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

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Astor House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Green Bay, WI.

After 6 weeks of doing a play review or two each week, I was ready for a little downtime.  I started thumbing through my trusty B & B spreadsheet and began looking at Astor House Bed & Breakfast.  I was stunned at the affordability of the room rates and decided to book a little getaway.

So it was that on Friday night I found myself on the road again.  I managed to avoid the rush hour of Omaha and was enjoying a rather speedy and pleasant drive.  Around Stuart, IA I pulled over as I was hungry and decided to try an Impossible Whopper at the local Burger King (being a Lenten Friday and all).

The sandwich actually tastes amazingly similar to a Whopper.  The difference is only slight and my fries were fresh so I got to enjoy a very relaxing meal before getting back on the road.

Around 9pm, I arrived in Cedar Rapids, IA where I utilized my Hilton Honors membership to rest for the night at a Hampton Inn.

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Now I salute this hotel for some truly superior customer service.  I received a call from the hotel the day before telling me that the swimming pool and hot tub were unavailable due to a burst pipe and they offered to refund my fee if I wanted to find a different hotel.  While I had considered a good swim, it was tentative at best as I figured I would just be sleeping before finishing the drive to Green Bay the following day.

This Hampton Inn is currently undergoing renovations and my room was actually quite elegant.  The king bed was a little firmer than I would have liked, but its spaciousness helped to relax me.  I also noticed what appears to be a growing trend in hotels. . .no vending machines.  More and more, it seems hotels now have a little kiosk area where they sell snacks and drinks on the ground floor as opposed to the olden days where one would just stroll down the hall to a machine for a snack or drink.

 

I had a fairly restful night’s sleep and went down to the dining area for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn’t too bad.  This Hampton Inn offers some hot options along with cold cereal, bread and pastries.  Scrambled eggs, smoked sausage, bagel toppers, oatmeal and waffles were also available.  The oatmeal was fantastic, especially with a bit of brown sugar.  I also tried a bagel topper (half bagel with cheese and onions) and a tiny bit of smoked sausage.  As Nero Wolfe would say, “Satisfactory”.

This had to have been one of the more relaxing drives I’ve had in recent memory.  The roads were fairly empty and the road to Green Bay is mostly state highways so I passed through several small towns and even noted a restaurant called Tabbert’s in the minuscule town of Rosendale that I shall have to try during some future visit to the region.

Around 3pm, I arrived in Green Bay.  I drove around the downtown area for a bit before attending a 4pm service at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church.

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Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church

Archaic is the word that leaps to mind when it comes to describing this church.  The building is definitely old and feels more like a cathedral with its tiled floors and larger than life Stations gracing the walls.  This diocese had also instituted some changes due to the coronavirus.  No sign of peace and no Eucharist from the cup.  It made me wonder if my own diocese would be adopting these changes for the duration.

After services, I finally checked into Astor House, owned and operated by Tom and Linda Steber.  The Stebers purchased the property in September and are the third couple to continue the house’s legacy as an inn.  Both were very warm and welcoming and clearly relish their roles as innkeepers.  Linda’s father was a professional chef and she definitely has her own formidable culinary skills which I had an early sample of with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and cucumber water.

Astor House was built by businessman John Jacob Astor in 1888.  Astor, himself, would eventually be immortalized as one of the victims of the Titanic.  The house is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The inn contains five rooms, each themed with a different country.  Most of the rooms also contain a hot tub and a fireplace.

My room was the Hong Kong Retreat.  For pure value for the money, I don’t think the Astor House can be matched.  For the $115 a night price tag ($140 during busy season) I had the largest room I have enjoyed yet.  This room truly was a retreat with its pure white carpeting, soft queen bed with My Pillows (and you really do get a good night’s sleep with them), elegant fireplace and a 2 person hot tub set in the corner.

 

I was ready for some dinner so I headed to nearby De Pere, WI to try dinner at Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant.

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Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant

I had a little cultural fusion for dinner as I merged Greek and Cajun cuisine as I enjoyed a Gyro Wrap along with a cup of Nicky’s highly touted gumbo.  You’d have to go to Louisiana to have gumbo as authentic as this.  This is what gumbo was meant to be.  Carefully spiced and seasoned stew with chunks of andouille sausage and chicken lathered over rice.  It was heavenly.  The wrap was also quite tasty and the restaurant even serves Pepsi products which would please my father to no end.

After the meal, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long soak in the jacuzzi (and only soaking.  Bath salts are provided for the hot tub.)  Then I got a little fire going as the night was getting a little chilly.  Then I finished a novel, organized some photos, watched a movie and had an amazing night’s sleep.

I was ready to attack the day, but needed a little fuel to get me going.  Astor House provides a menu so you can decide what you want for breakfast or even if you want breakfast.  Believe me, you’ll want breakfast.  Astor House practices sustainability so all foods are bought or grown locally whenever possible and everything is made fresh.

 

Breakfast began with a fruit salad drizzled with an organic honey/citrus dressing which was the bomb and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used that expression in a sentence.  The main course was a light and fluffy French Toast Brulee with crumbled bacon bits with a side of the inn’s signature potatoes.  There was even a dessert course of lemon pound cake (which became my afternoon snack).  The sideboard also had some of Linda’s award-winning doughnut muffins which are a must taste along with some lemon & lime water.

Filled with food, I was ready to do a little exploring.  I went to the unincorporated community of Champion to visit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.  This is the only officially recognized Marian Apparition site in the United States.  In the late 1850s the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Belgian girl named Adele Brise and instructed her to make a general confession, offer communion for the conversion of sinners and to teach the young in this very wild area the catechism.  This Adele did until her death, walking everywhere within a 50 mile radius of the Shrine to teach.  As a servant of God, Adele would dress as a nun despite never actually being part of a formal order.

 

Miracles have reportedly taken place at the Shrine though none are officially recognized by the Catholic church.  Letters have come from many grateful visitors along with medical reports citing healings from various ills.  The most impressive event was the sparing of the Shrine from the devastating Peshtigo fire when a storm quenched the flames which occurred while those at the Shrine prayed a rosary asking for the Shrine to be spared.

I would think it would be next door to impossible not to feel God’s presence here no matter your faith.  It was a pretty moving and humbling experience to visit the grottoes and read Adele’s story and hear these tales of personal healing and conversion.

After my wanderings through the Shrine, I intended to visit the Badger State Brewing Company.  But I made a misstep.  I had hoped to get a tour of the brewery, but found they only conduct the tours on Saturday afternoons.  So I settled for a green beer before going on my merry little way.

As I left the brewery I saw the legendary Lambeau Field in the distance and decided to get a closer look.  For any readers who are not into sports, Green Bay, WI is the home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the National Football League’s first football teams.  Green Bay is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, cities to have a professional football team.  Unlike other teams, the Packers are actually owned by the city of Green Bay.

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Lambeau Field

After getting a photo and waving at the stadium for a friend of mine (she’s a huge Packers fan), I returned to the inn for a bit of writing and to finally enjoy the pound cake I couldn’t eat at breakfast.

Around 6pm, I decided it was time for dinner so I hit up a true Green Bay institution:  Al’s Hamburger.

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Great food lies inside this non-descript edifice.

Al’s has been going since 1934.  Inside the unassuming white brick edifice is a step back in time to the 1950s.  It’s a small diner with booths and classic tools and everything is a la carte.  It’s also cash only, but there is an ATM on the premises.  I had a deluxe (1/2 pound patty with bacon, lettuce and mayo) along with some fries.  The food is served on a tin tray and the burgers are nice and juicy.

With dinner out of the way, I took a walk around the Astor neighborhood.  This is a historic neighborhood and there are some impressive old money houses in the area.  I imagined what some of these homes might look like during the Christmas season, but a glance around told me how bitter the winter could be in the area.  Green Bay clearly had plenty of the white stuff this winter as large amounts of snow are still prevalent.

I actually had a pretty quiet evening.  Reading, writing and relaxing.  About 10pm I called it a night.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a “mushroom & swiss burger” quiche along with the signature potatoes.  Absolutely exquisite!  For dessert, I had an original creation from Linda.  An English scone pudding with a citrus whipped cream topping.  I was glad I had opted out of the opening course of berries and cream because I had just enough room to enjoy this sweet treat.

This has been one of my more enjoyable B & B outings and Astor House has definitely entered my top tier of inns.  If you want some fresh, homemade cooking, if you want some excellent hospitaliy, if you want some fun activities (especially during summer tourist and football seasons), then make a visit to Green Bay and book a room at Astor House.  It’s a dandy little oasis.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Bit of German Americana: Bingham Hall & New Ulm, MN

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Bingham Hall

Today the road has brought me to New Ulm, MN.

Truly this has been one of my most enjoyable trips.  The primary reason for this is that New Ulm is the home of my second oldest friend, Lee Harrington, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and a visit with him was my top reason for coming to visit this pleasant little hamlet.

I got an early start for this journey, leaving at 6:30am.  Omaha had experienced a bit of a dusting the previous night so I slowly drove through the metro area.  I was surprised at how many cars were actually out on the road on a frosty Saturday morning, but once I hit I-29, I pretty much had the road to myself and the roads cleared up remarkably.

It was a real pleasure to have a whole new route to drive as I enjoyed the countryside and listened to some tunes.  I made a brief stop in Whiting, IA for some gas and noted a quaint little café that I may have to visit at a future time, but gasoline is quite expensive in this little town.  I paid nearly $2.30 a gallon to fuel up my car, yet if I’d been able to last another 30-40 miles I could have paid $1.90 a gallon.  Ah, well, what can one do?

I was actually on the interstate for only a short period of time as the route is mostly highways.  Surprisingly, I did not pass through many small towns though I did pass through a couple and the cold weather had me thinking of what they might look like at Christmas.

Shortly before noon, I reached the German town of New Ulm, the polka capital of America.  Its Germanic history was readily apparent as a large sign bid me “Wilkommen” as I entered the town.  New Ulm is a pretty easy town to navigate as everything seems built around its main street of Broadway and I’ve learned that there is a lot to do in the area with breweries, Renaissance faires, and music festivals.

I made my way to Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream where I met my old friend Lee and his daughter, Caitie, and her boyfriend, Joe.  It was as if no time had passed as Lee greeted me with a hug and paid the tab for lunch (thanks, btw).

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Happy Joe’s Pizza and Ice Cream

Happy Joe’s serves a smorgasboard luncheon and it is a pretty good spread.  They have a decent salad bar and serve a good set of hot entrees including a mean piece of fried chicken and their pizza wasn’t too bad as I sampled slices of pepperoni, chicken, bacon, and ranch, and taco.  I spent about an hour and a half conversing with Lee and his family (truthfully, the two of us did most of the yakking) where we caught up on things and shared a lot of old stories about some of the adventures and wacky hijinks we experienced in our childhood and teen years.  Tears were streaming down my face by the end of the visit as I was laughing so hard.

Sadly, it did have to come to an end, but I look forward to another visit in the future where more stories can be shared over a round of HeroQuest (a fantasy role-playing game we played as teens).

From Happy Joe’s, I made my way to the August Schell Brewery.  The brewery is the biggest in Minnesota and the second oldest family owned brewery in the country.  The business has been in the family for five generations and is heading into a sixth one which is highly unusual as most family run businesses only last into the third generation.

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Schell’s Brewery

For a brewery that does such big business, Schell’s is actually quite small.  Only several buildings are on the property which includes one which holds a mini-museum, gift shop, and tasting room; the actual plant; the former boardinghouse, now office for the company’s president, Theodore Marti; and the old family mansion which is now used for events as the current family lives elsewhere.

I highly recommend a tour as it only costs $5 and includes a free tasting session at the end.  At the end, adult tour visitors get to sample at least six different kinds of beer (the kiddos get Schell’s 1919 root beer) and then get a free 12 oz serving of whatever beer they liked the best.

While guests were encouraged to sample 2 oz servings, I limited it to just sips as I still had to drive and I’m a borderline teetotaler anyway.  However, of the samples, I especially enjoyed a seasonal beer called Goosetown which was honestly the second best tasting beer I have ever had.  Had I not had to be on my way, I would have taken a 12 oz glass of that.  I did, however, have a glass of the root beer which was quite tasty.

From the brewery I headed off to Loretto Park to walk The Way of The Cross.  The Way of the Cross are walking Stations of the Cross (a Catholic meditation going through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection) and can be found all over the country.  Unfortunately, I’m guessing it, too, must be seasonal as the way was covered in snow and the stations had no statues.  I will have to file that away for another visit.

I killed a little bit of time at the library before I headed over to Bingham Hall, owned and operated by Shannon McKeeth, to check in.

Bingham Hall is a fine old-fashioned inn.  I was greeted at the door by Shannon’s husband, Todd, who ran my card and led me to the Hemle.

Quiet elegance is the best way to describe this room.  The walls are painted cranberry which had a remarkable calming effect.  The centerpiece of the room is its canopy queen bed and memory foam topper.  The room also boasts a uber comfortable easy chair with massage pad, gas fireplace, and a 42 inch cable TV with accesses to over 2,000 free movies.  The bathroom contains an ergonomic one person Jacuzzi bath.

Once I got organized I let the massage pad give me a rubdown before resting on the bed until it was time for church.

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Church of St Mary

Today I attended services at The Church of St Mary and it was quite convenient as it was literally across the street from the inn.  I found the service quite enjoyable as Father was quite earnest in the faith.  Afterwards, I returned to the inn as the temperature was plunging into the sub-zero temps.

I got a fire going, posted some pictures, and took advantage of the film library to watch Play Misty for Me.  The film was Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut and though it had a few pacing issues, I rather liked it as it featured a strong, somewhat un-Eastwood performance as he plays a not entirely likable DJ and an especially creepy performance from Jessica Walter who played his deranged stalker.

The day’s travel and escapades began to catch up with me so I drew a bath where I soaked for a while, shaved, and just enjoyed the jetted water.  I attempted to start a new novel about Blight County sheriff, Bo Tully, but found my lights going out, so I called it a night.

Memory foam is the best.  I slept straight through to dawn.  I took it easy in the morning before heading down to breakfast.

Breakfast was toast, fruit (honeydew, orange, and pineapple), cheese & mushroom quiche, seasoned potatoes, and ham with a glass of orange juice.  I also had a great conversation with Todd and Shannon who are quite proud of their little town and all of its history and things to do.

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Orange juice, ham, fruit, cheese & mushroom quiche, and toast.

I had to cut things a bit short as there is a threat of heavy snowfall over the area and there is a polar vortex blasting the region with sub-zero temps.  But stop in New Ulm if you have a chance.  Bingham Hall is a cozy, comfortable inn of understated elegance and there’s plenty to do in this little German town especially after winter when the town’s activities really get going.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Superstar Soars

From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.  This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography.  Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end.  It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance.  Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen.  Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.

This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal.  Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights.  Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas.   His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night.  Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame.  Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.

Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view.  Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher.  Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.

Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own.  Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.

John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb.  His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud.  Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person.  Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.

Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle.  Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”.  Both moments had me searching for a tissue.

Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene.  Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?”  Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.

Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate.  Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”.  Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.

A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre.  As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success.  Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 4 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.