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.

Christmas With the Cacti

Ah, Christmas.  A time of lights, worship, gifts, family, and friends.

My Christmas was a bit different this year.  I have three brothers and we’re spread all over the map and the other 3 have spouses/families that also need a little togetherness time, so getting everyone in one place for the holidays can be a little difficult.

This year we had an early Christmas which meant that, for the first time ever, I had no plans for Christmas Eve and Day.  Then it hit me.  I could go to Arizona to visit Mat and Carolyn.

Mat and Carolyn have been through some wonderful changes since I had last seen them in March.  The two are set to become the parents of twin girls in February.  As such, this seemed like an ideal time to spend the holidays with friends and have one more traditional round of shenanigans before the twins arrive.

While Mat and Carolyn were glad to have me come for a visit, their home would be a bit snug as they had already converted one of the guest rooms into a nursery and Mat’s dad, Barry, would be staying with them for Christmas plus Carolyn’s brother, Alan, would also be visiting for Christmas.  Mat also was slightly concerned that the twins might decide to come early and didn’t want to leave me at the house alone if he and Carolyn had to dash to the hospital.  As such, he recommended that I find a hotel for the duration.

When our mutual friend, David Sundberg, announced that he, too, wanted to visit Mat and Carolyn for the holidays, we began to make plans.

Like in March, the plans came about after the sweet spot of air fare had passed.  Dave also had to wait for his time off to be approved so I went ahead and booked a flight and would help Dave rendezvous with me in Arizona.

Then I began a search for hotels.  For kicks and giggles, I did a search on Embassy Suites, fully expecting to see a $200 or more per night rate.  Imagine my surprise when I found an Embassy Suites about ten minutes from Mat and Carolyn’s home advertising an $87 a night rate.  During my recent trip to Scotland, I had become a Hilton Honors member which meant that the rate would be about $81 a night after tax.

Hot diggety!!  A comfy suite with a free cooked to order breakfast every day.  Can we say jackpot?

Dave had decided to stay in Arizona for two weeks so opted to find his own accommodations as he didn’t want to change hotels after I left, so I would be on my own.  I ended up booking a 2 room king bed suite and I was ready to go on a Christmas adventure.

Day 1

I flew Southwest out of Omaha, nabbing a window seat close to the front of the plane.  I made some good time and even got to Phoenix a little early which started this adventure off on a much better note than the previous one where my initial flight got canceled.

Mat greeted me at the gate and we collected my bag and headed off to the homestead.

Shortly after my arrival, Carolyn and Mat wanted brunch so we headed off to a NY deli called Chompie’s.  I decided to have a corned beef half sandwich with some fries and lemonade.  The menu called it a jumbo half and they weren’t whistling Dixie.  Nobody without the name of Pac-Man was going to be able to fit this thing into her or his mouth.  I took one of the slices of bread and made a much smaller sandwich out of it and ate the rest of the fixings with a knife and fork.

With a tasty meal digesting, we headed back home and enjoyed some conversation while Mat and Carolyn’s cat, Tuna, continually swatted and climbed the Christmas tree.  Barry arrived a bit later in the afternoon and about 4pm, Mat took me to Embassy Suites to get my keys and drop off my bag.

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Embassy Suites Tempe

The Embassy Suites Tempe is a three story adobe style hotel.  Thanks to my Hilton Honors membership, I had checked in the day before and was able to pick my own room.  On the rare occasions I stay at hotels, I prefer rooms on the highest floor possible so I had picked Room 310.  The clerk checking me in told me there was a problem with the room so I moved to the more secluded Room 338.

As I walked to my room, I noted that Room 310 had a stellar view of the courtyard where the heated pool and hot tub were located.  But 338 would give me a bit more solitude.

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I was impressed when I entered the room.  The living room had an easy chair and couch sleeper plus an office area with a plasma TV mounted on the wall.  The bedroom was spacious with a king-sized bed with a pillowtop mattress and another plasma TV set up in the room.  I put my bag into the closet and rejoined Mat.

We returned to the house where more conversation ensued.  Early evening we went out to Venezia’s Pizzeria where I had a slice of pepperoni pizza.  We returned to the house for more conversation, got the word that Dave made it to town.  Due the delay of getting his time off, Dave was reluctant to pay last minute prices for air fare and a car rental.  So he had decided to make the loooong drive to Phoenix and back (40 hours round trip).  Understandably, he was a bit exhausted and would not meet up with us until Monday.

Mat and I took an “old man walk” as he called it where we talked and I took pictures of Christmas lights.  Afterwards, Mat drove me to Embassy Suites where I unpacked my suitcase, put away my clothes, and went to bed.

Day 2

I had a fantastic night of sleep.  Limbs splayed out.  Slack jawed.  And out all night.  I opened the curtains and noticed an overcast day.  I decided to go exercise in the gym and followed the signs and went around in a circle a few times before stopping at the front desk and asking where the heck was the gym.  Turns out it was actually inside the pool area.

I did 30 minutes on the elliptical, pleased at how much stronger I had become since using the HasFit regimen as I didn’t even start to breathe heavy until the brutal final few minutes and recovered my wind pretty quickly when I was done.

I took a hot bath and shaved and then went to breakfast.

Embassy Suites is known for a free cooked to order breakfast and it has a pretty good spread.  Breads, cereals, juices, milk, oatmeal (with fixings), bacon, sausage, eggs any style you want, homemade omelets, French toast, breakfast potatoes, and an amazing homemade salsa are available every day.

After a small meal, I returned to my room.  Mat and Dave came to collect me about 10am and made a stop at Hurts Donut where Mat picked up an apple fritter for Carolyn and we each got a donut of our own.  I went with Mint Oreo this time.

We dropped off the fritter and then went to Castles N Coasters for a day of mini-golf.  For the first time ever, we played all 4 courses which took over five hours, including a lunch break at In N Out Burger.

I played a pretty pitiful game to start.  One front 9 didn’t have me shooting anything lower than a 3.  Mat started off red hot as he made 4 aces in the first six holes.  He ended up running away with the win and it became a battle for second place and I had fallen 15 strokes behind Dave.  Miraculously I managed to slice his lead down to 5 by the final round, but could get no closer.

We returned to the homestead where more conversation ensued before a quick meal at Panda Express where I had a small order of black pepper chicken and mixed vegetables.  Shortly afterwards, Dave drove me back to the hotel for the night.

Days 3-4

Ah, Christmas Eve Day.

Mat picked me up about 9:30am and we met Dave at the homestead.  We made a stop at Safeway to pick up the pre-made Christmas dinner Mat and Carolyn had ordered.

Most of the day was just conversation.  Mat drove me over to Our Lady of Mt Carmel so I could attend Christmas service at 4pm.

I had never seen a church so packed.  I arrived at 3:30pm and the church was nearly full.  By the time mass started, the pews were full, people were standing at the back of the church and I noted people streaming in from the narthex during Communion.

I had also never seen a church so beautifully decorated for Christmas.  A large Nativity scene was set to the left of the altar, two Christmas trees were set at either side of the altar, and old-fashioned lampposts adorned the edges of the pews.

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This was easily the best Christmas service I had ever attended.  There was just something heavenly about it.  The chattering before service told me people were happy to be there.  The choir played some stellar jazzed up hymns.  Father had a simple sermon about what Jesus means to us.  After the service, I decided to walk back to Mat and Carolyn’s just so I could process the mass and looked forward to going again on Saturday.  This time I would bring my camera so I could get some snaps of the Christmas decorations.

When I arrived at the house, Carolyn’s father, Joe, and her brother, Alan, had arrived.  Alan has some special needs due to cerebral palsy, but is a very sweet guy.  Joe is fun and a master of dad humor.  We sat down to dinner and enjoyed a sumptuous meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls, and pie.

Afterwards a few gifts were opened while a fire crackled in the fireplace.  Then Mat, Dave, and I entertained the guests by badly playing a cooking game called Overcooked.  Most of Dave’s food was seasoned by the floor as he kept dropping it while I kept tossing food into the abyss.  Very entertaining and a great deal of fun for the night.

On Christmas Day, Dave picked me up so Mat and Carolyn could better care for Alan.  Mat prepared breakfast for those who hadn’t eaten and we opened up the rest of the gifts.  Mat and Carolyn got me a card game called Doctor Who Fluxx while Dave gave me $20.

Early afternoon we headed to Joe’s house for Christmas dinner.  At Joe’s, we met the family of his girlfriend, Fran.  Fran’s son’s (Elliott) fiancée, Ellen, made an epic Filipino Christmas dinner with spicy beef and cheese, egg rolls, stuffed eggplant, pork belly, and other delicacies.  Wonderful!  Simply wonderful!

We took a little walk after dinner before taking Alan back to his group home.  Then we went back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we played Super Mario Party (won 1, lost 1) and Mat introduced me to Luigi’s Mansion 3.  After a long day, Dave returned me to the hotel where I had a lovely night’s sleep.

Day 5

Today Mat took Dave and I to downtown Tempe where we walked around the downtown area and Tempe Town Lake before going to the movies to watch Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker.  I thought it was an OK movie.  It was definitely the weakest of the new trilogy with some serious pacing issues in the first third of the film, a somewhat tepid story, but all storylines are tied up, and the action scenes are great.

After the film, Dave bought an R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder and then Mat took us to The Chuckbox for the best hamburger in town.

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An R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder.

The Chuckbox is a Tempe institution.  It’s small and cash only, but specializes in cooked to order charbroiled burgers that you can fix up yourself.  Mat and Dave ate bacon cheeseburgers while I enjoyed a Big One (1/3 pound patty) with Swiss cheese on a whole wheat bun.  I then fixed it up with jalapenos, lettuce, onions, relish, pickles, ketchup, and mustard.  This truly was the best burger I’ve tasted and recommend a visit to any and all in the Tempe area.

From there it was back to the house where I won another round of Super Mario Party and we talked some more.  Late evening we stopped for a late dinner at Flavors of Louisiana for some Cajun cooking.  I had a 6 inch blackened chicken po’boy with a side of gumbo.  The gumbo was tasty though a bit more like soup than stew.  The sandwich was utter perfection.

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We returned to the house for another round of Super Mario Party which Dave won.  Then Dave took me back to Embassy Suites for the night.

Days 6-7

Putrid.

That word sums up Friday.

It started off decently enough.  I decided to use the pool and hot tub at 6:30am.  The heat of the hot tub merged with the cool morning air causing steam to visibly rise from the tub.  The hot, churning water felt good, but I had to skip the swim as maintenance started cleaning the pool.

Mat had to go in to work that day so I was left to my own devices until 3pm.  I didn’t need to plan too much as it started raining at 11am and it just went on for most of the afternoon.

About noon, I braved the elements to have lunch at Café Rio where I enjoyed one of their fantastic chicken quesadillas.  By that point the rain was really coming down so I speed walked back to the hotel where I remained until Dave picked me up about 3pm.

It was a pretty quiet afternoon.  We played more Super Mario Party and eventually had dinner at Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles where I ate a chicken tenders meal while keeping an eye on the Holiday Bowl where I ultimately had the satisfaction of watching Iowa demolish USC.  After dinner it was more gaming and then back to the hotel.

Here it was.  The last day.  Thankfully the sun was shining today, but it was cold.  Temps actually dipped below freezing which Mat says happens only twice a year.

Mat picked me up at 9:30am and Dave met us at the house.  After a bit of talking we headed out to an early lunch at Del Taco before heading out to another mini-golf battle at Golfland Sunsplash.

The fun park was really decked out for the holidays and I wished I would have been able to see it lit up at night.

My mini-golf slump continued, not due to bad shots, but bad breaks.  I was nailed with a slew of penalties as my ball continued to take bad bounces on many holes.  I was red hot on the final round, but it was too little, too late.

On the other hand, I did witness the impossible.  For the first time ever, Dave finally won his first mini-golf battle after 20 years of knowing him.  He sometimes placed second. . .usually third. . .occasionally fourth, but this time he took the whole enchilada with a combination of steady, smart gameplay which resulted in 8 holes in one and the most epic meltdown I had ever seen as Mat crashed and burned in the final round.

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Dave strikes a victory pose as Mat weeps after he falls to pieces in the final round of our mini-golf battle.

After the links duel, it was back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we squeezed in a quick round of Super Mario Party before I went to worship at Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

When church services ended, the four of us went to dinner at Chou’s Kitchen which serves authentic Chinese food.  The meals are meant to be served family style so there were quite a few leftovers.  My dish of choice was chicken in garlic sauce, but I also sampled potstickers and sliced beef roll.  During the meal, Carolyn picked up on my mood and wondered if I were feeling well.  Truthfully, I was feeling a bit blue as I knew that this adventure was rapidly coming to a close and I was missing my friends already.

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But there was time for one last hurrah.

When we got back to the house, I broke out a portable escape room (a gift from another friend).  It was pretty interesting.  The game replicates the escape room experience as you and your team time yourselves and track how many clues you truly needed to use to solve the puzzles and escape.  The downside is that the game can only be played once as once you’ve solved it, you know how to win and you may need to tear up pieces of the game and booklet to solve puzzles.

It was a fun game as we tried to escape the abandoned cabin.  Mat and Carolyn are serious escape room players and Dave and I learned we had to really pipe up to present our theories and solutions.  We did pretty well.  We did escape in about 90 minutes and needed 5 clues.  We’ll do better next time now that we know how the portable game works.

And for me, that was the end.  I said my good-byes to Mat and Carolyn, knowing that it would be a while before I would get to see them again.

Dave took me back to Embassy Suites and I wished him a safe drive home before heading off to one final sleep in Arizona.

Thus ends my Christmas with the Cacti.  Until I see you again, my friends.  Be well.  Be happy.

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.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 7: A Taste of Royalty

The last day.

I always get a strange combination of feelings when these excusions come to an end.  Sadness at it having to end.  Surprise that the time is nearly done.  Joy at the new friendships forged and memories made.  And a bit ready to come home.

Our final escapades began with a bus tour throughout New Town Edinburgh and Old Town Edinburgh.  Our tour guide, Jenny, was quite knowledgeable and shared a lot of fascinating history about the area.  One of my favorite moments was passing by the childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Childhood home of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Most interesting was some trivia about Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  While it is known that the plot of the novel arose from a nightmare, Stevenson actually based the characters of Jekyll and Hyde off two different people.  One was his nanny who loved him dearly, but also loved the bottle and was not herself when she drank.  The other was Edinburgh’s town counselor, Deacon Brodie.  Brodie was also a furniture maker who had a severe gambling addiction.  He often broke into homes of his customers to steal items in order to pay off his debts.  Eventually he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging.  Brodie smugly thought he would live as he had built the gallows used and didn’t think it would work.  Unfortunately for him, his new gallows was a success.

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Edinburgh Castle

When we finished exploring the city, we headed off to Edinburgh Castle to explore the royal home for many Scottish kings.  This was an excellent attraction and one that I would highly recommend.  The castle is actually made up of multiple museums and you will learn about military history, visit the castle dungeons, see the oldest building in Scotland with St Margaret’s Chapel, gaze upon the ominous Mons Meg, and see the Scottish Crown Jewels.

 

We were able to enjoy the castle for about 90 minutes before getting back on the bus for a few more tidbits about Edinburgh and getting dropped off at our hotel.

The afternoon was a free period for us.  I made a stop at Marks & Spencer to switch my money back to dollars.  This is indeed the place to stop as the lack of commission meant I got nearly market rate for my exchange.  However, I did hold back ten pounds for lunch.

I stopped at Burger King and had a quick meal of an Angus Steakhouse combo while I read The Battered Badge, a Nero Wolfe novel by Robert Goldsborough.  I then took a walk around town and did my good deed for the day when I helped an elderly couple from Shropshire find the Mercure.

 

 

I organized my photos thus far and then got back on the coach as we were off to viist the Royal Yacht Brittania, the final royal ship for the British royal family.  This was another excellent attraction as it combined history with a taste of living the royal life.

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Royal Yacht Brittania

I was blown away by the luxury and elegance of the yacht.  Truly, it was like a floating mansion.

 

From there, it was off to our final group meal as we had a reservation for Cafe Tartine.

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Cafe Tartine

Another wonderful meal.  This was almost as good as the previous night as I enjoyed smoked salmon, Escalope of Grilled Chicken with herb potatoes, green beans, and smoked bacon, and a thick mousse called Orange Scented Chocolate Panna Cotta.

 

 

And just like that, it was over.  I made arrangements with my new friends, the Campbells, to have breakfast in the morning before I’m carted off to the airport.  Another grand adventure has ended.  And the next is being planned.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 6: Ach, Aye!!

This was truly a grand day.  We had some absolutely gorgeous weather as we bade farewell to Aberdeen and left to visit the town of Scone, specifically the Scone Palace.

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Scone Palace

Scone Palace is the home of the Murray family whose head is now the hereditary Earl of Mansfield.  Historically, Moot Hill on the palace grounds is where the kings of Scotland were crowned.  While not a royal palace, the building was an abbey before the Murrays gained ownership and being an abbey is the other way for a building to be called a palace.  Fun fact:  there is a difference between palaces and castles.  Castles are fortified.  Palaces are not.

We stopped into the coffee shop on the grounds for some tea and shortbread before having a formal tour.  Our tour guide was fantastic!  He made history come alive before our eyes as he talked about Scone Palace’s history as well as the history of the Murray family.  The Murrays still live on the property so photography was forbidden inside the palace to respect their privacy.

When the tour was ended, we were given a little free time to explore the grounds at our leisure.  I explored the mausoleum on Moot Hill, saw the original Douglas Fir (yes, Christmas trees began in Scotland before being spread around the world), saw the Old Cross, and even solved a hedge maze.

After getting our history on, it was now time to get our game on.  We headed off to St Andrews to visit their world-famous golf course.

Golf was practically invented at St Andrews and it was impressive to see the old course.  I also took a little amble through a nearby neighborhood where I admired the North Sea and stepped into St James’ Catholic Church for a lookaround and a prayer.

At 2:10 we headed over to St Andrews’ practice center where we were allowed to knock out a bucket of balls at the practice range.  Some of the fellow tour members were obviously golfers while most were, shall we say, not.  It made for an amusing time.  For myself, all of my shots were surprisingly straight and true and I managed to hit several balls 75 to 100 yards.  However, if I’m going to learn the game, I need some lessons as I also completely whiffed the ball on several occasions.

From St Andrews, it was off to our final city of the tour:  Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital.

In terms of view, this was the best hotel (Mercure Royal) as I had a room on the top floor with a panoramic view of the city.  We had several hours to ourselves which I used to bathe and shave for tonight’s optional excursion:  a visit to the Jam House for the Spirit of Scotland show with the Ceremony of the Haggis.

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View from my room

Ach aye!!! (Oh, yes!!!)  This was the best event of the tour yet.  We had a sumptuous meal consisting of an appetizer of smoked salmon which was superb.  I can see why salmon is considered one of the hallmarks of Scottish dining after tasting theirs.  Then we had a taster’s course consisting of haggis with potato and turnip while our host, singer Bruce Davis, led us in The Ceremony of the Haggis with a humorous interpretation of Robert Burns’ poem, Ode to a Haggis.  The main course was Braised Spear of Scottish Beef with horseradish mashed potatoes and root vegetables.  The beef was the tenderest I have ever tasted and I wished I could have had a second helping of those amazing potatoes.  For dessert was a cup of fruit, cream, and oatmeal.

After diner we got to see the Spirit of Scotland show which was an amazing night of songs, music, and dancing by the talented troupe of the Jam House.  There was even a bit of audience participation as we were encouraged to sing along on the refrain of “Loch Lomond”, the first verse of “Amazing Grace”, and we all stood up and joined hands as the show closed with “Auld Lang Syne”.

I was disappointed to see such a delightful show end, but it was time to return to the hotel where I wrestled with a dodgy internet connection to get pictures posted.  Mercifully, I was looking forward to a bit of sleeping in as breakfast would not be until 7:30 with our first event of the final day not beginning until 8:30.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 5: The Monster, The Battle, and the Aberdeen

Today was definitely the slowest day of the trip.  We had a long haul of driving today so it was pretty much looking at the beautiful countryside with just a couple of stops to break up the drive.

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Loch Ness

Our first stop was a visit to Loch Ness, reputedly the home of a certain monster.  While searching for Nessie, Marge threw in a bonus as we would also be visiting Urquhart Castle.

Urquhart Castle has held an important place in Scottish history dating back to the 500s when St Columba visited the region to convert the Picts to Christianity with his most notable conversion being the Pict leader.  According to legend, the Loch Ness Monster attacked one of his guides as he was swimming to fetch a boat.  Before reaching the guard, St Columba made the Sign of the Cross and the monster vanished.

We watched a brief, but informative film about the history of Urquhart Castle and as it ended, the screen pulled up and the curtains opened to reveal this.

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Urquhart Castle

It was even more amazing seeing it in person.

From there we toured the grounds of the castle.  I even went hunting for Nessie and succeeded.  Below, I bring you proof of the Loch Ness Monster.

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From Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, it was off to the bus for another jaunt that took us to Culloden.

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The Battle of Culloden was the climax and pretty much the end of the Jacobite Rebellion spearheaded by Charles Edward Stuart AKA Bonny Prince Charlie AKA The Idiot (according to Marge).  Charles had plotted to get his exiled father back on the throne of England as he believed the Stuarts were divinely appointed to rule. Despite never having visited Scotland, he claimed it as home and used his charm and energy to convince Scottish Highlanders to join his cause to retake the English throne.

Charles was also unpredictable and impetuous leading him to ignore his advisors.  Despite several victories, he decided to make an ill fated nighttime sneak attack on the British government forces led by King George’s son (and distant relative of Charles), William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.

After his forces had suffered defeats at the hands of the Jacobites, Augustus managed to boost his soldiers’ morale with an extra ration of cheese to celebrate his birthday as well as rigorous training to counter the deadly Highlander charge which had decimated the British government soliders and their gentlemanly style of warfare.

Meeting at Culloden on April 16, 1746, Augustus’ forces slaughtered the weary Highlanders who had marched all night and were stumbling in the dark.  The rout took a mere 40 minutes.  Charles fled to France while Augustus ordered no mercy on the Highlanders and Jacobites, killing them instead of capturing them as well as killing many innocent civilians who also wore plaids and tartans.

Neither nobleman ended up well.  Augustus was labeled as a butcher and fell into ignominy and was joined there by Charles who was briefly labeled a hero in France for his “daring” escape, but was abandoned by his family and attempted a few more conspiracies which blew up in his face.

After that it was a long afternoon of driving, though we did make a brief stop in Tomintoul to stretch our legs before arriving at Aberdeen for the night.

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Aberdeen Altens Hotel

Our home for the night was the Aberdeen Altens Hotel.  I managed to nab a king-sized bed room so I knew I’d be sleeping like a baby tonight.

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I puttered around for an hour or so and learned about my airport transfer for the final day before heading into the restaurant for dinner.

I joined Kenneth, Steven, and Joel again and enjoyed a meal of Country Terrine with red onion chutney and oatcakes, fillet of haddock in citrus cream sauce and vegetable, and hot rice pudding for dessert.

With a filling meal and satisfying conversation complete, it was time for some writing, a hot bath, and a good snooze for a full day of activities.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 4: Headed to the Highlands

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There wasn’t a lot of activity today, but it was truly a great day.  We left the envirions of Glasgow to head to the Highlands, the least densely populated part of Scotland.  Tall buildings and traffic gave way to narrow words and lush farmland and quite a few sheep.

As we drove through the country, we passed a region known as Glencoe, site of a massacre which took place on February 13, 1692 during the Jacobite uprising.  The long and short of it was that William Campbell managed to obtain a royal proclamation to eradicate Clan Macdonald which they did on that date.  Marge played a song called “The Massacre of Glencoe” which told the story of Campbell and his warriors being offered shelter and food by the Macdonalds whose hosptiality was repaid by being slaughtered during the night.  Many of the victims were women and children.  I was fascinated by the haunting story and Marge explained that much of Scottish history was mired in tragedy.

Our first brief stop of the day was a visit to Glenfinnan which is home to a monument and a viaduct best known for being used for the journey of the Hogwarts Express during the first “Harry Potter” film.  I hiked to the top of an outlook which featured an excellent view of the monument and the viaduct.  I snapped a few pics before journeying back down for a few shots of the lake.

After driving a little further, our group pulled into the Spean Bridge Woolen Mill for a lunch break.  I wasn’t very hungry so I stopped in at a nearby grocery store and picked up a chicken salad sandwich and a Kit Kat bar.  I then did a rarity and, GASP!, actually bought something for myself at the Woolen Mill.  As I was so fascinated by the song of the Glencoe massacre, I found a CD dedicated to songs about that tragic event and bought it along with a CD of traditional Scottish songs.  I then took a little walk around the area just to enjoy local life and snap a photo or two.  I’ve learned that Scotland also likes B & Bs just as much as Ireland so I’m adding Scotland to my potential places of retirement in my golden years.

As we got into the Highlands, the road signs began to feature two languages, English and Gallic, the traditional language of Scotland which is only taught in the Highlands.  English is exclusively used in the Lowlands.

We weren’t on the road very long after lunch, making a brief stop at the Commando Memorial for a photo op.

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Commando Memorial

Then it was back on the road before our arrival at Eilean Donan Castle, the most photographed castle in the world.

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Eilean Donan Castle

As this was an optional tour, our group split at this point with those not taking the tour being driven to the hotel while the rest of us remained.  As we waited for our tour time, I tried jelly babies for the first time.  This favored treat of the Fourth Doctor of Doctor Who is a rather soft confection that’s a cross between a jelly bean and Turkish Delight.  I offered some treats to Kenneth Campbell, a retired schoolteacher from New Brunswick, Canada with whom I became fast friends.  Kenneth introduced me to his traveling companions:  his brother, Steven, and his nephew, Joel.  These guys were great conversationalists and just great fun to be around.

The tour of Eilean Donan consisted of two tour guides, one whom gave us the history of the castle in the entry hall and the second told us about the family Macrae, historical and current owners of the castle.  After the two lectures, we were free to explore the upstairs bedrooms and kitchen of the castle.  Photos were not allowed inside the castle, so the outside was all I got.  Fun fact:  The Macraes still holiday at the castle on occasion and either mix in with the other tourists or visit the castle after hours.  They have a furnished apartment elsewhere on the grounds where they actually live.

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The Clachan

With the tour ended, we headed to the nearby Clachan for a drink.  This pub is actually closed for the season, but was opened especially for us to enjoy a beverage.  I had been trying to get a Scottish drink called an Atholl Brose which I read about in a Sherlock Holmes story that took place in Scotland, but I’m starting to think it was a drink of its time as I’ve struck out in both attempts to get one.  So I had a pint of Guinness (almost as good as the Irish original) while enjoying a talk with the Campbells.

With the drink completed, we were bussed over to the Dunollie which was our hotel for the night in the Isle of Skye.

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The Dunollie

This is a small hotel only boasting about 84 rooms.  This was the smallest hotel room I have ever stayed in, but a comfy bed to lie my head is all that I ask for and, in terms of character, this was my favorite hotel of the trip.

I quickly settled in before joining the Campbells for dinner in the hotel restaurant.  Tonight’s meal consisted of lentil soup, Cully Fillet in cream sauce, and a cream puff pastry for dessert.  The soup was actually a bit bland, resulting in my adding a pinch of salt for the first time since I was 17.  The fish was of excellent quality and the dessert well rounded out the meal.

I bade the Campbells tonight before running over to the convenience store next door for a Dr. Pepper. I then returned and listened to an accordion player perform a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” before returning to my room to organize photos, write, and listen to my Glencoe CD.

Tomorrow we get a slightly later start with breakfast at 7am before departing for Aberdeen at 8am.