Christmas in March: Christmas House & Racine, WI

Christmas House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Racine, WI.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I enjoyed my last normal B & B run when I visited Astor House of Green Bay, WI.  So it seems apropos that my most normal run since the start of the pandemic would also take place in Wisconsin.  My destination for this journey would be Christmas House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Pamela Deskins.

The trip couldn’t have started out any better.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I managed to dodge the rush hours of both Omaha, NE and Des Moines, IA.  I got to enjoy a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, listened as the Iowa Hawkeyes delivered an absolute drubbing to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in basketball and arrived early at my first stop, Davenport, IA.

I had booked a junior suite at the Holiday Inn & Suites, but I didn’t know how good of a room it was going to be.

Holiday Inn & Suites of Davenport, IA

This was a very elegant Holiday Inn.  I’d put it at 4 stars.  Thanks to digital check-in, I was able to check-in the day before and merely had to pick up my key at the front desk.  My room was on the top floor where I had a good view of the city and, while I’m not positive, I think I might have been upgraded to a full suite as I had a spacious living room, bathroom with a double sized shower and a separate bedroom with a king-sized bed.

I had a good rest that night. 

I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, the J Bar, for breakfast.  Even had my diet not been limited by Lent, the breakfast buffet still would have been overpriced at $10 as it only consisted of a few items.  I had some scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a granola bar.  The server did bring me a wonderful green salsa that added the perfect kick to the eggs and potatoes and the orange juice was mighty smooth.

At 11:15am I checked out, gassed up and continued the jaunt to Racine.  My journey took me on the toll road that has taken me to Algonquin, IL on several occasions, but I was surprised to learn that all of the toll booths were closed.  To pay, you need to go to the Illinois Tollway website and register your plate. Then the Tollway will eventually charge your credit or debit card.

Around the 2pm hour, I got off the interstate and started passing through small towns.  I smiled as the towns seemed a bit more vibrant and enjoyed the vast farmlands and imagined what the leafless trees would look like in full bloom.  Around 3:20pm, I saw the mint-colored Christmas House looming in the distance.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, you should know that I am a Christmas nut.  It’s my favorite holiday and I feature a Christmas B&B review on my website each year.  Thus, Christmas House called out to me with all the subtlety of the ringing of a chow bell.

I was met by Pamela who gave me a tour of the mansion before leading me to the Glam Suite which would be my base of operations.

The Glam Suite offers one plenty of room to stretch out and relax.  The room’s mint-colored walls and off-white carpeting promote a calming effect.  The room contains a small kitchenette with a fridge that contains complimentary water, a pair of comfortable red leather chairs, a large TV and a comfy king-sized bed with what felt like a memory foam mattress.

Once getting settled in, I started a more detailed exploration of the mansion.

Christmas House had been built in 1893 by Emily Baker, the widow of former Racine mayor Robert H. Baker, and one of the original “Big Four” partners of the J.I. Case Company, nowadays known as Case New Holland.  The mansion has been home to some of the most powerful people in Racine’s history and also served as the women’s dorm for the St Luke School of Nursing for 35 years.  It gained its name in 1987 when it began hosting the Christmas House for Cancer benefit which it did until 1995.

The house is actually a blend of two styles.  It is built in the Colonial Revival Style, but follows the plan of a Queen Anne.  It is also mammoth.  This is easily one of the three biggest inns I’ve visited, yet it only contains 4 suites which allows for plenty of privacy.  A Carriage House is also available for rental for even further seclusion.

And, yes, the theme of Christmas is prevalent in the mansion as the first floor contains Christmas trees, knick-knacks, decorations and a life-sized Santa Claus.

When I finished looking around the mansion, I took a constitutional around the neighborhood and soaked in the view of Lake Michigan.  From there I returned to the inn where I relaxed for a bit before picking up some dinner from Red Lobster in nearby Mount Pleasant.  I enjoyed some Salmon New Orleans with mashed potatoes and a Caesar Salad.  After my meal, I spent a quiet evening watching a little TV and organizing photos.

Breakfast was a grand affair the next morning.  An extra leaf was added to the table for social distancing and I met a truly charming couple, the Jacksons, from Bloomington, IL.  We had some incredible conversation and I thank them for pointing me towards my next major B & B outing, Black Bear Manor of Ouray, CO, which I hope to do this summer after I’ve had a poke or two of COVID vaccine.

Pamela whipped up a delicious skillet of sunny side up eggs, sausage and hash browns along with cornbread crumble and Kringle, the famed danish pastry of Wisconsin.  I also learned that Pamela has almost limitless energy and boundless humor.  Pamela is not only extremely knowledgeable about the Racine area, but she is well known for her entrepreneurship and philanthropy.  Aside from owning Christmas House, she is also a realtor and “Big Sister” for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Kringle, breakfast skillet, and cornbread crumbles

She bought the inn in 2014 after it had been in foreclosure for 7 years and was responsible for over 70% of its restoration into the grand inn it is nowadays.  To give you an idea of its disrepair at the time of Pamela’s purchase, the house literally had no roof.

For the first time in nearly a year, I actually managed to enjoy some local activities.  I began with a long, leisurely walk through Petrifying Springs Park where the gurgling water of the streams provided some succor to the soul.  I also had a phone call with my best friend, Josh, and some childhood memories were triggered as I saw some children enjoying themselves on classic playground equipment of slides, swings and merry-go-rounds.

After my hike, I visited a Kenosha, WI classic:  Mars Cheese Castle.  Admittedly, I originally thought it was a castle made of cheese.  It is actually a store shaped like a castle that sells cheese, meats, clothes and old-fashioned candies and sodas.  It even has a deli, restaurant and bar.

Mars Cheese Castle

From there it was back to Christmas House when I did a little writing and took in an online worship service with Fr. Matt Barone. 

When the service was completed, I was faced with a quandary.  Did I want to have a very early dinner or wait until my normal dinner hour?  Pamela had mentioned a local eatery called Kewpee’s, but it closed at 5pm.  I thought about it and realized I wasn’t in the mood for a regular meal that night, so I went with the extra early dinner.

Kewpee’s is actually a Racine stalwart.  There actually used to be a chain of them, but now only six are left and the Racine location is the only one in Wisconsin and it’s been operating since 1926. 

Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop

The restaurant has the look of a fifties diner and is inspired by the famous kewpie dolls and there is a display case full of them inside.  Being so close to closing time meant that there weren’t a lot of people inside so social distancing was an easy task.  I ordered the double cheeseburger with the works, a side of fries and a Coke. 

Not only does the place look like a fifties diner, it also has portion sizes to match with prices not that far behind.  I personally appreciated the portion sizes as you get a great meal without feeling overstuffed.  These are old fashioned burgers cooked fresh on a flattop grill and the fries are crinkle cut.  Kewpee’s is also noted for its homemade root beer which I’ll make a point of sampling at some future date.

With dinner digesting, I returned to Christmas House for more writing, reading, photo organizing and some classic game shows on BUZZR.

Another great night of sleep led into a new day. Breakfast that day consisted of a pecan Kringle, strawberry waffles with whipped cream and cornbread crumble had sausage and egg added to it for quite the tasty melange. I had another satisfying round of conversation with Pamela and the Jacksons where I was introduced to the dancing skills of Pamela’s dog, Dewey.

Strawberry waffles with whipped cream, cornbread crumble and pecan Kringle

This trip was just what the doctor called for and if you find yourself in Racine, make plans to stay at Christmas House. It’s truly as festive as the name sounds.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

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.