I’ll Take the High Road, Days 1-2: Honored Feasgar Math (Good Afternoon)

Oh, I’ll take the high road and you’ll take the low road and I’ll get to Scotland before you. . .unless of course you’ve already been to Scotland.

It was time for another international excursion and this time the road was taking me to Scotland through the courtesy of Globus Journeys once more.

I was in for another long day of travel with 2 layovers of 3 hours and 2 hours apiece.  Actually, it ended up being a little bit longer as both of my flights arrived early.

This time around I used Delta Airlines to travel and all 3 of my flights were itty bitty.  The first two legs used regional jets that were only 4 seats across and the international leg utilized a single decker plane with rows that were only 6 seats across (what I would have expected for a domestic flight).

As I wrote earlier, Delta was exceptionally timely as my first flight got me to Detroit 45 minutes early giving me a nearly 4 hour layover.

I have never been to Detroit Metro Airport before, but it is either remarkably well-maintained or I was in a new or recently remodeled terminal.  I got a little exercise by walking from one end of the terminal to the other while I noted things to do and attempted to find a place to eat.

Since I had the time, I stopped in at the Be Relax Spa where I decided to get a 15 minute chair massage as my shoulders were feeling a bit cramped (the common complaint of a writer).  I didn’t know how cramped until Shelby started working my shoulders and said, “Oh, they are tight.”  As Shelby rubbed, elbowed, and forearmed my shoulders, I felt (and heard) them snap, crackle, and pop back into place.

With my shoulders now out of my ears, I decided it was time to find some dinner.  I wanted something a bit different and opted for Popeye’s.  They were out of the bread needed to make po’boys, so I had a 2 piece spicy chicken dinner and it truly hit the spot.

With a full stomach, I waited at the gate and read a Nero Wolfe mystery until it was time to jet to New York City.

Delta was 45 minutes early with this flight as well, so I spent the time reading at the gate and marveled at how busy the airport was at such a late hour.  I was taking my first true red-eye flight as it was leaving at nearly midnight, but the airport was still hopping.

I landed the money seat for my flight to Glasgow as I got a window seat plus was seated at the rear of the section which meant I could recline the chair as far as possible without fear of disturbing the person behind me.

While I enjoyed the seat, it wasn’t quite what I hoped as the seat was pretty much up against the wall so reclining wasn’t an option and my window wouldn’t close which meant I got a blast of sunshine in the kisser which, while enjoyable, isn’t that well received when I’m trying to rest and nap.  I plastered my pillow across the window to try to block the light with mixed results.

The flight was very smooth and I was surprised that they actually served a meal shortly into the flight as I figured they might wait and serve it closer to breakfast time as it was so late.  I declined the meal and instead watched Green Book, an excellent film about the friendship of jazz pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen.

When the movie ended, I exhaled a mighty yawn, snuggled up in my blanket, and leaned my pillow against the window for some shut-eye.  I slept for about 90 minutes before some turbulence shook me awake.  Knowing I wasn’t going to fall back asleep, I watched Lost in Translation with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, played Texas Hold Em Poker (winning two tables in the process), and had a light meal of orange juice, peach muffin, and honey yogurt around breakfast time.

Soon we began our descent and as we burst through the clouds, I was greeted by prime and lush farmland that was just pretty as a picture.  Shortly afterwards, we flew over a couple of golf courses and finally landed at Glasgow International.

I was able to grab my suitcase and blasted through Customs as Glasgow uses a passport scanner to speed up the process.  I figured I had another hour to wait as the shuttle to the hotel wasn’t scheduled to leave until 12:30pm.  I was delighted to find that it was waiting for us and I, along with 8 other group memebers, were able to be taken to our first hotel of the trip:  Doubletree.

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Doubletree Hotel in Glasgow City Centre

Upon arriving, I was informed that check-in time would not be until 3pm unless you were a Hilton Honors Member.  Since I wasn’t I was looking at 3 hours of waiting time, so I decided to explore the area.

 

I walked around nearby Sauchiehall Street, a famed area in Glasgow filled with shops and restaurants.  I passed a department store called Marks & Spencer which I’ve learned is the place to exchange currency as they charge no commission, so you get almost market value for your money.

Spying a grocery store, Sainsbury’s, I stopped in to see if I could once more find Mountain Dew for my friend, David Sundberg, and there it was right off the bat.  After getting the photographic evidence, I decided not to buy the bottle as it was large and it was written in English.

I decided to get a small snack to keep my stomach clock on a normal schedule and stopped in at a Taco Bell mainly because I was shocked to see one outside of America.  I ordered a Cheesy Double Decker Taco and learned that getting something “to go” here is getting it for “take away”.

The meat was seasoned differently than the American version.  Not spicier, but somehow sharper.  I also noted that the regional menu also included the Volcano Burrito, a favorite of Dave’s (heck, Taco Bell is his go-to joint in general).  So if you’re reading this Dave, here’s another reason to join me in my travels.

I shortly realized that my exhaustion was winning out, so I decided to sign up for Hilton Honors so I could check in early.  Not only did I get the benefit of checking in early, but it has already proven a wise decision as I will more likely than not be utilizing a Hilton property for an upcoming visit to Arizona so I’m guaranteed a better rate, early check-in, and free Wi-Fi.  Even better, it took a bit to get me a room, so the clerk offered me comps for drinks at the hotel bar.

Once I got my bags in place, I collapsed on the bed and took a two hour catnap.  I felt remarkably better upon waking as the edge was taken off the jet lag.  I wandered around the hotel a bit and then took a long, hot bath and dressed for dinner.

Dinner was held in The Brisket at the Doubletree.  Already I met quite a few new friends and enjoyed some splendid conversation with a fabulous dinner that included a pureed mushroom soup, grilled ham with a sweet glaize, new potatoes, carrots, squash, sugar snap peas, with sticky toffee pudding and ice cream for dessert.

 

I drank a Guiness with my dinner and I used one of comps to enjoy a Grandbois.  It’s a honey whiskey.  I was hoping to get an Atholl Brose, a Scottish drink consisting of whiskey, oatmeal brose, honey, and cream, but they didn’t have the fixings, but perhaps another time.  With the Grandbois, I toasted my friends, Val and Marty O’Brien whom I hoped would also be on this tour, but they will get to enjoy this tour in early 2020.

With a fine dinner digesting, I figured it was time to write and rest in order to be ready for the adventure that would begin in earnest the next day.

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.

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!

Off to the Cotton Patch, Days 4 & 5: A Journey to Squiers Manor

When I awoke on Sunday, I knew it was going to be a looong day of driving.  But first, it was time to feed the spirit with worship.

I attended the early morning service at St James Catholic Church.  It was a quaint, welcoming church and I rather liked it.  It was a good service which ran a little longer than normal due to the baptism of twin children.  I was particularly moved by Father’s sermon.  He connected the story of God restoring Elijah in the desert with a hearth cake and water to Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John.  God restored Elijah with physical food, but Jesus restores with spiritual food (Eucharist and His Word).

To be honest, all of this talk about food was stirring my appetite so I dashed back to the White Swan where Cathy had breakfast waiting.  Today it was cantaloupe, cappuccino muffins, multigrain waffles, and some small sausage links.  Cathy proved to a most gracious host as she shared conversation with me while I ate.

Sausage and multigrain waffles

Sausage and multigrain waffles

Once breakfast was done, I settled my bill and stepped out to the car.  I felt a little blue.  I really liked this little town.  Hopefully the stars will align so, one day, I may be able to return.  But if you’re in Whitehall, get a room at the White Swan.  Cathy will make you feel like family.

Today’s drive was much more pleasant than it had been on Friday.  Traffic was at a much lower volume so I was able to speed quickly through Indiana and the construction slowdowns were kept to the bare minimum.  Then came my rematch with Chicagoland traffic.

I mentally cracked my knuckles and dove into the fray.  The speed limit was still a suggestion, so I fought fire with fire and raised my own speed limit to somewhat keep pace with the traffic.  The other cars were still moving faster, but I didn’t feel like a sitting duck.  I managed to quickly slip past Chicagoland and the rest of the drive was a snap after that.

After 6 hours, I was ready for a break, so I was grateful that I had arrived at my stopping point of Maquoketa, IA on schedule.

Squiers Manor

Squiers Manor

My final stop for this journey was Squiers Manor owned by Kathy and Virl Banowetz.  Let me say that this is the finest inn that I have stayed at in Iowa and makes my top 5 list for the B & B project.  The house is a beautiful 1882 Queen Anne and the manor and its land take up a block.  The interior and grounds are immaculately kept and the manor is still the same as when it was originally built.  Kathy and Virl also deal in antiques and many items in the inn are for sale.  They also deliver.

Originally I was to have stayed in the Maid’s Chamber, but Kathy graciously upgraded me to the J.E. Squiers Room at no additional charge.  This is easily one of my favorite rooms that I have stayed in.  It almost has a Victorian feel.  The queen bed is very comfortable and I’m quite taken with the soft, forest green carpet.

The J.E. Squiers Room

The J.E. Squiers Room

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Front hall

Front hall

Upstairs hall

Upstairs hall

Kathy suggested several restaurants and I decided to have a little Mexican food at La Casa de Pancho.  Once more, Mapquest tried to bamboozle me with ridiculous directions that would have sent me into the middle of nowhere, but Kathy had given me better directions and I easily found the restaurant.

Kathy had told me the portions were ginormous and, if anything, it was an understatement.  I ordered the burrito chicken fajita with rice and olla beans (they’re cholesterol free).  My eyes bulged when the plate came out.  It would have taken 3 of me to finish the meal.  I’ve got an issue with wasting food, but I had little choice since I had no way to preserve the food until I got home.  So, note to myself, bring a cooler for future trips.  My note to you, plan on sharing a plate with your date or friends.  The portions are that large.

With a full (luckily not overly so) stomach I returned to Squiers Manor to begin writing today’s article.  After I had written as much as I could, I went down to the guest area to have a piece of Kathy’s chocolate mousse cake.  It was moist and delicious and, being chilled in the refrigerator, was the perfect dessert for a hot night.

When I had finished my cake, I drew a hot bath in the Jacuzzi tub and nearly fell asleep in the swirling water.  I managed to drag myself out of the bathtub and over to the bed where I fell into a peaceful slumber.

I really didn’t want to get out of bed when I awoke the next day because the bed was so comfortable, but it was time to start organizing to leave.  But first, it was time for breakfast.

Kathy had promised me a taste adventure from her garden and this meal filled the bill.  Along with glasses of orange juice and water I enjoyed cantaloupe, cinnamon encrusted coffee cake, raw fried potatoes and squash, and an omelet with broccoli, onions, cheese, and possibly more because I lost track of the ingredients.  It was a foodie’s delight.  The meal also came with a little bratwurst, but I was stuffed so Kathy kindly wrapped it up for me to take home.

Fruit and cinnamon encrusted coffee cake

Fruit and cinnamon encrusted coffee cake

A vegetarian omelet, raw fried potatoes and squash, and bratwurst

A vegetarian omelet, raw fried potatoes and squash, and bratwurst

So ends another journey for me, but I insist you arrange for a stay at Squiers Manor if you find yourself in the Quad Cities area of Iowa.  As Kathy’s sign says, “Enter as strangers. . .leave as friends.”

Off to the Cotton Patch, Days 2 & 3: A Journey of Ups, Downs, & Mistaken Identity

After that bracing breakfast, I hit the road.  Little did I know that this was going to be one long, agonizing drive.

West Dundee is only 34 miles away from Chicago and I made the astonishing discovery that Chicago area drivers are apparently training for NASCAR.  Illinois is doing a ton of construction on the interstate and the speed limit was only supposed to be 55 miles an hour.  Based on my observations, I came to the conclusion that the speed limit was apparently just a suggestion because I was the only person who seemed to be obeying the limit.  Every other car was just blitzing by me.

To say I was nervous was an understatement.  The combination of the heavy construction, massive traffic, and battalion of speedsters actually caused me to feel knuckle whitening, heart palpitating, panic.  I had to take a couple of deep breaths to actually bring my nerves back under control.  This may be the norm for big city drivers, but this was my first experience driving through a really big metro area and it was a bit of a shock.

My frustrations were further fueled by the fact that I had to watch out for the toll booths.  I accidentally missed my first toll booth on Halsted Street.  The signs had said to keep to the right so I did.  Right before the booth, the road opened up even further to the right.  It happened so suddenly that I wasn’t able to change lanes and soared right through the I-Pass.  Fortunately, I was able to go online later that night and pay the fee I missed.

After I got out of the Chicago area, the traffic slowed to more normal speeds, but the speed limit stayed at 55 miles an hour.  Even worse, when I finally crossed the border into Indiana, I found that they were still doing the construction being done when I last passed through in 2008.  Traffic was so congested that it ground to a halt and I plodded along at a rate that had snails making fun of me.

It took 3.5 hours to make the journey from West Dundee to the Michigan border where I finally was able to resume the normal speed limit of 70 miles an hour.  The drive became a lot more pleasant after that. . .until I reached Holland, MI.

Traffic was going along pretty well and I saw a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the distance.  I needed a few toiletries and decided I’d just get them now.  After buying my supplies, I got back on the road and traffic ground to a halt again!  Apparently the road I was on was the main thoroughfare for a few cities and it was now rush hour.

What should have been a four hour journey ended up being a 6.5 hour drudgery and I arrived in Whitehall, MI much, much later than intended.  I was tired, frazzled, and starved when I finally pulled up to the White Swan Bed and Breakfast.

Then things began looking up.

The first break I caught that day was that the Howmet Playhouse where I would watch and review Cotton Patch Gospel was literally right across the street from the bed and breakfast.  The second break was that I met Cathy Russell, the sweet and kindly owner of the White Swan.

The White Swan

The White Swan

Cathy showed me to my home away from home, the Jasmine Room.  The soft white of the room and the plush looking bed seemed to scream comfort and I felt myself begin to loosen up.  I think Cathy noticed my weariness as she asked if I had eaten and I told her that my journey woes prevented me from having anything since breakfast.  She prepared a plate of Michigan blueberries, cheese, and sweet potato Triscuits along with a glass of white wine.  I stepped onto the screened in porch and began to read and munch.  I felt better almost all at once.

The Jasmine Room

The Jasmine Room

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Living Room

Living Room

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After getting some much needed food into my stomach I began my explorations.  The White Swan is a circa 1884 Queen Anne house.  It’s very homey and has a pleasant lived-in quality well suited to an inn.  After I finished taking pictures, I freshened up and walked across the street to enjoy Cotton Patch Gospel.

Howmet Playhouse

Howmet Playhouse

And enjoy it, I did.  In fact, you can read the review right here.

After the show, I returned to the inn and darn near collapsed into bed and didn’t wake until the next day.

***

When I awoke today, I was ravenous and ready for a rousing meal.  Cathy served up a dish of mixed fruit and cream, a vegetable quiche, homemade sausage, and orange juice.  With my stomach full, I was ready to begin exploring the area.

Mixed fruit and cream

Mixed fruit and cream

Vegetable quiche and homemade sausage

Vegetable quiche and homemade sausage

My first stop of the day was at the Country Dairy.  This family owned dairy farm has been in the Van Gunst family for 5 generations and it credits their great dairy products to their happy cows.  No, that isn’t a joke.  The Van Gunsts take pride that their 1,400 head of cattle have great lives.  Their lives consist of milking, birthing, sleeping, and eating 100 pounds of food a day which is the secret to great milk.

The Country Dairy

The Country Dairy

Happy cows happily eating lunch to produce happy milk

Happy cows happily eating lunch to produce happy milk

It was a very interesting tour as I watched how milk goes from the cow to the carton, went into a cheese locker, visited a bovine maternity ward, and saw a group of newborn calves (even petted a few).  I even learned about the value of good breeding.  The number one rated polled Hereford was born at Country Dairy and he and another cow sold for a combined $1.2 million dollars.

Inside the calf barn

Inside the calf barn

When the tour ended, we were treated to free samples of cheddar cheese (the best I’ve ever tasted) and chocolate milk.  This milk is farm fresh which means no fat has been skimmed from it.  Whole milk has got nothing on farm fresh milk.  This moo juice was so tasty and rich that I actually bought a pint for myself.

The dairy also boasts a small restaurant which feeds more people than any other eatery in the region.  Trucks come three times a week to restock the food items not produced by the dairy itself.

After my tour, I drove around a bit to see what there was to see.  After viewing a few sights, I returned to the inn and took a long walk around the area and stopped to enjoy a vanilla shake at Dairy Treat (supplied by Country Dairy products).  I then returned to my room to relax for a little bit.

I had intended to attend worship services at St James Catholic Church, but my travel woes returned when Mapquest epically failed me.  The directions I got brought me to downtown Muskegon where I found no church.  I went to a nearby hotel where the desk clerk informed me that the church was actually in Montague.  Another clerk informed me there was another church three blocks up the road.  I dashed off to it, but found they did not hold Saturday night services.

I returned to the White Swan and found that St James was a mere two miles from the inn.  I could have walked there and back several times in the time I spent driving to and from Muskegon.  Thankfully, they have an 8:30am service tomorrow so I can worship in the morning, have breakfast, and hit the road.

I decided to go Montague and have dinner at the Old Channel Inn.  This restaurant is very popular and was jammed to capacity when I arrived.  After a short wait, I was led to a table when I decided to have the charbroiled Alaskan salmon with a side of Creole corn and salad.  Now I was wearing a suit which is crucial to the story.

Old Channel Inn

Old Channel Inn

I took off my coat so I could prepare a salad for myself.  When I returned to my table, I said grace and started eating.  A few minutes later a gentleman came over to my table and said, “I have an embarrassing question to ask you.  Are you a priest?”

“No,” I replied, somewhat baffled.

“I’ll tell you why I asked that in a moment,” said the man as he walked away.

He returned a few minutes later and said, “You’re probably wondering why I asked if you were a priest.”

“Was it because you saw me praying?”

“No.  I’m the owner of this place and there was a woman who saw you, asked for me and said, ‘I saw that young man cross himself.  I think he’s a priest and I want to buy his meal.”

A gentle poke would have felled me at that point.  This is where my suit comes into play.  I was wearing a black dress shirt under my sport coat and my arms would have been blocking my yellow tie while I prayed.  The generous stranger mistook my dress shirt for clerical garb.

I don’t even know what this mysterious woman looks like, but I’d certainly like to thank her for paying for my supper.  It made the rough day I’d had yesterday and my travel woes today vanish in the breeze.

I returned to the White Swan to sip a 7-Up while I wrote this story.  Now it’s about time to hit the hay before I hit the road tomorrow.

Cotton Patch is Fun, but Flawed

It’s the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style.  This is Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key & Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin and inspired by a novel from Clarence Jordan.  This musical will have your feet tapping, your hands clapping, and your fingers snapping throughout the night and is currently playing at the Howmet Playhouse.

This musical has long been a personal favorite of mine, though I imagine many have not heard of it.  It was a big hit when it first came out in 1982 and even netted a Los Angeles Dramalogue nomination for Best Actor for Tom Key (who also co-wrote the script).  From an epic score by Harry Chapin to the vibrant, colorful characters created by Key and Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel has all of the elements for a hit show.  I had long hoped for the opportunity to see this play and when I discovered it would be produced at the Howmet Playhouse, I drove 16 ½ hours to see it live.

No, that was not a misprint.

I drove 16 ½ hours to watch this show and it was well worth the drive.  Backed by a powerful quartet of musicians, the 5 person cast, under the direction of Debra Freeberg, provided a very entertaining night of theatre.  Ms Freeburg is to be complimented for some very creative and inventive directing, though there were beats that could have been delved into more deeply.  She also coached solid to excellent performances from her cast.  I was also intrigued by the use of a small cast.  Tom Key wrote the play so it could be performed as a one man show or a full scale production, but this is the first time I have seen a small cast used and that decision worked very well indeed.

Steven Barre was one of the two standout performers of the night.  Barre has a good sense of body language and voice as he easily switched between the humble, but harried, Joe (Jesus’ stepfather), the arrogant and dangerous, Governor Herod, and the conflicted Jud, who ultimately betrays Jesus.  Barre is a very animated actor and his energy and enthusiasm added greatly to his work which was a treat for the eyes and ears.  My only criticism is that Barre’s take on John the Baptizer was too restrained and he needs to let loose and go full force with the zealous preacher.

Barre also has a wonderful 2nd tenor singing voice which was capable of subtle and rich nuances.  From the cold-blooded gloating of Herod’s arranging the murder of innocent children (I Did It) to the sad Joe wondering why Jesus won’t see him (You Are Still My Boy) to a jubilant Apostle (Jubilation), Barre proved himself to be a well rounded performer and a great asset for the show.

Brianna June Clark was the other standout performer of the night.  Ms June Clark had a beautiful, clear soprano singing voice and she knows how to find the emotional beats of a song.  From a soulful, haunting number from a mother who cannot accept the death of her child (Mama is Here) to a wistful dream that Jesus wasn’t dead (One More Tomorrow), Ms June Clark knocked one musical pitch after another out of the park.

She was also just as adept on the acting side of things.  Ms June Clark has an incredible presence and excellent facial expressions along with a good sense of improv.  Whether she was the slightly befuddled Andy, the menacing Governor Pilate, or the Virgin Mary, Ms June Clark was, quite simply, an utter delight.  She also had the funniest moment of the night with her audible nausea at the sight of the victim when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

I wish the show had more than a one weekend run as I sensed a great deal of potential in the performances of Alex Cooke and Annie Bulthuis which could be realized with a longer run.  Both gave solid performances, but they needed a bit of fine tuning.

Both (and the rest of the cast at various points) needed to project more and talk louder to overcome the nearly black box nature of the theatre’s acoustics.  They also need to slow down their delivery a bit and focus a bit more on the beats and nuances of their dialogue.  A lot of humorous lines and dramatic moments didn’t get the emphasis they needed due to their rushing the lines.  I understand that the entire rehearsal process only lasted two weeks which isn’t enough time to get into the grit and gristle of a script.  So they deserve kudos for the solid foundation they developed with their limited preparation time.

Ms Bulthuis has a skillful alto voice which she put to good use in numbers such as “Love the Lord Your God” and “We Gotta Get Organized”.  She also has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen.  With a slight cock of her eyebrow or a tiny purse of her lips, I was able to follow the thoughts of Ms Bulthuis’ characters without her uttering a single word.  I also thought her interpretation of Rock as slightly less than intelligent to be a very fine and funny bit of acting.

Cooke’s 2nd tenor voice also demonstrated a knack for subtle shades of emotion.  His primary role was that of Jesus and his portrayal of Jesus’ fears and sadness at his imminent lynching in “Goin’ to Atlanta” was not only spot on, but had me shedding a few tears as well.

Though he has no lines, Tim Todd does have a good grasp of pantomime which allowed him to tell his own story and kept him involved in each moment of the show.

There were a few technical flaws during the night.  There was some wicked feedback coming from a speaker at a few points and the actors’ microphones were either failing or their volume was constantly adjusted throughout the show.

Musical Director, Karen Burek, and her Band (Josh Bourdon, Alex Johnson, David Russell, and Lare Williams) do superior work with their stellar musicianship and flawless playing.  Tom Klonowski’s light design was award worthy and Jessica Reilly’s bare bones set was a thing of beauty.

In spite of a few flaws which I believe could be easily overcome with a longer run, Cotton Patch Gospel was an inspiring, moving, and entertaining night of theatre and I want to thank the cast and crew of this show for making my epic journey to see it a worthwhile one.

Cotton Patch Gospel has one final performance on Saturday, August 8 at 7:30pm.  Tickets range from $16 to $20 and can be obtained in person at the Box Office or by calling them at 231-894-2540 one hour before showtime.  They can also be obtained at their website, www.howmetplayhouse.org.  The Howmet Playhouse is located at 304 S Mears Ave in Whitehall, MI.

Off to the Cotton Patch, Day 1: A Journey to Luxury

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It is with a sense of utter glee and joy that I share this series of articles with you, dear readers.  I never thought it would happen, but I have embarked on an adventure that is merging all facets of my blog into one.

In one of my earliest theatre tales, I mentioned that one of my favorite plays is Cotton Patch Gospel.  While not a well known play, it was a big hit when it first appeared back in 1982.  A few years ago, I started keeping my eyes on a fansite for the show that marked where it was playing in the United States.  Given the subject matter of the show, it usually plays in the South, but I always hoped it would one day get to Omaha or close enough so that I could see it in person.  A few months ago, I saw that the show was going to be produced at the Howmet Playhouse in Whitehall, MI.  It was a long drive at slightly over 10 hours, but definitely doable.  When I found that Whitehall contained some B & Bs as well, I decided to buy a ticket to the show and break up the drive so I could review a few inns along the way.

So it was that I found myself on the road again on a spring-like summer’s day making the long journey to Whitehall.  For the first day, I would travel as far as West Dundee, IL, a village that is a mere 34 miles from Chicago.  I once wrote that Mapquest directions seem to assume that a person is driving 10 miles under the speed limit as I always seemed to arrive at my destination a good hour before the directions said I would actually arrive.  This time proved to be a different tale.

Just past Des Moines, IA, I stopped at a rest area to stretch my legs a bit and once I got back on the road, traffic immediately ground to a halt.  It turns out the state was repainting the lines on I-80, so I spent 45 minutes plodding along like a turtle while I listened to the comical rants of Lewis Black to pass the time.  Mind you, there was no warning about the painting. . .at least not up front.  As soon as I got past the painting vehicles, there was a massive digital sign blaring the warning, ROADS BEING PAINTED.  EXPECT DELAYS.  “Oh!  Is that what was happening?” I flippantly thought to myself.  State of Iowa, in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, here’s your sign.

The drive progressed pretty smoothly for a while, until I crossed the border from Iowa to Illinois.  At that point, things slowed to a snail’s crawl again because Illinois was performing heaping amounts of construction on the interstate.  To make a long story less long, I ended up arriving in West Dundee nearly two hours later than planned.

But it was well worth the drive.  I think I just may retire to West Dundee.  This is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.  There are so many historical homes here that I would have exhausted my camera’s memory card trying to take pictures of them all.  And I was going to get to stay in one!!

I found my way to The Mansion and my jaw dropped.  This inn, owned by Steve Fang & Eda Tomasone, is rivaled only by the Inn on Crescent Lake in terms of luxury and grandeur.  I was greeted by Steve who informed me that I had been upgraded to the best room in the house at no additional charge.  He said I would have room to spread out and that was understating things quite a bit.

I stayed in the Terrace Room which boasted a master bedroom, a sitting room, a private terrace, and a Jacuzzi bathtub and shower. I quickly settled in, dug out my camera, and began my explorations of The Mansion and the town of West Dundee.  The long walk felt good for my legs and worked up my appetite for dinner.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

The master bedroom of the Terrace Suite.

My private terrace

My private terrace

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Jacuzzi tub and shower

Sitting Room

Sitting Room

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Dinner was at the Village Squire, a nice bistro in the town that boasts live entertainment.  As soon as I stepped inside, the singer/guitar player began singing the classic Beatles tune You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and I knew I was going to be in for an enjoyable meal.  I tipped the singer for playing music from my favorite band and sat down to enjoy a Chicken Caprese Panini with a side of steak fries.  I lingered over a tasty meal while listening to live classic soft rock and enjoying the escapades of the obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk.

After dinner, I made my way to Main Street where I went to the Underground Retrocade.  For a good portion of my youth, I was an avid video gamer and this place offered me a chance to relive a bit of my childhood.  It’s two floors of classic arcade and pinball machines.  All you have to do is pay a $15 cover charge and you can play to your heart’s content and, believe me, I more than went through the cover charge in the 2.5 hours I was there.  I felt just like a kid again as I battled the Sea Hag and Brutus in Popeye, dueled with Donkey Kong, served drinks in Tapper, and chased down criminals in A.P.B.

Underground Retrocade

Underground Retrocade

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It was still a pleasant night as I walked back to The Mansion.  Once I returned, I took a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub and then sank into the mattress of my bed.  My lights were out until the morning.

I awoke, fully rejuvenated and ready for a great breakfast.  Breakfast consisted of orange juice, scrambled eggs (with a splash of sriracha sauce), sausage links, and pancakes.  I savored my meal and ended up having a terrific conversation with Steve who shares my interests in music and theatre.  After 90 minutes, I returned to my home to finish today’s story.

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Shortly, I begin the 4 hour trek to Whitehall where the White Swan B & B and Cotton Patch Gospel await.  But if you find your way to West Dundee, get a room at The Mansion.  You’ll be glad you did.

“Detroit 67” to Open Omaha Playhouse’s Alternative Programming Series on July 13

Detroit 67 by Dominique Morrisseau

A staged reading at the Howard Drew Theatre at the Omaha Playhouse.

Directed by Lara Marsh

Featuring

Chelle (or Michelle), played by Denise Chapman
Lank (or Langston), played by Shaun Greene
Caroline, played by Emily Mokrycki
Sly (or Sylvester), played by Anthony Holmes
Bunny, played by Rusheaa Smith-Turner
Devel Crisp will be reading Stage Directions

Synopsis

Set during the explosive Detroit race riots of 1967, Detroit 67 is the story of two siblings trying to make ends meet. They turn their basement into an after-hours joint in an attempt to bring in some money. When a mysterious woman finds her way into their lives, the siblings clash over much more than the family business.
Contains mature content.

Detroit 67 will be performed on July 13 at 7:30pm.  Admission is free and reservations are not required.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE

Step Back to the Unsurpassed Past at the Victorian Villa

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Well, it’s frigidly cold in Omaha today, so I thought it might be a good time to share just how I got so interested in bed and breakfasts.  So gather around while I put another coal on the fire and prepare yourselves to hear the tale of the Victorian Villa.

It was the spring of 2004 and I am an incredibly avid reader who especially loves to read mysteries.  On this particular spring day, it suddenly struck me that it might be fun if I could find a mystery weekend and actually experience a case for myself.  Off to the internet I went and began searching to see what I might be able to find.  When I included the name of Sherlock Holmes into my search, one of my results was for the Victorian Villa in Union City, MI.

I clicked on the link and was quite impressed with what I saw.  What really caught my eye was that one of the rooms in the Carriage House of the Villa was called the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber and the second floor of the Carriage House also contained a little museum dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.  Reading that sorely tempted me to make a visit to the Villa, but then I noticed that a mystery weekend was going to be held in April of that year.

I couldn’t say no to that, so I went ahead and booked the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber and was told I’d be contacted “by that nice Mr. Denham” of Shadowstalkers, the organization behind the mystery event.  Both Ron Gibson, the owner of the Villa, and that nice Mr. Denham sounded a little surprised when they found out I was coming from Omaha.  Most of the visitors to the Villa come from within a 2.5 to 3 hour radius and I was going to drive 10 hours to attend this event.

I’ll repeat that.

I drove 10 hours from Omaha to Union City to attend this event.  Little did I know that I would be so bowled over by the Villa that I would make that journey 3 more times over the next decade.

I still remember my arrival on that spring Friday in April 2004.  I was warmly welcomed to the inn by its innkeeper, Cynthia Shattuck, who brought me to the bar area where I met Ron Gibson and his son, Josh.  Ron gave me a hearty greeting and told me I was free to explore the house and could enter any bedroom with an open door (signifying no occupation by guests) and that I could take all the pictures I wanted.

I was absolutely mesmerized by the intricate beauty of the place.  I felt as if I had truly passed through a time warp as everything was authentically Victorian from when the place had first been built in 1876.  Even more amazing was the history of how the mansion was first built all the way through to its rebirth as the Victorian Villa.  This had truly been a labor of love for Ron whom I was told put in 18 hour days for several years to restore the Villa back to its original condition.

The Villa is known as the #1 inn in the Midwest and a well deserved reputation it is.  Aside from the beauty of the place, the inn was famed for its Sherlock Holmes weekends, Victorian Christmas weekends, and food.  The Villa has been featured in numerous articles and, I believe, on the Michigan PBS station.

One could spend hours just soaking in the scenery of the Villa and the meals have been some of the most enjoyable that I have ever eaten.  Over the years, I have had such delicacies as cream cheese stuffed French Toast, ox and barley stew, English Cheshire Cheddar Cheese Soup, and roast goose.  And the rooms are a unique treasure in and of themselves.  During my visits I have enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes Bedchamber, the Victorian Country Bedchamber, and Tower Suite South.

I’ve also been blessed to meet and become friends with many wonderful people such as Ron and his two sons, Josh and Zach, Cynthia, John Sherwood (a talented actor who sometimes plays Charles Dickens for the Christmas weekends), Ted and Rhonda Cowell and their Sherlock Holmes scion society, the Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay.

As for my first visit, the mystery event was a great deal of fun, but more like a game.  A murder had been committed and some jewels stolen, so we had to figure out who done it and locate the missing jewels.  Each of us played a character (I was Ellery Queen), and had certain abilities we could use to obtain clues from other guests.  But. . .the killer was one of us and would be attempting to kill us before we could discover his or her identity.  As a solo player, I was a marked man as the killer could only kill you when you were alone unless he or she got the “mark of death” on you.

Luckily, I was occasionally accompanied by “that nice Mr. Denham’s” wife to offer me some protection.  During the course of the night I won a target shooting contest which netted me a bottle of wine sold exclusively at the Villa.  I also did solve the case, but I had my epiphany when I was alone with the 2 killers.  Though I bolted from the room when I realized the truth, I had already been marked for death by them as they feared I was getting a little too close according to the snarky note they left under my door the next morning.  However, for having traveled so far, I was given a nice parting gift of the Ellery Queen novel, The Dragon’s Teeth.

I was fortunate enough to be able to return to the Villa in September 2005 when I finally had the chance to meet Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Oh, didn’t you know they were real people?

It’s true.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was really Watson’s literary agent and he got credit for writing the tales to perpetuate the idea that Holmes was a fictional character, thus preserving his anonymity.  Ron’s great-grandfather was Senator Neil Gibson, whom you may know from the case entitled “The Problem of Thor Bridge”.  Through him, Ron became friends with Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, whose lifespans have been augmented through a royal jelly elixir Holmes had cultivated when he had retired to the Sussex Downs.

In Mr. Holmes’ own words, he enjoys visiting Union City because “it is a hellhole of crime of great depth and brilliance”.  Unbelievably, I have had the honor of assisting Mr. Holmes in two cases.  While I have copious notes of these accounts, a pledge of silence has barred me from sharing these stories until, and unless, Mr. Holmes gives me leave.  However, I don’t think I would be amiss by admitting that I was crucial to helping him bring the affair of “the nameless corpse” to a successful conclusion for which I received a lovely Holmes nutcracker which graces my mantle today.

The last time I visited the Villa was 2010 when I attended one of their Christmas weekends where I was treated to a marvelous performance from John Sherwood as Charles Dickens where he read A Christmas Carol and enjoyed a sumptuous 9 course Roast Goose Christmas dinner as described in Dickens’ tale.

Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson have not visited the Villa for a few years, but I look forward to a time when they do return so I may renew old acquaintances and perhaps aid Holmes and Watson in another investigation.

But if you find yourself near Union City, take a moment and spend a night at the Victorian Villa and find out why, as they say, it is the past. . .unsurpassed.