I Never Promised You a Victorian Rose Garden: Algonquin, IL and Victorian Rose Garden B & B

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Today the road has brought me to Algonquin, IL.

A trip to this region had been steadily growing in my mind for the past few months.  I had actually been in this area back in 2015 when I stopped in the village of West Dundee, IL en route to a review of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.

I had been talking about the locale with a friend and started to reminisce about the fun I had in West Dundee.  The vintage arcade.  The lovely meal at The Village Squire.  The awesome elegance of The Mansion.  I began to get the itch to revisit the place.

I tried to convince several of my friends to go, but one had just got back from a trip while another was getting ready to take a small family trip and the other simply wasn’t interested in going.  I really didn’t want to go alone. . .unless I could stay at a B & B.

I contacted The Mansion to find out if they had any available rooms towards the end of August, but was out of luck.  Acting on an idle thought, I did a search on B & Bs around the West Dundee area and found one for the Victorian Rose Garden in Algonquin.  Then I checked to see how far Algonquin was from West Dundee.  Hmm, only 4 miles.  Did they have any rooms available?  Yes, they did.  I immediately booked the Presidential Chamber for what I would dub the Decompression Trip.

After the end of a hard month which included beginning rehearsals for my first full scale production in almost 6 years, I was ready for a trip.

Unlike my other trips where I take a day off to make the drive, I actually began this one after work on Friday.  The plan was to drive to the Iowa City region where I would stop to rest for the night before finishing the journey the next day.

I had thought to drive just slightly past Iowa City and find a decent place outside the hubbub of a major city, but fate decided to call my bluff as I had difficulty finding any inn, let alone a decent one.  I ended up driving nearly an hour longer than I planned and ultimately stopped in Walcott, IA, home of the world’s largest truck stop.

As I hoped the world’s largest truck stop held a pair of hotels, one of which was a Comfort Inn (bada book bada boom!).  It was a tiny hotel (only 3 floors), but I got a room on the top floor which I prefer on the rare occasions I stay at a hotel.  For an extra $5, I was able to get a king bed and I heaved a contented sigh as my eyes alighted on a small, but comfortable room.

I still needed to eat, but, as the hour was late, I stopped at a nearby Arby’s for a sandwich before returning to the hotel for a bath and a good night’s sleep.

And it truly was a good night’s sleep.  I awoke truly well rested and even had the benefit of having a hot breakfast at the hotel where I enjoyed a pair of sausage links with a biscuit and gravy and some apple juice before heading off on the road again.

Driving the extra hour ended up being a good decision as it not only got me closer to my destination, but helped me stay on my schedule as this route was still doing construction as they were back in 2015 which slowed me down a bit.

About 1pm, I had arrived in West Dundee and immediately made a beeline for the Underground Retrocade.  For those of you reading my blog for the first time, the Underground Retrocade is a vintage arcade where you pay $15 and get unlimited play for the day.   Some new games had been added since I had last visited including. . .a Dragon’s Lair cabinet!!

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Dragon’s Lair. The greatest video game of all time.

Dragon’s Lair is my all time favorite video game and revolutionized the industry when it came out in 1983.  It was the first interactive animated movie and told the tale of a brave, if slightly clumsy, knight named Dirk the Daring trying to rescue Princess Daphne from the clutches of the dragon, Singe.  Make the right move at the right time and you get one step closer to the dragon’s lair.  Make the wrong move and Dirk meets an untimely demise.

This was not the original game.  Rather, it was the officially licensed 2002 Limited Edition reproduction of which only 400 discs were made.  This version included the deleted opening scene on the drawbridge as well as some slightly different timing and moves.  The cabinet also included the original prototype version which has a slew of deleted scenes as well as the games Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp.  I didn’t reach the lair, but had fun playing.

I more than got my money’s worth as I played pinball versions of Ghostbusters and Doctor Who.  I also served drinks in Tapper, fought Bluto and the Sea Hag in Popeye, and conquered Dragon’s Lair II:  Timewarp, Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja, and Altered Beast as well as dabbled with Crystal Castles, Rampage World Tour, Fix it Felix, Jr., and Track & Field.

About 3:30pm I headed for the village of Algonquin.  As I arrived, I was shocked to see the massive amount of construction being done in the little village, but easily worked my way around it until I found the Victorian Rose Garden, owned and operated by Sherry Brewer.

I rang the doorbell of the inn and glanced around the neighborhood.  As I turned back to the door, Sherry’s smiling face had suddenly materialized in the window and the surprise nearly gave me a heart attack.

While my pumper reset itself, Sherry let me into the inn, led me to the Presidential Chamber, and gave me the nickel tour.  I put my normal explorations on hold as I headed for worship at St Margaret Mary.  This was a very nice and quaint church which holds a Polish service at the second Saturday night service.

It was a moving event which brought back memories of going to church back home in Fort Dodge as we sang hymns that I haven’t sung since my childhood.

After worship, I headed to the Colonial Café and I was starved.

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Colonial Cafe

I actually felt the need for a small appetizer so I opened the meal with a small cup of cheddar cheese chowder which had an interesting, but tasty, flavor especially with a dash of pepper.  My main course was a Smokehouse BBQ burger which was hearty and juicy and really hit the spot.  While I ate, I read The House of Brass by Ellery Queen and met an elderly gentleman who liked the fact that I was reading a book as opposed to being glued to a cell phone.

After dinner I headed back to the inn, where I had some chocolate chocolate chip cookies and a cold glass of milk.

With that dessert, Sherry turned down my bed and left me to my devices.  I went around the inn taking pictures (the last set I will take with this camera as it’s falling apart).  The house has an understated elegance not unlike visiting Grandma’s house with a music room, gorgeous dining room, and a living room that is almost like stepping back in time.  It contains an old-fashioned barber’s chair along with a cupboard of shaving mugs, an old-fashioned gumball machine loaded with marbles, and a rocking horse.

The Presidential Chamber, where I stayed, boasts a very comfy king sized bed as well as some nice easy chairs, a fireplace, a mounted flatscreen TV, and a bathroom with a clawfoot tub and shower and even a bidet.  After a long day of driving and activities, I was more than content to simply put my feet up for the night and write and post pictures before drifting off to the land of Nod.

I slept all the way through the night.  When I woke up, I got a shower and a shave and was ready for a good meal.

And that is exactly what I got along with some lovely company in the form of Mike and Sue of Ohio and Tone and Yvonne of Stockholm, Sweden.  For breakfast there was water, orange juice, and coffee along with an appetizer of fresh fruit, cinnamon scones, and banana nut bread.  The main entrée was French Toast croissants with Granny Smith apples, scrambled eggs with home-grown vegetables, and thick slices of bacon along with a heaping side of conversation which Sherry joined in on.

All too soon the conversation and the meal had to come to an end.  In hindsight, I wish I had another day to spend here for there are still activities to partake of, but I suspect I will be back again, hopefully with friends to really expand on the fun.

But if you’re in the Algonquin region, spend a night with Sherry at Victorian Rose Garden B & B.  It’s a inn as pretty as it sounds with fabulous food and company and quite a bit to do in the region as well as being a hop, skip, and a jump from Chicago.

Until the next time, happy travels.

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Masterful Musicians Make Magnificent Music

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Billy McGuigan and the Downliners (From left to right: Tara Vaughan, Ryan McGuigan, Matthew McGuigan, Billy McGuigan, Adam Stoltenberg, and Max Meyer)

Take a tour through the history of classic rock and roll as Billy McGuigan and his band play the hits from the 50s through the 70s in Rock Legends.  Last night Billy and his band, the Downliners, played a sold out, tour de force performance at the Davies Amphitheater in Glenwood, IA.

The show was actually billed as Rock Show, but was a variation of McGuigan’s Rock Legends production.  Billy McGuigan once more demonstrated his seemingly limitless musical talent with a pulse pounding, non-stop 90 minute ride that displays an encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock.  Billy and the Downliners played some of the biggest hits of the best known bands of the 50s-70s, but also included several one hit wonders and hits that simply don’t get much airplay nowadays.  Imbued with that inimitable McGuigan energy, one would swear that Billy and the band wrote all of these tunes themselves as the music seems so fresh and extemporaneous.

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Mark Irvin

The night’s entertainment opened up with Omaha singer/songwriter, Mark Irvin.  Irvin has a voice reminiscent of Bryan Adams and a stage presence similar to Roy Orbison.  It’s just a man, his guitar, and his music.  Irvin is a powerhouse talent whose warm tenor haunted the audience with original numbers such as “I Will Surrender to You”, “I Finally Got it Right”, and “Fly With Me”.  He also did an impressive cover of Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song” that had the audience singing right along with him.  If you want to get a taste of Irvin’s talent, his music is available on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Then it was time for the featured act and Billy and company hit the ground running and never let up.

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Billy McGuigan

Billy McGuigan drove the night with his trademark wit and indefatigable energy.  He and his potent tenor went through an impressive range of high octane songs from “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers to “Good Lovin’” by the Rascals to the first rock song, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.  How he does this without wearing out, I’ll never know, but he did give himself a bit of a breather with a small set of slower songs capped with a particularly touching rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

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Tara Vaughan

It’s as much fun to watch Tara Vaughan perform as it is to listen to her sing.  Performance wise, she reminds me of Bob Marley in the sense that, like him, she is totally immersed in the music.  She doesn’t just play the keyboards with her fingers, she plays with her whole body, heart, and soul.  And that sultry alto had me looking for a cold drink after some of her numbers.  Notable turns from her came with Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love”, a rocking rendition of the Gene Pitney penned Crystals hit, “He’s a Rebel”, and a dazzling take on “A Little Piece of My Heart” that would have made Janis Joplin proud.

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Ryan & Matthew McGuigan

Ryan & Matthew McGuigan nailed it in their time in the spotlight.  Ryan paid homage to John Lennon and the Beatles with his takes on “I Feel Fine” and the Lennon solo in “This Boy”.  Matthew got a chance to show some impressive versatility as he did The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” before segueing into Elvis soundalike Terry Stafford’s one hit wonder, “Suspicions”.

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Adam Stoltenberg & Max Meyer

Solid support was provided in the forms of Max Meyer and Adam Stoltenberg.  Meyer provided a series of superb solos on lead guitar while Stoltenberg’s drum work set a crucial backbeat.  Both also got a moment to sing when they each took some verses in The Band’s “The Weight” which was sung by the entire band.

When people hear the name Billy McGuigan, some think Buddy Holly while others may think the Beatles.  When I hear the name, I think he’s one of the best musicians Omaha has ever produced.  Normally, this is the point where I encourage you to get a ticket.  Sadly this was a one night only concert, but fear not.  You have another chance to catch Bily and company in action when Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist opens at the Omaha Playhouse on August 1.  The show runs through August 12 with performances running Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Contact OCP at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com for tickets.

But take my advice, when Rock Legends performs again, don’t miss it.  It’s awesome!

Springtime Snowbird: Red Wing, MN & Golden Lantern

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The travel content in my blood had gotten pretty low so I decided it was time to get away for the weekend.  I booked a getaway in Red Wing, MN, home of the Golden Lantern.

While I love travel immensely, sometimes the travel part of travel can get mighty tedious.  My father has an interesting hobby in that he likes to look at atlases to plan his journeys or simply to learn more about the cities that I visit.  When I told him I was heading to Red Wing, I half jokingly asked him if he could plot a route that would be light on interstate.

Dad rose to the challenge and plotted a route.  I asked him how much time this would add to my trip and he asked what time I had planned on getting there.  When I said 3pm, he said I could leave at 6am.  I didn’t particularly relish the idea of tacking an extra 3 hours onto the drive so I figured it would be back to the interstate for me.

A few days before I left, I realized that the route to Minnesota takes me very close to my old hometown of Fort Dodge, IA.  I checked to see how much more time would be added if I went that route and found it would only add an extra hour to the drive.  I contacted my best friend, Josh Kudron, and asked if he wanted to meet me for lunch.  He said yes and I now had a much more satisfying drive on my hands.

It was a very pleasant drive as I drove the route I knew so well, passing through numerous small towns on my way to Fort Dodge.  It had been quite a while since I had visited the old burg and noticed a lot of changes to these small towns.  Just outside of Rockwell City, I found that they were tearing up the highway and had to take a detour which routed me through the tiny town of Rinard and I appreciated adding a new small town to the journey.

I ended up arriving in Fort Dodge about a half hour before I was to meet Josh.  I decided to take a quick jaunt down memory lane and actually get a picture of my first childhood home.  I still remember every nook and cranny of the place.  The house and property had once fallen into quite a bit of disrepair in the years since my family had moved out.  My dad’s lovingly maintained backyard had transformed into an overgrown jungle due to a dispute between the house owners and the owners of the convenience store next door.  At one point, the house had been condemned until it was bailed out by a new owner.

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My childhood home. It’s seen better days, but it’s also seen worse.

The new owner made the house look a lot better with a new siding job and I was stunned to see the backyard restored to quite a bit of its former glory.  I snapped a photo and drove off to my old elementary school.

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This was my old elementary school

The school had once been a Catholic school and church called Holy Rosary, but had been sold off many years prior.  It had been a rehabilitation center for young girls suffering from drug and alcohol addictions before being bought out by an evangelical church and renamed Community Christian School.  Though I only got one photo, a flood of childhood memories washed over me as a lot of the good times spent there ran through my mind.

Then it was time for lunch.  I met Josh at my favorite fast food joint, Taco Tico.  It’s a pity that there are only 16 of these restaurants in the United States because these are the best tacos ever made.  Josh picked up the tab and we spent a long lunch catching up on old times and filling each other in on recent events.  I ended up having to call an end to lunch as I had to get to Red Wing to check in and bad weather was looming.  Keep that last point in mind.

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Ah, Taco Tico!! Yum!!

Now it was off to the interstate to complete my drive to Red Wing.

I arrived in town about 5pm and made my way to the Golden Lantern.  I was greeted by the inn’s owner, Sioux Christensen, and led to my room, J.R.’s Suite.  The room had an incredible calming quality and is very. . .red from thee burgundy curtains and easy chairs to the red blanket on the king bed to the carpeting to the towels.

 

The Golden Lantern is a Tudor Revival mansion that was originally the home of Jesse R (J.R.) Sweazy who was the president of the famed Red Wing Shoe Company which is still in operation today.  The house remained in the family for several generations before his grandson sold the property in 1992 at which point it was renovated into a B & B.

 

I did my normal explorations and helped myself to some cheese and crackers in the living room.  After settling in, I headed to the main drag to have dinner at Bev’s Café.

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Bev’s Cafe

Bev’s is normally only open for breakfast and lunch, but stays open for dinner on Friday nights.  I ordered an Inferno burger with some crinkle cut French fries and I enjoyed a leisurely dinner as I continued reading Ten Little Aliens, a sci-fi retelling of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

I returned to the inn after dinner where I put my Jacuzzi tub through the paces, even adding a splash of pomegranate to the water because. . .why not.  I don’t know if it added to my relaxation, but I felt pretty sedate when the bath was over.

From there I posted pictures before going to sleep for the night.

Earlier I had mentioned that bad weather had been looming.  Well, I woke up the next morning to. . .wait for it. . .A SNOWSTORM. . .IN MID-APRIL.  I’m talking a full blown, wind whipping snowstorm which canceled all of my exploration plans for the day.

There are worse things than being forced to stay indoors in a comfortable inn.  Luckily I had arranged for even more relaxation by opting to have breakfast in bed that first day.  A tray was left outside my door at 9am and I enjoyed a long breakfast of bacon, fruit, orange juice, apple cinnamon roll, and a frittata/omelet entrée.

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Afterwards it was pretty much reading, a little TV, and working on the computer for the day.  I did take my car for a brief spin to keep the engine warm, but the wind was whipping around the snow so much that I was only out for 15-20 minutes.

About 5pm, I walked the block to St Joseph’s Catholic Church to attend worship services.  For a small town, the church was surprisingly big.  Almost as big as the church I attend back in Omaha.  The storm had mushroomed into a full blown blizzard threatening to dump up to a foot of snow by 7am the next day.  Due to the storm, less than 50 people attended the service and the sermon and songs were clipped a bit to get us back home.  Still, it was a good service, if a bit edited.

 

I still needed to eat and ending up finding a Perkins nearby where I started reading a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Red Tower, while I ate a Country Club Melt.  After dinner, I noted with relief that the snow had tapered off which gave the city plenty of time to clean up.  This meant I would be able to head for home tomorrow as extending my stay had been a very serious possibility.

I enjoyed another bath and began writing this article before retiring for the night.

When I woke up the next morning, I peeked out my window and noted that the streets were very clean.  Red Wing only got 5 inches of snow, but had I been just an hour west, I would have been buried.  The Twin Cities received a whopping 10.5” of snow and it was still falling.  At this writing, they are up to 18”.

I joined two other couples for breakfast where we enjoyed strawberries and cream, sausage patties, chocolate crepes, and Eggs Benedict.  A nourishing, tasty breakfast indeed.  Some interesting conversation followed and then I made the long drive home.

I’d like to give the city of Red Wing a redo at some point so I can truly experience the city, but the Golden Lantern is a fabulous inn and definitely gets a recommendation for a visit.  From the large rooms and bathtubs to the gourmet breakfasts, you will certainly have a grand and relaxing time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Ho Ho Homicide: Mont Rest & Bellevue, IA

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Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Joseph Catholic Church

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

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Mmm!! Hors d’ouevres.

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

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

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

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

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

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Officer Ima Fuzz

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

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

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

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

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

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Quiche, fried potatoes, sausage.

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

Until the next time, happy travels.

It’s a Wonderful Play

George Bailey is a good man who has been pushed to his breaking point.  Deciding that the world would be better off without him, George contemplates suicide.  But a kindly angel trying to earn his wings is about to show George the difference one person can make.  This is It’s a Wonderful Life by Phillip Grecian and it is currently playing at the Grand Opera House.

It’s rare, but once in a great while I actually get to attend a show purely as a patron.  However, I was so touched and impressed by this production that I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and share its wonderfulness.  This is a terrific show for the holidays and Grecian has written a beautiful script that is full of warmth, sensitivity, strong dialogue, a bit of melancholy, and is so full of hope.  His words are brought to incredible life by a powerhouse cast that maximizes the fullest potential of the script.

Michelle Blanchard deserves the highest, possible praise for her direction of this story.  It is so strong and confident.  She knows exactly where this story is going and knows how to get her cast to that destination.  Every beat is a bullseye.  Every emotional shift is spot on.  Ms Blanchard has coached her cast to superb performances and this cast, without question, projected better than any I have previously heard.

With a cast of excellent actors, it’s very hard to limit myself to just a few choice performances.  But some of the quality performances you will see in this show come from Helen Waldmeier who brings a sweetness and fun to her portrayal of Mary Hatch-Bailey; Trenton Sanchez who ably plays the younger version of George Bailey with his integrity and gentleness; and John Gunther whose rich baritone voice rings with a kindly authority as Joseph, God’s right hand angel.

Stephen Green is all aces as George Bailey.  Green’s Bailey is so full of decency and goodness that you feel better about yourself for having met him.  Green is so, so convincing as a man who has constantly sacrificed his dreams and desires in order to fulfill a greater good.  He also wisely adds just the right touch of sadness to Bailey to show that he often muses about what might have been which makes his joy when he realizes his true value all the more moving.  The only slight difficulty with his performance is that Green seems to suffer from the same issue as Gregory Peck.  He’s so good at being good that his rare moments of anger and frustration seem a pinch off the target.

Robert Armstrong brings a quiet strength to his take on Clarence.  He’s a simple angel second class who has been trying to earn his wings for 200 years.  He’s a good listener and has genuine empathy for people.  Armstrong also gives his Clarence the ability to think fast on his feet as his idea of jumping into the river to get George to save him seems very extemporaneous. He also injects a bit of playfulness into the role with his confrontation with the play’s de facto villain, Mr. Potter.

Danny Fairchild’s Henry Potter is the guy you love to hate.  Fairchild steals his scenes with a Potter who is oily, manipulative, curmudgeonly, and vengeful.  Fairchild is an amazing actor with a grand gift for a turn of the phrase.  His sense of timing was deadly accurate and, son of a gun, he managed to be humorous in his unlikability as well.  It is a well constructed and crowd pleasing performance.

Frank McClain’s sounds were some of the best I’ve heard in a production, especially the twinkling sound effects when Clarence was communicating with Heaven.  Jan LaVacek has made a nearly bare bones set with the bridge over Bedford Falls being the only constant.  I liked the efficiency of his set which could rapidly change into Ma Bailey’s home to the Bailey home to the Bailey Building and Loan to Potter’s office.  Gloria Fitzpatrick’s costumes were so natural and suitable that I thought the cast was wearing their own clothes.

As I earlier stated, this is the perfect show for the holiday season.  It’s sweet.  It’s funny.  It’s hopeful.  It also show us just what great gifts we can be and that we all have the power to be that force for good in the lives of others.  There are only 2 performances left.  Don’t miss out on this touching show.

It’s a Wonderful Life continues at the Grand Opera House until Dec 3.  There is a performance tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.  For tickets, contact the theatre at 563-588-1305 or visit www.thegrandoperahouse.com.  Tickets cost $20 for adults and $12 for 17 and younger.  The Grand Opera House is located at 135 W 8th St in Dubuque, IA.

When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Day 9: A Rainbow in Ireland

The final day had finally arrived.

I awoke to the first truly dreary day we had experienced in Ireland.  It was grim and rainy outside which worried me a bit because our first stop of the day was a visit to the Cliffs of Moher.

After breakfast, we boarded our trusty bus once more and began the trek to the cliffs.  On the drive we experienced some rain and then, miraculously, the sun began to peek through.  How fitting it was to see a beautiful rainbow appear in the sky in Ireland.  Dad quipped my thoughts when he said, “Let’s go find the pot of gold,” to the amusement of our fellow travelers.

The sun began burning off this mist which made the day look a lot better as we approached the cliffs.  Frankly, I thought the mist enhanced the view of the Cliffs of Moher.  It gave it a mysterious, otherworldly quality as I looked upon this awesome spectacle of nature.

We spent a brief period at the cliffs before heading over to the city of Galway.

Galway is another major city in Ireland and its major street of commerce also happens to be named O’Connell Street just like in Dublin.  We were given a few hours to spend on our own before we would meet up for a mini-walking tour of the city.

I wandered up and down the street as I looked at the various businesses and enjoyed the various buskers.  The most interesting busker was a young lady who played a hurdy-gurdy.  It was truly a haunting sounding instrument.

I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, but decided to stop off at a café to enjoy one last bowl of seafood chowder as I knew it would be my last opportunity to taste this local delicacy.  After finishing my soup, I returned to our meeting point where Bill gave us a mini-walking tour of the city.

We walked past St Nicholas’ Cathedral, saw the remnants of the oldest building in Ireland (discovered when ground was broke for a new business), saw the King’s Head Pub which is Ireland’s oldest pub and has operated since 1649, and we also saw the Lynch Point.

The Lynch Point is exactly what it sounds like.  Back in the day, condemned prisoners were hung here.  Its most famed story is that a very just judge once ordered his son to be hung at this spot for the murder of a Spanish sailor who had cuckolded the son.  The son was guilty as sin and the judge refused to recuse himself, insisting that justice had to be served.  So honorable was the judge that he dismissed the executioner and personally placed the noose around the son’s neck so that full responsibility for this decision would lay on his shoulders.

After this little walk through history we boarded the bus and made our way to Rathbaun Farm, the final stop of the trip.

Rathbaun Farm is a working farm that has been in the Connolly family for six generations.  We met Vinton Connolly who led us to the kitchen where our group would get a lesson in scone making.

The cook told us we would be eating the scones we were preparing and she gave us our lesson.  Like a true chef, a lot of the prep work was estimation, but my table managed to prepare 8 scones for baking.  I crossed my fingers hoping that they came out edible.

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Ingredients for scones

From the kitchen we went across to the barn where Vinton showed us some of his sheep and lambs and told us about farming in Ireland.

Then he introduced us to Ted, his sheepdog.

Vinton explained that sheepdogs are not trained.  They learn a few voice commands, but herding sheep is an instinct that dogs either have or they don’t.  Dogs that have a lot of energy and can’t sit still probably have the instinct.  As Vinton said, “If a sheepdog is sitting still for ten minutes, it’s probably dead.”

Vinton then gave us a demonstration of Ted’s skills as he let Ted into an enclosed pasture.  Ted bolted right towards the sheep as Vinton gave a few voice commands simply telling Ted where to direct the sheep.  For such hefty animals, sheep can really run.  Ted never made a peep.  He just stared down the sheep and ran them in the direction he wanted them to go.

When the demo ended, we went to the dining room to partake of an Irish tradition:  Sunday dinner.

On Sundays, Irish people have breakfast and then don’t eat again until about 4 or 4:30pm when they have a large family dinner.  The cooks had prepared a hearty Irish stew full of chunks of beef, potatoes, and vegetables.  They also served our scones.

My team’s scones came out pretty well.  Nice and crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside.

When dinner ended, we said our good-byes to Vinton and boarded the bus to return to our hotel.

Officially that was the end of the trip.  I felt the way one should at the end of a vacation like this:  sad to see it end, but ready to get back home.  The next morning would take us to Shannon Airport which is one of the few cities where you go through U.S. customs there so you don’t have to do it back at in the states.  I looked out the window at the flight that would take us back to America and reflected on the many adventures I had and the new friends I had met.

I was so pleased with Globus that I joined their Journeys Club and began planning a trip to England and Paris which I hope to take in either 2018 or early 2019.  But that will be a story for another time.

But you won’t have long to wait for my next adventure.  On December 1, it will be time for my 5th annual Christmas B & B review.  Mont Rest Inn of Bellevue, IA is the site of my visit and it promises to be something special.  We’ll see you then.

A Grand Holiday Experience: Grand Anne, Keokuk, and Nauvoo

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Hello readers and Merry Christmas!

It’s December which means it’s time for another holiday B & B review.  To be honest, I was not sure I was going to be able to do a holiday review this year due to the timing of the family Christmas gatherings, but I managed to get lucky when I checked out the reservations site for the Grand Anne of Keokuk, IA and found they were wide open for the month of December.  I quickly snagged a room and prepared for another Christmas jaunt.

Keokuk is noted for being the southernmost city in the state of Iowa.  So southern is the city that the states of Illinois and Missouri are mere minutes away.  It also has quite a bit of history nestled in its environs.  Howard Hughes’ grandfather, Rupert, was the mayor of this town once upon a time and, at one point, Keokuk had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Keokuk was notable to me for one reason.  When I was a strapping lad the town of Palmer, IA was an unstoppable powerhouse in high school basketball having gone undefeated for 4 years.  Keokuk’s basketball team ended up being the giant slayer as they stopped Palmer in that year’s state tournament and Palmer BB was never quite the same again.

But I digress.  It was a frozen Friday that I began my journey.  I was very excited as I could make the drive using nothing but one highway so I figured the road would take me through a lot of small towns.  I was surprisingly wrong on this score as I did go through a few small towns, but far fewer than one would expect for a nearly 5 ½ hour drive.

I arrived in Keokuk a little earlier than expected and looked for something to do until I could check in.  As I traveled towards the inn, I spied a little salon called Laura’s Hair Company and decided to stop for a haircut as I had left town before getting a much needed trim.

Laura was a very interesting barber who knew quite a bit about the town, even sharing the story of an allegedly haunted house on Grand Avenue where Grand Anne was located.  She also gave me the best haircut I’ve had in years, trimming my hair to absolutely perfect length.

After the relaxing haircut, I popped in at the local library (nicely stocked for a small town) and skimmed a novel until I could check in at Grand Anne.

The Grand Anne, owned by Kent and Cassie Barrett with caretaking done by Rick and Cretia Hesse, is the very picture that pops into your head when you think about B & Bs.  It’s a 22 room Grand Anne mansion designed by George F. Barber who built his fortune designing mail order homes.  He would send people the plans for the house with sheets of graph paper and ask for a rough sketch of any changes to be made to be drawn on the graph paper and mailed back to him.  He would then draw the changes to scale and go back and forth until the people buying the home were satisfied.  At that point, the buyers could either build the homes themselves or Barber would sell them the materials and rent out the help to build the home.  For a fun bit of trivia, Barber had no formal training in architecture, yet 2,000 buildings he designed are still standing today.

Barber designed the Grand Anne for Clyde Royal Joy, a managing director of SF Baker and Company, a pharmaceutical firm, in 1897 for the astonishing price of $12,500 (modern day equivalent of nearly $360,000).  The house is worth much more than the modern day equivalency as Joy spared no expense on the home.  To give you an idea of its modern day value, the wood used in the parlor costs more than $12,500 today.

When I arrived at the inn, I found a piece of paper and a key for my room sticking to the front door.  I walked into the foyer and instantly felt at home.  The Grand Anne is easily one of my favorite inns that I’ve stayed at as it is a classic B & B, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since the Victorian Villa.  I headed upstairs to Clyde’s Retreat, the one time master bedroom and my base of operations.  It’s one of the most spacious rooms I’ve had with some very comfortable chairs and a plushy bed.  All I needed was a fireplace and a sidekick and I’ve would have felt like Sherlock Holmes.

After unpacking my gear, I wandered around the mansion, enjoying the Christmas trees and decorations, especially a Christmas village located on the Steinway piano in the music room.  I then donned my coat and took a walk around Grand Avenue.

Grand Avenue was once the Millionaire’s Row of the city as that is where the expensive and ritzy homes were built.  I later learned that a 72 room mansion once filled the six blocks next to Grand Anne costing an eye popping $1 million back in 1887 (modern day equivalent of $25 million!!).  Regrettably, that home only lasted for 30 years and not a trace of it exists.

It was still mighty cold outside so I headed back to Grand Anne to warm up for a bit before heading out to dinner.  I decided to give the Hawkeye Restaurant a try.  This eatery is known for a pork tenderloin sandwich that was deemed best in the country by USA Today.  If I could have preserved one I’d have taken it back to Omaha as that is my pop’s favorite sandwich.

The restaurant is quite popular as it was jammed to the rafters when I arrived.  I managed to get seated in the lounge where I ordered jerk chicken with a cup of their “World Famous” Wisconsin cheese soup and a side of fries.  The soup was remarkable.  It had a bit of a kick to it and truly was the best cup of Wisconsin cheese soup I had ever tasted.  The fries were crisp and the chicken was served on a bed of rice with fried jalapenos.  It was pretty good, but I expected a lot more spice for a Caribbean dish.  It had the hint of authentic jerk chicken, but needed to go a bit further with it.

After the meal, I decided to drive around the town to see what they might have for lighting displays and was surprised to see that very few homes actually set up anything on the outside.  I drove to the farthest end of Grand Avenue and then saw the mother of all lighting displays.

The display was in a place called Rand City Park and it was called the City of Christmas.  I drove through the park in awe of the incredible display which was sponsored by many of the local businesses.  I saw Biblical displays, winter displays, and a section dedicated to the beloved Christmas specials of my childhood.  Definitely worth a visit if you are in Keokuk around Christmas.

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City of Christmas

Once I had traveled through the City of Christmas, I returned to my room where I watched a DVD and then curled up in my cushiony queen bed and slept the night away under the soft glow of my Christmas tree.

The Grand Anne is famed for its 4 course gourmet breakfasts and I was very much looking forward to it the next morning.  At 8:30 I went downstairs to the dining room where I enjoyed Cretia’s fine cooking which included a freshly squeezed special orange juice blend of the inn’s, a lemon muffin, grapes & yogurt, and chili egg bake with baked bacon.  I had fellow guests this time and spent a rather enjoyable few hours sharing conversation.  Afterwards we went up to the Billiards Room on the mansion’s first floor where we learned we all had the same level of skill in pool.  That is to say, we all stunk.  But it was still fun to play.

When the game was done, I bundled up, hopped into my car, and drove to nearby Nauvoo, IL.

Nauvoo is a Mormon settlement built by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints, and his followers.  When they first arrived, it was a malaria ridden swamp land and they built it up to a bustling community of 50,000, the second largest city in Illinois at one point before the assassination of Joseph Smith ended up scattering the Church of Christ.  Today the town only has a population of 1,100 but it does an impressive job of preserving its history.

I stopped in the Joseph Smith Visitors Center where I paid for a tour of Old Nauvoo.  My tour guide was Don who was a fount of knowledge about the history of the area as he showed me around the old homes of Joseph Smith and told me about the history of the area.  One thing I learned it aside from the history was that those old homes were built to last.  The old homes kept the cold outside without virtue of any of our modern conveniences.

The tour ended in the Red Brick Store which sells books, old fashioned candies, and even a famed “home brewed” root beer.  The quotes are because it’s actually made in Ohio, but it is quite tasty nonetheless.  After my tour I drove to the top of the city to look at the rebuilt Mormon Temple before returning to Keokuk.  Nauvoo also has year round wagon rides and nightly shows.  In the summer there’s quite a bit more to do, so if I’m in the region again during that season, I’ll be sure to give it another visit.

I returned to the inn and relaxed for about an hour before heading to worship services at the Church of All Saints.  This church was like stepping into a time warp as the inside reminded me of Sacred Heart, a church I sometimes attended back in Fort Dodge, IA with a priest that reminded me of my favorite pastor, Father Richard Kielbasa AKA Father K AKA The Rock.  Yep.  Before Dwayne Johnson, the original Rock was Father K and they both shared the same charisma.

Originally, I had planned to go back to Nauvoo to eat the buffet dinner at the famed Hotel Nauvoo, but discovered they stopped serving for the season in mid-November.  Instead I visited Beef, Bread, and Brew in Keokuk.  It’s a small, quiet restaurant known for its weekend buffets (seafood on Friday, Prime Rib on Saturday, and a Grand Buffet on Sunday).  I opted for a filet mignon with a side of lattice fries and included a trip to the soup and salad bar.  I tried a cup of their Wisconsin cheese soup, but it was just OK.  It needed to be a little hotter and lacked the zip of the previous night’s soup.  The salad was excellent as was the filet mignon which was cooked to perfection and was nice and juicy.

When dinner was done, it was back to the inn where Rick gave us a 2.5 tour of the mansion.  He was a great storyteller and knew every intimate detail of the house and quite a bit about the town’s history.  He has quite a few interesting stories including the “Story of the Bullet Hole”.  One amusing story I’ll share is that of the golf ball riddled door.  The inn’s second owner was Judge Huiskamp who was an avid golfer (also a good friend of Bing Crosby who often came to Keokuk to play golf with the judge).  Back in the day, the third floor was a ballroom and the judge set up a net to practice his hitting.  He never missed the net, but his children often did pelting the walls and door of the now Tower Suite with golf balls.  The door to the Tower Suite is the original and is just riddled with golf ball divots.

When the tour was done, I returned to my home to begin writing, but a stuck e key curtailed that so I decided to call it a night.

I slept right through the night.  When I awoke the next day, I checked my e key and found it to be working again so I drew a relaxing bath before heading downstairs to breakfast.

The first courses were similar to the previous day’s though the fruit was kiwi and the muffin was cherry.  The main entrée was a delicious egg soufflé with cheddar cheese, chives, and mushrooms with some more baked bacon. Once more I engaged in pleasant conversation until it was time to get back to work and head for home.

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Egg souffle with baked bacon

Another splendid visitation is in the books.  The Grand Anne was truly a grand experience and I highly suggest a visit if you find yourself in town.  You’ll experience a classic bed and breakfast with some truly superb meals and can take a dive into history at the same time.  Have a blessed and happy Christmas!