Isolated Oasis: Echo Canyon & Sulphur, OK

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The mansion at Echo Canyon Spa Resort

Today the road has brought me to Sulphur, OK.

With the tiniest starts of a return to normalcy, I began to wonder if it were possible to get away from it all.  And I realized that it was a possibility, provided I got away from it all.

One perk of my particular calling is that the inns I visit tend to be in small towns, thus making social distancing considerably easier.  So a small town in a relatively unaffected county would make a visit possible, though it would have to be a special inn as I took it for granted that normal goings-on would either still be curtailed if not outright on hiatus.

I found such an inn in the form of Echo Canyon Spa Resort owned and operated by Joe and Carol Van Horn.

But, before we get to the inn, let’s look at the first part of the journey.

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Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Emporia, KS

To break up the long drive, I journeyed to the town of Emporia, KS where I made the inaugural use of my IHG membership with a reservation at a Holiday Inn Express and Suites.  For an extra $10, I opted to go ahead and get a suite for maximum relaxation and comfort.  Before heading to my room, I did wander around the hotel to see how the pandemic had affected it.  Notably, the exercise room and swimming pool were closed, but the hotel did still promise breakfast in the morning.

I headed up to my room and either the hotel is new or the rooms have been remodeled because this suite looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line.

The idea of a hotel suite seems to be rapidly changing.  When I think suite, I think a living room and a bedroom, but the modern hotel suite seems to be a very big room with a hideaway bed.  Not that it wasn’t comfortable, I just like the homeyness of a traditional suite.

I did need a little something to eat so I decided to give Braum’s a try.  This restaurant chain is prevalent in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas and is known for its ice cream, burgers, and fresh market.  I tried a pepper jack and jalapeno burger and decided to indulge in a vanilla shake.  Unlike other fast food chains, a shake can be had at Braum’s instead of a beverage for no additional charge on most of their meals.

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Braum’s

I brought my dinner back to my room and was quite pleased by the shake and crinkle cut fries.  The burger wasn’t too bad either.  As it was already late, I did my nighttime rituals and got a good night’s sleep in the king sized bed.

I arose in the morning, caught a bath, and then went down to see what the hotel offered for breakfast.

I was somewhat disappointed, but not entirely surprised by the limited selection.  No hot items were available, though milk, juice, cereal, coffee, and pastries were available.  I grabbed a glass of juice and took some milk and Apple Jacks back to my room for a light breakfast.

At 10am, I was back on the road.  The drive was pretty smooth and even the normally dull drive of the Kansas Turnpike wasn’t so bad due to construction adding some color and the addition of a few Dunkin Donuts that broke up the monotony of McDonald’s and Valeros.

Around 2pm, I arrived in the tiny town of Sulphur.  A brief drive through the Chickasaw National Rec Area brought me to the gate of Echo Canyon, winner of several hospitality awards and voted the best inn in Oklahoma by MSN in 2015.

As this is a private, secluded property, you have to call for the gate code in order to be admitted, but you are admitted into a marvelous oasis.

A visit to this private resort all but guarantees that you won’t have to leave the property unless you REALLY want to as the property not only contains an inn, but a spa in the form of the Aloha Spa, a swimming pool, bar, gift shop, and a five star gourmet restaurant called Baron of Beef.

Unlike most B & Bs, Echo Canyon maintains a regular staff and one of the staff gave me a brief tour of the property before leading me to the mansion and the Chardonnay Chalet which would be my base of operations for the next few days.

Every room at Echo Canyon bursts with luxury as each contains a queen or king sized bed along with a fireplace, JASON jacuzzi chromotherapy tub, and a large screen TV with over 50 movie channels available.  I marveled at the quality of the room before getting situated and spending a few minutes looking out at the vista from my private balcony.

Once settled, I wandered around the property and got a look of the inn’s private orchard and garden.  The inn is known for its peaches which it uses in its signature peach hibiscus juice which was a cornucopia of flavor.

I puttered around the inn and room until 6:45 when I headed to Baron of Beef for dinner.

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Baron of Beef

Come hungry if you choose to have dinner because it is a feast.  The meal began with garlic bread with a homemade basil pesto sauce.  The bread was warm and chewy and I actually accepted an offer of a second piece because it was so good.  The first course was a house salad with fresh vegetables and greens and what I believe was a house Italian.  The main course was a triple entrée of a 10 oz beef fillet with smaller servings of Roasted New England duck breast marinated in plum sauce and an Alaskan halibut with a cream sauce.  For side courses, there was a twice baked potato with green beans.

I can’t remember the last time I had a meal this wonderful. The beef was cooked just right.  The duck didn’t have a trace of gaminess.  Be certain to slice it thin if you have it as it brings out the best flavor.  The halibut was right on the mark.  The potato was a work of art and the green beans were fresh and crisp.  I was stuffed to the gills before the end and I had to take my dessert course of chocolate truffle cake with me to be enjoyed as a bedtime snack.

Back in my room, I gave the jacuzzi tub a spin.  The water is from mineral springs located on the property and reportedly have a very therapeutic effect on the body.  I added some bath salts and shower gel to the tub and enjoyed a leisurely soak before sinking into the deep, cushy mattress of my queen sized 4 poster bed.

I woke up slowly and leisurely the next morning where I watched a little TV before heading back to the manor for breakfast.  I poured a glass of orange juice as I took a corner seat by a window.  Breakfast is a two course meal consisting of a first plate and a main course and each has a few options to choose from.  I chose the banana cinnamon coffee cake with fruit for my first plate and a tomato and spinach frittata with honey sausage, fried potatoes, and a biscuit with gravy for my main course.  Another fine meal and I was ready to. . .not really do a whole lot this day.

I did take a drive through the Chickasaw National Rec Area where I got a look at Little Niagara Falls.  I also took a drive over to Turner Falls Park in the hopes of seeing the namesake falls, but a very large line of cars was heading into the park and I decided it would be too difficult to social distance so I headed back to the inn where I read, watched TV, and caught a nap.

I decided to head off property for dinner and visited Fat Bully’s By the Lake which claims to have the best burger in Oklahoma.  After tasting it, I’m willing to support that claim.

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Fat B

Fat Bully’s has the look and feel of a hole in the wall which usually serves the best food.  It also boasts itself as a motorcycle themed restaurant which is bolstered by the pictures of bikers and motorcycles on the table and the restaurant seems to be popular with bikers due to the plethora of motorcycles I saw in the parking lot.

I had the Fat Bully which is an old-fashioned hamburger with the works plus bacon.  This was a perfect hamburger.  So juicy and tasty.  The vegetables tasted like they were just pulled from the ground.  And the fries were hot and perfect.  After a refreshing meal, I took a drive to Veterans Lake where I gazed at the water for a bit before heading back to Echo Canyon to relax for the evening.

The next morning I performed my ablutions, then headed to breakfast which was a repeat of yesterday’s menu, though I opted for the oat waffle for my first plate.

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Oat Waffle

I am going to make it a point to revisit this place after things return fully to normal in order to enjoy the Aloha Spa and visit the local sites.  But even with social distancing, Echo Canyon is a place where one can truly get away from it all and enjoy a taste of supreme luxury.  So when you feel ready to travel again, I encourage a visit to this isolated oasis.

Until the next time. . .stay safe and healthy. . .and happy travels.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  When researching inns, there are many websites from which to choose.  Personally, I use the bed and breakfast association of each state and I always make certain to visit the website of each inn when available.  And when I book, I always book directly with the inn.  While third party sites can be an aid, they don’t always have reliable information as Carol shared with me a story of a third party site that erroneously listed Echo Canyon as booked for months on end when reservations were actually plentiful.  So remember, when you want to book a B & B, always book direct.

I’ll Take the High Road, Day 3: Sailing on the Bonny, Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond With a Dram of Whiskey and a Stirling Castle Visit

It was time for the first day of adventures in Scotland so some proper fueling would be required to make it through the day.

I headed to the Brisket where a buffet breakfast was laid out with a variety of breads, meats, juices, cereals, and vegetables.  I toasted some wheat bread, grabbed some Scottish bacon (taken from the back of the pig like Irish bacon so its similar to ham), a slice of Swiss cheese, a bit of haggis, and glasses of orange and lime juice.  I turned the bacon, cheese, and bread into a sandwich while I conversed with fellow tour members, Dale, Sandy, and Judith.

The breakfast hit the spot and I must say that I rather enjoyed the haggis.  It has a sharp bite to it and tastes a tiny bit like sausage.  The lime juice was actually quite refreshing and I was ready for the day.

We formally met our tour guide, Marge, and our driver, David.  This group was right on the ball as we were all on the bus before our departure time and left promptly at 8am.

Our first stop was the village of Luss where we would sail on Loch Lomond, courtesy of the Lomond Princess.

It was a cool and overcast day.  Fog was hanging over the hills giving them an ethereal look as we took a relaxing sail on the Loch.  Our captain gave us some information about some of the islands we passed and even gave us a glimpse of Loch Lomond Golf Club, an exclusive club whose members include George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Michael Douglas.  Membership fees are a jaw dropping 135,000 pounds a year and that doesn’t include green fees.

Our cruise ended at the village of Balmahal and we took a pleasant stroll back to the bus and I did note a few B &Bs on the walk.

From there, it was off to Glengoyne to learn about the fine art of distilling whiskey.

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Glengoyne Distillery

Glengoyne has been distilling whiskey officially since 1833 (unofficially for a few generations before that).  It’s a pretty exclusive brand as it’s sold directly through the distillery and in specialty shops.  We had a bit of time before our tour so our guides led us to the waterfall that served as the original water source for the whiskey.  Nowadays the water from the fall is used soley for the cooling process.

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At 11:40am we were brought it for a dram of 12 year old whiskey and it was potent.  I felt a slight buzz come on as I sipped it during a brief film on Glengoyne’s history.  Upon the completion of the film, our tour guide, Matthew, led us through the distillery.

I was surprised to discover that making whiskey is actually simple.  The craft lies in how the process is applied.  Glengoyne’s success is due to heating the liquor with hot air and using Spanish casks to develop the various types of whiskey they sell.

Fun fact:  Way up on the hill across the road from the distillery is the home of Robbie Coltrane, best known for playing Hagrid in the “Harry Potter” films.  He is a fan of Glengoyne whiskey and occasionally visits the distillery.

After the tour, we were off to visit Stirling Castle, the home of many Scottish rulers over the centuries as well as the monument that overlooks the legendary Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

We were left to our own devices for a few hours so I opted to explore the castle for myself as opposed to taking a guided tour.

It was an educational period as I learned about the history of Scotland’s rulers and the linked history of the Stewarts (or Stuarts) and the Tudors.  I also visited the Great Hall, chapel, great kitchens, and looked at the lovely Royal Garden.  The most interesting thing I learned was how meals were sometimes eaten.  A feast was given to the king and queen who would eat their fill, then whatever was left over was given to the next most powerful person in the castle and so on with table scraps going to the lowest rung on the ladder.

We wrapped things up at 4pm and headed back to Glasgow.  Jet lag was wearing me out and I didn’t have the juice to eat at a regular restaurant.  After resting for an hour, I walked down to the nearby McDonald’s and picked up a French Stack meal for take away.

Normally this sandwich is exclusive to France, but McDonald’s is currently doing an international burger promotion where regional burgers are being featured in other restaurants worldwide.  The French Stack was two patties, lettuce, bacon, onions, Swiss cheese and sauce on French garlic buns.  Quite tasty.

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French Stack from McDonald’s

From there I was left to a quiet night of organizing photos and writing and getting my luggage ready for an early departure on Saturday.

 

 

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 5: An Island of Beauty and a Secluded Village

I awoke to another one of the mornings that makes you want to fall to your knees and praise God for being alive.  Another beautiful sunrise.  Another breakfast buffet.  Into the bus and off at 7:45am.

Our road took us back through Italy today.  Specifically the town of Stresa where we stopped on the bank of Lake Maggiore (it literally means The Biggest One).

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At last we would be taking another formal tour as we were visiting the island of Isola Bella (Beautiful Island) where Borromeo Palace is located.

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Borromeo Palace

Borromeo Palace is a palace, but it is not owned by a royal family.  Though the patriarch does hold the title of prince, it is strictly an honorary one obtained through wealth and power.

The place is a work of art and the family still lives in the palace.  I marveled at the treasures secreted within including a bed used by Napoleon Bonaparte who once resided at the palace, grotto rooms, a piece of art made with an estimated 35,000 pieces of glass, and a tapestry room where optical illusions of depth and movement of water were stitched into the fabric.

After the tour, you can tour the palace gardens and also find a variety of food and goods kiosks.  To break up some of my coins and since I was in Italy, I decided to snack on a slice of authentic Italian pizza.  It was pretty good.  The crust was similar to a pan crust, but was light and didn’t weigh on the stomach.

As I ate, a cute spaniel wandered over to me and politely sat down, clearly wanting a bite off my plate.  I looked around for an owner, but didn’t see anyone in sight despite the fact that the dog had a collar.  Those puppy dog eyes melted my heart and I gave the pooch a bit of my crust.  Then I heard someone calling for the dog and waving her finger in a “no no” motion at me, indicating that I shouldn’t feed the dog.

The dog wandered off and I trashed my plate and went to wait for the boat to return to the mainland.

When our group reboarded, we were off again to the city of Zermatt, but stopped briefly at the Simplon Pass.

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The pass is 3,000 feet above sea level and a biting wind ripped through us as we took pictures of the place.  Swiss soldiers were running training exercises for new recruits and the explosion of cannons echoed throughout the pass.

After our photo break, it was back on the road.  Zermatt is an interesting city as it is a secluded mountain village located 6,000 feet above sea level.  One also has to stop in the city of Tasch to take a train to the village as combustion engines are not allowed there.  Any motorized vehicle is electric.

Zermatt is a very quaint rustic village that feels like one is stepping back in time.  In spite of that feeling the city does boast modern conveniences such as grocery stores, outlet stores, restaurants, grand hotels, and even a McDonald’s.

We checked into the Hotel Pollux where the rooms have actual keys instead of cars.  I opened the door to my room and saw a plush king bed awaiting me.  I smiled as I plugged my camera in for a charge and explored the village.

It was very peaceful up here and I watched children having races at an outdoor rec center and I stopped at Stefanie’s Crepiere to snack on an oh so hot and gooey sugar cinnamon crepe.

We were on our own for dinner tonight though Brane had made arrangements with the restaurant at the nearby Hotel Derby for anyone who was interested.  If we said we were with Globus we would only be charged 19 CHF for the meal plus costs for drinks.  The restaurant had a wide variety of choices so I made use of the offer and enjoyed a delicious mozzarella and tomato risotto and a salad.

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Tomorrow we get to sleep in a bit, but some of us still have to be in the lobby by 8:20 as we will be braving a climb up Kleine Matterhorn.

Stay tuned. . .

The Great Swiss Outing, Day 4: Well, I’m Sailing

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We got to sleep in an extra 15 minutes today.  But waking up to this beautiful sight made it all worthwhile.  Not a cloud was in the sky and it looked like it was going to be a perfect day.

I organized my luggage before heading down to breakfast.  It was a zoo!  I made a small plate of ham, bacon, hash browns, cheese, and orange juice before finding a seat at the front of the restaurant.  I ate quickly, then returned to my room for my carry-on bag and heading for the bus.

Once more, we were all on early and began our trek down the mountain.  Now I’ve ridden on mountains before, but nothing had switchbacks like this behemoth.  The lower we got, the higher the temperature rose.  Today’s journey would take us to Lugano, but we would have to pass through the tip of Italy to make it.

We took a small break at a bakery/cafe in Italy where people loaded up on baked goodies and snapped a few pictures of the vista.  We continued on our way until reaching the legendary Lake Como when another photo break was taken.

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From there we made our way to Lugano where we stopped to take an extra long lunch break of nearly three hours which would allow us to eat, shop, and explore.

I decided to grab a bite to eat at a nearby McDonald’s to find out what the local fast food palate was like.  I opted for a Big Tasty meal.  The Big Tasty is apparently McDonald’s response to Burger King’s Whopper.  The name was apt as it was quite tasty and used a tangy Swiss cheese sauce that really added some punch to the sandwich.  For further proof of how expensive Switzerland is, I paid 14.90 CHF or roughly $15 American.

As I lunched, I noticed quite a bit of school aged kids in the restaurant and wondered if they got a long lunch break from school.  As Brane told me, kids in Switzerland start school at either 7, 7:30. or 8 in the morning and only go until about 1pm.

From there, I began exploring the city center marveling at the myriad shops.  Outside of a drug store, I bumped into fellow travelers, Bill and Bonnie, and joined them as they walked around the area.  We stopped at a Coop City (a popular department store/grocery store chain) where there was a gelato stand and I had a small cup of vanilla gelato with a chocolate topping.  Quite creamy and served as a good dessert.

On our ambulations, we found a large staircase that Val O’Brien nicknamed the Stairway to Forever.  I decided to run up and down the stairs.  All 267 of them.  But it was worth it for the view I had of Lake Lugano from the top of the stairs.

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At 2:45, our driver, Max, picked us up and drove us to our next hotel:  Hotel De La Paix.

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Hotel De La Paix

This was a swanky hotel and provided me with my biggest room so far.  Loads of room to stretch out and relax.  We would be leaving for a cruise on Lake Lugano followed by dinner at a grotto restaurant at 4:45, so I drew a hot bath where I had a soak and shave and dolled up in my set of dress clothes for the night.

The cruise was quite pleasant and relaxing and we got interesting tidbits of information on the city and islands.  Before I knew it we had arrived at Ristorante Rocabella.

Our host for the evening was Brian who provided us with a bit of comedy as our courses were served.  I sipped on white wine while I enjoyed a meal of prosciutto wrapped melon, veal chops and noodles, and teramisu.  Such an enjoyable night of food and conversation before we sailed back to the hotel for the night.

This night gave us the most free time we had experienced so far which allowed plenty of time for writing and photo posting.  But a good night’s sleep is needed as we have another early day and an earlier leaving time as we head for the city of Zermatt.

When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Day 3: Going Back to School & A Night at the Cabaret

A full night’s sleep did wonders and I was ready to attack a fresh, new day.  But, first, the inner man needed to be restored.

With one exception, all of our breakfasts were the same over in Ireland.  We always ate in the hotel dining room and enjoyed a breakfast buffet.  The food is pretty much the same as you’d find in America except their bacon is closer to ham, puddings (types of sausages) are available, tomatoes and mushrooms are big breakfast staples, a cereal called Wheatabix is common, porridge is common, and baked beans are often served in deference to British guests as that is a staple of an English breakfast menu.

After dining, we boarded our motorcoach and began a driving tour through Dublin.  Bill educated us on the history of the city, pointed out muse houses, directed our attention to the River Liffey which splits the town like Jekyll and Hyde (everything north of it is the bad side of town while the south is the good part of town).  He also pointed out a hotel owned by the group, U2.

We stopped off at St Patrick’s Cathedral where we spent a little time exploring the grounds and church.  Then it was back on the bus to our final stop over at Trinity College which educated luminaries such as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.

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The rest of the afternoon was ours to spend as we chose.  I decided to take a tour of the college.  Out tour guide was imminent graduate, Alex Gregory, who gave a rather eye opening view to life at Trinity.

For starters, undergraduate college education in the European Union is subsidized by the government which means the students pay no tuition, though Ireland does charge its students a student fee of 3,000 Euros a year.  Alex also showed us the dining hall where all students can eat lunch every day.  Supper is also served, but one has to be a scholar to get that.

Scholar is a designation given to students who score a minimum of 70 on the Scholars’ Exam which takes place each December.  It is an incredibly difficult comprehensive exam given in your major.  It’s a little easier for science and math students as those answers are objective.  As the arts are so subjective the last arts student to get a 70 was Samuel Beckett.  The perks for being a scholar are a dinner every night, a waiver of all fees, and the ability to live on campus for 5 years for free even if you have graduated.

The grounds of the college are immaculate and Alex told us that it is clipped and mowed twice a day every day.  As Ireland prides itself on its grounds, I imagine a good groundskeeper earns a pretty good living in Ireland.

When our tour ended, I visited the Samuel Beckett Theatre and then headed to the library to gaze on the Book of Kells.  It is actually 4 books (the 4 Gospels to be precise) and is the oldest, best preserved Bible in the world believed to have been written about 800 AD.  It is incredibly well preserved and only appears to be a few hundred years old.

I finished up my campus explorations and wandered down O’Connell Street which is a famed shopping district also known for its buskers (street performers).  As I walked down the street, I passed a McDonald’s and decided to stop in for a snack.  I had hoped to try their local sandwich, a Cajun Quarter Pounder, but they were no longer selling it.  I settled for a double cheeseburger and made my way to St Stephen’s Green.

St Stephen’s Green is the Central Park of Dublin and it is a gorgeous property.  The birds there also know no fear.  I could have jumped up and down and shouted, “BLBBBBLBBBB!!!!” and those birds wouldn’t have reacted.

I enjoyed a constitutional and then started hoofing it back to the hotel.  As I walked I made a few observations on Irish drivers and pedestrians.  The drivers seem to be a little hot tempered as I often heard honking horns and jaywalking is the national pastime.  Seriously.  Pedestrians often cross in the middle of a road and raise their arms and the drivers stop for them.

I got back to the hotel and puttered around until early evening as we boarded the motorcoach for our first optional excursion.

We drove to Taylors Three Rock, a famed cabaret restaurant.  This place is a complete sellout 364 days of the year.  The only day it doesn’t sell out is Christmas because it isn’t open that day.  They serve a fabulous meal and I enjoyed Atlantic salmon for my main dish.  The entertainment is also top notch as they use name Irish entertainers.  I chuckled to the jokes of Noel V. Ginnity, Ireland’s cleanest comedian, was enthralled by the harp playing and singing of Rebecca Murphy, swayed to the tunes of Rob Vickers, an Irish tenor who played Jean Valjean in the 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables at London’s West End, and thrilled to the footwork of their world champion Irish stepdancers.

It was a lovely evening that ended much too soon, but we needed to get back to the hotel as we needed our rest as we would travel to a new city the next day.

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 9-10: Take the Last Bullet Train to Hiroshima

Day 9

Our time in Kawaguchiko had come to an end and now it was time to do a bit of cross-country travel.  We would be traveling over 1,000 miles to visit Hiroshima and to do so we would need to take the Shinkansen, better known as the bullet train.

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The Shinkansen (bullet train)

The Shinkansen travels at speeds of 200 mph and its truly amazing to blur past buildings, people, and cars while traveling at a rate of over 3 miles a minute.  Before we boarded the bullet train I purchased a famed meal of Japan:  eki-ben (or the bento box).  Eki-ben is essentially a pre-packaged meal.  I picked up one with rice, chicken, pickles, dumplings, and some type of vegetable.  I was also amused by the Smurf-sized bottle of soy sauce for rice.  There was also a tiny packet of hot mustard and I mean HOT.  A little of that stuff went a long way.  I had a pinprick’s worth of the stuff and it cleared my sinuses.

The ride was comfy and fun as I watched the country fly by.  I had to time my photos very carefully so they wouldn’t become a blurry mess.  Amy had the most interesting travel partner as she was seated next to a Buddhist monk and they had a most engaging conversation.

About 4:30pm we arrived in Hiroshima.  We hopped a light rail and rode to the neighborhood where our next apartment would be located.

Our apartment in Hiroshima was well taken care of, but, man, was it tiny.  Supposedly it could sleep the original 6 who were to be part of our group, but getting the four of us in was a rather tight squeeze.  I found it difficult to believe that one person could live in this apartment for an extended period because there simply isn’t much room.

There wasn’t much on our minds except to explore the city a bit.  I was struck by the impressiveness of the city when most of the city had been wiped off the map nearly 70 years prior due to the dropping of the atomic bomb.  This was something we’d learn more about the next day when we visited the Peace Memorial.

Our group visited the main drag where we found a little toy and hobby shop that boasted a retro arcade on the second floor.  Now this was an arcade that suited me.  Pac-Man, Vs. Super Mario Bros., Rygar, Space Invaders:  these were games suited to my tastes.  I passed a bit of time playing Popeye while the rest of the group wandered about the store.

Food was the next thing on our minds so we found a Lotteria’s.  Lotteria’s is kind of an upscale burger joint.  I had a DX burger and fries which were OK.  I didn’t think the quality of the food matched the price.  From there it was more arcading, then back to the apartment for rest.

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I had washed my clothes in the apartment’s washing machine and left them to dry overnight.  With all the heat and humidity we’d been facing, I’d forgotten how good a fresh pair of clothes could feel as I dressed that morning.

We lounged around for most of the morning before getting some lunch at a nearby KFC.  I had a simple chicken sandwich with some Coloneling potatoes which wasn’t too bad.  After lunch, Mat led our little group to the Rihga Royal Hotel where he and Dave stayed 4 years prior.  It seemed quite luxurious and boasted an impressive staircase in the lobby.

After that we visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial which made for the most moving day on this journey.  I can’t properly express the feelings I had as I walked around the museum, but it was very eye-opening to learn about the dropping of the atomic bomb from the point of view of the victims.  The exhibits were quite powerful, sometimes even grisly, as we were educated about the effects and impact of the bomb.  Several people working at the museum were survivors of that tragic day and hearing their stories added a depth and texture that I will never forget.  It was a moment I was glad to have experienced.

At the end of this haunting experience, we hiked back to the main drag where we stopped at Mister Donut for a chewy treat and then gamed a bit more.  Then we returned to our apartment to drop up the prizes of the others and burned a couple of hours before heading out to dinner.

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Mister Donut

Hiroshima is famed for its okonomiyaki, but we didn’t get to eat any.  It was nearly 9pm when we ventured out and none of us knew that Hiroshima closed up early.  Most of the restaurants closed about 9pm so we were forced to visit a McDonald’s before returning to our apartment for the night.

Return to the Rising Sun, Days 5-6: Wasting Away Again in Harajukuville or Fuji Gets Flushed or It’s Godzilla!!!

Day 5

It was a bright sunny Sunday morning as I knew it would be since I was carrying my umbrella.  But that’s OK because it also doubles as a fine walking stick.

Being in Japan, I realized it was highly unlikely that I would be finding a church to attend, but Mat supplied an event to touch on my spiritual needs when we visited Meiji Shrine.

The place was pretty much the same as the last time we visited, but there was a bit of excitement as we got to witness not one, but two, weddings that were taking place at the shrine that Monday.  It was a pair of moving ceremonies and I was glad to be part of it.

Then we went to Harajuku which I ranked as the blah moment of the trip.  Harajuku is known for its underground culture and for shopping.  I freely admit that shopping bores me to tears.  When I do it, it is a surgical strike as I know exactly what I want and I get it.  I don’t have much desire for knick-knacks or souvenirs and books are out in Japan since I can’t read the language.  So I spent three hours staying in the shade while other members of the party went on a shopping spree.

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On the other hand, Harajuku is also noted for its crepes and Dave paid his “fee” for my booking all the travel for us.  Unfortunately, he accidentally ordered the wrong crepes as I wanted cinnamon apple and gelato and got bananas and cream.  In his defense, he did order the number listed by my crepes, but it was a popularity list and not the number for the crepes I wanted.  I also only ended up eating half of it as it slipped out of my hand while I was tearing the paper.  Fiddlesticks.

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Banana and cream crepes.

From there we went to Mat’s favorite ramen restaurant, Tonkatsu Ramen, which I had eaten at during my last visit to Japan.  The ramen was as good as ever, even though the restaurant goofed by giving me a mild broth instead of the hot and spicy one I wanted.  Well, them are the perils of dealing with a language barrier when ordering food.

After filling our stomachs, Mat led us to his favorite shrine in Akasa.  It was still as peaceful as the last time and we got to watch the monks build a shrine for a festival.

We enjoyed a brief stay before heading off to Akihibara where more shopping was done before we closed the evening at Lion Ginza, a bar and restaurant where we took time to get to know each other better over drinks and food.

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Lion Ginza

Another exhausting day had ended, but the next day was to be filled with frustrations.

Day 6

When it rains, it pours.  Or did I say that once already?

Believe me, the rain that met us that Monday morning blew every other rainfall that we’d experienced out of the water (no pun intended).  Rain fell in sheets and would let up only for a few minutes before intensifying again.

This was meant to be a day for us to rest and recuperate as we were set to tackle Mt Fuji on Tuesday.  Then Mat hit us with the bad news.  We would be forced to pull the plug on the climb up Mt Fuji.

The horrible rain we were suffering through was supposed to continue for the next two days which would have made a climb miserable and difficult (well, more difficult at any rate).  Even worse, the winds were gusting so much that those who oversee the climbs were not allowing people to climb on Monday and Tuesday was set to be a repeat of Monday’s weather.  Sigh.

The good news is that we will be going to Mt Fuji’s 5th station to look around, eat lunch, and view the mountain, but it’s disappointing to lose out on what was to be the centerpiece of the trip.  On the other hand, I have gotten very fit training for the climb.

The rain finally let up enough around noon for us to leave the apartment and do something as we were going stir crazy.  We attempted to try an escape room in Akasaka which claims to be open nearly every day.  Monday was apparently not one of those days as the place was shut tight.  I suspect they are only open when people actually arrange for the tickets as neither the business nor its Facebook page list operating hours.

We hiked another 15 minutes to the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in Europe and Asia.  We stopped for a quick lunch at McDonald’s where I had a Sudden Victory Chicken sandwich and it was delish.  We ended up going up to the observation desk even though the low clouds made it impossible to see very far.  But I did have a small dish of ice cream for dessert and there were a few new exhibits to look at.

From the Skytree we returned to Shinjuku to catch Shin (New) Godzilla or Godzilla:  Resurgence (as it will be known in America) at Toho Cinemas.  I don’t normally watch movies on vacation, but watching a Godzilla film in Japan should be a requirement.  And you don’t need to understand the language to enjoy a Godzilla flick.  Godzilla shows up and chaos reigns.  It’s a formula that’s worked for 31 films.

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Dave ordered the Mega bucket of popcorn. It could and did feed 5 people.

We hit the arcades for a brief spell after the movie before returning to the apartment to pack up our stuff for the next phase of our journey.

 

Return to the Rising Sun, Day 4: Going Home Again. . .Well, Sort of

When it rains, it pours.

And I mean pours.  I awoke at about 4:15am and rain was just coming down in buckets over Shinagawa.  Still, there was something peaceful about listening to the rain pelt the ground as I went to the kitchen to post pictures and write yesterday’s article.

We ended up being pinned inside the apartment until nearly noon when the rain finally let up and cleared.  We decided to make our way to Ikebukuro which had been our base of operations for the Tokyo Maximum tour four years ago.  The place had changed a bit in the intervening four years.  A few new businesses had sprouted and the McDonald’s where we had eaten a few meals had been remodeled.

The first thing we tried was to relocate the Mountain Dew machine for Dave.  Alas, our efforts were for naught as the machine was no longer there.  Instead we walked to the ramen joint that always has a line out the door to find that there was a line out the door.

We debated waiting, but as it was already 1pm, we opted to have okonomiyaki instead.  I settled for a regular okonomiyaki and water while most of the other chose sets which included rice and cabbage salad.  We had a leisurely lunch and then left to start walking around the district.

The sky had clouded up during lunch and a few sprinkles began to fall.  With the sunshine, I had left my umbrella at the apartment.  Dave asked me if I were going to buy a new one, but I declined as a few sprinkles were not going to bother me.  Mother Nature proceeded to call my bluff as the rain began to intensify.  I ran into a nearby 7-11 to purchase yet another umbrella, but Andrew bought one big enough for us to share and we shuffled around the district to Tokyu Hands.

Tokyu Hands is a department store and I took a brief glance around the store before heading outside to wait and did some people watching.  Saturday was a good day to get an idea of the massive population size of the city as the streets were jam packed with people.

Eventually our group came together and began making our way to Sunshine City, though we had a brief stopover at Super Potato, a vintage video game store.  This time Mat’s GPS did not fail as we reached Sunshine City in record time.

Most of the group opted to go to a Pokemon store, but as I had no interest, I watched a rather interesting Hawaiian dance demonstration going on at the bottom of the mall.

When the rest of the group came out of Pokemon, we decided to grab some dinner at Café Miami Garden known for pasta and pizza.  I split a pepperoni pizza with Andrew who kindly picked up the tab.

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After dinner, we spent the rest of the evening at the arcade.  I found a machine that had Elevator Action and played a few rounds on it before teaming up with Mat to do some major league damage on Luigi’s Mansion.

It had been a long day and we returned to the apartment for another night of rest.

Cotton Patch Redux, Day 2: Whispering Pines is a Diner’s Delight

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The Whispering Pines

After a pleasant day at the Woodward I found myself back on the road and heading to Norman, OK.

The one issue with driving through Kansas is that there is precious little scenery.  Adding to that issue is one must use the Kansas Turnpike which has to be one of the most mind-numbing drives one can take.  I had to take the turnpike on a trip to Texas several years ago and I seem to recall wondering if the turnpike had been sponsored by Amoco and McDonald’s as those were the only places one would see at rest areas along the way.

Well, some changes have been made in the ensuing years as Amoco seems to have been pushed out in favor of Valero and there was a Hardee’s or two to break up the McDonald’s.  Sadly, that was the limit of the scenery for the drive.

A day’s worth of driving brought me to Norman, OK where once again Mapquest had failed me utterly.  From the pictures I had seen for my next inn, I suspected it was outside the city, but the directions planted me right in the middle of downtown Norman.  Luckily, I found the Norman Public Library where Courtney graciously Googled Mapped better directions that took me to my next inn, the Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast.

Whispering Pines, owned and operated by Rany and Thavory Kchao, is rather secluded as it is located a bit out of town in the country.  That seclusion was rather good for my writing sensibilities due to the peace and quiet.  The property consists of the main house which holds several rooms and several luxury cottages located on various parts of the land.

Whispering Pines is unusual as it lacks many of the features of interest that I would expect to find at B & Bs.  I’m rather fond of exploring the houses as I enjoy the various ornate rooms and history.  Whispering Pines has more of the feel of a high class hotel as the lower floor consists of a check-in area and a dining room which serves as the location of Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant.

After checking in, I was led to the English Hunt Room which was a very comfortable room.  The centerpiece of the room was a luxurious king bed.  The room also has a small, but elegant bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, and a private breakfast nook.

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The English Hunt Room

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Breakfast nook

What Whispering Pines lacks in terms of the traditional B & B experience, it more than makes up for in its magnificent perks.  As I stated earlier, the inn’s dining room serves as the eating area for Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant.  The reservations only restaurant is actually the primary focus of Whispering Pines as it is open to both guests and non-guests.

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Whispering Pines’ gourmet restaurant

If you find yourself in the area, make a reservation to eat here as the cuisine of French continental chefs, Chinda and Rany Kchao is a glorious experience.  I was seated by the fireplace where I was brought a basket of freshly baked rolls which were served with a homemade butter which had honey and dill mixed into it.  The taste was heavenly.

My meal opened with a Hungarian mushroom soup with Hungarian paprika.  The rich and thick orange broth had a lovely hint of spice and was deliciously creamy.

Between the soup and main course I was served a lemon-lime sorbet which was a dandy little palate cleanser.  For the main course I had an herb-potato encrusted salmon filet served with asparagus, zucchini, and scalloped potatoes.  The chef also included a slightly toasted potato which was carved into the shape of a rosebud.  It was both artful and tasty.

The salmon was cooked perfectly and served with a splendid champagne cream sauce.  The herb-potato added just the right bit of crunch and flavor.  The vegetables were fresh and crispy and the scalloped potatoes were wonderful.

After I finished the superb meal, I returned to my room where I enjoyed a nice long Jacuzzi bath.  I then grabbed a soda from the complimentary treats cabinet on the first floor and sipped Coca-Cola while continuing my latest Nero Wolfe novel until I fell into slumber.

Another perk of the inn is that each room has a breakfast nook and breakfast is served directly to your room.  A menu of choices is available in each room and you write your order down and place it in a box at the end of the first hallway with your preferred breakfast time.

At 9am sharp, my breakfast was delivered.  I had opted for a glass of orange juice with an omelet stuffed with cheese, onions, mushrooms, ham, and green peppers.  On the side was a serving of fried potatoes, mixed fruit, and a toasted roll.  Normally I like to provide a picture of the fine meals provided by B & Bs, but as I sit here and write, I have just realized that I enjoyed that fantastic repast without snapping a photo.

But take my word, it was quite wonderful and it looked good, too.  The fried potatoes had just the right blend of crunch, salt, and pepper.  The omelet was a taster’s delight.  The roll was made just so and the fruit was nice and fresh.

Now I’m just going to pack and kill a little time before beginning the final leg of my journey to Arlington, TX.  And, yes, I used Google Maps to refigure my route out of Norman.

 

The Arizona Chronicles, Vol. 4, Days 2-3: In the House of the Rising Dumb & A Day of Fighting Fun

Day 2

My first sensations were a gust of cool air blowing gently upon me.  My eyelids fluttered as my vision swam back into focus.

“Where am I?” I wondered.

I raised myself with my elbows, noting that a blanket had been placed over me.  I gazed around the room, trying to get my bearings.  The room had a familiar feel to it, but it had stuff.  Lots of stuff.  It almost looked like an office.  I tried to stand, but my legs felt wobbly.  I staggered to the door and leaned against the frame, trying to summon up some strength.  I heard grunts coming from beyond the door.  Feebly, I opened the door and used the wall to drag myself to the living room and then I saw. . .him.

It was Tall Square and he was doing push-ups.  I tried to call his name, but it came out like a choked gurgle and I fell to my knees.  Tall Square heard my squeaks and helped lay me on the couch.

Tall Square doing his morning workout.

Tall Square doing his morning workout.

“He’s awake,” said Tall Square.

Entering from the dining room was Arizona Mat.

“Ah!  My Boswell.  You don’t seem to have suffered too much from the curare.”

A surge of energy rushed through my body as my anger flared up.  I leapt upon Arizona Mat and attempted to give him a larynx massage until Tall Square pulled me off.

“Well, that’s a fine hello,” said Arizona Mat, rubbing his throat.

“Curare is a deadly poison, you fool!” I shouted.

“Not in the hands of trained experts,” countered Arizona Mat.

“Why would you drug me?  How did you even know I was coming to town?”

“Tall Square has been tailing you for months.”

“Weren’t the two of you enemies?”

“We had our differences, I admit,” said Arizona Mat.

“And what’s with this place?  You always lived kind of simply.  There’s stuff here now.  And there’s food in the fridge.”

“The difference is that I have made the greatest discovery of all.  I have found true love.”

“True love?”

“True love,” said Arizona Mat.  “Thanks to that discovery, I have become a kindler, gentler, humbler explorer.  I have made amends with Tall Square who is my sidekick once again.”

“I have a business meeting to get to,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Tall Square.  “I found the business card of your SyFy rep and posed as your administrative assistant.  I told him you were suffering from the Swahilian Flu and that you needed to reschedule.”

I sighed and accepted the inevitable.  “So who’s your new love?”

“Dr. Carolyn Langlois.  Reknowned Alzheimer’s Disease researcher.”

“Mm hmm.  And where is she?”

“Nicaragua.”

“I see.  And do you have a photo?”

“Not at the present.”

“I see.”

I decided to be gracious since I was familiar with Arizona Mat’s tendency to skew reality and not broach the matter of his “girlfriend”.

Being weakened from the curare, I spent the day resting up.  I played a few rounds of Garfield with Tall Square and Arizona Mat with Tall Square taking 2 games and I took one.  To Arizona Mat’s credit, though his teeth ground a bit, he managed to keep his ego in check.  I suspected this evened things up a bit between after their handshake battles.

Arizona Mat took Tall Square and I to Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles for lunch.  It’s a very nice place and serves some excellent soul food.  They serve the beverages in mason jars and serve some of the best catfish beignets I’ve ever tasted.  Arizona Mat also ordered some stupid fries which are fries smothered with cheese, gravy, and chicken.  Arizona Mat and Tall Square each ate Betty’s Boob (a waffle and chicken breast) while I had some chicken tenders.

I caught a quick nap in the afternoon and then Arizona Mat took Tall Square and myself to Phoenix Rock Gym.  It’s a rock climbing gym and a good place for a natural workout.  After learning the finer points of belaying and climbing, I did five climbs up the walls while Arizona Mat accomplished six.  Tall Square, who suffers from a fear of heights, did several, but was chided by Arizona Mat for his reluctance to do more.  I imagined “Carolyn” had been responsible for the peace treaty between them, but cracks were definitely beginning to appear in the cessation of hostilities.

After the gym, we went to Four Peaks Brewery when I had a bowl of beer cheese soup and an Oatmeal stout.  Arizona Mat had chicken wings and pumpkin porter.  Tall Square ate a blackened salmon BLT and sipped a mixed concoction.

The minor jet lag, curare shot, and workout had wearied me so I collapsed on the couch in “Carolyn’s” office and slept through the night.

Day 3

The next morning I walked to Fry’s grocery store to get some cash and, for reasons that now elude me, bought Arizona Mat breakfast at a nearby McDonald’s while Tall Square refused my generosity and got his own breakfast.  Afterwards Arizona Mat announced that we were going to Castles N Coasters for a gentleman’s game of mini golf.

Before the hostilities.

Before the hostilities.

For me it was a feast or famine day.  I sunk 8 holes in one, but could not accomplish squat on the other holes.  The battle was clearly going to be between Arizona Mat and Tall Square who began to snipe at each other more and more as the day wore on. Arizona Mat sunk one shot where he used his putter as a pool cue and Tall Square insisted I give him a one stroke penalty for improper use of club.

“I’ll show you an improper use of club,” said Arizona Mat under his breath.

It was a tight game until the final 18 where Arizona Mat managed to dump his opponent once and for all.

“Yes!” cried Arizona Mat.  “Once again I prove myself your superior in every way.”

Arizona Mat gloats while Tall Square prepares to brain him.

Arizona Mat gloats while Tall Square prepares to brain him.

That was a mistake.

Wielding his putter like an axe, Tall Square swung with all his might.  Arizona Mat dodged out of the way at the last second and bolted for the go-karts with Tall Square right behind him.  Arizona Mat barged in front of a line of kids and roared off in a go-kart, breaking through a gate and driving through the park.  Tall Square hopped in another and continued the pursuit.   I jumped in a third, train wreck curiosity compelling me to see this through to the very end.

Arizona Mat sped towards the bumper boats and dove into the water, swimming valiantly into a boat before zooming off.  Tall Square was hot on his heels and absconded with a boat of his own.  The sight of the two of them ramming each other whilst shouting profanities at each other is a vision that will forever be seared on my brain.

Tall Square finally managed to hit Arizona Mat with enough force to capsize him, but Arizona Mat swam under the water and pulled himself out, heading to the log flume.  Panicked, Arizona Mat quickly got into a moving flume to get away from Tall Square.  Tall Square got into the flume behind, shaking his fist angrily.  Why he didn’t wait until the ride got back around like I did, I’ll never know.

Arizona Mat dives into a log flume to escape an irate Tall Square.

Arizona Mat dives into a log flume to escape an irate Tall Square.

“I’ll get you, Arizona Mat!” snarls Tall Square.

Arizona Mat prepares to take the plunge.

Arizona Mat prepares to take the plunge.

I decided the two had expended enough energy and I got between the two after the ride.

“I thought you were a kindler, gentler, humbler Arizona Mat,” I stated.

“I am,” said Arizona Mat.

“And aren’t you his trusted sidekick?” I asked Tall Square.

“Yes,” said Tall Square.

“Then shake hands and call it a day,” I said.

The two of them looked at each other for a long moment, then shook hands, though, for a moment, it seemed like another handshake duel was about to occur.

After the fun park, Arizona Mat took us to the Gila River Arena where we watched a hockey game between the Minnesota Wild and the Arizona Coyotes.  Needless to say, Arizona Mat was pulling for the Coyotes.  Tall Square, out of pure spite, pulled for Minnesota.

Early on the game looked like it was going to be a slaughter as Minnesota slapped goal after goal into the net.  Tall Square smirked with glee as Minnesota hammered Arizona.

Arizona began to show signs of life in the 2nd period and then caught on fire in the 3rd pulling to within one.  A desperate scramble at the end to force overtime failed and Minnesota won by a score of 4 to 3.

“Eat it, Arizona!” crowed Tall Square as he mooned Arizona Mat.

“At least, I know how to putt!” Arizona Mat snapped back.

Tall Square’s face flushed red as he charged Arizona Mat.  Arizona Mat dodged and scrambled over the wall to the ice.  Slipping and sliding, he skid to a zamboni and yanked the driver from his perch.  Taking control of the wheel, Arizona Mat slowly escaped from the arena.  Not to be outdone, Tall Square slid to the other zamboni, politely asked the driver to get off as he cracked his knuckles by clenching his fist, and then continued to chase Arizona Mat.

I hailed a cab to return to Arizona Mat’s house and watched the two zambonis chase each other at 5 miles a hour into the night as I passed them.