A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

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The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

Until the next time, happy travels.

A Holiday Excursion, Day 1: Bravo, Butler House

003Well, it was my first time back on the road since September and I was in for several post-Christmas surprises.  I always try to schedule a review or two around the Christmas season because I enjoy seeing how the inns decorate for the holidays.  However, since I operate out of the Midwest, I’ve always got to keep an eye on the weather because I never quite know what’s going to happen.

Nebraska had actually been enjoying a rather tepid December and I was rather looking forward to a pleasant drive through Iowa and that’s exactly what I got on Sunday.  It was a little cold, but the sky was clear and the drive was smooth.  Monday may be a different story, however.

A winter storm is set to pummel Nebraska and do a number on Iowa.  Fortunately, my good luck seems to be with me as the storm is set to strike Nebraska first and move its way slowly to Iowa.  As I’m already in Des Moines, I’m actually a few hours ahead of the storm and it will have just started by the time I hit the road so I should manage to stay just ahead of it.  I’ll just be playing things by ear and possibly moving quite slowly.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

A brief two hour drive brought me to Des Moines, IA and Butler House on Grand owned and operated by Clark Smith and Lauren Kernen Smith.  Butler House on Grand is a 6100 square foot Tudor mansion nestled close to the downtown area and the artistic center of the city as the Des Moines Playhouse and Arts Center are a hop, skip, and jump away.

I was greeted by Clark who led me to the Dynasty Suite which would serve as my home away from home for at least one night.

The Dynasty Suite is probably one of the biggest rooms I’ve enjoyed since I started this project.  The suite is quite roomy and is highlighted by an en suite Jacuzzi and writing desk.  The mansion, itself, has a very pleasant feel to it and I was quite impressed with the Christmas decorations, especially in the living room which featured a real Christmas tree, Christmas village, and various Christmas knickknacks.

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The Dynasty Suite

I took it easy in my room for a few hours as I kept my eye on the weather reports.  After a few hours, I decided it was time for dinner and decided to enjoy a nice meal at Taki Japanese Steakhouse.

I’m quite partial to teppanyaki cooking, but I can’t say that I would recommend Taki.  The restaurant seemed a mite understaffed as I had to wait nearly an hour for a table.  Mind you, I don’t put all of the blame for the wait on the restaurant.  I did not have a reservation so I did expect to wait, but the teppanyaki room was not very full which suggests a lack of wait staff and/or chefs for the evening.  I did get a free Guinness for my long wait and I was able to pass the time with another adventure of Nero Wolfe, the armchair detective whose genius is matched only by his laziness.

I ended up sharing a tale with a group of high school girls and it was rather amusing to hear their views on college as at least one seemed to think that partying was going to take priority over studying.  Ah, youth.

The meal was simply OK and definitely not worth the long wait.  It took quite a while for our drinks, soup, and salads to arrive.  As a gesture of goodwill, I was not charged for my soda.  The clear soup wasn’t very hot and needed a bit more salt.  The salad was quite good with the ginger vinaigrette dressing being right on the money.

My steak, chicken, and shrimp were cooked well, but needed more seasoning.  When all is said and done, I give Taki a thumbs slightly down.

After dinner, I returned to the inn where I grabbed a can of soda from the fridge as I looked forward to a long soak and shave.  When I entered my room, I was pleasantly surprised that my bed had been turned down with a caramel waiting on my pillows.  After a relaxing bath, I tuned in to the weather reports to find that the winter storm warning now engulfed the entire state of Iowa as opposed to just the south & central portions.  As I said earlier, snow was not due to hit the Des Moines area until 6am which meant it will have barely started before I hit the road to my next stop.  Luckily it will be moving slowly northward which means I should keep on its outskirts for most, if not all, of the drive.

The queen bed was quite comfortable with a thick blanket that was so cozy that I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.  I finally forced myself to just so I could see what the weather was doing.  I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw it wasn’t too terrible.  A fine, powdery snow was falling and the weather report now said the Des Moines area was only expected to get 6 to 8 inches with little to no ice accumulation and it was the northwestern and southeastern parts of Iowa that were expected to be hazardous.  Now knowing my drive would be safer, if slower, I went downstairs for a bracing breakfast.

There’s nothing quite like a hot meal on a cold day to start your day off right and Clark and Lauren provided a terrific breakfast.  The meal started with hot ginger snap pears served with goblets of water, milk, and orange juice.  The main course consisted of a cinnamon roll, fried rosemary potatoes, cheese soufflé with salsa, and sausage patties.  I engaged in some conversation with Clark, Lauren, and another couple before returning to my room to polish up this article and begin my snowy trek.

Butler House on Grand is a fine little oasis in the city of Des Moines and the hospitality and cooking of Clark and Lauren will make your stay grand, indeed.

Off to the Cotton Patch, Day 1: A Journey to Luxury

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It is with a sense of utter glee and joy that I share this series of articles with you, dear readers.  I never thought it would happen, but I have embarked on an adventure that is merging all facets of my blog into one.

In one of my earliest theatre tales, I mentioned that one of my favorite plays is Cotton Patch Gospel.  While not a well known play, it was a big hit when it first appeared back in 1982.  A few years ago, I started keeping my eyes on a fansite for the show that marked where it was playing in the United States.  Given the subject matter of the show, it usually plays in the South, but I always hoped it would one day get to Omaha or close enough so that I could see it in person.  A few months ago, I saw that the show was going to be produced at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.  It was a long drive at slightly over 10 hours, but definitely doable.  When I found that Whitehall contained some B & Bs as well, I decided to buy a ticket to the show and break up the drive so I could review a few inns along the way.

So it was that I found myself on the road again on a spring-like summer’s day making the long journey to Whitehall.  For the first day, I would travel as far as West Dundee, IL, a village that is a mere 34 miles from Chicago.  I once wrote that Mapquest directions seem to assume that a person is driving 10 miles under the speed limit as I always seemed to arrive at my destination a good hour before the directions said I would actually arrive.  This time proved to be a different tale.

Just past Des Moines, IA, I stopped at a rest area to stretch my legs a bit and once I got back on the road, traffic immediately ground to a halt.  It turns out the state was repainting the lines on I-80, so I spent 45 minutes plodding along like a turtle while I listened to the comical rants of Lewis Black to pass the time.  Mind you, there was no warning about the painting. . .at least not up front.  As soon as I got past the painting vehicles, there was a massive digital sign blaring the warning, ROADS BEING PAINTED.  EXPECT DELAYS.  “Oh!  Is that what was happening?” I flippantly thought to myself.  State of Iowa, in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, here’s your sign.

The drive progressed pretty smoothly for a while, until I crossed the border from Iowa to Illinois.  At that point, things slowed to a snail’s crawl again because Illinois was performing heaping amounts of construction on the interstate.  To make a long story less long, I ended up arriving in West Dundee nearly two hours later than planned.

But it was well worth the drive.  I think I just may retire to West Dundee.  This is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.  There are so many historical homes here that I would have exhausted my camera’s memory card trying to take pictures of them all.  And I was going to get to stay in one!!

I found my way to The Mansion and my jaw dropped.  This inn, owned by Steve Fang & Eda Tomasone, is rivaled only by the Inn on Crescent Lake in terms of luxury and grandeur.  I was greeted by Steve who informed me that I had been upgraded to the best room in the house at no additional charge.  He said I would have room to spread out and that was understating things quite a bit.

I stayed in the Terrace Room which boasted a master bedroom, a sitting room, a private terrace, and a Jacuzzi bathtub and shower. I quickly settled in, dug out my camera, and began my explorations of The Mansion and the town of West Dundee.  The long walk felt good for my legs and worked up my appetite for dinner.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

My private terrace

My private terrace

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Sitting Room

Sitting Room

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Dinner was at the Village Squire, a nice bistro in the town that boasts live entertainment.  As soon as I stepped inside, the singer/guitar player began singing the classic Beatles tune You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and I knew I was going to be in for an enjoyable meal.  I tipped the singer for playing music from my favorite band and sat down to enjoy a Chicken Caprese Panini with a side of steak fries.  I lingered over a tasty meal while listening to live classic soft rock and enjoying the escapades of the obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk.

After dinner, I made my way to Main Street where I went to the Underground Retrocade.  For a good portion of my youth, I was an avid video gamer and this place offered me a chance to relive a bit of my childhood.  It’s two floors of classic arcade and pinball machines.  All you have to do is pay a $15 cover charge and you can play to your heart’s content and, believe me, I more than went through the cover charge in the 2.5 hours I was there.  I felt just like a kid again as I battled the Sea Hag and Brutus in Popeye, dueled with Donkey Kong, served drinks in Tapper, and chased down criminals in A.P.B.

Underground Retrocade

Underground Retrocade

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It was still a pleasant night as I walked back to The Mansion.  Once I returned, I took a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub and then sank into the mattress of my bed.  My lights were out until the morning.

I awoke, fully rejuvenated and ready for a great breakfast.  Breakfast consisted of orange juice, scrambled eggs (with a splash of sriracha sauce), sausage links, and pancakes.  I savored my meal and ended up having a terrific conversation with Steve who shares my interests in music and theatre.  After 90 minutes, I returned to my home to finish today’s story.

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Shortly, I begin the 4 hour trek to Whitehall where the White Swan B & B and Cotton Patch Gospel await.  But if you find your way to West Dundee, get a room at The Mansion.  You’ll be glad you did.