On the Road Again, Part I: Thornton House and Lansing, IA

Thornton House

Today the road has brought me to Lansing, IA.

How good it feels to say those words again.  I was badly in need of some downtime and a little research found me the relatively unaffected by COVID county of Allamakee in which lies the town of Lansing which is home to Thornton House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Frank Ebersold.

I enjoyed the scenic drive to Lansing, eschewing the interstate as much as I could and making a brief stop in my hometown of Fort Dodge to grab a quick bite to eat at Taco Tico before continuing to my stopping point of Mason City where I had a suite reserved at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites.

For my regular readers, you might remember that when I traveled to Scotland last year, I joined the Hilton Honors program in order to check into my first hotel sooner.  Shortly after returning home, I also joined the IHG loyalty program.  IHG owns a number of hotels, most prominently Holiday Inn, and that loyalty program has already paid dividends. 

With my travel bug neutralized for most of the past 6 months, I have been taking an occasional night to myself at a Holiday Inn.  Thanks to various promotions which have boosted my points and tier score, I have earned enough points for a couple of free nights, achieved Gold Elite status, and am 2 stays away from reaching Platinum status (a status that normally requires 40 nights to earn, but a special promotion is letting me do it in 5).  My stay in Mason City was my first night as a Gold Elite member.  As such I automatically earned 300 points as a gift just for staying and I was warmly welcomed to the hotel with a sign in the lobby.

My room was quite comfortable and spacious, but seems to be following the trend of suites being really big rooms instead of multiple rooms.  A nice soft king sized bed was the centerpiece of the room and led to a full night’s sleep for the first time in a while.

The hotel did offer a breakfast consisting of cereal, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches served cafeteria style.  I had a “bowl” of Apple Jacks and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich along with some OJ while I watched the news.  I also invoked one of my benefits as a Gold Elite member and took a late checkout of 12:30pm so I could just check right into Thornton House when I arrived in Lansing.

It was a beautiful day for a drive and it seemed to go rather quickly due to the increased concentration needed to get to Lansing as one must navigate a series of back roads to reach the town. As I came closer to Lansing, I was stunned by the sudden transformation of the landscape into a valley as the hills grew in size and were covered by a lush forest.

I arrived in Lansing, a port town on the Mississippi River and also at the base of Mt Hosmer.  The town reminded me of a much smaller version of Eureka Springs, AR due to its incredibly hilly nature.

I found the inn, parked my car, and rang the bell and was greeted by Frank who gave me a socially distant welcome and gave me a little history of the house.

Thornton House is an Italianate Victorian mansion built by Alexander McMichael, a grain shipping magnate, in 1873 during a boom period in the local lumber industry.  Eventually the house passed into the hands of Dr. John H Thornton who, with his son, John W, became known as “the best medical team this side of the Mayo Clinic” and practiced out of the mansion.  For the next 120 years, the house was owned by a Thornton before passing into the hands of Frank.

Frank led me to the Grand Room which would be my headquarters for the next few nights.  The room consists of a bedroom and bathroom separated by a small foyer.  The bathroom contains a jetted tub while the bedroom has a full sized canopy bed with original or period correct furniture and overlooked by portraits of Presidents Pierce and Lincoln.

I made a quick exploration of the house before taking a walk down Main Street where everything and I mean, EVERYTHING, is located.  Gas, groceries, shops, restaurants, medical care, city hall, it’s all located there.

From there I returned to Thornton House where I puttered around for a while before heading back to Main Street and dinner at Milty’s.

Milty’s

I had been in the mood for a steak, but Milty’s seemed to be operating on a limited menu.  Instead I enjoyed a rather ripping chicken, bacon, and ranch wrap with a side of fries.  With the inner man satisfied, I went back to the inn where I spent a relaxing evening reading, organizing photos, and watching some classic game shows on BUZZR before enjoying a restful night’s sleep.

The next morning, I met Judith and Eric, who were also staying at the inn.  Positioning ourselves on opposite ends of the table and we took turns serving ourselves from dishes Frank had set up in the kitchen.  For myself, I enjoyed a delicious glass of triple berry juice and put together a plate consisting of a croissant, cheesy eggs (seasoned to perfection), sausage patties, and a homemade waffle which was quite light and fluffy.

Frank positioned himself on a nearby couch so we could share in some socially distant conversation which worked out surprisingly well.  With a satisfying breakfast tucked in, I took a drive up Mt Hosmer to the local park where I spent a half hour walking the trails and getting a couple of good shots of the Mississippi River and town.

From there I went back to the inn for a bit before visiting the nearby town of Harper’s Ferry at Frank’s suggestion.  Harper’s Ferry contains a Catholic church called Immaculate Conception which had been founded in 1848 by some Irish priests.  The land is known as Wexford, named after the village where the priests had lived in Ireland and the church, itself, is reportedly a duplicate of the church in Ireland.  A cemetery is also on the land and contains graves dating back to the same date as the founding of the church.  A very interesting visit for lovers of history.

Immaculate Conception-Wexford

After that I returned to the inn to write and rest for the remainder of the afternoon.

About 5:30pm, I walked down to the Main Channel for my dinner.  This is a local bar/restaurant and it would satisfy my craving for a steak as the Saturday night special happened to be a 10 oz sirloin with 3 grilled shrimp along with 2 sides.  As you may have guessed, I did select that.

I had asked for a house salad which proved to be surprisingly simple as it just consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and croutons with a bit of ranch dressing.  The fresh vegetables were a welcome treat and I crunched away while reading a new volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.

The main entrée of steak and shrimp was quite delicious and it must have been my lucky night as the chef slipped me an extra shrimp.  The steak was prepared just right and a little melted butter and au jus helped to bring out its flavor.  The service wasn’t the best as I was only checked on once at the end of my meal, but as I didn’t need a refill, it came out in the wash.

A little jaunt back to the hotel found me writing a bit more, selecting photos for the article, and enjoying a relaxing bath in my jetted tub.  And from there I read myself to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was similar to the previous though we had sausage links, blueberry scones, and tomato and cheese omelets added to the menu.  Another satisfying meal and a long round of conversation with Frank made for a fine morning.

So if you find yourself in Lansing when you travel again, you’ll find some nice outdoor activities, a little antiquing, some history spots, and a fine inn and host at Thornton House.

Normally this would be where I sign off, but this escapade isn’t over quite yet.

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.

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.