The Golden Review: Valparaiso, IN and Songbird Prairie

DSC01070

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.”

DSC01046

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.

DSC01075

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.

DSC01087

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.

DSC01136

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.

Advertisements

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

DSC01015

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.

DSC01003

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.

DSC01020

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.

DSC01031

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.

DSC01037

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.

Beware the Ides of Smarch, Days 7-9: Full Circle

DSC00968.JPG

Thursday, March 7

The Vegas trip had come to an end, but we still needed to hit up my favorite breakfast place on our way out.  That, of course, was the breakfast buffet at the Gold Coast casino.  It is still the best dollar for dollar value buffet in Vegas.  For about $10, you get a lot of wonderful breakfast foods and they were in especially fine form this day.  Their legendary French Toast was in fairly fine fettle and they also had some great chicken fried steak and an excellent corned beef hash as well.

Properly fueled we began the long drive back to Phoenix.  Dave and I once again waged battle in Super Mario Party where he managed to get the duke over me.

We got back into town about 4:30pm and just relaxed until Carolyn came home from work.  Then we went to dinner at Venezia’s Pizzeria which specializes in New York style slices of pizza.  I had never had a proper New York slice before and my Buffalo Chicken slice hit the spot.

When we got back to the house, Dave, Mat, and I took a little walk around the area to work off the meal before settling in to watch the latest episode of The Orville before turning in for the night.

Friday, March 8

This was definitely an easy day for us.  Mat had a doctor’s appointment so Dave and I were left to our devices for an hour or so.  Mat came back with doughnuts from The Hurts Donut Company which are still the greatest doughnuts on the planet and I very much look forward to the branch coming to Omaha.  I savored an Andes Mint doughnut while Mat introduced us to the web series, Cobra Kai, which continues the story of Daniel LaRusso and his rivalry with Johnny Lawrence from the movie The Karate Kid.

It’s actually a very entertaining and interesting series.  The focus is mostly on the character of Johnny Lawrence and it’s nice to see William Zabka get to show some depth with a character as his heyday as an actor in the 80s pretty much had him playing one dimensional bullies.

When we watched half the series, I suggested we go out and play some mini golf to get some exercise and enjoy the weather.

So we hopped into the car and made our way to Golfland Sunsplash were we once again dueled on the links.  In some ways, it was the most entertaining round of mini golf I’ve played as I shot video footage of some of our toughest holes.  In some ways it was the worst round as I shot pathetically average.  In one sign of the apocalypse, I finished last to Dave. . .again.  In another sign of the apocalypse, Dave won the ace award (most holes in one).  This left me in a fog where I muttered over and over, “Dave?  Ace Award?”

We returned to the house and did our own thing for an hour or so until Carolyn came back from work.  For dinner we went to Rubio’s which is famed for its fish tacos.  I had a Wild Alaskan salmon taco with a side of fresh greens and it really hit the spot.

From dinner, we went to the movies to watch Captain Marvel, the latest blockbuster from Marvel.  I found it to be a decent film buoyed by strong performances from Brie Larson as the title character and Ben Mendelsohn as a sympathetic war victim.  I gave it a 7 out of 10 and was especially impressed at how Marvel altered the traditional origin story formula.

But it was back to homestead and bed as we readied ourselves for the final day.

Saturday, March 9

This was it.  The last full day of fun with Mat and Carolyn.

Mat and Carolyn slept in.  I rose at my usual early hour and was surprised to find Dave up and about already as he watched the news on his phone.  I ate a banana and the last 2 pieces of bacon from the batch Mat had prepared the previous Sunday.  After eating, I decided I wanted to go for a long walk and persuaded Dave to join me.

Except for the little nighttime excursion taken a few nights prior, I had never really walked around this neighborhood as I was under the mistaken belief that the area was just a few lanes of houses buttressed up against a business area.

How wrong I was.

Once you cross the street, there are actually quite a large number of houses, schools, and neighborhoods to enjoy.  Dave and I ambled for about an hour before returning to the house.

As each member of our group held a victory in Super Mario Party, we decided to crown a winner.  We played an abbreviated version where Carolyn decimated us.  I mean it wasn’t even close.  But I did finish in second place.

Carolyn left for the afternoon to visit her brother while the three of us finished Cobra Kai and noshed on some sausage sandwiches Mat prepared.  The sausage was tasty, but I could have eaten a sandwich consisting solely of the delectable vegetable concoction prepared by Mat.

About 4pm we headed to Scottsdale where we would close the adventure as it started:  with an escape room.

DSC00969

We visited Escape Room 101 where our group was joined by Mat’s old friend, Rod, and his new girlfriend, Lisa.  In this room, we would be assuming the role of Baker Street detectives who were contacted by Oliver Byron, son of Lord Byron, the painter.  Oliver Byron had been approached by a cousin who held a will saying that he was the sole heir to Lord Byron’s fortune.  Oliver stated his father would never cut his children from the will and needed us to locate the real will before the reading of the fake.

The puzzles in this room were awesome and really required you to think.  The downside is that some of the devices activated by our solutions didn’t work as they should.  For example, Mat and I solved a symbols puzzles and nothing happened.  Mat unsolved and resolved it later which finally caused a hidden compartment to activate.

This one went down to the wire, but we managed to find the will with about 3 minutes remaining.  I would have combined the two rooms we had done as Blaine’s Basement had better presentation and pageantry while The Baker Street had better puzzles.

After another victory, we visited Carlos O’Brien’s for dinner which was a fusion of Mexican food and Irish pub fare.  I enjoyed a chicken and beef quesadilla while we conversed about various items.

Back at Mat and Carolyn’s we decided to have one final, all out battle at maximum turns on Super Mario Party.  It seemed as if Carolyn would crush us again, but we managed to start mounting a comeback.  However, my two “friends” decided to unfairly target me for purely their own amusement instead of focusing on the greater threat of Carolyn.  Dave stole a star while Mat stole my money to keep me from buying stars.  Due to their chicanery, Dave ended up winning and I vowed eternal warfare on both of them in all future games.

And so the end had finally come.  Having the old team back together added that x factor that made this trip quite a bit more fun.  Sadly, it will be a while before I see Mat and Carolyn again.  I may try a trip this summer or possibly even at Christmas as my family will be celebrating the holiday early.  Mat mentioned the possibility of road tripping to San Diego next time and that is a most intriguing idea indeed.

I see our first flight home has been delayed, so this trip really has come full circle.

Till the next adventure.

Beware the Ides of Smarch, Days 4-6: Vegas Time is Here Again

The destination for our little troupe:  Las Vegas.

Monday, March 4

I admit I was a little surprised by the announcement as Dave isn’t into gambling at all.  On the other hand, Dave had never really experienced Las Vegas aside from a brief overnight trip he took with Mat before the two of them headed off to Japan for the series I entitled “A Journey Beyond Imagination”.  With several days, Dave could get the full experience to appreciate the artistry and architecture of the casinos, take in a show, and possibly even join me for a few sites I had wanted to visit, but had not got around to doing.

Monday morning found us piling into Mat’s Nissan and heading off to Sin City after having a quick bite to eat at Jack in the Box.  Mat was recording our journey with time lapse photography with his Go Pro 4 camera while Dave and I killed the first hour or so of the drive playing a round of Super Mario Party.  I finally got the victory, but it wasn’t quite the same without getting to drive Mat into the dirt.

We arrived at the Linq about 3pm and had a pretty decent room on the 10th floor with a view of the pool.  Mat and Dave claimed the beds while I took the couch.  We puttered around for a couple of hours before heading to dinner over at the Bacchanal Buffet over at Caesar’s Palace.

Bacchanal Buffet is the biggest buffet in Vegas.  If you can think of it, they’ve got it.  We all enjoyed a good meal of whatever we felt like sampling before heading back to the Linq.  I lost $30 playing Dracula and Ghostbusters slot machines while Mat came out ahead on Casino Royale.  Then all 3 of us headed back up to the room for the night.

Tuesday, March 5

I rose early on Tuesday and did a little reconnaissance of the hotel while Mat and Dave slept until about 9am.

Today we were going for a hike.  So we got some breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s before getting some water at a convenience store to fill our camel packs.

Mat drove us out to Red Rock Canyon where we would be doing a loop through the La Madre mountains.  It was a perfect day for hiking as the temperature was moderate and the sky was slightly overcast.  We enjoyed quite a bit of God’s splendor as we gazed upon the mountains and found La Madre Falls and La Madre Spring.

We ended up hiking nearly 8.5 miles as Mat unintentionally led us on a more scenic route than intended.  But it was well worth it for a view of the falls and spring.  After our 3+ hours of hiking, we headed back to the Linq where we cleaned up and/or rested before heading to Hash House A Go Go for dinner.

For those of you not familiar with it, Hash House a Go Go is known for “Farm Food Done Freaky” and huge portions.  I was able to get a smaller meal of the HH Downsized Burger which was quite juicy and loaded with vegetables while Mat and Dave enjoyed wings and Mat indulged in a pork tenderloin sandwich and Dave supped on chicken and waffles.

We returned to our room where I caught a brief catnap while Mat and Dave watched some TV.  At 9:30pm, we headed across the street to Caesar’s Palace to watch Absinthe.

DSC00936

Absinthe at Caesar’s Palace

Absinthe is one of the most original shows I have seen in Vegas.  The theme of the show is that it’s an illegal, underground circus financed and produced by a man known only as the Gazillionaire.  The show is actually held in a tent with a bunch of mismatched chairs to suggest they were salvaged or stolen.

The show has a collection of impressive circus acts which change from show to show.  Our show consisted of a variety of acrobatics and trapeze artists with an intentionally bad ballet act thrown in.  For my money, the two best acts of the show were a group of jugglers called Water on Mars which did some phenomenal team juggling, sometimes from across the room and Shawn and John, an impressive pair of tap dancers that had the crowd roaring.

Acts are introduced by the Gazillionaire, who is a foul mouthed comic, and his assistant, Wanda Widdles, a sex obsessed woman with enough energy to light the Strip.  Largely due to the blue language utilized by these two, one must be 18 years old to attend the show.

After the show, we returned to our room and collapsed into bed.

Wednesday, March 6

I slept quite late today, at least for me, not awakening until 8:30am.

Today would be kind of an alone day for us.  Dave hadn’t seen Mat in over 2 years, so I made an appointment at the spa so they could spend a little time together.

For my regular readers, you know that I normally attend Qua Baths over at Caesar’s Palace.  For a change of pace, I visited The Spa at the Linq as I wanted to try a unique treatment.

The Spa at the Linq is a good spa.  It doesn’t have a lot of amenities as it only boasts a gym, jacuzzi, and steam room, but that’s enough to relax for a few hours.  For booking a treatment at least $50, I was also allowed to book a session in the Himalayan Salt Cave room for free.

The Salt Cave treatment is simply sitting in a room for 45 minutes while finely ground salt is sprayed inside.  The salt helps improve breathing and clears congestion from colds, asthma, allergens, and other toxins like secondhand smoke.  The salt also helps to detoxify the skin.  It was an interesting experiment and I do think I was breathing a bit more fully after the session.

From there, I went straight to my massage appointment with Theresa who released knots in my neck and shoulders and pepped up my tired feet which were a little sore from yesterday’s walking.

With my treatments completed, I returned to the room where Dave was watching TV and told me Mat was downstairs playing blackjack.  Mat had enjoyed a great run for the past six hours and was essentially playing at the casino’s expense.  When a new dealer showed up, the table left the game and Mat and I returned to the hotel room where we collected Dave and headed over to Planet Hollywood so Mat could pick up a gift card he had earned.

We wandered around the Miracle Mile Shops where Mat spent his card on a Bruce Lee T-shirt.  Then we made our way to Bally’s where I got whipped in a round of mini golf at Twilight Zone mini golf.  For losing, I won a free round of golf which never expires.

After my helping of humble pie, we went to the Flavors Buffet at Harrah’s for dinner and enjoyed another good meal before heading back to the room for the night.

Tomorrow it’s back to Phoenix.

Beware the Ides of Smarch, Day 3: Desert Delights

I awoke to an absolutely perfect day.  I used the treadmill in my room to run 3.5 miles before getting cleaned up for Mat to take me to church at Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

It was packed today due to visitors attending spring training for the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team.  Another truly uplifting service before Mat and Dave came back to collect me to return to Casa del O’Donnell y Langlois.

Mat prepared a homemade breakfast of taiyaki which is a Japanese fish shaped pancake stuffed with a sweet sauce (chocolate and vanilla custard in this case) and thick cut bacon which I used to make a sourdough bacon sandwich.

After breakfast (or brunch, depending on one’s point of view), the four of us played Tetris 99 which is a competition Tetris game where you play against 99 other online players to be the last person standing.  After a few rounds of this, we met on the battlefield of Super Mario Party once more.  Once again, I fell one star short as I lost to Carolyn, but at least having the satisfaction of topping Mat and making certain that Dave, as the accursed Yoshi, stayed in the basement of the rankings.

DSC00850

StarFighters Arcade

At 3pm, Carolyn left for a concert while Mat, Dave, and I went back in time to the 80s and visited StarFighters Arcade, a vintage arcade.

I’ve visited several vintage arcades, but this has to be the top of the heap, so far.  For starters, it has the lowest price for an all day pass at only $11.  It also has a very varied selection of classic games and pinball machines with some serious old school stuff in here.  It also feels like a traditional arcade with 80s music being piped in and the place is so noisy, you have to practically shout to be heard.  80s movies also play on a couple of screens in the arcade.

I got to play some games that I hadn’t played in years such as Haunted House, a three tiered pinball game and Baby Pac-Man, a hybrid video and pinball game with the catch being that there are no power pellets, but you can escape to the pinball section of the game.  I also played a surprisingly fun Popeye pinball machine, battled Mat around the world in Karate Champ where he edged me out in duels, bested Golden Axe with Dave as he’s the best partner who’s ever worked against me, and even played original Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace games.  I had a pretty good run on Dragon’s Lair and may have been able to best it if I had focused my entire time on it.

We left the arcade machine shortly before closing time and stopped at a traditional Chinese restaurant called Shaanxi Garden for dinner.

DSC00868

Shaanxi Garden

Shaanxi Garden is known for its homemade noodles and huge servings.  Each entree is truly family style, so I highly recommend sharing one entree among your group.  Mat ordered some cheese wontons as an appetizer and I enjoyed a few small servings of Stir Fry Pao Mo which is a braised, spicy lamb stew.

From the restaurant, we made our way to the Desert Botanical Garden to visit its Electric Desert light show.  This was also where Mat and Carolyn held their wedding reception and I was shocked to see just how small a space the venue had actually been.

It was a peaceful evening as we watched cacti light up like pinball machines, a mountain replicate the experience of a desert storm, and watched psychedelic colors dance over plants and rocks.

The night seemed over too soon before it was back to Mat’s and bed for tomorrow would be road tripping time.

Beware the Ides of Smarch, Days 1-2: Every Which Way, But There

“Oooh!  Lousy Smarch weather.”—Homer Simpson

“AAUUUGHHHH!!!!!”-Chris Elston

Boy, it felt good to get that one out of my system.

I intended the title of this series to be simply inspired by The Simpsons, but I truly have had need to be wary of the Ides of Smarch for the start of this trip.

Together with my compadre, David Sundberg, I was returning to Phoenix, AZ to visit my old friend, Mat O’Donnell, and his wife, Carolyn.  Relatively speaking, we threw this trip together on the fly and only about two months out.  We also decided to make it an extra long trip and go out on a Friday and come back 10 days later on a Sunday.

With the multiple whammies of leaving on popular travel days, being out of the statistical sweet spot, leaving during the start of the spring break month for many colleges, and heading to a warm locale, I was unable, for the first time in over 20 years of travel, to find a good deal.  Even my old stalwart, Southwest Airlines, wanted over $700 for a round trip ticket.

I managed to score a passable deal through Orbitz, but even had a challenge with that as I had to go through different airlines coming and going to score any type of a deal.  Still, it was all worth it for another period of adventures with Mat & Carolyn.

Omaha had been blasted by its first real winter in nearly 11 years with over 59 inches of snow dumped on us to date.  But we seemed to have found a respite with a week of clear, if cold, weather.

I awoke to a beautiful day on Friday with nary a cloud in the sky.  It looked like ideal traveling weather so I spent the morning getting in a hard workout, getting my new car registered, picking up Dave and making certain I had all of my gear in order.

My friend, Craig Ristow, had graciously offered to give us a lift to the airport and, as he left to go put air in his spare tire, I happened to check my e-mail and found a message from American Airlines with the subject line “Your flight has been changed.”

“Oh, goody,” mused I.  “We’re delayed.”

I opened the letter and found to my horror and shock that our flight had been canceled.

IMPOSSIBLE!!!

It was a beautiful. . . nay, a perfect day.  How could the flight be canceled?

American Airlines tried to rebook us on Saturday with a flight leaving at 5:33pm and would get us to Phoenix slightly after midnight.  No way, Jose.

They had a list of alternative flights, but none of them were good flights.  Most required 8+ hours of travel.  The best of the worst was a flight leaving at 6:31am which would take us to Charlotte, NC and then back west to Phoenix.

Yep, you read that right.  We had to go east to go west.  However, it would also get us to Phoenix at 2pm so we booked it.

And maybe it worked out for the best as Craig’s spare tire could not hold air and he would have not made it to the airport.  Instead, I guarded the rear of his van as I watched his spare fall to pieces on the road as we drove to Tires Plus for him to get a replacement.

Afterwards the three of us went to lunch at Burger King and had some wonderful conversation while waiting for a new tire to be mounted on Craig’s van.  Dave and I dropped Craig off at the tire store and returned to my home where I called American Airlines to find out why the flight had been canceled and to see if they would endorse our tickets for a direct flight through Southwest on Saturday.

The message suggested that severe weather had canceled the flight, but I have doubts about that as Mat later informed me that ours was the only flight canceled and the plane was coming from Phoenix.  The agent, while friendly, told me airlines no longer endorse tickets for other airlines so Dave and I were set for a convoluted day of flying.

We made a run to the grocery store to get supplies for a late dinner and turned in early as we had to get up at the crack of doom to get to the airport.

I didn’t sleep much and gave up trying to find slumber at 3am.  At 3:30am, Dave woke up and I checked my e-mail to make sure we weren’t delayed or canceled again.  Mercifully, we weren’t.

I drove us down to the airport where we parked at the Budget lot.  The parking spots, understandably, were still laden with snow.  I drove up onto a little patch, uttering a quick prayer that the weather would warm up enough over the next 9 days to melt the patch down to size.

Dave and I checked in and waded through a moderately long security line, but got to our gate in plenty of time for our flight to North Carolina.

This was the smallest plane I had ever flown on.  Not only was the plane small, but each row was only 4 seats across.  We were slightly delayed due to deicing, but a powerful tail wind got us to Charlotte on time.

So there we were in Charlotte, WOO!, North Carolina:  stomping grounds of the famed professional wrestler, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair.  Dave and I were hungry, but we had missed the breakfast run and lunch was being served in the restaurants.  I didn’t want a burger that early in the day, so I bought a piece of string cheese while Dave ordered a Double Whopper combo.

Well, that was the idea, anyway.  We had to rush to our concourse for our next flight and Dave found he had been shorted his fries.  For him, “the icing on the crap cake”, as he said was that he was able to purchase a shot glass at a nearby store.

We boarded our flight and I caught my first break of the trip.  The third person in my row on the sold out flight did not show up, so I moved to the aisle seat to enjoy a bit more space.  Also,we will be arriving on time, so there’s still time for adventure on this day.  I needed to eat so I paid $10.99 for a fairly healthy Valencia Chicken sandwich which had chicken, Havarti cheese, pickled veggies, and an almond romesco sauce on a ciabatta bun.  The bun was quite crumbly, but it tasted decent and even included a good chocolate chip cookie.  I also got a full can of Dr. Pepper to sip on while I read a book and worked on this article.

We ended up landing on time where Mat was waiting to greet us and he informed us he had booked an escape room at 4:30pm over at Escape Games AZ.  So we dashed on over to his place, got set up in our rooms, and headed over to begin our escape attempt with friends of Mat and Carolyn.

The room was called Blaine’s Basement and the plot of the room was that the FBI was holding a suspected serial killer named Blaine Everbleed who they think killed 4 people and possibly a fifth.  He could only be held for 24 hours without evidence to charge him and he was now in his 23rd hour.  Desperate, the FBI called in a group of mediums to find the evidence needed to put this psycho away.

I enjoyed this room a lot more than the previous one as it focused on different puzzles and had secret passages and red herrings.  It was another nailbiter, but we managed to escape with slightly over 7 minutes to spare, though the ending was just kind of there.

Afterwards, we all headed to dinner at The Cornish Pasty Company which essentially serves gourmet hot pockets.  So many delicious choices, but I went with a spicy asiago chicken as it sounded healthy and tasty.  Not too bad at all, though it needed more spice.

Lack of sleep and a long day began to tucker me out, but I managed to summon enough juice to battle Mat and Dave in Super Mario Party on the Nintendo Switch, though Mat managed to edge me in a pyrrhic victory.

But, now, to bed and another round of escapades tomorrow.

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

dsc00837

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).

dsc00805

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.

dsc00823

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.

dsc00836

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.

dsc00849

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.