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.

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.

 

Cotton Patch Redux, Day 1: Sanctuary

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The Woodward

Hello, dear readers, it’s nice to see you again.  I’m so glad you are able to join me for one of my biggest projects to date.

For my regular readers, you may remember that over the summer I visited the town of Whitehall, MI so I could review the play Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse.  Due to the success of that review, I pursued an opportunity with the Repertory Company Theatre of Richardson, TX which offered me a free ticket to review its production of that show.  So I found myself on a frosty February morning heading down south to enjoy a worshipful play and escape from Old Man Winter’s grip on Omaha.

Continuing the weather trend from my escapades in Iowa over the holiday season, Omaha was hammered by a winter storm the day before I was set to leave for Texas.  Thankfully, this time I did not have to drive in it and the road crews had a chance to clean things up pretty well before I went on my way.

One of the more enjoyable things about this drive was that I was finally seeing some new scenery.  There are two main interstates out of the city (I-29 and I-80) that I normally have to take whenever I begin these excursions.  This time, I got to take Hwy 75 pretty much straight to my first stop in Topeka, KS.

It was very peaceful to travel through the smaller towns of Nebraska and enjoy traditional Americana.  I also considered it to be a fast forward view to spring as I watched winter’s clutch on the state weaken the further south I got.  By the time I reached the Nebraska City area, the snow was a mere dusting and by the time I reached Auburn it was gone, though the weather was still quite cold.

The first leg of the drive seemed to go faster than normal as I admired the countryside and listened to the tunes of my MP3.  Before I knew it I had arrived in Kansas’ capital city.

My first stop was at the Woodward Inns at Fillmore which is a hop, skip, and jump from the capitol building.  The Woodward is far more than a B & B.  It’s a little village of its own consisting of one gothic mansion, three stately executive inns, and three family inns with an eighth property set to open later this year that will be a luxury extended stay.

I was staying in the main inn, a Tudor mansion built in 1923 for Chester Woodward who wanted his final estate to be as authentically English as possible.  It is an impressive abode which boasts charmingly gothic rooms and a 2 ½ story library modeled after the King Henry VIII library found at London’s Hampton Hall.  It also features a year round lap pool heated to 90 degrees, though it was closed for cleaning due to a recent storm.

The mansion was bought by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) in 1994 who had built a successful lobbying firm in the Topeka area.  Hearing the call of God to take care of others, she gave up her lobbying career to enter the hospitality field and begin building the empire of the Woodward.

Elizabeth was a most gracious host.  She is extremely knowledgeable about the Topeka area and is a fascinating conversationalist.  She gave me a tour of the mansion and offered to show me some of the other properties after breakfast the next morning.  After exploring the main inn, Elizabeth led me to the Master, my home for the night.

This room was almost too much room for one person.  The room boasts a large 4 poster bed with a fireplace (put to good use on this chilly night and morning) and sitting room.  After getting my stuff settled, my thoughts turned to dinner.

Elizabeth had suggested an eatery run by a friend of hers called the Blind Tiger Brewery and recognized for world championship caliber beers.  The building is quite unique.  I didn’t notice it from the outside, but once I got indoors, the place reminded me of a 3-D puzzle due to its construction and branching hallways.  It would be rather easy to get lost in this place.

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Blind Tiger Brewery

For my dinner, I did a rarity and sampled some of the beers due to its championship reputation.  I had samples of brown ale, Munich Dunkles, pale ale, and raw wheat.  I enjoyed the brown ale and the raw wheat the most.  For my entrée, I enjoyed the Texas Roadrunner which was a grilled chicken breast topped with beef brisket, cheeses, and peppers served on a bed of rice and steak fries.

The Blind Tiger Brewery apparently has a haunted history as Elizabeth suggested I ask about the ghost tour which I did, but there wasn’t anybody there who knew enough about the history to tell me the story.  So I returned to the mansion, organized some photos, set up the artificial fire for the night and hit the hay.

I awoke the next morning feeling ravenous.  I headed to the dining room where I found goblets of water and black cherry/cranberry juice waiting for me.  I sipped the glass of juice and found the fusion of the two fruits worked very well.

Within a few moments, Elizabeth brought me my breakfast which was an oven baked pancake with orange maple syrup, cream, blueberries, and bananas.  I managed to eat the fruit, but only made it halfway through the pancake before I felt full.

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Oven baked pancake with fruit and black cherry/cranberry juice

After breakfast, Elizabeth had her associate, Sarah, show me around her new properties called the Woodward Row Houses.  These will be luxury extended stay rooms and they look very nice.  My favorite was the basement studio apartment which is one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen.

Alas, it seemed my time came to an end too soon.  Currently I am putting the finishing touches on this article before beginning the next leg of my journey which will bring me to Norman, OK.

But if you are in the Topeka area, take some time to visit one of the many rooms of the Woodward.  You will find rooms suited to all tastes on the financial spectrum and one amazing innkeeper in Elizabeth Taylor.