A Magical Holiday Escape: The Roost and Appleton, WI

The Roost Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Appleton, WI.

Oh, what a difference a month or two can make.  Originally, I was going to be doing an earlier than usual Christmas review, but I ended up having to change plans when my selection opted to postpone its signature holiday event.  So I booked a different venue for the annual review and still found myself with an extra day off for the Thanksgiving weekend.  So I thought to myself, “Why waste a good day off?”  Thus, I scheduled a trip to Appleton to visit The Roost Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by De Ann Steffens.

I enjoyed a pleasant drive to Appleton while sitting on pins and needles as I listened to the Iowa Hawkeyes pull off a miraculous comeback against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  I lost the signal for the game’s final few minutes, but heaved a sigh of relief as I saw they had obtained the victory just as I pulled into the Roost.

De Ann greeted me at the door and gave me the nickel tour before leading me to the Tapestry Suite.  True to its name, a large tapestry does adorn one of the walls.  A cheery fire was going which added to the room’s ambiance.  A large two-person jacuzzi sat in corner while a high, four poster queen bed sat in the other.

I got things organized and immediately headed out to my car to experience some of the town.

Though this isn’t a formal Christmas review, I was able to scratch my Christmas itch with visits to Darboy Community Park to enjoy Fox Cities’ Festival of Lights and the nearby Oshkosh Celebration of Lights at Menominee Park.

The Festival of Lights is a half mile self-guided walking tour through a winter wonderland of lights that form elves, dinosaurs, toys, snowmen, and even Santa’s workshop.  It’s completely free and donations are cheerfully accepted.  You can even buy a hot beverage to ward off the chill.

But if you want a heavy shot of Christmas, you definitely need to visit the Celebration of Lights in Oshkosh.  It’s a drive through tour featuring twelve miles of lights and effects while you tune in to a dedicated radio station of Christmas songs to strengthen the magic.  Cost is $10 per car.  Aside from the dazzling display of lights, you can even stop by the workshop to visit that guy in the red suit who likes to say “Ho!  Ho!  Ho!”

Feeling the joy of the holiday, I returned to the inn and gamed a bit before curling up in my bed for the night.

I awoke the next morning and I was starved.  De Ann had prepared a fruit dish along with Baked French Toast that had a crust of brown sugar and cinnamon along with some bacon and eggs.  I was unable to finish the tasty meal and took a half hour walk to burn off some of the calories.  Then I hopped into the car to begin exploring some of Appleton.

First, I decided to get my history on with a visit to The History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton.  It’s not terribly huge and, at first, I was mildly disappointed.  The main floor featured an exhibit about famed writer (and Appleton native) Edna Ferber along with some tidbits about Appleton history including the first jukebox, X-ray machine, and new voting machine, but nothing with that wow factor.  I headed upstairs feeling overcharged for the $10 I spent, but then things took a turn.

History Museum at the Castle

The second floor features a little exhibit on social research and the history of toys, but its main attraction is the history of famed magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, and that was worth the price of admission by itself.

Houdini had claimed Appleton as his hometown and the museum goes into a detailed history of Houdini’s upbringing and rise to fame.  The museum even has a replica of the trick coffin (a new illusion) that Houdini was buried in as well as cuffs he escaped from, one of his straitjackets, a replica of his milk can escape, a representation of his Chinese Water Torture Escape, and you can even perform his famed Metamorphosis trick where he would be locked into a box and then switch places with his wife in 3 seconds. You can also perform one of Houdini’s famed jail cell escapes.  Houdini wasn’t shy about sharing secrets to some of his tricks so be forewarned to skip the backstage part of the exhibit if you want to keep the tricks a mystery.

From there I drove through downtown Appleton and enjoyed the Christmas decorations.  Appleton is actually a happening town with a lot of restaurants and activities and even boasts a pretty impressive performing arts center which I may have to visit at some point in the future.  But, for now, I had a quest.

My older and younger brothers, Brian and Dan, decided to utilize my being in Wisconsin to pick up some regional beverages.  So I began the search for Spotted Cow beer and Sprecher’s Grape Soda.  I went to a Super Target and was denied.  Then I reached a Festival Foods where I found Spotted Cow, but they seemed to have every flavor of Sprecher’s except Grape.  Brian opted for a cherry soda as a Plan B.

Flush with success I returned to The Roost to begin writing.  After a few hours I was off to worship at St Bernadette’s where I enjoyed a pleasant Advent service centering on a sermon telling us that Jesus, our Friend and Teacher, had come, will come again, and had never left us.  A truly blessed thought to warm the soul.

St Bernadette

With services completed, I grabbed an early dinner at Cinder’s.  This restaurant is famed for cooking over charcoal and I enjoyed the cindery goodness of a Northwoods Burger with a side of fries (bottomless, if you feel like more) while I watched the Minnesota Golden Gophers give the Iowa Hawkeyes an early Christmas gift in the form of a trip to the Big 10 title game with a victory over the Wisconsin Badgers.  Then it was back to The Roost to organize some photos, write a bit more, and grab a hot bath in my jetted tub on a frozen night while watching The Karate Kid before retiring.

At breakfast this morning, I met Fred & Sandy who seemed to love B & Bs as much as I do along with sharing a mutual love of theatre. As we conversed, we enjoyed sausage, eggs (over hard for me), granola & yogurt, and more Baked French Toast though with cream cheese and blueberries. I hated to end the conversation, but duty called, not to mention a fairly long drive.

And that wraps up this installment. Appleton is a nice little town with a lot of activities and Christmas cheer and Green Bay is not too far away if you happen to be a Packers fan. If you’re in the area, take some time to rest at the Roost and enjoy a little understated elegance.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

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

DSC02357

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.

DSC02335 (1)

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.

DSC02340

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.

DSC02358

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.

DSC02392

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.

DSC02394

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.