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.

A Bit of German Americana: Bingham Hall & New Ulm, MN

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Bingham Hall

Today the road has brought me to New Ulm, MN.

Truly this has been one of my most enjoyable trips.  The primary reason for this is that New Ulm is the home of my second oldest friend, Lee Harrington, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and a visit with him was my top reason for coming to visit this pleasant little hamlet.

I got an early start for this journey, leaving at 6:30am.  Omaha had experienced a bit of a dusting the previous night so I slowly drove through the metro area.  I was surprised at how many cars were actually out on the road on a frosty Saturday morning, but once I hit I-29, I pretty much had the road to myself and the roads cleared up remarkably.

It was a real pleasure to have a whole new route to drive as I enjoyed the countryside and listened to some tunes.  I made a brief stop in Whiting, IA for some gas and noted a quaint little café that I may have to visit at a future time, but gasoline is quite expensive in this little town.  I paid nearly $2.30 a gallon to fuel up my car, yet if I’d been able to last another 30-40 miles I could have paid $1.90 a gallon.  Ah, well, what can one do?

I was actually on the interstate for only a short period of time as the route is mostly highways.  Surprisingly, I did not pass through many small towns though I did pass through a couple and the cold weather had me thinking of what they might look like at Christmas.

Shortly before noon, I reached the German town of New Ulm, the polka capital of America.  Its Germanic history was readily apparent as a large sign bid me “Wilkommen” as I entered the town.  New Ulm is a pretty easy town to navigate as everything seems built around its main street of Broadway and I’ve learned that there is a lot to do in the area with breweries, Renaissance faires, and music festivals.

I made my way to Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream where I met my old friend Lee and his daughter, Caitie, and her boyfriend, Joe.  It was as if no time had passed as Lee greeted me with a hug and paid the tab for lunch (thanks, btw).

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Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream

Happy Joe’s serves a smorgasboard luncheon and it is a pretty good spread.  They have a decent salad bar and serve a good set of hot entrees including a mean piece of fried chicken and their pizza wasn’t too bad as I sampled slices of pepperoni, chicken, bacon, and ranch, and taco.  I spent about an hour and a half conversing with Lee and his family (truthfully, the two of us did most of the yakking) where we caught up on things and shared a lot of old stories about some of the adventures and wacky hijinks we experienced in our childhood and teen years.  Tears were streaming down my face by the end of the visit as I was laughing so hard.

Sadly, it did have to come to an end, but I look forward to another visit in the future where more stories can be shared over a round of HeroQuest (a fantasy role-playing game we played as teens).

From Happy Joe’s, I made my way to the August Schell Brewery.  The brewery is the biggest in Minnesota and the second oldest family owned brewery in the country.  The business has been in the family for five generations and is heading into a sixth one which is highly unusual as most family run businesses only last into the third generation.

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Schell’s Brewery

For a brewery that does such big business, Schell’s is actually quite small.  Only several buildings are on the property which includes one which holds a mini-museum, gift shop, and tasting room; the actual plant; the former boardinghouse, now office for the company’s president, Theodore Marti; and the old family mansion which is now used for events as the current family lives elsewhere.

I highly recommend a tour as it only costs $5 and includes a free tasting session at the end.  At the end, adult tour visitors get to sample at least six different kinds of beer (the kiddos get Schell’s 1919 root beer) and then get a free 12 oz serving of whatever beer they liked the best.

While guests were encouraged to sample 2 oz servings, I limited it to just sips as I still had to drive and I’m a borderline teetotaler anyway.  However, of the samples, I especially enjoyed a seasonal beer called Goosetown which was honestly the second best tasting beer I have ever had.  Had I not had to be on my way, I would have taken a 12 oz glass of that.  I did, however, have a glass of the root beer which was quite tasty.

From the brewery I headed off to Loretto Park to walk The Way of The Cross.  The Way of the Cross are walking Stations of the Cross (a Catholic meditation going through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection) and can be found all over the country.  Unfortunately, I’m guessing it, too, must be seasonal as the way was covered in snow and the stations had no statues.  I will have to file that away for another visit.

I killed a little bit of time at the library before I headed over to Bingham Hall, owned and operated by Shannon McKeeth, to check in.

Bingham Hall is a fine old-fashioned inn.  I was greeted at the door by Shannon’s husband, Todd, who ran my card and led me to the Hemle.

Quiet elegance is the best way to describe this room.  The walls are painted cranberry which had a remarkable calming effect.  The centerpiece of the room is its canopy queen bed and memory foam topper.  The room also boasts a uber comfortable easy chair with massage pad, gas fireplace, and a 42 inch cable TV with accesses to over 2,000 free movies.  The bathroom contains an ergonomic one person Jacuzzi bath.

Once I got organized I let the massage pad give me a rubdown before resting on the bed until it was time for church.

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Church of St Mary

Today I attended services at The Church of St Mary and it was quite convenient as it was literally across the street from the inn.  I found the service quite enjoyable as Father was quite earnest in the faith.  Afterwards, I returned to the inn as the temperature was plunging into the sub-zero temps.

I got a fire going, posted some pictures, and took advantage of the film library to watch Play Misty for Me.  The film was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut and though it had a few pacing issues, I rather liked it as it featured a strong, somewhat un-Eastwood performance as he plays a not entirely likable DJ and an especially creepy performance from Jessica Walter who played his deranged stalker.

The day’s travel and escapades began to catch up with me so I drew a bath where I soaked for a while, shaved, and just enjoyed the jetted water.  I attempted to start a new novel about Blight County sheriff, Bo Tully, but found my lights going out, so I called it a night.

Memory foam is the best.  I slept straight through to dawn.  I took it easy in the morning before heading down to breakfast.

Breakfast was toast, fruit (honeydew, orange, and pineapple), cheese & mushroom quiche, seasoned potatoes, and ham with a glass of orange juice.  I also had a great conversation with Todd and Shannon who are quite proud of their little town and all of its history and things to do.

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Orange juice, ham, fruit, cheese & mushroom quiche, and toast.

I had to cut things a bit short as there is a threat of heavy snowfall over the area and there is a polar vortex blasting the region with sub-zero temps.  But stop in New Ulm if you have a chance.  Bingham Hall is a cozy, comfortable inn of understated elegance and there’s plenty to do in this little German town especially after winter when the town’s activities really get going.

Until the next time, happy travels.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part II: A Cascade of Christmas

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Oakenwald Terrace

Today the road has brought me to Chatfield, MN.

Welcome to Part II of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  The inn for this trip is Oakenwald Terrace, sometimes known as the Ellen Lovell House, owned and operated by Marion, Bob, and Ruth Ann Lund. When I was originally researching inns for the annual Christmas review, this inn launched itself to the top of my list with its advertisements for how seriously it takes the holiday.  So proud is Oakenwald Terrace of how it celebrates Christmas, that it even hosts an annual open house just so they can show off the inn.  For a Christmas nut like yours truly, it was like ringing the chow bell.  So I booked a stay.

Unlike the wacky weather of last week, this weekend was set to be frigid, but sunny.  Truthfully, this was the most pleasant drive I had enjoyed in a while.  I just felt more at peace than usual and my MP3 player was pulling up some long forgotten classics.  I also had the pleasure of watching the small town Christmases of a number of small towns as I took a scenic route to Chatfield through Fort Dodge to have lunch with my best friend, Josh.

I arrived in town with just a few minutes to spare, but wanted to swing by the old homestead.  When I last passed through in April, I had thought that the people currently living in my old home had finally cleaned up the backyard.  As I drove through the alley, I saw I had been quite mistaken.  All of the overgrowth is simply dead and currently buried under a pile of snow. Ah, well.

Josh and I met at Taco Tico where I enjoyed a few tacos and conversation.  I then suggested that we do a bit of mall walking so I could get a little exercise before driving another 3 hours and to build my strength after a recent illness.  Crossroads Mall was the hangout spot when I was a kid in Fort Dodge.  Not only did it have a stellar arcade in Aladdin’s Castle, but it also did Christmas right for the kids with Santa’s gingerbread castle.  Santa would visit with his kids in the front of the castle while Santa’s talking reindeer, Randolph (Rudolph’s cousin), would visit with kids in the back.

I fear Crossroads is on its last legs.  So much of it is shuttered and it has lost its three major stores of Younkers, J.C. Penney, and Sears.  I would not be surprised to find it permanently shuttered in the not too distant future.

I wished my old pal good-bye and continued the drive to Chatfield.

Chatfield is a tiny town in the Rochester region of Minnesota.  I easily found the house, though the driveway was quite icy from last week’s storm.  I was driving too slow to get up the drive, so I backed up and hit it with a bit more speed and powered my way up.  Keep this in mind for later.

As I walked towards the back door, Bob opened it wide with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the inn.  Once inside, I met Bob’s wife, Ruth Ann, and his sister, Elaine.  Bob and Ruth Ann led me to Mrs. Lovell’s Room, the bedroom of the house’s original owner.

Now I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but I was blown away by the place just from my little walkaround of the first floor.  I had not been in an inn of this type since the Victorian Villa originally stoked my interest in B & Bs way back when.  And every room was jam packed with Christmas.  Trees, decorations, Nativity scenes, Santa Clauses.  You name it.

As I said, time was at a premium.  I had to head into Rochester in order to attend church for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

One good thing about Chatfield is that it has easy access to the highway, thus easy access to Rochester.  The downtown area can be a little confusing as the street numbers repeat themselves, quickly change direction (like 1st St SW to 1st St NE), and transform from street to avenues in the blink of an eye.  However, a good map allowed me to easily find St Francis of Assisi.

It was a nice little church that holds services in both English and Spanish though I suspect Spanish is the primary language as the priest made a joke about the bishop coming for a service so that sermon would be in English.  Father was from Colombia and he used the sermon to introduce a tradition popular in the Hispanic culture.  For the feast of Our Lady from Guadalupe, Hispanic families often take part in “The Night of the Little Candles” where a family will light a number of candles equal to the number of people in the family and place them in the main window of the house.  As such, Father had six candles lit on the altar.

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Rochester Civic Theatre

After church I then headed to the Rochester Civic Theatre in order to review their production of Annie:  The Musical.  You can read my review for it here.

When the show was done, I returned to the inn where I once again didn’t give the car enough juice to get to the top of the driveway.  So I started reversing back down to take another run.  Only this time my car turned sideways and I got wedged in at the bottom of the driveway.  No trouble.  I got out of my car to kick some snow away and rock my way free only to find I had locked myself out of the car.

Luckily, Bob was still up and working as he and Ruth Ann were preparing for a luncheon the next day.  He contacted the police for me and within a few minutes the police had arrived and they managed to get my door open.  Bob then guided me out and I got the running start I needed to get back up to the top of the driveway.

Back in the house, Bob whipped up a bowl of chili for me as I had not eaten any dinner.  As I ate, Bob told me a bit about the house before giving me the formal tour of the house.

Oakenwald Terrace is an L-Shape Shingle Style Victorian mansion which boasts 23 rooms and 10,000 square feet.  It was the dream home of Ellen Lovell who had it built in 1897.  The Lund family has owned it since 1973 and, for the first 30 years of their ownership, Marion Lund operated it as an assisted living home.  In 2003, it was changed into a bed and breakfast and a bit of a living museum famed for its 4 course breakfasts.

After my tour, I finally got a good look at my room.  As I said, I was in Mrs. Lovell’s Room and it had originally been Mrs. Lovell’s bedroom. It holds one of the house’s original 4 fireplaces and the room is as Victorian as you can get.  A comfortable sitting room takes up the bulk of the room with several chairs and a settee.  Behind a screen is a bed with a private bedroom to its left.  I admired my Christmas trees and other holiday items before finally crawling into bed and calling it a night.

In the morning I grabbed a shower and sat down to breakfast.  Course #1 was a tiny dish of raspberries, kiwi, and cream.  Course #2 was a banana pancake.  Course #3 was grapes, ham omelet, and English muffin.  Last, but not least, was a piece of lemon sponge cake topped with an Andes mint.  In short, epic deliciousness and no need to eat again until night.  Bob joined me while I ate sharing stories about the history of the house and neighborhood and the history really adds a vital dimension to the experience.

After breakfast, I went back through the house to finally take photos.  Once I got some posted, I headed back to Rochester where I spent a few hours at The Machine Shed.

This is a tiny vintage arcade where $10 lets you play to your fill.  The arcade does not hold many games though there is an emulator that holds over 400 games.  I played a bit of Shinobi, Root Beer Tapper, Dungeons & Dragons, Sunsetriders, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time.

Where I was done gaming, it was back to the inn for some writing and then off to church at Assumption Catholic in Canton, MN.

My directions were. . .less than stellar.  Supposedly the trip would take 35 minutes, but it was 45 minutes before I even reached the town.  There my directions failed me utterly and it was only through divine aid or utter luck that I managed to stumble upon the church so I ended up being a little bit late, but still enjoyed a pleasant service.

When church was done, I returned to Chatfield where I had dinner at Jac’s Bar and Grill.  The joint was jumping and I managed to get the last booth.  I was told it might take 40 minutes to get food and I replied that I had a book.  I suspected it would take less time as I saw diners leave and not get replaced.  So within 15 minutes, I had my food as the restaurant continued to empty due to an Elvis Christmas show taking place at the local Arts Center a few blocks away.

I enjoyed a Monkey Burger which had ranch dressing, bacon, cheese, jalapenos, and a spicy sauce they called monkey sauce.  It was quite delectable and filled the cavity whereupon I returned to the inn for the night.

The first thing I did the next morning was stoke the fire.  Then I drew a hot bath where I just soaked until the heat was gone from the water.  Feeling refreshed, I was ready for some breakfast.

Today’s meal began with another dish of mixed fruit followed by an apple pancake puff.  Then there was a ham and cheese quiche with a peppermint ice cream cake for dessert.  Another filling meal with more conversation including a couple who were visiting Chatfield for the Elvis show last night.

And so ends this chapter of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  Chatfield is a nice little town with some interesting things to do and is near Rochester if you need some big city fun.  And Oakenwald Terrace should be your lodging of choice as it is a living museum loaded with history.  They do Christmas right.  They certainly do meals well.  The innkeepers are aces in hospitality.  And the inn is just a lovely step back to a less cluttered time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

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The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Peaceful Solitude: Beiderbecke Inn

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Today the road brought me to Davenport, IA.

I had just completed my first full stage production in nearly 6 years and I needed a weekend to wind down from it.  How to do just that?  Of course!  Road trip!!

I decided a return trip to Algonquin, IL would fit the bill just nicely.  I could get a little gaming in at the Underground Retrocade and enjoy the comfort and hospitality of Victorian Rose Garden Bed and Breakfast again.

But I needed something for that first night.  A little research led to the discovery of Beiderbecke Inn of Davenport, IA owned by Pam and Dennis LaRoque and the deal was sealed.

Getting out of town was a bit of an adventure.  When I awoke Friday morning, I glanced out the window to check the weather and found Omaha was in the throes of a winter storm.  Luckily the accumulation only amounted to an inch, but the way it was blowing around made it seem a lot worse and cut the visibility down to nearly zero.  A view of weather reports showed me that the storm was localized to the metro area so once I got past Council Bluffs I would be OK, provided that things tapered off by 11am which, mercifully, they did.

It was a little slow going getting out of the city and then my low pressure signal came on.  I rolled my eyes and pulled off to a Casey’s in Council Bluffs to pump up my tires.

After that it was pretty smooth sailing.  My MP3 was pulling up some great long unheard tunes and the driving was smooth after Council Bluffs.  My schedule was thrown off a bit by the slower driving I needed before I escaped winter’s fury so I ended up stopping for lunch later than I anticipated.

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Iowa’s Best Burger Cafe. Don’t be deceived by the appearance as they serve a great burger.

On several occasions I had passed a little gas station/café in Kellogg, IA called Iowa’s Best Burger Café which allegedly served the best burgers in the state and I decided to put that to the test.

The place serves a mighty mean burger.  I had a ¼ hamburger with the works and it really hit the spot.  Juicy, charbroiled, and just flat out good.  A side of crinkle fries completed the meal and it does come with a beverage, too, albeit no refills.  So if you’re hungry and you are close to Kellogg, IA, this place is definitely worth a visit.

From there, it was back on the road until I reached Beiderbecke Inn.

The inn is located in Davenport’s historic neighborhood and had been the dream home of Charles and Louise Beiderbecke who made their fortune selling groceries and coal wholesale.  Their home is built near the bank of the Mississippi and has a beautiful view of the river.

Beiderbecke Inn is a Victorian mansion and a classic B & B.  Stepping inside made me feel as if I was transported to the inn of The Boscombe Valley Mystery of the Sherlock Holmes tales.  I was greeted by Pam and I met her grandchildren (both official and unofficial) as they practiced a dance routine in the massive greeting hall.  The bottom floor includes the hall, dining room, library, den, and billiards room.

After paying for my stay, I met Dennis and was led to the Victorian Room which had the two things I needed for a bitterly cold night:  a fire and a Jacuzzi tub. I heaved a contented sigh and set up for the night.

Due to the lateness of my lunch and the cold outside, I decided to stay indoors for the night.  I thumbed through the impressive DVD library and selected Maverick.  I then finished a novel, started the electric fire, and drew a hot bath.

The bath felt great as the gentle jets soothed my weary body and reactivated my tired mind.  I stayed in the tub until I soaked up all of the hot water.  Then I went through my nighttime ritual and got under the covers to watch the movie, but didn’t get very far before I conked out.

The next morning, it was time for breakfast.  Waiting at the table were goblets of orange juice, milk, and water along with a dish of berries (strawberries, I think) mixed with a cream that made them oh, so sweet and tasty.  The main course was an omelet stuffed with peppers, onions, and bacon which served as great fuel for the road.

If you’re in the Davenport, IA and want to stay in a classic B & B, Beiderbecke Inn is definitely the inn for you.  And, as we’re close to the holiday season, I’m told the inn looks particularly nice at Christmas.  Hint.  Hint.

Until the next time, happy travels.