Isolated Oasis: Echo Canyon & Sulphur, OK

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The mansion at Echo Canyon Spa Resort

Today the road has brought me to Sulphur, OK.

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

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

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

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

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Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Emporia, KS

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

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

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

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

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Braum’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baron of Beef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fat B

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

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

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

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Oat Waffle

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

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

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

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

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Astor House Bed & Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Lambeau Field

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

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

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Great food lies inside this non-descript edifice.

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

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.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 3: Sailing on the Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond With a Dram of Whiskey and a Stirling Castle Visit

It was time for the first day of adventures in Scotland so some proper fueling would be required to make it through the day.

I headed to the Brisket where a buffet breakfast was laid out with a variety of breads, meats, juices, cereals, and vegetables.  I toasted some wheat bread, grabbed some Scottish bacon (taken from the back of the pig like Irish bacon so its similar to ham), a slice of Swiss cheese, a bit of haggis, and glasses of orange and lime juice.  I turned the bacon, cheese, and bread into a sandwich while I conversed with fellow tour members, Dale, Sandy, and Judith.

The breakfast hit the spot and I must say that I rather enjoyed the haggis.  It has a sharp bite to it and tastes a tiny bit like sausage.  The lime juice was actually quite refreshing and I was ready for the day.

We formally met our tour guide, Marge, and our driver, David.  This group was right on the ball as we were all on the bus before our departure time and left promptly at 8am.

Our first stop was the village of Luss where we would sail on Loch Lomond, courtesy of the Lomond Princess.

It was a cool and overcast day.  Fog was hanging over the hills giving them an ethereal look as we took a relaxing sail on the Loch.  Our captain gave us some information about some of the islands we passed and even gave us a glimpse of Loch Lomond Golf Club, an exclusive club whose members include George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Michael Douglas.  Membership fees are a jaw dropping 135,000 pounds a year and that doesn’t include green fees.

Our cruise ended at the village of Balmahal and we took a pleasant stroll back to the bus and I did note a few B &Bs on the walk.

From there, it was off to Glengoyne to learn about the fine art of distilling whiskey.

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Glengoyne Distillery

Glengoyne has been distilling whiskey officially since 1833 (unofficially for a few generations before that).  It’s a pretty exclusive brand as it’s sold directly through the distillery and in specialty shops.  We had a bit of time before our tour so our guides led us to the waterfall that served as the original water source for the whiskey.  Nowadays the water from the fall is used soley for the cooling process.

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At 11:40am we were brought it for a dram of 12 year old whiskey and it was potent.  I felt a slight buzz come on as I sipped it during a brief film on Glengoyne’s history.  Upon the completion of the film, our tour guide, Matthew, led us through the distillery.

I was surprised to discover that making whiskey is actually simple.  The craft lies in how the process is applied.  Glengoyne’s success is due to heating the liquor with hot air and using Spanish casks to develop the various types of whiskey they sell.

Fun fact:  Way up on the hill across the road from the distillery is the home of Robbie Coltrane, best known for playing Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” films.  He is a fan of Glengoyne whiskey and occasionally visits the distillery.

After the tour, we were off to visit Stirling Castle, the home of many Scottish rulers over the centuries as well as the monument that overlooks the legendary Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

We were left to our own devices for a few hours so I opted to explore the castle for myself as opposed to taking a guided tour.

It was an educational period as I learned about the history of Scotland’s rulers and the linked history of the Stewarts (or Stuarts) and the Tudors.  I also visited the Great Hall, chapel, great kitchens, and looked at the lovely Royal Garden.  The most interesting thing I learned was how meals were sometimes eaten.  A feast was given to the king and queen who would eat their fill, then whatever was left over was given to the next most powerful person in the castle and so on with table scraps going to the lowest rung on the ladder.

We wrapped things up at 4pm and headed back to Glasgow.  Jet lag was wearing me out and I didn’t have the juice to eat at a regular restaurant.  After resting for an hour, I walked down to the nearby McDonald’s and picked up a French Stack meal for take away.

Normally this sandwich is exclusive to France, but McDonald’s is currently doing an international burger promotion where regional burgers are being featured in other restaurants worldwide.  The French Stack was two patties, lettuce, bacon, onions, Swiss cheese and sauce on French garlic buns.  Quite tasty.

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French Stack from McDonald’s

From there I was left to a quiet night of organizing photos and writing and getting my luggage ready for an early departure on Saturday.

 

 

I’ll Take the High Road, Days 1-2: Honored Feasgar Math (Good Afternoon)

Oh, I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low road and I’ll get to Scotland before you. . .unless of course you’ve already been to Scotland.

It was time for another international excursion and this time the road was taking me to Scotland through the courtesy of Globus Journeys once more.

I was in for another long day of travel with 2 layovers of 3 hours and 2 hours apiece.  Actually, it ended up being a little bit longer as both of my flights arrived early.

This time around I used Delta Airlines to travel and all 3 of my flights were itty bitty.  The first two legs used regional jets that were only 4 seats across and the international leg utilized a single decker plane with rows that were only 6 seats across (what I would have expected for a domestic flight).

As I wrote earlier, Delta was exceptionally timely as my first flight got me to Detroit 45 minutes early giving me a nearly 4 hour layover.

I have never been to Detroit Metro Airport before, but it is either remarkably well-maintained or I was in a new or recently remodeled terminal.  I got a little exercise by walking from one end of the terminal to the other while I noted things to do and attempted to find a place to eat.

Since I had the time, I stopped in at the Be Relax Spa where I decided to get a 15 minute chair massage as my shoulders were feeling a bit cramped (the common complaint of a writer).  I didn’t know how cramped until Shelby started working my shoulders and said, “Oh, they are tight.”  As Shelby rubbed, elbowed, and forearmed my shoulders, I felt (and heard) them snap, crackle, and pop back into place.

With my shoulders now out of my ears, I decided it was time to find some dinner.  I wanted something a bit different and opted for Popeye’s.  They were out of the bread needed to make po’boys, so I had a 2 piece spicy chicken dinner and it truly hit the spot.

With a full stomach, I waited at the gate and read a Nero Wolfe mystery until it was time to jet to New York City.

Delta was 45 minutes early with this flight as well, so I spent the time reading at the gate and marveled at how busy the airport was at such a late hour.  I was taking my first true red-eye flight as it was leaving at nearly midnight, but the airport was still hopping.

I landed the money seat for my flight to Glasgow as I got a window seat plus was seated at the rear of the section which meant I could recline the chair as far as possible without fear of disturbing the person behind me.

While I enjoyed the seat, it wasn’t quite what I hoped as the seat was pretty much up against the wall so reclining wasn’t an option and my window wouldn’t close which meant I got a blast of sunshine in the kisser which, while enjoyable, isn’t that well received when I’m trying to rest and nap.  I plastered my pillow across the window to try to block the light with mixed results.

The flight was very smooth and I was surprised that they actually served a meal shortly into the flight as I figured they might wait and serve it closer to breakfast time as it was so late.  I declined the meal and instead watched Green Book, an excellent film about the friendship of jazz pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.

When the movie ended, I exhaled a mighty yawn, snuggled up in my blanket, and leaned my pillow against the window for some shut-eye.  I slept for about 90 minutes before some turbulence shook me awake.  Knowing I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, I watched Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, played Texas Hold Em Poker (winning two tables in the process), and had a light meal of orange juice, peach muffin, and honey yogurt around breakfast time.

Soon we began our descent and as we burst through the clouds, I was greeted by prime and lush farmland that was just pretty as a picture.  Shortly afterwards, we flew over a couple of golf courses and finally landed at Glasgow International.

I was able to grab my suitcase and blasted through Customs as Glasgow uses a passport scanner to speed up the process.  I figured I had another hour to wait as the shuttle to the hotel wasn’t scheduled to leave until 12:30pm.  I was delighted to find that it was waiting for us and I, along with 8 other group memebers, were able to be taken to our first hotel of the trip:  Doubletree.

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Doubletree Hotel in Glasgow City Centre

Upon arriving, I was informed that check-in time would not be until 3pm unless you were a Hilton Honors Member.  Since I wasn’t I was looking at 3 hours of waiting time, so I decided to explore the area.

 

I walked around nearby Sauchiehall Street, a famed area in Glasgow filled with shops and restaurants.  I passed a department store called Marks & Spencer which I’ve learned is the place to exchange currency as they charge no commission, so you get almost market value for your money.

Spying a grocery store, Sainsbury’s, I stopped in to see if I could once more find Mountain Dew for my friend, David Sundberg, and there it was right off the bat.  After getting the photographic evidence, I decided not to buy the bottle as it was large and it was written in English.

I decided to get a small snack to keep my stomach clock on a normal schedule and stopped in at a Taco Bell mainly because I was shocked to see one outside of America.  I ordered a Cheesy Double Decker Taco and learned that getting something “to go” here is getting it for “take away”.

The meat was seasoned differently than the American version.  Not spicier, but somehow sharper.  I also noted that the regional menu also included the Volcano Burrito, a favorite of Dave’s (heck, Taco Bell is his go-to joint in general).  So if you’re reading this Dave, here’s another reason to join me in my travels.

I shortly realized that my exhaustion was winning out, so I decided to sign up for Hilton Honors so I could check in early.  Not only did I get the benefit of checking in early, but it has already proven a wise decision as I will more likely than not be utilizing a Hilton property for an upcoming visit to Arizona so I’m guaranteed a better rate, early check-in, and free Wi-Fi.  Even better, it took a bit to get me a room, so the clerk offered me comps for drinks at the hotel bar.

Once I got my bags in place, I collapsed on the bed and took a two hour catnap.  I felt remarkably better upon waking as the edge was taken off the jet lag.  I wandered around the hotel a bit and then took a long, hot bath and dressed for dinner.

Dinner was held in The Brisket at the Doubletree.  Already I met quite a few new friends and enjoyed some splendid conversation with a fabulous dinner that included a pureed mushroom soup, grilled ham with a sweet glaize, new potatoes, carrots, squash, sugar snap peas, with sticky toffee pudding and ice cream for dessert.

 

I drank a Guiness with my dinner and I used one of comps to enjoy a Grandbois.  It’s a honey whiskey.  I was hoping to get an Atholl Brose, a Scottish drink consisting of whiskey, oatmeal brose, honey, and cream, but they didn’t have the fixings, but perhaps another time.  With the Grandbois, I toasted my friends, Val and Marty O’Brien whom I hoped would also be on this tour, but they will get to enjoy this tour in early 2020.

With a fine dinner digesting, I figured it was time to write and rest in order to be ready for the adventure that would begin in earnest the next day.