit are the Effigy Mounds and the Spook Cave Boat Tours.

Stauer House is a Queen Anne style home which was built by architect E.W.H. Jacobs for local businessman, Peter Stauer in 1882.  Stauer sold the home to another businessman, J. A. Ramage in 1904 where it remained in the Ramage family for most of the next 100 years.  Though, after Ramage’s death in the 1940s, his children primarily used Stauer House as a part time summer home.  In 2002, it was purchased by the Staples who lovingly restored it to its original beauty and saving it from the disrepair into which it had fallen.

I arrived in town around noon and entered through Stauer House’s back door.  I was greeted by Robert and Donna and Donna led me to a unlisted fourth room known as the Captain’s Room.  It is a very spacious room with a king sized bed at its center and containing from classic furniture and also containing an en suite bathroom. 

After making a quick turn about the house, I took a walk around Main Street and did a rarity by stopping for lunch at Café McGregor.  I continued reading Sherlock Holmes while munching on a small club sandwich with some kettle chips on the side. 

Cafe McGregor

After that it was back to the inn where I enjoyed doing a whole lot of nothing for the afternoon.

In the early evening, I took another walk and then spent the night writing, watching The A-Team, and enjoying a bath before retiring for the evening.

Shortly before 8am the next morning, Donna knocked on my door to let me know that breakfast was ready in the dining room.  I made my way downstairs and found a series of dishes ready for selection.  I took a little fruit, glasses of water and OJ, two pancakes, a piece of sausage, and a couple slices of an egg frittata.

It was definitely the quietest breakfast I’d ever had as not only was I the only guest but Donna and Robert had taken their grandchildren to school so I was completely on my own.  But it was a most pleasant meal and I was especially impressed with the fresh frittata with its gooey cheese and the pancakes which were infused with cinnamon.

After that, it was a quick wrap up to this article before making the trip back to reality.

But when you feel ready to travel again, a visit to McGregor will be worth it for those who love nature, antiques, and classic Americana and a stay at Stauer House will be a comfortable one.

Until the next time, happy travels.

On the Road Again, Part I: Thornton House and Lansing, IA

Thornton House

Today the road has brought me to Lansing, IA.

How good it feels to say those words again.  I was badly in need of some downtime and a little research found me the relatively unaffected by COVID county of Allamakee in which lies the town of Lansing which is home to Thornton House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Frank Ebersold.

I enjoyed the scenic drive to Lansing, eschewing the interstate as much as I could and making a brief stop in my hometown of Fort Dodge to grab a quick bite to eat at Taco Tico before continuing to my stopping point of Mason City where I had a suite reserved at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites.

For my regular readers, you might remember that when I traveled to Scotland last year, I joined the Hilton Honors program in order to check into my first hotel sooner.  Shortly after returning home, I also joined the IHG loyalty program.  IHG owns a number of hotels, most prominently Holiday Inn, and that loyalty program has already paid dividends. 

With my travel bug neutralized for most of the past 6 months, I have been taking an occasional night to myself at a Holiday Inn.  Thanks to various promotions which have boosted my points and tier score, I have earned enough points for a couple of free nights, achieved Gold Elite status, and am 2 stays away from reaching Platinum status (a status that normally requires 40 nights to earn, but a special promotion is letting me do it in 5).  My stay in Mason City was my first night as a Gold Elite member.  As such I automatically earned 300 points as a gift just for staying and I was warmly welcomed to the hotel with a sign in the lobby.

My room was quite comfortable and spacious, but seems to be following the trend of suites being really big rooms instead of multiple rooms.  A nice soft king sized bed was the centerpiece of the room and led to a full night’s sleep for the first time in a while.

The hotel did offer a breakfast consisting of cereal, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches served cafeteria style.  I had a “bowl” of Apple Jacks and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich along with some OJ while I watched the news.  I also invoked one of my benefits as a Gold Elite member and took a late checkout of 12:30pm so I could just check right into Thornton House when I arrived in Lansing.

It was a beautiful day for a drive and it seemed to go rather quickly due to the increased concentration needed to get to Lansing as one must navigate a series of back roads to reach the town. As I came closer to Lansing, I was stunned by the sudden transformation of the landscape into a valley as the hills grew in size and were covered by a lush forest.

I arrived in Lansing, a port town on the Mississippi River and also at the base of Mt Hosmer.  The town reminded me of a much smaller version of Eureka Springs, AR due to its incredibly hilly nature.

I found the inn, parked my car, and rang the bell and was greeted by Frank who gave me a socially distant welcome and gave me a little history of the house.

Thornton House is an Italianate Victorian mansion built by Alexander McMichael, a grain shipping magnate, in 1873 during a boom period in the local lumber industry.  Eventually the house passed into the hands of Dr. John H Thornton who, with his son, John W, became known as “the best medical team this side of the Mayo Clinic” and practiced out of the mansion.  For the next 120 years, the house was owned by a Thornton before passing into the hands of Frank.

Frank led me to the Grand Room which would be my headquarters for the next few nights.  The room consists of a bedroom and bathroom separated by a small foyer.  The bathroom contains a jetted tub while the bedroom has a full sized canopy bed with original or period correct furniture and overlooked by portraits of Presidents Pierce and Lincoln.

I made a quick exploration of the house before taking a walk down Main Street where everything and I mean, EVERYTHING, is located.  Gas, groceries, shops, restaurants, medical care, city hall, it’s all located there.

From there I returned to Thornton House where I puttered around for a while before heading back to Main Street and dinner at Milty’s.

Milty’s

I had been in the mood for a steak, but Milty’s seemed to be operating on a limited menu.  Instead I enjoyed a rather ripping chicken, bacon, and ranch wrap with a side of fries.  With the inner man satisfied, I went back to the inn where I spent a relaxing evening reading, organizing photos, and watching some classic game shows on BUZZR before enjoying a restful night’s sleep.

The next morning, I met Judith and Eric, who were also staying at the inn.  Positioning ourselves on opposite ends of the table and we took turns serving ourselves from dishes Frank had set up in the kitchen.  For myself, I enjoyed a delicious glass of triple berry juice and put together a plate consisting of a croissant, cheesy eggs (seasoned to perfection), sausage patties, and a homemade waffle which was quite light and fluffy.

Frank positioned himself on a nearby couch so we could share in some socially distant conversation which worked out surprisingly well.  With a satisfying breakfast tucked in, I took a drive up Mt Hosmer to the local park where I spent a half hour walking the trails and getting a couple of good shots of the Mississippi River and town.

From there I went back to the inn for a bit before visiting the nearby town of Harper’s Ferry at Frank’s suggestion.  Harper’s Ferry contains a Catholic church called Immaculate Conception which had been founded in 1848 by some Irish priests.  The land is known as Wexford, named after the village where the priests had lived in Ireland and the church, itself, is reportedly a duplicate of the church in Ireland.  A cemetery is also on the land and contains graves dating back to the same date as the founding of the church.  A very interesting visit for lovers of history.

Immaculate Conception-Wexford

After that I returned to the inn to write and rest for the remainder of the afternoon.

About 5:30pm, I walked down to the Main Channel for my dinner.  This is a local bar/restaurant and it would satisfy my craving for a steak as the Saturday night special happened to be a 10 oz sirloin with 3 grilled shrimp along with 2 sides.  As you may have guessed, I did select that.

I had asked for a house salad which proved to be surprisingly simple as it just consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and croutons with a bit of ranch dressing.  The fresh vegetables were a welcome treat and I crunched away while reading a new volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

The main entrée of steak and shrimp was quite delicious and it must have been my lucky night as the chef slipped me an extra shrimp.  The steak was prepared just right and a little melted butter and au jus helped to bring out its flavor.  The service wasn’t the best as I was only checked on once at the end of my meal, but as I didn’t need a refill, it came out in the wash.

A little jaunt back to the hotel found me writing a bit more, selecting photos for the article, and enjoying a relaxing bath in my jetted tub.  And from there I read myself to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was similar to the previous though we had sausage links, blueberry scones, and tomato and cheese omelets added to the menu.  Another satisfying meal and a long round of conversation with Frank made for a fine morning.

So if you find yourself in Lansing when you travel again, you’ll find some nice outdoor activities, a little antiquing, some history spots, and a fine inn and host at Thornton House.

Normally this would be where I sign off, but this escapade isn’t over quite yet.

Isolated Oasis: Echo Canyon & Sulphur, OK

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The mansion at Echo Canyon Spa Resort

Today the road has brought me to Sulphur, OK.

With the tiniest starts of a return to normalcy, I began to wonder if it were possible to get away from it all.  And I realized that it was a possibility, provided I got away from it all.

One perk of my particular calling is that the inns I visit tend to be in small towns, thus making social distancing considerably easier.  So a small town in a relatively unaffected county would make a visit possible, though it would have to be a special inn as I took it for granted that normal goings-on would either still be curtailed if not outright on hiatus.

I found such an inn in the form of Echo Canyon Spa Resort owned and operated by Joe and Carol Van Horn.

But, before we get to the inn, let’s look at the first part of the journey.

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Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Emporia, KS

To break up the long drive, I journeyed to the town of Emporia, KS where I made the inaugural use of my IHG membership with a reservation at a Holiday Inn Express and Suites.  For an extra $10, I opted to go ahead and get a suite for maximum relaxation and comfort.  Before heading to my room, I did wander around the hotel to see how the pandemic had affected it.  Notably, the exercise room and swimming pool were closed, but the hotel did still promise breakfast in the morning.

I headed up to my room and either the hotel is new or the rooms have been remodeled because this suite looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line.

The idea of a hotel suite seems to be rapidly changing.  When I think suite, I think a living room and a bedroom, but the modern hotel suite seems to be a very big room with a hideaway bed.  Not that it wasn’t comfortable, I just like the homeyness of a traditional suite.

I did need a little something to eat so I decided to give Braum’s a try.  This restaurant chain is prevalent in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas and is known for its ice cream, burgers, and fresh market.  I tried a pepper jack and jalapeno burger and decided to indulge in a vanilla shake.  Unlike other fast food chains, a shake can be had at Braum’s instead of a beverage for no additional charge on most of their meals.

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Braum’s

I brought my dinner back to my room and was quite pleased by the shake and crinkle cut fries.  The burger wasn’t too bad either.  As it was already late, I did my nighttime rituals and got a good night’s sleep in the king sized bed.

I arose in the morning, caught a bath, and then went down to see what the hotel offered for breakfast.

I was somewhat disappointed, but not entirely surprised by the limited selection.  No hot items were available, though milk, juice, cereal, coffee, and pastries were available.  I grabbed a glass of juice and took some milk and Apple Jacks back to my room for a light breakfast.

At 10am, I was back on the road.  The drive was pretty smooth and even the normally dull drive of the Kansas Turnpike wasn’t so bad due to construction adding some color and the addition of a few Dunkin Donuts that broke up the monotony of McDonald’s and Valeros.

Around 2pm, I arrived in the tiny town of Sulphur.  A brief drive through the Chickasaw National Rec Area brought me to the gate of Echo Canyon, winner of several hospitality awards and voted the best inn in Oklahoma by MSN in 2015.

As this is a private, secluded property, you have to call for the gate code in order to be admitted, but you are admitted into a marvelous oasis.

A visit to this private resort all but guarantees that you won’t have to leave the property unless you REALLY want to as the property not only contains an inn, but a spa in the form of the Aloha Spa, a swimming pool, bar, gift shop, and a five star gourmet restaurant called Baron of Beef.

Unlike most B & Bs, Echo Canyon maintains a regular staff and one of the staff gave me a brief tour of the property before leading me to the mansion and the Chardonnay Chalet which would be my base of operations for the next few days.

Every room at Echo Canyon bursts with luxury as each contains a queen or king sized bed along with a fireplace, JASON jacuzzi chromotherapy tub, and a large screen TV with over 50 movie channels available.  I marveled at the quality of the room before getting situated and spending a few minutes looking out at the vista from my private balcony.

Once settled, I wandered around the property and got a look of the inn’s private orchard and garden.  The inn is known for its peaches which it uses in its signature peach hibiscus juice which was a cornucopia of flavor.

I puttered around the inn and room until 6:45 when I headed to Baron of Beef for dinner.

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Baron of Beef

Come hungry if you choose to have dinner because it is a feast.  The meal began with garlic bread with a homemade basil pesto sauce.  The bread was warm and chewy and I actually accepted an offer of a second piece because it was so good.  The first course was a house salad with fresh vegetables and greens and what I believe was a house Italian.  The main course was a triple entrée of a 10 oz beef fillet with smaller servings of Roasted New England duck breast marinated in plum sauce and an Alaskan halibut with a cream sauce.  For side courses, there was a twice baked potato with green beans.

I can’t remember the last time I had a meal this wonderful. The beef was cooked just right.  The duck didn’t have a trace of gaminess.  Be certain to slice it thin if you have it as it brings out the best flavor.  The halibut was right on the mark.  The potato was a work of art and the green beans were fresh and crisp.  I was stuffed to the gills before the end and I had to take my dessert course of chocolate truffle cake with me to be enjoyed as a bedtime snack.

Back in my room, I gave the jacuzzi tub a spin.  The water is from mineral springs located on the property and reportedly have a very therapeutic effect on the body.  I added some bath salts and shower gel to the tub and enjoyed a leisurely soak before sinking into the deep, cushy mattress of my queen sized 4 poster bed.

I woke up slowly and leisurely the next morning where I watched a little TV before heading back to the manor for breakfast.  I poured a glass of orange juice as I took a corner seat by a window.  Breakfast is a two course meal consisting of a first plate and a main course and each has a few options to choose from.  I chose the banana cinnamon coffee cake with fruit for my first plate and a tomato and spinach frittata with honey sausage, fried potatoes, and a biscuit with gravy for my main course.  Another fine meal and I was ready to. . .not really do a whole lot this day.

I did take a drive through the Chickasaw National Rec Area where I got a look at Little Niagara Falls.  I also took a drive over to Turner Falls Park in the hopes of seeing the namesake falls, but a very large line of cars was heading into the park and I decided it would be too difficult to social distance so I headed back to the inn where I read, watched TV, and caught a nap.

I decided to head off property for dinner and visited Fat Bully’s By the Lake which claims to have the best burger in Oklahoma.  After tasting it, I’m willing to support that claim.

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Fat B

Fat Bully’s has the look and feel of a hole in the wall which usually serves the best food.  It also boasts itself as a motorcycle themed restaurant which is bolstered by the pictures of bikers and motorcycles on the table and the restaurant seems to be popular with bikers due to the plethora of motorcycles I saw in the parking lot.

I had the Fat Bully which is an old-fashioned hamburger with the works plus bacon.  This was a perfect hamburger.  So juicy and tasty.  The vegetables tasted like they were just pulled from the ground.  And the fries were hot and perfect.  After a refreshing meal, I took a drive to Veterans Lake where I gazed at the water for a bit before heading back to Echo Canyon to relax for the evening.

The next morning I performed my ablutions, then headed to breakfast which was a repeat of yesterday’s menu, though I opted for the oat waffle for my first plate.

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Oat Waffle

I am going to make it a point to revisit this place after things return fully to normal in order to enjoy the Aloha Spa and visit the local sites.  But even with social distancing, Echo Canyon is a place where one can truly get away from it all and enjoy a taste of supreme luxury.  So when you feel ready to travel again, I encourage a visit to this isolated oasis.

Until the next time. . .stay safe and healthy. . .and happy travels.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  When researching inns, there are many websites from which to choose.  Personally, I use the bed and breakfast association of each state and I always make certain to visit the website of each inn when available.  And when I book, I always book directly with the inn.  While third party sites can be an aid, they don’t always have reliable information as Carol shared with me a story of a third party site that erroneously listed Echo Canyon as booked for months on end when reservations were actually plentiful.  So remember, when you want to book a B & B, always book direct.

Down By the Bay: Astor House & Green Bay, WI

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Astor House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Green Bay, WI.

After 6 weeks of doing a play review or two each week, I was ready for a little downtime.  I started thumbing through my trusty B & B spreadsheet and began looking at Astor House Bed & Breakfast.  I was stunned at the affordability of the room rates and decided to book a little getaway.

So it was that on Friday night I found myself on the road again.  I managed to avoid the rush hour of Omaha and was enjoying a rather speedy and pleasant drive.  Around Stuart, IA I pulled over as I was hungry and decided to try an Impossible Whopper at the local Burger King (being a Lenten Friday and all).

The sandwich actually tastes amazingly similar to a Whopper.  The difference is only slight and my fries were fresh so I got to enjoy a very relaxing meal before getting back on the road.

Around 9pm, I arrived in Cedar Rapids, IA where I utilized my Hilton Honors membership to rest for the night at a Hampton Inn.

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Now I salute this hotel for some truly superior customer service.  I received a call from the hotel the day before telling me that the swimming pool and hot tub were unavailable due to a burst pipe and they offered to refund my fee if I wanted to find a different hotel.  While I had considered a good swim, it was tentative at best as I figured I would just be sleeping before finishing the drive to Green Bay the following day.

This Hampton Inn is currently undergoing renovations and my room was actually quite elegant.  The king bed was a little firmer than I would have liked, but its spaciousness helped to relax me.  I also noticed what appears to be a growing trend in hotels. . .no vending machines.  More and more, it seems hotels now have a little kiosk area where they sell snacks and drinks on the ground floor as opposed to the olden days where one would just stroll down the hall to a machine for a snack or drink.

 

I had a fairly restful night’s sleep and went down to the dining area for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn’t too bad.  This Hampton Inn offers some hot options along with cold cereal, bread and pastries.  Scrambled eggs, smoked sausage, bagel toppers, oatmeal and waffles were also available.  The oatmeal was fantastic, especially with a bit of brown sugar.  I also tried a bagel topper (half bagel with cheese and onions) and a tiny bit of smoked sausage.  As Nero Wolfe would say, “Satisfactory”.

This had to have been one of the more relaxing drives I’ve had in recent memory.  The roads were fairly empty and the road to Green Bay is mostly state highways so I passed through several small towns and even noted a restaurant called Tabbert’s in the minuscule town of Rosendale that I shall have to try during some future visit to the region.

Around 3pm, I arrived in Green Bay.  I drove around the downtown area for a bit before attending a 4pm service at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church.

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Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church

Archaic is the word that leaps to mind when it comes to describing this church.  The building is definitely old and feels more like a cathedral with its tiled floors and larger than life Stations gracing the walls.  This diocese had also instituted some changes due to the coronavirus.  No sign of peace and no Eucharist from the cup.  It made me wonder if my own diocese would be adopting these changes for the duration.

After services, I finally checked into Astor House, owned and operated by Tom and Linda Steber.  The Stebers purchased the property in September and are the third couple to continue the house’s legacy as an inn.  Both were very warm and welcoming and clearly relish their roles as innkeepers.  Linda’s father was a professional chef and she definitely has her own formidable culinary skills which I had an early sample of with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and cucumber water.

Astor House was built by businessman John Jacob Astor in 1888.  Astor, himself, would eventually be immortalized as one of the victims of the Titanic.  The house is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The inn contains five rooms, each themed with a different country.  Most of the rooms also contain a hot tub and a fireplace.

My room was the Hong Kong Retreat.  For pure value for the money, I don’t think the Astor House can be matched.  For the $115 a night price tag ($140 during busy season) I had the largest room I have enjoyed yet.  This room truly was a retreat with its pure white carpeting, soft queen bed with My Pillows (and you really do get a good night’s sleep with them), elegant fireplace and a 2 person hot tub set in the corner.

 

I was ready for some dinner so I headed to nearby De Pere, WI to try dinner at Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant.

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Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant

I had a little cultural fusion for dinner as I merged Greek and Cajun cuisine as I enjoyed a Gyro Wrap along with a cup of Nicky’s highly touted gumbo.  You’d have to go to Louisiana to have gumbo as authentic as this.  This is what gumbo was meant to be.  Carefully spiced and seasoned stew with chunks of andouille sausage and chicken lathered over rice.  It was heavenly.  The wrap was also quite tasty and the restaurant even serves Pepsi products which would please my father to no end.

After the meal, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long soak in the jacuzzi (and only soaking.  Bath salts are provided for the hot tub.)  Then I got a little fire going as the night was getting a little chilly.  Then I finished a novel, organized some photos, watched a movie and had an amazing night’s sleep.

I was ready to attack the day, but needed a little fuel to get me going.  Astor House provides a menu so you can decide what you want for breakfast or even if you want breakfast.  Believe me, you’ll want breakfast.  Astor House practices sustainability so all foods are bought or grown locally whenever possible and everything is made fresh.

 

Breakfast began with a fruit salad drizzled with an organic honey/citrus dressing which was the bomb and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used that expression in a sentence.  The main course was a light and fluffy French Toast Brulee with crumbled bacon bits with a side of the inn’s signature potatoes.  There was even a dessert course of lemon pound cake (which became my afternoon snack).  The sideboard also had some of Linda’s award-winning doughnut muffins which are a must taste along with some lemon & lime water.

Filled with food, I was ready to do a little exploring.  I went to the unincorporated community of Champion to visit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.  This is the only officially recognized Marian Apparition site in the United States.  In the late 1850s the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Belgian girl named Adele Brise and instructed her to make a general confession, offer communion for the conversion of sinners and to teach the young in this very wild area the catechism.  This Adele did until her death, walking everywhere within a 50 mile radius of the Shrine to teach.  As a servant of God, Adele would dress as a nun despite never actually being part of a formal order.

 

Miracles have reportedly taken place at the Shrine though none are officially recognized by the Catholic church.  Letters have come from many grateful visitors along with medical reports citing healings from various ills.  The most impressive event was the sparing of the Shrine from the devastating Peshtigo fire when a storm quenched the flames which occurred while those at the Shrine prayed a rosary asking for the Shrine to be spared.

I would think it would be next door to impossible not to feel God’s presence here no matter your faith.  It was a pretty moving and humbling experience to visit the grottoes and read Adele’s story and hear these tales of personal healing and conversion.

After my wanderings through the Shrine, I intended to visit the Badger State Brewing Company.  But I made a misstep.  I had hoped to get a tour of the brewery, but found they only conduct the tours on Saturday afternoons.  So I settled for a green beer before going on my merry little way.

As I left the brewery I saw the legendary Lambeau Field in the distance and decided to get a closer look.  For any readers who are not into sports, Green Bay, WI is the home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the National Football League’s first football teams.  Green Bay is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, cities to have a professional football team.  Unlike other teams, the Packers are actually owned by the city of Green Bay.

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Lambeau Field

After getting a photo and waving at the stadium for a friend of mine (she’s a huge Packers fan), I returned to the inn for a bit of writing and to finally enjoy the pound cake I couldn’t eat at breakfast.

Around 6pm, I decided it was time for dinner so I hit up a true Green Bay institution:  Al’s Hamburger.

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Great food lies inside this non-descript edifice.

Al’s has been going since 1934.  Inside the unassuming white brick edifice is a step back in time to the 1950s.  It’s a small diner with booths and classic tools and everything is a la carte.  It’s also cash only, but there is an ATM on the premises.  I had a deluxe (1/2 pound patty with bacon, lettuce and mayo) along with some fries.  The food is served on a tin tray and the burgers are nice and juicy.

With dinner out of the way, I took a walk around the Astor neighborhood.  This is a historic neighborhood and there are some impressive old money houses in the area.  I imagined what some of these homes might look like during the Christmas season, but a glance around told me how bitter the winter could be in the area.  Green Bay clearly had plenty of the white stuff this winter as large amounts of snow are still prevalent.

I actually had a pretty quiet evening.  Reading, writing and relaxing.  About 10pm I called it a night.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a “mushroom & swiss burger” quiche along with the signature potatoes.  Absolutely exquisite!  For dessert, I had an original creation from Linda.  An English scone pudding with a citrus whipped cream topping.  I was glad I had opted out of the opening course of berries and cream because I had just enough room to enjoy this sweet treat.

This has been one of my more enjoyable B & B outings and Astor House has definitely entered my top tier of inns.  If you want some fresh, homemade cooking, if you want some excellent hospitaliy, if you want some fun activities (especially during summer tourist and football seasons), then make a visit to Green Bay and book a room at Astor House.  It’s a dandy little oasis.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

For I Need a Little Christmas: Historic Hutchinson House & Faribault, MN

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Historic Hutchinson House

Today the road has brought me to Faribault, MN.

It’s my favorite time of year as the Christmas season is upon us which also means it’s time for the annual Christmas B & B review here at the Corner.

Truthfully, I thought my review would either be greatly delayed or even outright canceled this year.  I had hoped to be performing in a show this holiday season, but the theatre gods had other ideas which opened things up a bit.  This year’s selection was Historic Hutchinson House, owned and operated by Dana and Olena Anderson.

I had a beautiful day for the journey and time just seemed to whiz by as I drove along an unusually empty interstate.  About 1:30pm, I found myself in need of gas and a break in Story City, IA, so I gassed up and then stopped for lunch at Royal Café.

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The Royal Cafe

Royal Café is housed in a former Happy Chef restaurant.  I ended up taking a seat in a booth next to a group of construction workers who provided me with some free entertainment as they were sharing stories of the dumb stunts they had pulled in their lives and the various injuries that had resulted from said stunts.

I ended up scoring a lunchtime special where for $8, I got a turkey club sandwich with a side of fries and a free beverage.  I truly savored this meal as it was the first solid food I had enjoyed that week as I’d been laid out by either a chest cold or flu (I’m not sure which) and been subsisting on a mostly liquid diet due to lack of hunger.  After polishing off the vittles, it was back to the road.

As I continued driving north, I felt the air temperature plummet and noticed snow starting to appear on the ground, evoking images of a white Christmas.

Around 4:30pm, I had arrived in Faribault and easily found Historic Hutchinson House which, as you’ve noticed, stands out pretty readily due to its coloration of periwinkle blue with pink trim.  This look is known as Painted Lady.

This Queen Anne Victorian home was built in 1892 by John Hutchinson, Jr, a local Captain of Industry, who had been a partner in the Faribault Furniture Company and Faribault Roller Mills.  In its 100+ year history, the inn has only had 8 owners and the current ones only took up ownership in July.

I walked up to the guest entrance, rang the bell, and was greeted by Olena who offered me some cookies and hot chocolate and led me to the Malone Suite which is the inn’s biggest room.  It’s a 2 room suite capable of sleeping up to 4 people with two very soft full sized beds.  The room also contains a pair of comfy easy chairs, lush green carpeting, a work desk, and a bathroom with a shower.

I actually didn’t have too much planned for the first night.  I wasn’t exactly bursting with energy after my recent illness and wasn’t very hungry due to my late lunch.  I did go around to look at some Christmas lights in the neighborhood and even saw the Faribault Snowman, a massive construct built (and still being refined) by a local engineer.  Afterwards, I called it a night and just watched a little TV before sinking into my mattress for the night.

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Faribault Snowman

Boy, did I sleep well.  All night and I truly felt refreshed in the morning.  This feeling was further enhanced by a long, hot shower and shave and I was ready for breakfast at 9am.

I actually had company for breakfast as the inn had another guest with Liz from Lincoln, NE.  The inn is actually sold out on Saturday and nearly every single one of us is from Nebraska.  What would be the odds?

But, I digress.  I enjoyed some conversation with Liz as we ate granola and fruit with cream, ham and cheese crepes with spring salad, and German Christmas Cake with marzipan.  A very tasty meal and the crepes were fantastic.

After breakfast, I got the oil in my car changed and decided I needed a fix of Christmas.  I thought that a visit to the Mall of America in nearby Bloomington could help scratch that itch as I figured it may do an impressive job of decorating for the holidays.

The mall was the busiest I’ve ever seen it.  Towards the end of my visit I found out that a young celebrity was doing a meet and greet which explained the unusually high traffic roaming around the mall.

The mall did have some nice decorations.  Most notable was a pair of gigantic Christmas trees in its central rotunda which also had a free concert going on.

The most interesting store I visited was called The Beef Jerky Experience which has homemade jerky which you can sample.  The most unique jerky I tasted was a dill pickle jerky which would have been worth a pickup except for the fact that a single serving of jerky cost a whopping $11. The store also served a sauce called Slap Yo Mama which they were using with samples of jambalaya with sausage and shrimp etouffee.  The sauce was incredible, though it certainly didn’t make me want to slap my dear mother.

I returned to the inn in just enough time to head over to worship services at Divine Mercy. 

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Divine Mercy Catholic Church

The church seems very new and was quite lovely.  The service was just as nice with a sermon focusing on preparing for Jesus’ birth with mortification (genuine repentance) and penance.  It was capped with Father inviting everyone to attend a penance party (reconciliation service) the next day at the church.

When I returned to the inn, I had a little treat set up for myself as I had arranged for a massage in my room.  Janelle of Miracle Massage set up a table in my room as I lowered the light to better relax.

Man, did it feel good.  Especially for my shoulders which were tight due to a combination of my regular use of a keyboard and the weight training regimen I’ve been following in recent months. But I felt and heard those knots pop as she worked through them and I knew I’d be sleeping like a baby that night.

It was time for some dinner so I sought out the Crooked Pint for some grub.

When I walked into the ale house, the joint was jumping and the wait would be 40 minutes and I didn’t want to wait that long.  Sooo, I wandered around the downtown area to see if another eatery was available.  Unable to find another one, I decided to go ahead and wait for a table at Crooked Pint.

My little search seemed to have benefited me because others had apparently not wanted to wait for 40 minutes so there was now no line as I entered and was able to be seated immediately.

Not to say that the joint still wasn’t jumping, for it was.  I decided to try a sandwich called a Lucy which is a stuffed hamburger.  I opted for the sweet heat version which had ghost chili cheese, sweet chili sauce, haystack onions, and bacon.  The heat had a delayed effect after each bite and was just right.  The chicken wild rice soup I had for a side dish was OK, but a bit on the bland side.

The wind was howling when I left the restaurant and I was more than ready to return to the inn to write and sleep after slipping an extra blanket on the bed.

Another full night’s sleep and I was ready for another rousing meal with a full table.  Today Liz and I were joined by a couple from Plymouth, MN celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary and a family from Scott’s Bluff, NE attending a soccer tournament.  Conversation was a flying as we enjoyed granola, fruit, and cream, overnight casserole (cheese, onions, and sausage) with vegetables, and banana nut bread.

The meal took over 90 minutes and then it was time for all of us to go our separate ways.  Another holiday review in the books.

But if you find yourself in the Twin Cities region, take a moment to swing by Faribault and enjoy a little hospitality at Historic Hutchinson House.  Come during the holidays and find a winter surprise or two in the town.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.  . .and happy holidays.

In the Heart of History: Chestnut Charm & Atlantic, IA

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Chestnut Charm Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Atlantic, IA.

I thought I had checked out all of the B & Bs close to my neck of the woods, but imagine my surprise when I was looking over my list and saw that I missed one in the nearby town of Atlantic, IA.  Immediately I booked a visit to Chestnut Charm Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Barbara.

Truthfully, I badly needed a little getaway.  I’d had an unusually difficult week capped by a Friday the 13th that lived up to its moniker as everything that day went foul and the day ended with a notification that a project I’d hoped to be part of had fallen through.

Saturday the 14th started much better with a bright sunny day making for a pleasant drive to nearby Atlantic, the Coca-Cola capital of Iowa.

I got into town a little bit early as I wanted to do a bit of exploration.  Atlantic is like stepping back in time to a more peaceful era with a quaint downtown area with old-fashioned street lamps and shops that close up early on the weekends.

Coca-Cola is a big part of the town as you will find painted murals of the soft drink all over the downtown area and a bottling plant is in the heart of downtown.  There’s even a Coca-Cola museum and information center that I may visit on a future jaunt to this city.

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Coca-Cola Bottling Companay

I definitely plan to return during the Christmas season because Atlantic prides itself on how it celebrates the Yuletide season with a celebration called Christmas in Atlantic.  This celebration features over six miles of LED lights in the downtown area, a visit from St Nick, fireworks, themed window displays and a lighted parade.

After a brief walkaround, I headed off to Chestnut Charm, a 121 year old Victorian mansion situated on a 2 acre property.  The mansion had been built by a lumber baron named Edward Shaw as a wedding present to his daughter.

I was greeted by Barbara who is a “jane of all trades” as she grows her own fruits and vegetables, built the property’s gazebo, and has done quite a bit of work on the mansion itself, aside from being its resident chef.  She is also a waterfall (fount seems too small a word) of knowledge and an expert on the history of the region.  Barbara told me about all sorts of interesting historical facts about the region and gave me numerous ideas of side/day trips to take on future outings such as St Patrick’s in Imogene, IA and the windmill and Dutch museum of Elk Horn.

Barbara escorted me to the Manson Master Suite which is a very comfortable and spacious area with a fireplace, hardwood floors, a queen sized bed, a private sunroom, and a bathroom with a rather deep tub.  I had just enough time to take in the room before heading over to worship at Sts Peter and Paul.

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Sts Peter and Paul

The service brought a great sense of peace to me and made me more than ready to enjoy dinner at The Redwood Steakhouse in nearby Anita, IA.

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The Redwood

The Redwood prides itself on being an old-fashioned steakhouse.  Back in the day steakhouses would actually bring a relish tray so diners would have something to nosh on before their entrees came and The Redwood continues that practice.  My tray contained pickles, black olives, green olives, carrots, cauliflower, cheese, and pickled herring which was actually quite tasty.  A little French bread and salad and a bit of the items from the relish tray wonderfully tided me over.

For my entrée, I opted for a NY Strip and took Barbara’s suggestion to try the hash browns.  Barbara claimed these were the best hash browns around and she was right on the money.  They were nice and crisp on the outside, but soft and fluffy in the middle and a bit of cheese and onions gave it that extra bit of kick.  My NY Strip was cooked perfectly and I seasoned it with spices at the table and enjoyed a long and pleasant dining experience.

When I returned to Chestnut Charm, Barbara showed me a battalion of Monarch butterflies flying around her neighbor’s yard and introduced me to Concord grapes which I had never tasted before, but found them quite sweet and learned they were the grapes used in Welch’s jelly and probably their soda back when that existed.

From there, Barbara educated me on the history and interesting sights of the area before we called it a night and I went to my room to rest and write.  A nice long soak in the deep bathtub had me ready for a trip to the land of Nod.

I awoke, truly refreshed for the first time in a week and was ready for breakfast.

Barbara greeted me in the kitchen and led me to the sunroom where a glass of water was waiting for me.  Barbara shortly brought me orange juice and an egg frittata with onions, garlic, Italian herbs, and zucchini from her garden along with sweet smoked bacon which was locally produced and magically prepared in her kitchen, and a peach muffin stuffed with raspberry jam with both fruits coming from her garden.

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After picking my plate clean, I finally did a little exploration of the mansion.  At 121 years of age, this home was produced before electricity and plumbing and back when craftsmanship was king.  The woodwork is prepared by hand.  Stained glass windows adorn the property.  Cloth is handpainted.  The lamps on the stairwell are now electric, but were once much bigger Victorian gas lamps.  The property also contains a carriage house where the inn’s two jacuzzi suites reside.  There’s even a 101 year old Victorian piano which can actually be played.

Regrettably reality was calling me back home and I had to pack it in.  But a trip to Chestnut Charm and Atlantic, IA is well worth a visit.  You’ll find a plethora of history in the area, enjoy a fine home cooked meal, meet a hostess with intimate knowledge of the area, and maybe a bit of Christmas cheer if you time it right.

Until the next time, happy travels.

The Golden Review: Valparaiso, IN and Songbird Prairie

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Songbird Prairie Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Valparaiso, IN.

Welcome to my 50th B & B review.  Having reached this magic number, I wanted this review to be something special.  I needed a destination with lots to do, a top of the line inn, and I wanted it to feel like a bit of a road trip.  I pored over my spreadsheet of inns to find something to fit the bill and as I perused the Indiana section it hit me right between the eyes.  I found Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast, a luxury inn which has won numerous “best of” and hospitality awards over the years.  I booked a room and eagerly looked forward to a grand adventure.

Friday evening found me making the trek to Indiana.  I had decided to split up the drive over 2 days so I would have energy for activities once I arrived in Valparaiso so I made an overnight stop at a Travelodge in Iowa City, IA.

 

It had been a fairly pleasant day when the drive started, but by the time I had rolled into Iowa City, it had become a hazy gray and the humidity had shot past the roof.  So humid was it, that I actually saw steam rising from pools of water from a storm that must have dumped on the city before my arrival.  The conditions felt perfect for a tornado and I later learned that one had touched down just outside the city, but nothing came of it.

The hotel was serviceable and even had a swimming pool.  I deposited my luggage in my room and cast a grateful eye on my king-sized bed.  The smell of a Domino’s Pizza down the hall reminded me that I should probably do something about my own hunger.

A restaurant called Los Agaves Mexican Grill was attached to the hotel and solved my problem of finding a place to eat.  My waiter, Jose, brought me a bowl of chips and salsa while I looked over the menu. I opted to try the Chiles Colorado.  Shortly after my order, a plate of grilled beef tips in a spicy red mole sauce with Spanish rice and refried beans appeared before me.  With the use of warm corn tortillas, I made several “tacos” to enjoy the meal.  It plugged the spot dead center and I went back to my room and laid down to sleep.

The bed was quite comfortable as I slept the sleep of the dead.  I’m talking limbs splayed out, slack jawed sleep.  After waking up, I got cleaned up and had the hotel’s deluxe continental breakfast which meant some hot items were available.  I had a biscuit with some sausage gravy and a bowl of Frosted Flakes with a cup of orange juice to wash it down and was back on the road about 90 minutes later.

I enjoyed a very peaceful drive as I listened to the tunes of my MP3 player and wondered if Indiana had finally completed the construction which had bedeviled me several times over the years.

They had.

But it didn’t make much difference as traffic still slowed to a snail’s pace after I crossed over.  However, as I only had to travel about 11 miles to reach my exit, the slower pace didn’t cause me any duress.

So it was that I found myself in Valparaiso, hometown of popcorn magnate, Orville Redenbacher.  The town of Valparaiso is also nearby the Indiana Dunes for those who like the outdoors, Chicago for those seeking big city fun, and South Bend, IN if you’d like to visit Notre Dame.

Songbird Prairie, owned and operated by Barbara and Efrain Rivera, is nestled out on a wooded acreage just outside of Valparaiso.  The large, red mansion is at the end of a long gravel road.  I was met at the door by Barbara who gave me a tour of the home.

Luxurious is indeed the word to describe this inn as it not only boasts very fancy and comfortable rooms, but it also has a spa room and gift shop.

Barbara led me to the Robin Suite, the inn’s best room.  This elegant room had a king-sized Ethan Allen bed, carpet so soft that my feet practically sank in the fibers, brownish-green walls with an outdoor mural of blue sky and clouds painted on the ceiling, a fireplace (only operable during colder months), and a huge bathroom which featured a chromotherapy Jacuzzi.

 

After getting settled, I headed off to services at St Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Due to the size of the parking lot, I thought this would be a good sized church, but it was actually quite small.  The service was quite energetic and you could see that Father was full of the Spirit as he talked about the glory of the Resurrection and even used the traditional Protestant greeting of “He is risen” and the congregation actually responded with “Indeed He is risen.”

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St Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church

After a vigorous service, I was ready for dinner and I decided to try the Industrial Revolution.  This restaurant  celebrates America’s technological advancements and each week a different pioneer is featured.  This week, it was the man who brought Atari to America.  For dinner, I decided to try the Garlic Parmesan Burger with a side of garlic potato wedges.  The burger was actually quite tasty, but could have benefited from some more vegetables.

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Industrial Revolution

The day started to catch up with me, so I went back to the inn to give the Jacuzzi a spin.  This was a smart bathtub.  A light goes on when the tub has reached the proper level of water.  You can set the duration and intensity of the jets which are pinpoint and built into the walls of the tub.  The tub even uses chromotherapy which means that the tub cycles through a series of colored lights to help bring you into a deeper state of relaxation.  I stayed in the tub for nearly 45 minutes soaking up every joule of heat.  From there, I crawled into bed and set a white noise machine to the sound of rainfall to fall into the blissful arms of slumber.

I awoke the next morning to see that real rain had actually fallen during the night.  A light sprinkle was still falling, but it wouldn’t derail any of the day’s plans.  But, first, I needed some breakfast.

Breakfast is held in the sun room which is miked so guests will be serenaded with the music of songbirds.  Now I have had the privilege of enjoying some very fine dining in my travels, but this had to be the best presented meal I had ever had.  Each course was a piece of artistry in how it was framed on the plate.  The artistic description especially suited the first course as Barbara had carved watermelon into the shape of birds and served them with a cranberry scone.

The main entrée was French Toast souffle with sausage patties and the souffle was incredibly on point especially with the wonderful aftertaste of cinnamon.  For dessert there was strawberry sorbet and beverages were orange juice and water served with lemon and a bit of mint, I believe.

 

I had a big day planned and got started immediately.  I headed to the nearby town of St John to visit The Shrine of Christ’s Passion.

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The Shrine of Christ’s Passion

The Shrine is a walking version of Christ’s Passion or The Stations of the Cross as they are known in Catholicism.  Members of all branches of Christianity visit every year and it is a profound experience.  If you’re a believer, you must experience this place.  If you’re not, you just might become one after visiting.

The Shrine is absolutely free and survives solely on donations and sales from the gift shop.  The gift shop is pretty impressive and has a wide variety of Christian gifts, literature, and a second floor where it’s Christmas year-round.

The walking area contains 40 life sized bronze statues that feature the Stations with a few extras such as the Agony in the Garden, the Last Supper, Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene after His Resurrection, the Ascension, and Moses on Mt Sinai.  The detail of the statues is incredible, especially with the eyes which brilliantly communicate the emotions of the various moments.  I was transformed as I walked the path and truly felt like I was watching my Savior walk the path of the cross.

 

I spent nearly 2 hours at the Shrine and bought a meditational called Jesus Today by Sarah Young on my way out.

I reflected on the experience as I drove back to Valparaiso where I would visit Zao Island.

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The dragon of Zao Island

Zao Island is a little fun park that features batting cages, an arcade, laser tag, go-karts, a super slide, a small gator farm, and two mini-golf courses that USA Today called the most interesting in the country.

That last part is what really caught my attention.  I wouldn’t normally play mini-golf by myself, but I wanted to experience this one given the newspaper’s statement.  The course didn’t quite meet my standards.  For me, the fun in mini-golf is gimmickry and challenging holes.  While there were a few complex holes, they were pretty much straightforward putting greens and failed to scratch my itch.  My own personal tastes aside, the park has more than enough to do for an afternoon of family fun.

I returned to the inn to begin a bit of writing and headed out to dinner at about 5:30.

I decided to try Yats Cajun Creole.  This is a small eatery near Valparaiso University with a daily changing menu.  I decided to have some gumbo and this time it truly was a stew as it was served on a plate.  The stew part of the gumbo was tasty, but I would have preferred a little more of the stew and a little less rice.

From there, it was back to the inn for a quiet evening of writing and reading before another Jacuzzi bath and setting the white noise machine to waterfall to help put me out.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of water with lemon and mint, orange juice, a fruit cocktail of apples, kiwi, grapes, strawberries, and oranges, lemon poppy and banana nut muffins, bacon, herb baked potatoes, omelet stuffed with cheese, peppers, and ham, croissant, with a choice of several small cheesecakes for dessert.  I had just enough room to sample the lemon cheesecake with edible butterfly.

 

And that, my friends, brings an end to the Golden Review.  I will actually be slowing down the B & B portion of this blog for a bit to focus on some other things.  I still fully intend to continue with an annual Christmas review, but other reviews will be sporadic for a little while.

But, if you find yourselves in the Valparaiso area, enjoy a bit of luxury at Songbird Prairie while you’re exploring.  You may find it hard to tear yourself away after having a taste, both literal and metaphorical, of its elegance.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Wilderness in the City: Otter Creek Inn & Altoona/Eau Claire, WI

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Otter Creek Inn

Today the road has brought me to Altoona, WI.

Here it is, ladies and gents.  My 49th review and my first in the state of Wisconsin.  It is also the maiden voyage of my new 2018 Ford Focus on these excursions.

It was a bit overcast to start this journey.  I chased away the grays with a little conversation with Jesus and making liberal use of my free trial subscription to satellite radio.  Having the Beatles Channel is a little slice of heaven for a Fab Four connoisseur such as myself, let me tell you.

As I got deeper into Minnesota, the skies began to clear and the sun started shining down and the day had become quite beautiful by the time I crossed the border into Wisconsin.  Before I knew it, I had reached the Eau Claire suburb of Altoona and found the Otter Creek Inn.

The inn is located on a little acreage on Hansen Lane which you’ll find just before 10th Street.  I parked the car, stretched out the kinks in my hip, and walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  Almost instantly, I was greeted by the inn’s owner, Lisa Jenkins.  Lisa is actually a very new owner of the establishment.  The inn has been in business since 1987 and the original owners sold the property to Lisa over the summer.  Lisa shut down the inn for a few months for renovations before reopening it in November.

The inn still retains most of its originality and is more similar to a lodge than a house.  By that I mean, Otter Creek Inn is wide and long as opposed to being tall.  One of the first things greeting guests is the common area known as the Grand Room and grand it is.  Not only is the room massive, but it holds some games, some comfortable antique chairs, and a monstrous fireplace.  One will also find the breakfast options and can fill out what they would like to eat as well as time and location of the meal.

“Location?”, I hear you ask.  Unlike many other B & Bs, Otter Creek Inn does not have a communal dining room.  Rather it has several secluded areas where the guests can enjoy their meals in private such as a nook just past the kitchen or the 2nd floor balcony.  If you feel like it, you can even enjoy breakfast in bed.

Added to this sense of privacy is the fact that Otter Creek Inn is an adults only environment so you can really get away from it all.

Lisa led me to my escape for the weekend:  Dream Suite.

The room has blue flowered wallpaper, an incredibly comfy king bed, a 42 inch Smart TV, an electric fireplace, and a jacuzzi tub nestled in the floor by the bay window. It is also important to note that each of the 5 rooms contains a fireplace and jacuzzi which is a hallmark of the inn.

After I settled in, Lisa gave me a tour of the establishment where I snapped photos and got a little inn history.  Afterwards, I went to the hors d’oeuvres table where I had a little chip and dip and a Coca-Cola.  For the evening, a martini bar had also been set up for those who enjoy a good cocktail.

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Martini bar

I feel these long drives a bit more than I used to so I just collapsed on my soft bed, perused the movie menu, and just relaxed.  Before leaving for dinner, I filled out my breakfast choices and opted to enjoy it in bed.

Now most of my readers know that I tend to avoid chain restaurants, but even I had to yield to expediency on a Lenten Friday.  Luckily, there was a Red Lobster just a bit up the road.

The restaurant was packed and I was amazed that they were able to get me seated in about 15 minutes.  I looked through the menu to see what sounded appetizing, made my selection and waited for a server.

And waited. . .

Now I knew the place was busy, but I suddenly stopped to think that I had been seated for 10 or 15 minutes and I hadn’t even been brought water yet.  Just as I had that thought a young lady stopped by my table (I think it was the manager) who apologized for nobody waiting on me and she offered me a free appetizer or alcoholic beverage for the inconvenience.  I don’t know if she, herself, had noticed or if another patron pointed it out, but I thank whomever for the free cup of lobster bisque I ended up getting.

The bisque was rich and creamy and a dash of pepper added just the right amount of kick to it.  A garden salad and a half order of Salmon New Orleans with rice pilaf and mashed potatoes served as my main entrée.  The salmon was served in a creamy Cajun sauce and was garnished with shrimp.  It really hit the spot.

With a great meal in my stomach, I returned to the inn where I found a good meal really makes you notice how exhausted you are.  I dimmed the lights and filled up the Jacuzzi tub while an old episode of Law & Order played on the TV.

Now the jacuzzi tubs in this inn are just soaking tubs.  Soap flakes and salts are provided, but you can’t bathe in them as regular soap and shampoo aren’t good for the tub.  So I just sat and soaked, letting the jets massage my wearied limbs and the hot water unwound my mind.  Yes, sir.  I just sat and soaked until every joule of heat was absorbed from the water.

Then I got into my jammies and attempted to go to sleep, but it was too darn quiet.  I normally use a fan for some white noise and this room had no ceiling fan.  No problem, I just turned on the fan to the bathroom and, voila, instant shuteye.

I did some championship lounging the next morning.  Breakfast arrived promptly at 8:30 with my order of a small order of eggs benedict with ham, tomato, and onion served with a side of breakfast potatoes, cheese, and orange juice and hot chocolate.  It was 45 minutes of pure dining bliss and it was only as I was using my toast to get the last of the hollandaise that I realized I had forgotten to take a photo for the article.  But, believe me, it looked every bit as good as it tasted.

As I ate I watched The Mask of Zorro and then caught a shower and shave before heading over to visit the Leinenkugel brewery.

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Leinenkugel brewery

Leinenkugel is a family owned brewery (6 generations running) and was founded in 1867 in the small town of Chippewa Falls.  For $10 one can tour the brewery and have either 2 12 ounce lagers or a sampling of 5 5 ounce lagers.  Our tour guide was John, a former teacher, who was very knowledgeable about the Leinenkugel history and the process of brewing lager.  Most interesting was the revelation that Leinenkugel had to survive 2 threats to its existence.

The first, unsurprisingly, was Prohibition.  Leinenkugel managed to survive it by switching its manufacturing to ginger ale and non-alcoholic beer.  The second, and the bigger threat to its existence, was the great brewery purge of the 80s and 90s where many breweries started going out of business.  Leinenkugel escaped the purge by partnering with Miller which was a win-win for both companies and enabled Leinenkugel to continue thriving.

Leinenkugel is not only known for great lager, but also for being extremely charitable as they donate to or sponsor every charity within Chippewa Falls.  It is definitely worth a visit.

After my tour, I returned to the inn where I did a little writing and filled out a breakfast request for Sunday before I headed out to worship at St Mary’s.

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St Mary’s

It was a bit different, almost a blend of pre and post Vatican II.  Some parts of the service were recited in Latin and there was no sign of peace.  On the other hand, there was an excellent sermon on The Prodigal Son which Father argued should really be called The Merciful Father and it was definitely interesting food for thought seeing the parable from the point of view of the father.

After church, I went to downtown Eau Claire for dinner at Stella Blue’s.  This Cajun restaurant is easy to miss as it holds an unassuming spot in an unassuming building.  You’re probably likely to notice the parking lot first which is actually several blocks past the restaurant.

Despite a well-known reputation, Stella Blue’s has the look and feel of a hole in the wall eatery.  In my opinion that makes it better as those joints usually serve the best food.

It seemed to be my weekend for being overlooked/forgotten at restaurants as I once again waited about 10 minutes before a server got to me.  This time I got a free drink.  I started off with a gumbo appetizer and it was superior gumbo.  Theirs was closer to stew than soup and full of vegetables and even used bits of bacon instead of andouille sausage.  I mused about whether or not I should have just ordered the entrée version of that until they brought my main course of shrimp etouffee.  The spicy brown sauce was amazing, especially when mixed with the rice.

With another fabulous meal digesting, I returned to the inn.  When I entered my room, I picked up a white box which I had mistaken for a recharge port and found it to be a white noise machine.  Sleep would be easy to find tonight.

Another long soak.  A bit more writing.  Then I activated the illusory flames on my fireplace and set up the white noise machine to emulate the crackle of a campfire.  I almost felt like I was in the woods as the fictional fire snapped, crackled, and popped.

I enjoyed Sunday’s breakfast on the 2nd floor balcony.  Bacon fashioned in the shape of a heart along with pancakes with whipped cream, apple pie filling, chocolate chips, and maple syrup joined fruit, water, skim milk, and orange juice. Lisa was a most attentive host and even gave me leads on some new inns and a community theatre in Colorado (her old stomping grounds) which I filed away for potential future visits.

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Alas, all good things come to an end.  It was time to head back home.  But I enjoyed my stay in Altoona and my visit to Otter Creek Inn.  Not only is the inn a bit of big city wilderness retreat, but being near to the Eau Claire area means there’s plenty to do in terms of shopping, activities, and the arts. Otter Creek Inn is the perfect retreat for adults who want to get away from it all, yet still have plenty to keep them occupied.  It’s peaceful, elegant, and luxurious and Lisa will treat you like royalty.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.