A Cavalcade of Christmas, Finale: Have a Holly Jolly Trolley Christmas

The Holly Jolly Trolley

Today the road has brought me to Excelsior Springs, MO. . .again.

I first visited this town back in 2014 when I reviewed The Inn on Crescent Lake for my first proper Christmas B & B review.  I never miss a chance to stay here when I’m nearby (and you shouldn’t either).

  When I first visited this town, I actually came after Christmas so I missed some of the Christmas activities of this spa town. Well, I decided to rectify that by closing out the Cavalcade of Christmas by experiencing those activities.

God was certainly smiling on me this holiday season as I’ve been blessed with really great weather for all the traveling I’ve done over the past month (except for that storm in Storm Lake).  This day was no different.  The sun was shining.  The birds were singing.  And there was nary a cloud in the sky.  All was right with the world as I drove to Excelsior Springs.

Inn on Crescent Lake

About 4pm, I returned to the Inn on Crescent Lake where I had booked my regular room, the McCleary room.  Beverly Bohnert greeted me at the door and inquired into my recent travels before taking me to my sanctum sanctorum.

I had little time for down time as I needed to get to church.  I enjoyed a lovely little service at St Ann’s and then grabbed an early dinner at Applebee’s before heading back to the inn to put my feet up for a bit before heading out for the night.

I journeyed to downtown Excelsior Springs where I visited their Hall of Waters.  The Hall of Waters normally does double duty as the City Hall and a museum of the town’s mineral bath history, but it does triple duty during the Christmas season when the first floor is transformed into the Hall of Trees.

The Christmas fun actually begins outside the building with a Christmas display of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Inside is a room stuffed full of Christmas trees sponsored by local businesses.  A rather clever touch to this presentation is that each tree is designed according to the theme of the business.

Aside from visiting the Hall of Trees, I would also be taking part in the Holly Jolly Trolley lights tour.  Excelsior Springs still has an honest to goodness trolley system and it provides numerous tours throughout the year from paranormal tours to winery tours.

The tour would show us some of the Christmas displays of the town including 5 homes that were battling it out for the best Christmas display of Excelsior Springs before closing with a trip through the Lane of Lights.

According to the tour guide this was kind of an off year for seeing the Christmas lights of the city as Excelsior Springs had been battered by unusually cold weather during the months of October and November which prevented people from decorating their homes.  But there was still enough festivity to scratch my itch for Christmas cheer.

The tour had its amusing moments.  Shortly after we started the tour, the trolley got called back.  The earlier tour had been overbooked so they had to switch to a bigger trolley to accommodate the people.  For convenience’s sake, they decided to use the bigger trolley for the late tour as well.  However, the trolley driver got a call that the bigger trolley had been rented out for another event, which meant we had to go back to the garage and switch to the smaller trolley.

Another humorous incident is that the final home for the lighting contest had nothing going.  The house was dark as a tomb and the inflatables were flat as a pancake.  Given how close we are to Christmas, I assume the contestant is simply out of town.

And in a last bit of humor, the house I would have named the winner was not even participating in the contest.  We stopped by a home where the owner is a big fan of Christmas and had been doing great light displays for a number of years and won several awards.  This year he did the decorating, but opted not to be in the contest.  This was disappointing as he would have netted a 4.5 star rating from me. 

The last part of the tour is the Lane of Lights.  The Christmas committee sets up an homage to Christmas along the Lover’s Lane of their local park and it is pretty to behold.  My only disappointment is that it isn’t longer.  The most impressive part is a tunnel of lights you go through near the end which was added this year.  The juice needed to power the tunnel matched the juice needed to run the entire lane last year.

With the end of the tour, I headed back to Inn on Crescent Lake where I enjoyed a bath at just the perfect temperature while I nibbled on some of Beverly’s homemade chocolate chip cookies and read the fifth part of Mick Foley’s (a fellow Christmas aficionado) memoirs, Saint Mick, where he details his transition to a new calling in being an ambassador for Santa after the end of his professional wrestling career.

I felt the call of the land of Nod as I read and turned out the lights before my lights went out and I slept through the entirety of the night.

In the morning, the sun was shining brightly through my windows and I looked forward to a sunlit breakfast in the solarium.  Today’s repast was the Sunday signature: Strawberry cream cheese stuffed French Toast, little smokies, and honeydew with orange juice.  It was a peaceful meal and I thank Beverly for her praise of any little writing powers I may possess to another couple enjoying their breakfasts.

But with the end of my meal came the end of the Cavalcade of Christmas. Now it was back to home to enjoy Christmas with my family and friends. 

In lieu of my normal sign off line, I wish you the merriest and happiest of Christmases this year.

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A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part III: Welcome to Christmas Wonderland

Outside of Ponca’s Christmas House, owned by Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

Today the road has brought me to Ponca, NE.

Unlike most of these articles, a bed and breakfast is not involved with this story.  However, a very unique house is involved.  I went to Ponca to visit the home of Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

If the names sound familiar to you, it’s because they are the recent winners of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” televised on ABC for their incredibly festive lights and Christmas display.  Their story made most of the newspapers and news outlets in Nebraska and when I read their story, I knew I had to visit their home for the Cavalcade of Christmas.

I was enjoying some unseasonably nice weather as I began my drive to the little town of Ponca.  En route to Ponca, I passed through the town of Jackson where I decided to stop for church at St. Patrick’s.

St Patrick’s Catholic Church

Father had quite a good sermon as he talked about the gift of Jesus and how He wants to share everything He has with His people.  It provided some very loaded food for thought as I left the small church and continued my drive to Ponca.

I was testing out a GPS system and now I don’t think I’ll ever go back to paper maps.  This was so handy as the system told me where and when to turn right down to what lane I should be in.  This was especially useful as Gene & Julie’s house is located on a large acreage out in the country.

If I had any doubts that I was on the right road, they were quickly dissipated when I found the large line of traffic waiting to reach the house.  It just seemed to go on forever.

I turned into a field nearby the house and parked and just stared in amazement at the home and the line of people waiting to visit.

According to Julie, Gene started the tradition, originally for his children, about 20 years ago.  Fifteen years ago, Gene and Julie let some students tour the house and then it was decided to open the doors to the public.  Now thousands of people visit this monument to Christmas each year.

Gene loves Christmas and is dubbed a “Christmas hoarder” by Julie.  He is also a one man operation for this Christmas wonderland.  Gene does all of the designing and setting up.  He begins the day after Labor Day and finishes the entire project about mid-November.  From that point through the end of December, the couple holds open houses from 6pm-9pm each Fri-Sun.  Private tours can also be arranged through Gene and Julie.

The Christmas house contains 100,000 Christmas lights, 90 inflatables, 19 Christmas trees, and 6,000-7,000 Christmas figurines and animations.  Budget some time to really appreciate this house because it took me nearly 2.5 hours to get through the whole abode due to foot traffic and the sheer level of detail to observe.

Here are some scenes from outside the house:

The inside of the house is just as beautiful.  Julie and Gene are warm, welcoming people.  Julie greeted people at the front door while Gene mingled with the visitors.  Helpers were also on hand to give out free candy canes to the visitors.

I could have spent all night marveling at this cacophony of Christmas, but I did have to return home.  

There’s still a little time to visit the house this season and I highly recommend making the visit if you’re able to do so.  There’s nothing cheesy or kitschy about this Christmas house.  It’s a reverent, awe-inspiring display from two people who love the holiday and whose generosity and hospitality truly exemplify the reason for the season.  Visiting the house is free, but donations are cheerfully accepted.

For directions or a private tour, please call Gene or Julie at 402-755-2655.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Ho Ho Homicide: Mont Rest & Bellevue, IA

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Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast

Ah, Christmas!  Without question it is my favorite time of the year.  I love the feelings of goodwill, the sense of family, the music, the decorations, going to church, the lights, everything.  I also especially enjoy visiting bed and breakfasts during the holiday season just to see how they ring in the holidays.  So, it is with great pleasure that I bring to you the tale of my 5th annual Christmas B & B review.

For this journey, I would be visiting Iowa’s most luxurious inn, Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast of Bellevue, IA, owned by Christine Zraick.  I had been looking forward to this inn for quite a long time due to its penchant for offering nearly weekly murder mystery events.  When I found out the inn also really enjoys going all out for Christmas, I finally booked the trip.

Mont Rest has a very interesting history.  It was built in 1893 by Seth Luellyn Baker, a wealthy land developer for the price of $6,000.  Nicknamed “The Castle”, Mont Rest soon developed a reputation for illegal high stakes poker games.  His passion for poker would end up biting Baker hard as he once put the deed to Mont Rest up against a doctor for a $6,000 pot.  After the hand, Baker went downstairs and told his wife they had 2 weeks to vacate the property.

Fast forward to 1986, when the property, long since dilapidated and falling to pieces, was purchased by its current owner, Christine Zraick.  She began the long arduous process of refurbishing it back to its Victorian glory and opening it as a country inn.  It soon developed a stellar reputation for its murder mystery parties.

On Dec 24, 1996, the tale of Mont Rest almost came to an end when a devastating fire broke out and gutted the house from top to bottom.  Christine almost threw in the towel, but support from the citizens of Bellevue and her own sense of stewardship compelled her to roll up her sleeves and begin the process of rebuilding Mont Rest in the spring of 1997.

Needless to say, it was a massive success and today Mont Rest stands as Iowa’s most luxurious inn.

I was truly blessed with some unseasonably beautiful weather for my long trek to Bellevue.  When I arrived in town, I was immediately struck by its quaintness.  It is a peaceful town right on the coast of the Mississippi River.

I readily found the inn where my eyes confirmed what the photos had suggested.  This was easily the biggest inn I had ever seen.  The nickname of “The Castle” was well suited as the inn stands alone on top of a large hill and takes up the equivalent of a city block or two and holds an astonishing 13 bedrooms.

As I made the way from my car to the large wraparound porch, I smiled at the visage of Jolly old Saint Nick meeting me on the porch.  The inn was already into the spirit of Christmas as tinsel decorated the porch and decorations were being set up in the front yard.

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The kindly staff warmly welcomed me inside and gave me the nickel tour culminating in a stop at the gift shop which holds a representation of the World’s Fair complete with lights, sound, and animation.

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From there, I was led to Ginny’s Woodlawn View, my base of operations for the next few days.

When I think of B & B rooms, Ginny’s Woodlawn View is what springs to mind.  It has an understated elegance with its soft, blue-green carpet, electric wood fireplace, and Jacuzzi bathtub.  With Christmas on the horizon, it even had a lovely little Christmas tree and a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

From there, I did my normal explorations which took a little longer than normal.  As I said, this mansion is huge.  One could easily get lost in here.  I wandered about the house enjoying the numerous Christmas trees and decorations littered throughout the home.  The inn even has an observation deck on the top of the home which holds a hot tub as well as magnificent views of Bellevue and the Mississippi.

I had very little time to get settled in as I had a heavy night of activities planned.  Within an hour of my arrival, I was already back on the road seeking an early dinner.  I opted for a little good old fashioned comfort food as I stopped at Richman’s Café.

Like the name suggests, it’s a quiet little diner, but it dishes up a mean patty melt and shoestring fries.  Having the cavity filled, I was then off to the nearby town of Dubuque, IA to begin my night’s activities.

As I truly love holiday lighting displays, the staff at Mont Rest told me about Reflections in the Park, an elaborate display showcased at Louis Murphy Park.  This event has been a Christmas tradition for over two decades and I would like to thank the staff at the event for giving me a free pass to experience this tradition.

If you are in or near Dubuque during the holidays, visit Reflections in the Park.  It is a truly beautiful and entrancing display of lights and holiday cheer that will brighten your night both literally and emotionally.

From there, I went to the famed Grand Opera House of Dubuque where I took in a production of It’s a Wonderful Life.  For the first time in years, I attended this play purely as a patron, but was so moved and impressed by the production that I decided to review it anyway.  You can read it here.

After the fabulous show, I returned to Mont Rest when I settled into bed with a bone aching weariness where I instantly succumbed to oblivion.

In the morning, I took a long Jacuzzi bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.  There I met Doug & Pamela and Mark & Holly who would also be joining me for the murder mystery dinner later that night.  Breakfast at Mont Rest is served family style so we all enjoyed dishes of fruit along with a repast of blueberry muffins, cherry turnovers, bacon, hash browns, and 2 kinds of omelets along with some conversation.

Normally I like to schedule a lot of activities to get the full experience of the towns I visit.  This time I decided to put the brakes on.  After breakfast, I simply wrote my play review and organized my photos.  Then I took a very long walk along the riverside where I shared a phone conversation with my best friend and stopped in at Grandpa’s Parlor for a vanilla shake.  From there, I went back to inn, sampled some delicious homemade brownies, and caught a quick nap.

When I regained consciousness, I walked the few blocks to attend worship services at St Joseph’s Catholic Church.  After I got my praise on, I returned to the inn for the mystery.

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St Joseph Catholic Church

I went downstairs to the living room where I once again met Mark and Holly and began sharing conversation.  Shortly later, we were joined by Jim and Elizabeth and by Doug and Pamela a little after that.  As we talked, we were treated to some light hors d’ouevres of canapés, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, crackers, cheese, meats, and veggies.

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Mmm!! Hors d’ouevres.

We would take part in the mystery of Where There’s a Will, There’s Away.  We were assigned characters and told that one of us was a murderer, but that the murderer would be unaware of that fact.  A very intriguing twist on the mystery.

I picked the character of Dr. Benjamin Pike.  He was a very successful doctor who had grown bored with his work.  He had been the personal physician of the wealthy businessman for the past 10 years and was preparing to lead a UNICEF group funded by his friend to teach advanced medical techniques to the locals in South America.  Dr. Pike was connected to two other suspects:  the businessman’s widow, Marion, with whom he had an intense and instant dislike and Nurse Freda Moore with whom he’d had a brief fling.  Freda had taken the break-up quite badly and Pike had fired her hoping to put their relationship in the past by keeping her away.

The inn has costumes for the event and I was dressed in a tuxedo dress shirtt, black dress pants, a black vest, gray cravat, and white dinner jacket.  In my room were waiting my personal dress shoes and socks to complete the illusion.  As I read the dossier, I drew on my theatre background and decided Pike should be an arrogant, sharp tongued jerk, but tempered with a powerful sense of morality.

Once downstairs, we were met by Gloria Gottrocks, the queen of accessorizing, who furthered our outfits.  From Ms Gottrocks, I received a gray fedora, stethoscope, and organ transplant bag.  I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say the key is to use your knowledge of the characters and their relationships to ferret out clues that point to the truth.

But the centerpiece of the event is the dinner.  I’d gladly do this again and again simply for the meal.  Our night began with a dinner salad with a berry vinaigrette dressing and some fluffy, buttery croissant rolls.  During the first course, Officer Ima Fuzz joined us and told us of the death of Arthur and to take our preparation orders.  Amazingly, all of us had ordered the Steak Lilli.

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Officer Ima Fuzz

As we discussed the case, the chef brought out the main course of Steak Lilli, butternut squash, and rice pilaf.  As I began to cut my medium steak, I noted how tender it was.  But after that first bite, I was in heaven.  Hands down, the very best steak I have ever tasted.  During the main course, Officer Fuzz came back with the autopsy report and pieces of evidence found at the scene of the crime and to take orders for dessert.

I opted for Death by Chocolate.  As I savored dessert, Officer Fuzz came back one more time to bring Arthur’s will to his lawyer.  We had the reading of the will, a final discussion, and then Officer Fuzz solved the crime.

It was truly a grand evening.  Once done, I got back into my civvies and shared some conversation with Pamela, Doug, Jim, and Elizabeth before retiring to my room for the evening.

This was the best sleep I had enjoyed in ages.  I rose early to begin writing and went down to breakfast at 9am where I met the usual crowd and we were joined by another couple, Steve & Sheryl.

Today’s meal consisted of fried potatoes (perhaps with some rosemary), a dish of fruit, sausage, and a quiche made of eggs, peppers, and mushrooms.  Again it was another fantastic meal made all the more memorable by great conversation.  Sadly, it all had to come to an end and we had to break up the group to go our separate ways.  This was the best group of people I had met at an inn and I hope to stay in touch and, God willing, I hope our paths cross again.

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Quiche, fried potatoes, sausage.

I had a feeling that this particular outing was going to be something special and my instincts were correct.  Mont Rest Inn is a must see experience and it gets my highest recommendation for a visit. If you want to experience a vintage B & B, then you need to go to Mont Rest. Naomi and Company are wonderful cooks and hostesses.  The inn is comfortable and beautiful.  There’s much to do in the area.  And there is a plethora of dining events to be enjoyed at the inn, though I certainly would recommend your taking part in a murder mystery.  This is an inn that I’m going to make a point of returning to at some point in the future.  They also know how to do Christmas right.

Until the next time, happy travels.