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.

A Christmas Kind of Town: Phipps Inn & Hudson, WI

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Phipps Inn

Today the road has brought me to Hudson, WI.

December has arrived which means it’s time for the annual Christmas review here at the Corner.  This year’s selection was Hudson, WI which is located right across the St Croix River from the Twin Cities and is home to Phipps Inn, owned and operated by Maryellen and Rich Cox.

Weather wise, I had a considerable amount of good fortune as no snow had fallen in the region so I had a clear and safe drive over to Hudson.  I arrived in town about 4:30 and was blown away by the activity in the downtown area.  I mean the joint was jumping!!  Very surprising for a small town.  Later I was to learn that Hudson is considered part of the Twin Cities metro area and receives a lot of visitors in the downtown area due to its plethora of restaurants and shops.

As my car slowly creeped through the heavy traffic, I could already tell that Hudson was a Christmas kind of town with the beautiful Christmas decorations hanging over the main drag as well as the colorful displays in the shop windows.  Once past the main drag, I was able to turn off into the historic district where I found Phipps Inn.

Phipps Inn is an 1884 Queen Anne Victorian mansion that had once been owned by, you guessed it, the Phipps.  They were a wealthy and philanthropic family which, regrettably, has died out though smatterings of their history still exist, both in the form of the inn and in at least one local museum.

I was greeted at the door by Maryellen Cox who gave me a quick, socially distanced check-in and led me to the Peacock Chamber which would serve as my headquarters for a few days.  The inn was lovingly decorated for the holidays and Maryellen told me normally they have even more decorations out, but kept things a little simpler this year due to the pandemic.  Personally, I thought it was just right.

The Peacock Chamber is located on the third floor of the mansion and the floor was once the ballroom before renovations.  The chamber itself is just perfect for a writer.  A half canopy queen sized bed is at the center of the room.  The room contains lush wood paneling, a gas fireplace and a massive two person jacuzzi tub with waterfall faucets.  A small table is located in the corner for breakfast in the morning or, in my case, a place to get some writing done.

After leaving me to my own devices, I did a quick exploration of the house, getting photos of all the Christmas goodness before donning my coat and hat and walking around the neighborhood to get photos of Christmas lights.

After a brisk walk, I decided to get some dinner and ordered some takeout from a popular local bar/restaurant called Paddy Ryan’s and ordered one of their house specialties, Irish Stew.  The stew was right on the money with a lightly spiced broth filled with lamb, bacon, and vegetables.  After dining, it was time to give my Christmas itch a serious scratch so I visited the nearby town of Somerset to take in Sam’s Christmas Village.

Sam’s Christmas Village is located on a 40 acre piece of property by the Apple River in Somerset and boasts a series of displays with a total of over 6 million lights.  Two of the hallmarks of the Village are its 500 foot light tunnel and 50 foot animated Christmas tree.  The property also boasts an onsite restaurant, gift shop and S’mores cabins (cabins that contain fixings and means of making s’mores).  The lights are all outside so social distancing is a snap.  A series of firepits along the path will help ward the chill out of your bones and a mask also makes for a dandy face warmer.  Sometimes Santa Claus can be found wandering the property spreading Christmas cheer.

This place truly awoke the kid in me as I marveled at the intricate light displays.  I honestly could have spent hours there, but, man, it was a frigid night.

I returned to the inn where I reviewed a new album by Omaha musician, Billy McGuigan.  You can read that review here.  At that point, I curled up under the triple sheets of my oh, so soft bed and put out the room lights shortly before my own went out.

The next morning, I rolled out of bed, turned on the fire to warm the room and proceeded to fill my tub.

Now this jacuzzi is a bathing tub, but you have to have the jets turned off when you want to scrub.  The tub has a very interesting effect when the jets are on.  A second waterfall faucet cascades water while the jets are going, but, somehow, doesn’t seem to add any extra water to the tub.  I’m not sure what the trick is, but it’s a neat effect.  After a good long soak, a knock at the door let me know breakfast was ready.

Normally you can have breakfast either in the dining room, your room or the front porch.  For social distancing, breakfast is currently only served in the room.  I found a basket with food and cutlery waiting for me and I enjoyed orange juice, milk, a Pecan French Toast cake or souffle for lack of a better word, raisin scone, sausage, fruit and a couple of chocolate chocolate chip nuggets.

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Raisin scone, fruit, OJ, milk, Pecan French Toast Souffle, Sausage, and some dessert is hidden behind the fruit.

With breakfast put away, I took another walk around the neighborhood for some exercise as well as to get photos of houses with Christmas decorations that can only be viewed in daylight.

At noon, I stopped at the Octagon House Museum for a private Christmas tour.  The house had once been home to the Moffatt family and for Christmas the theme is the Christmas of the late 1800s.  The tour guide, Linnae, admitted that they embellish the theme a bit.  The Moffatts were from Scotland and Wales during the Victorian period and Victorian Christmases are very flashy.  However, the Moffatts were devout Baptists and lived very austerely and so would not have had the flash and sizzle of a traditional Victorian Christmas.

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Octagon House Museum

It was a pleasant way to see how life was lived in yesteryear.  Photos were not permitted inside the house, but I did buy and photograph some postcards showing the home’s interior so you can get an idea of what the interior looked like.

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Upper Left: Living Room Upper Right: Music Room Lower Left: Kitchen Lower Right: Dining Room. The china had been owned by the Phipps family.

When my tour was done, I listened to the Iowa Hawkeyes put a beating on Illinois in football.  Admittedly, it took a couple of quarters for Iowa to kick it into gear, but it’s how you finish that counts.

My stomach started to rumble so I ordered some dinner from the Milwaukee Burger Company and picked up their Jalapeno and Smoked Cheddar Infused Burger with a side of Tailgater’s Chili that I enjoyed in my room.  The burger was just right.  Perfect kick.  Smoky.  And the chili really stuck to your ribs.

I did another walk around the neighborhood and visited the downtown area to get photos of their lights.  I thought about working on this article when I got back and decided I was taking the night off.  The instant I did, my body said, “You got it, boss” and I felt my adrenaline shut off and the toll of a long drive and the running around I’d be doing hit me all at once.  I drew a hot bath and let the jets massage my lower back for about 20 minutes before crawling into bed and reading myself to sleep.

I tell you there’s nothing like a full night of sleep.  I awoke ready to write and breakfast arrived about 9:15am.

Today’s repast included a sticky bun that had an apple cinnamon sauce and sliced pecans (I think), a baked apple with a cherry on top, a tiny square of mint cake, a casserole of eggs, sausage, cheese, potatoes that came with a brown, spicy salsa and my milk and OJ.

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Mint cake, milk, OJ, Baked Apple, Breakfast Casserole, salsa, sticky bun and bread.

Another fine meal was tucked away and left me time to finish writing and begin the trip home.  But a stay at Phipps Inn in the quiet town of Hudson can be a restful retreat for you and if you like Christmas there’s always Sam’s Christmas Village and the Twin Cities are just a short drive away.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. . .and happy holidays!

Christmas With the Cacti

Ah, Christmas.  A time of lights, worship, gifts, family, and friends.

My Christmas was a bit different this year.  I have three brothers and we’re spread all over the map and the other 3 have spouses/families that also need a little togetherness time, so getting everyone in one place for the holidays can be a little difficult.

This year we had an early Christmas which meant that, for the first time ever, I had no plans for Christmas Eve and Day.  Then it hit me.  I could go to Arizona to visit Mat and Carolyn.

Mat and Carolyn have been through some wonderful changes since I had last seen them in March.  The two are set to become the parents of twin girls in February.  As such, this seemed like an ideal time to spend the holidays with friends and have one more traditional round of shenanigans before the twins arrive.

While Mat and Carolyn were glad to have me come for a visit, their home would be a bit snug as they had already converted one of the guest rooms into a nursery and Mat’s dad, Barry, would be staying with them for Christmas plus Carolyn’s brother, Alan, would also be visiting for Christmas.  Mat also was slightly concerned that the twins might decide to come early and didn’t want to leave me at the house alone if he and Carolyn had to dash to the hospital.  As such, he recommended that I find a hotel for the duration.

When our mutual friend, David Sundberg, announced that he, too, wanted to visit Mat and Carolyn for the holidays, we began to make plans.

Like in March, the plans came about after the sweet spot of air fare had passed.  Dave also had to wait for his time off to be approved so I went ahead and booked a flight and would help Dave rendezvous with me in Arizona.

Then I began a search for hotels.  For kicks and giggles, I did a search on Embassy Suites, fully expecting to see a $200 or more per night rate.  Imagine my surprise when I found an Embassy Suites about ten minutes from Mat and Carolyn’s home advertising an $87 a night rate.  During my recent trip to Scotland, I had become a Hilton Honors member which meant that the rate would be about $81 a night after tax.

Hot diggety!!  A comfy suite with a free cooked to order breakfast every day.  Can we say jackpot?

Dave had decided to stay in Arizona for two weeks so opted to find his own accommodations as he didn’t want to change hotels after I left, so I would be on my own.  I ended up booking a 2 room king bed suite and I was ready to go on a Christmas adventure.

Day 1

I flew Southwest out of Omaha, nabbing a window seat close to the front of the plane.  I made some good time and even got to Phoenix a little early which started this adventure off on a much better note than the previous one where my initial flight got canceled.

Mat greeted me at the gate and we collected my bag and headed off to the homestead.

Shortly after my arrival, Carolyn and Mat wanted brunch so we headed off to a NY deli called Chompie’s.  I decided to have a corned beef half sandwich with some fries and lemonade.  The menu called it a jumbo half and they weren’t whistling Dixie.  Nobody without the name of Pac-Man was going to be able to fit this thing into her or his mouth.  I took one of the slices of bread and made a much smaller sandwich out of it and ate the rest of the fixings with a knife and fork.

With a tasty meal digesting, we headed back home and enjoyed some conversation while Mat and Carolyn’s cat, Tuna, continually swatted and climbed the Christmas tree.  Barry arrived a bit later in the afternoon and about 4pm, Mat took me to Embassy Suites to get my keys and drop off my bag.

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Embassy Suites Tempe

The Embassy Suites Tempe is a three story adobe style hotel.  Thanks to my Hilton Honors membership, I had checked in the day before and was able to pick my own room.  On the rare occasions I stay at hotels, I prefer rooms on the highest floor possible so I had picked Room 310.  The clerk checking me in told me there was a problem with the room so I moved to the more secluded Room 338.

As I walked to my room, I noted that Room 310 had a stellar view of the courtyard where the heated pool and hot tub were located.  But 338 would give me a bit more solitude.

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I was impressed when I entered the room.  The living room had an easy chair and couch sleeper plus an office area with a plasma TV mounted on the wall.  The bedroom was spacious with a king-sized bed with a pillowtop mattress and another plasma TV set up in the room.  I put my bag into the closet and rejoined Mat.

We returned to the house where more conversation ensued.  Early evening we went out to Venezia’s Pizzeria where I had a slice of pepperoni pizza.  We returned to the house for more conversation, got the word that Dave made it to town.  Due the delay of getting his time off, Dave was reluctant to pay last minute prices for air fare and a car rental.  So he had decided to make the loooong drive to Phoenix and back (40 hours round trip).  Understandably, he was a bit exhausted and would not meet up with us until Monday.

Mat and I took an “old man walk” as he called it where we talked and I took pictures of Christmas lights.  Afterwards, Mat drove me to Embassy Suites where I unpacked my suitcase, put away my clothes, and went to bed.

Day 2

I had a fantastic night of sleep.  Limbs splayed out.  Slack jawed.  And out all night.  I opened the curtains and noticed an overcast day.  I decided to go exercise in the gym and followed the signs and went around in a circle a few times before stopping at the front desk and asking where the heck was the gym.  Turns out it was actually inside the pool area.

I did 30 minutes on the elliptical, pleased at how much stronger I had become since using the HasFit regimen as I didn’t even start to breathe heavy until the brutal final few minutes and recovered my wind pretty quickly when I was done.

I took a hot bath and shaved and then went to breakfast.

Embassy Suites is known for a free cooked to order breakfast and it has a pretty good spread.  Breads, cereals, juices, milk, oatmeal (with fixings), bacon, sausage, eggs any style you want, homemade omelets, French toast, breakfast potatoes, and an amazing homemade salsa are available every day.

After a small meal, I returned to my room.  Mat and Dave came to collect me about 10am and made a stop at Hurts Donut where Mat picked up an apple fritter for Carolyn and we each got a donut of our own.  I went with Mint Oreo this time.

We dropped off the fritter and then went to Castles N Coasters for a day of mini-golf.  For the first time ever, we played all 4 courses which took over five hours, including a lunch break at In N Out Burger.

I played a pretty pitiful game to start.  One front 9 didn’t have me shooting anything lower than a 3.  Mat started off red hot as he made 4 aces in the first six holes.  He ended up running away with the win and it became a battle for second place and I had fallen 15 strokes behind Dave.  Miraculously I managed to slice his lead down to 5 by the final round, but could get no closer.

We returned to the homestead where more conversation ensued before a quick meal at Panda Express where I had a small order of black pepper chicken and mixed vegetables.  Shortly afterwards, Dave drove me back to the hotel for the night.

Days 3-4

Ah, Christmas Eve Day.

Mat picked me up about 9:30am and we met Dave at the homestead.  We made a stop at Safeway to pick up the pre-made Christmas dinner Mat and Carolyn had ordered.

Most of the day was just conversation.  Mat drove me over to Our Lady of Mt Carmel so I could attend Christmas service at 4pm.

I had never seen a church so packed.  I arrived at 3:30pm and the church was nearly full.  By the time mass started, the pews were full, people were standing at the back of the church and I noted people streaming in from the narthex during Communion.

I had also never seen a church so beautifully decorated for Christmas.  A large Nativity scene was set to the left of the altar, two Christmas trees were set at either side of the altar, and old-fashioned lampposts adorned the edges of the pews.

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This was easily the best Christmas service I had ever attended.  There was just something heavenly about it.  The chattering before service told me people were happy to be there.  The choir played some stellar jazzed up hymns.  Father had a simple sermon about what Jesus means to us.  After the service, I decided to walk back to Mat and Carolyn’s just so I could process the mass and looked forward to going again on Saturday.  This time I would bring my camera so I could get some snaps of the Christmas decorations.

When I arrived at the house, Carolyn’s father, Joe, and her brother, Alan, had arrived.  Alan has some special needs due to cerebral palsy, but is a very sweet guy.  Joe is fun and a master of dad humor.  We sat down to dinner and enjoyed a sumptuous meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls, and pie.

Afterwards a few gifts were opened while a fire crackled in the fireplace.  Then Mat, Dave, and I entertained the guests by badly playing a cooking game called Overcooked.  Most of Dave’s food was seasoned by the floor as he kept dropping it while I kept tossing food into the abyss.  Very entertaining and a great deal of fun for the night.

On Christmas Day, Dave picked me up so Mat and Carolyn could better care for Alan.  Mat prepared breakfast for those who hadn’t eaten and we opened up the rest of the gifts.  Mat and Carolyn got me a card game called Doctor Who Fluxx while Dave gave me $20.

Early afternoon we headed to Joe’s house for Christmas dinner.  At Joe’s, we met the family of his girlfriend, Fran.  Fran’s son’s (Elliott) fiancée, Ellen, made an epic Filipino Christmas dinner with spicy beef and cheese, egg rolls, stuffed eggplant, pork belly, and other delicacies.  Wonderful!  Simply wonderful!

We took a little walk after dinner before taking Alan back to his group home.  Then we went back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we played Super Mario Party (won 1, lost 1) and Mat introduced me to Luigi’s Mansion 3.  After a long day, Dave returned me to the hotel where I had a lovely night’s sleep.

Day 5

Today Mat took Dave and I to downtown Tempe where we walked around the downtown area and Tempe Town Lake before going to the movies to watch Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker.  I thought it was an OK movie.  It was definitely the weakest of the new trilogy with some serious pacing issues in the first third of the film, a somewhat tepid story, but all storylines are tied up, and the action scenes are great.

After the film, Dave bought an R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder and then Mat took us to The Chuckbox for the best hamburger in town.

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An R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder.

The Chuckbox is a Tempe institution.  It’s small and cash only, but specializes in cooked to order charbroiled burgers that you can fix up yourself.  Mat and Dave ate bacon cheeseburgers while I enjoyed a Big One (1/3 pound patty) with Swiss cheese on a whole wheat bun.  I then fixed it up with jalapenos, lettuce, onions, relish, pickles, ketchup, and mustard.  This truly was the best burger I’ve tasted and recommend a visit to any and all in the Tempe area.

From there it was back to the house where I won another round of Super Mario Party and we talked some more.  Late evening we stopped for a late dinner at Flavors of Louisiana for some Cajun cooking.  I had a 6 inch blackened chicken po’boy with a side of gumbo.  The gumbo was tasty though a bit more like soup than stew.  The sandwich was utter perfection.

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We returned to the house for another round of Super Mario Party which Dave won.  Then Dave took me back to Embassy Suites for the night.

Days 6-7

Putrid.

That word sums up Friday.

It started off decently enough.  I decided to use the pool and hot tub at 6:30am.  The heat of the hot tub merged with the cool morning air causing steam to visibly rise from the tub.  The hot, churning water felt good, but I had to skip the swim as maintenance started cleaning the pool.

Mat had to go in to work that day so I was left to my own devices until 3pm.  I didn’t need to plan too much as it started raining at 11am and it just went on for most of the afternoon.

About noon, I braved the elements to have lunch at Café Rio where I enjoyed one of their fantastic chicken quesadillas.  By that point the rain was really coming down so I speed walked back to the hotel where I remained until Dave picked me up about 3pm.

It was a pretty quiet afternoon.  We played more Super Mario Party and eventually had dinner at Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles where I ate a chicken tenders meal while keeping an eye on the Holiday Bowl where I ultimately had the satisfaction of watching Iowa demolish USC.  After dinner it was more gaming and then back to the hotel.

Here it was.  The last day.  Thankfully the sun was shining today, but it was cold.  Temps actually dipped below freezing which Mat says happens only twice a year.

Mat picked me up at 9:30am and Dave met us at the house.  After a bit of talking we headed out to an early lunch at Del Taco before heading out to another mini-golf battle at Golfland Sunsplash.

The fun park was really decked out for the holidays and I wished I would have been able to see it lit up at night.

My mini-golf slump continued, not due to bad shots, but bad breaks.  I was nailed with a slew of penalties as my ball continued to take bad bounces on many holes.  I was red hot on the final round, but it was too little, too late.

On the other hand, I did witness the impossible.  For the first time ever, Dave finally won his first mini-golf battle after 20 years of knowing him.  He sometimes placed second. . .usually third. . .occasionally fourth, but this time he took the whole enchilada with a combination of steady, smart gameplay which resulted in 8 holes in one and the most epic meltdown I had ever seen as Mat crashed and burned in the final round.

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Dave strikes a victory pose as Mat weeps after he falls to pieces in the final round of our mini-golf battle.

After the links duel, it was back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we squeezed in a quick round of Super Mario Party before I went to worship at Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

When church services ended, the four of us went to dinner at Chou’s Kitchen which serves authentic Chinese food.  The meals are meant to be served family style so there were quite a few leftovers.  My dish of choice was chicken in garlic sauce, but I also sampled potstickers and sliced beef roll.  During the meal, Carolyn picked up on my mood and wondered if I were feeling well.  Truthfully, I was feeling a bit blue as I knew that this adventure was rapidly coming to a close and I was missing my friends already.

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But there was time for one last hurrah.

When we got back to the house, I broke out a portable escape room (a gift from another friend).  It was pretty interesting.  The game replicates the escape room experience as you and your team time yourselves and track how many clues you truly needed to use to solve the puzzles and escape.  The downside is that the game can only be played once as once you’ve solved it, you know how to win and you may need to tear up pieces of the game and booklet to solve puzzles.

It was a fun game as we tried to escape the abandoned cabin.  Mat and Carolyn are serious escape room players and Dave and I learned we had to really pipe up to present our theories and solutions.  We did pretty well.  We did escape in about 90 minutes and needed 5 clues.  We’ll do better next time now that we know how the portable game works.

And for me, that was the end.  I said my good-byes to Mat and Carolyn, knowing that it would be a while before I would get to see them again.

Dave took me back to Embassy Suites and I wished him a safe drive home before heading off to one final sleep in Arizona.

Thus ends my Christmas with the Cacti.  Until I see you again, my friends.  Be well.  Be happy.

The Wamego Files: A Case Study of Victory Inn, Oz, a Headless Horseman, and Zombies

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Victory Inn

Well, October is here which brings visions of colorful leaves, Halloween, haunted houses, and a return to the road.

This leg of the road would bring me to Wamego, KS as I had negotiated a media ticket with the famed Columbian Theatre to review their production of Sleepy Hollow.  My home away from home would be the Victory Inn Bed and Breakfast owned and operated by Francis and Margaret Feyh.

I was particularly looking forward to traveling this time as I would actually be going in a new direction.  Nothing but highways going west and south.  New scenery, at last.  It was a pleasant afternoon for a drive and I enjoyed passing through the small towns of our great country.  About 1pm, my thoughts turned to lunch just as I began to pass through the town of Tecumseh in Nebraska.

Lo and behold I saw a place called Frazier’s Café off to my left and decided it would be a make for a good break.  I glanced through the menu looking for something different when my eyes fell upon a meal listed as the H Bomb which described itself as a spicy chicken fried steak sandwich.  I decided to order one though I thought the price was a little high at $9.95.  That is I thought it was a little high until I actually got the sandwich.

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Frazier’s Cafe

This sucker was about the size of an H Bomb as well.  It was so big that I needed a knife and fork to eat it.  It was tasty and big enough for 2 meals which is exactly what I made out of it.

Full from lunch, I continued my drive which included traveling through Burchard, NE, the birthplace of silent film star, Harold Lloyd.  About 3:30pm I entered Wamego and parked in its downtown area.  I wandered up and down the street admiring the buildings.  I stepped into the library and thumbed through a few books before I finally headed over to Victory Inn.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the inn.  It had a well manicured backyard with a little waterfall and gazebo.  I rang the doorbell of the back door and waited a few minutes.  Upon hearing nothing, I began to search out the front door when I heard the turn of doorknob.  I did an about face and retraced my steps as Margaret welcomed me into her home.

She quickly led me to the Victory Inn Suite before leaving me to my own devices.  I got myself settled and goggled at the palace sized bathroom which housed a Jacuzzi bathtub before exploring the house.  I admired the antiques and glassware and bumped into Margaret’s husband, Francis who quietly welcomed me to the inn.

After wandering about the home, I drew a hot bath and enjoyed a good long soak before slipping into my suit and heading over to the Columbian Theatre.

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Columbian Theatre

The theatre is quite an impressive edifice.  It was built in the late 1800s as a music hall and that same hall still serves as the theatre’s performance space.

The show itself was rather disappointing. After a rough show, I walked back to the inn where I wrote a very difficult review and then retired for the night.

In the morning I was ready for breakfast and Margaret had a nice repast waiting.  There was nothing fancy about the meal.  It was just good old-fashioned home cooking with eggs, bacon, cinnamon coffee cake, some amazing hash browns, and juice.

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Old fashioned country breakfast

I needed some exercise so I spent the next two hours wandering around Wamego where I visited the park, saw the town’s famed windmill, and then I stopped at the famed Oz Museum.

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The windmill of Wamego

The Wizard of Oz is very big in this town.  Not only do they have a museum dedicated to all things Oz but several businesses are named after items in the story such as Oz Winery and Toto’s Tacoz.

The Oz Museum has brought in visitors from all over the globe and it was actually an interesting little visit.  The history of L Frank Baum (author of the series), the birth of the stories, the creation of the famed movie, and other Ozian things came to life before my eyes.  The most surprising piece of trivia I learned was that the books were so popular that other writers were brought on to create more stories after Baum’s passing.  Baum had written 15 stories, but the series ended after the 40th novel written in the late 1960s.  For those who have the time or desire, the film is also shown all day.

When I stepped outside it looked like it was about ready to rain so I decided to while away the afternoon in my room where I watched the Iowa Hawkeyes pummel the Purdue Boilermakers.

After thoroughly enjoying Iowa’s shellacking of Purdue, I took another Jacuzzi bath and then headed over to St Bernard’s Catholic Church for worship.  The church is a pretty impressive edifice and looked fairly new to my eyes.  My eyes did not deceive as the building was erected in 2010.

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St Bernard Catholic Church

It was a pretty good service and Father had a very thought-provoking sermon about how 80% of Catholics no longer attend services which got me to thinking as to how much the attendance rate had fallen amongst all denominations.  His most telling statement was, “I don’t think it’s because we (he was an elderly man) were old-fashioned.  I think we’ve just lost faith.”  Very profound food for thought.

After services, I had hoped to eat at the Friendly Cooker, a diner on the main street of Wamego.  However, the only nights they serve supper are Thursdays and Fridays.  Instead, I decided to try the cuisine at Toto’s Tacoz.

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Toto’s Tacoz

Twas not a bad choice at all.  I had the namesake food which ended up being shredded beef, cheese, onions, lettuce, cilantro, sour cream, and tomatoes on a tortilla.  It was seasoned quite nicely and a little of it goes quite far.

Then I headed over to Junction City, a military town (Fort Riley is nearby) to experience Zombie Toxin.  As a teenager in Omaha, I rather enjoyed the haunted house attractions available in the city and we have some pretty good ones.  While my interest in them has waned as I’ve gotten older, this one made me curious as it touted itself as the #1 haunted attraction in Kansas.

After visiting it, I can say that those claims are perfectly valid.  I would also like to give a special shout-out to Rob for providing me with a speed pass media ticket so I could enjoy Zombie Toxin.

First off, this attraction pays meticulous attention to the details.  It begins with the story of Dr. Von Monschture which I absolutely love because it gives a sense of reality to the attraction.  Once inside, you appreciate the care that went into this place.  Each room has a specific atmosphere and a lot of creativity went into creating the numerous experiments in Von Monschture’s quest to revivify corpses.  There’s nothing cheap about the horrors here.  It has the quality of a big budget horror flick.

Aside from the horrifying beasts, you’ll have to deal with crackling electricity, falling barrels, giant wolf’s heads and a maze in darkness in your attempts to escape from the mad scientist.  Oh, and be wary.  The weird creations and characters of the house pop out anywhere and anytime.  I’m still trying to figure out who or what grabbed my jacket at about the halfway point.

If you live in the vicinity of Junction City and are looking for something to do this Halloween season, visit Zombie Toxin.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

After visiting the haunted house, it was time to head back to the inn for the night.

For some reason my sleep was a little fitful.  I popped out of my sleep due to goofy dreams on a couple of occasions, but still felt well rested when I woke up for good around 7am.

Another old fashioned breakfast was on the table consisting of pancakes, sausage, scrambled eggs, cinnamon pecan rolls, juice, and water.  Once more I ate my fill, then came back to finish writing.

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Another leg of the road has been completed and Wamego is a quaint little town with friendly folk and a bit to do.  Take in a show at the Columbian.  Travel to the merry old land of Oz.  And for those who need more, the town of Manhattan is less than 30 minutes away.  But make sure you get a room at Victory Inn, you’ll get comfort, hospitality, and a good meal.

Until the next time.

Just Around the Riverbend to River’s Bend

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Why, hello again, and welcome to my one year anniversary article spectacular.

I decided I needed a truly special bed and breakfast to visit for my one year anniversary and I certainly found it at River’s Bend Bed and Breakfast; owned by Dr. Rita Schoeneman and located in the rural town of Iowa Falls, IA.

The weather was certainly cooperating with me on this fine summer day.  It had a rather springy feel to it with moderate temperatures, a sunny sky, singing birds, and clouds that were looking especially fluffy.  I was so excited about this trip that I had awoken at 4am and could not get back to sleep.  Shortly before 9am, I had hopped into my car and before I knew it I had reached Iowa Falls.

Iowa Falls is the biggest small town I have visited since I began this project.  It seems to have quite a few things to do and, as I would later learn, is jam packed with history.  It’s also the town where Kansas Jayhawks basketball legend and current NBA star, Nick Collison, began his rise to prominence.  Fun fact:  I attended school with Nick in elementary school (mind you, I was 4 years older and don’t know if we ever met) and was taught by his father, Dave, in junior high school.

As I drove around the city (yes, this city was big enough for me to drive around), I found a couple of nice scenic drives as well as a fairly impressive aquatic center that housed a decent looking miniature golf course.  I silently lamented the fact that my good friend and perennial rival, Mat O’Donnell, was not present for a duel.  Then again, the course was closed so it was a moot point.

Eventually, I parked in the town square and began to wander about the downtown area.  One of the more spectacular sights was the Metropolitan Opera House.  When first built, it was actually an opera house and had brought in some of the biggest names of the day like John Phillip Sousa.  Now it was a movie theater and I really wish I had had an opportunity to get inside the place and look around.

The Metropolitan Opera House.  This is now the local movie theater.

The Metropolitan Opera House. This is now the local movie theater.

About 2pm, I passed a boat club which had a riverboat moored on the Iowa River called the Scenic City Empress.  I saw some people getting onto the ship and I immediately parked my car and asked if I could purchase a ticket.  I would later discover that I had actually earned a free ticket for this cruise by booking at River’s Bend, but I was glad to make the $7 donation.

The Scenic City Empress

The Scenic City Empress

It was a very relaxing cruise on the Iowa River (which actually starts and ends in Iowa).  The whole journey took about an hour and fifteen minutes and I learned quite a bit about the local history from how the town was founded, to some of the powerful families who had lived there, to a lot of significant events that had occurred in the town’s history.  Once the cruise ended, I headed on over to River’s Bend.

For the first time since the project began, I actually had company for the trip.  Originally, my best friend, Josh Kudron, and his wife, Malissa, were supposed to join me on the journey.  Regrettably, complications arose which prevented them from making the trip.  Luckily, my parents, Bob & Virginia, whom I’ve long tried to convince to try a bed and breakfast, said they would like to come along.

We were warmly greeted by Rita, a former national director of the US Forest Service, who gave us the grand tour.

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The Bliss Suite AKA the Honeymoon Suite

The Bliss Suite AKA the Honeymoon Suite

Garden Room

Garden Room

Evergreen Room

Evergreen Room

This place is impressive.  It’s a Greek Revival house and the biggest bed and breakfast I have visited.  The rooms are incredibly spacious with the exception of the intimate Garden Suite.  I was quite surprised that the place only had 4 guest bedrooms considering how much house existed.  We had taken the Riverview Suite, which was a combination of the Riverview room and the Library which housed an eclectic amount of reading material from forestry to manga.  I gladly took the Library because I wanted to be able to get out on the balcony in the morning and watch the sun rise.

The Riverview Room

The Riverview Room

The Library.  This also forms part of the Riverview Suite.

The Library. This also forms part of the Riverview Suite.

After getting settled, we got into my car to travel to the nearby town of Eldora to attend worship services at St Mary’s parish.  On the drive over, my pop had me turn on the radio so he could listen to the Iowa vs. Ball State football game.  There are few things as entertaining as listening to my father watch or listen to an Iowa Hawkeyes sporting event.  Dad isn’t the most demonstrative of people. . .unless he’s watching his beloved Hawkeyes.  Then he’s the most animated person on the planet.  And he had plenty to be animated about as the Hawkeyes looked like they would be upset by the Cardinals as they were leading 13-3 as we headed into the church.

Father Tony, a very energetic and animated man, attempted to set a land speed record in delivering the service.  Apparently, he was suffering from post-concussion syndrome and was feeling a little ill, so he worked through the service as quickly as possible.  All that I can say is, he must be unbelievable when he’s feeling great given how much energy he had feeling sick.

After services, Dad hesitantly asked me to turn the radio back on and he must have done some serious praying, for now the Hawkeyes were about to, and did, in fact, win by a score of 17-13.  “They didn’t deserve to win,” said Dad, the relief evident in his voice.  We headed back to Iowa Falls where, under Rita’s suggestion, we went to Porter’s on Main for supper.

The place was a little dim, but the food was excellent.  I munched on a Diablo Chicken sandwich with a side of chicken gumbo.  Dad supped on a terrific New York Strip (which looked bigger than the 10 oz it was supposed to be), a side of chicken gumbo, and a baked potato.  And Mom enjoyed hamburger steak with some superior American fries (I know because I sampled some) and a salad.

After supper, we returned to the inn where I had to help my lovable Luddite of a father with the TV in the living room so he and Mom could watch the movie “Sneakers”.  I went to the suite to post some pictures, have a long hot soak, and curl up with my latest Sherlock Holmes pastiche, “The Spirit Box”.

Mom and Dad settle down to watch a movie.

Mom and Dad settle down to watch a movie.

I grew drowsy as I read and soon fell asleep for the night.  I awoke the next morning and did go out on the balcony to watch the sunrise, then immediately rushed back inside because it was darn chilly out there in my shorts.  I grabbed my Kindle and headed down to the 2nd living room to listen to music and continue Mr. Holmes’ adventure.  Dad had gotten up earlier to go buy a newspaper and he came back just as Mom was coming downstairs so we headed into the dining room for breakfast.

With all of the fancy, gourmet breakfasts I have eaten at bed and breakfasts, it was a nice change of pace to have a hearty, traditional breakfast.  Beginning with a dish of mixed fruit, Rita brought out some wonderfully crisp bacon and a stack of small pancakes which were quite fluffy and delicious.  Cups of coffee along with glasses of milk and OJ made for delicious breakfast beverages.

Rita came out partway through the meal and began to share with us some of the history of the house.  Then she asked about my B & B project as well as my theatrical background.  When I started talking about theatre, Rita shared this amazing tale of the time Hugh Jackman visited the house.  She even had photographic proof of the encounter.

As the story went, the previous owner of the movie theater had to sell out because he couldn’t afford the new digital projectors that would be needed to stay in business.  The new owner bought the needed projectors, but wanted to have a reopening worthy of the theater’s past as the Metropolitan Opera House.  As it happened, the new owner’s son happened to be an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles and was the agent for Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry.  When the owner’s son told Hugh about his dad’s desire, Hugh readily volunteered to come to Iowa Falls to make it a red carpet event.

Hugh and his family stayed in the room that my family had stayed in and Rita said he was an absolutely perfect gentleman and down to earth guy, though his entourage was annoying.  In between signing posters for the event, Hugh helped his son with his homework, played with his daughter, and even made his children carry the breakfast dishes into the kitchen for cleaning.

The time passed much too quickly and soon it was time to check out and head back to reality.  It was truly a grand event and I easily rank this place in my top three bed and breakfasts that I have visited for this project.  If you find yourself in Iowa Falls, take some time out there.  Soak up the local culture.  Take a ride on the Scenic City Empress.  Most importantly, spend a night at River’s Bend.  You’ll get a great meal and enjoy some great conversation from an excellent hostess.  Heck, you’ll probably learn something, too.