A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part III: Welcome to Christmas Wonderland

Outside of Ponca’s Christmas House, owned by Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

Today the road has brought me to Ponca, NE.

Unlike most of these articles, a bed and breakfast is not involved with this story.  However, a very unique house is involved.  I went to Ponca to visit the home of Gene Watchorn and Julie McDowell.

If the names sound familiar to you, it’s because they are the recent winners of “The Great Christmas Light Fight” televised on ABC for their incredibly festive lights and Christmas display.  Their story made most of the newspapers and news outlets in Nebraska and when I read their story, I knew I had to visit their home for the Cavalcade of Christmas.

I was enjoying some unseasonably nice weather as I began my drive to the little town of Ponca.  En route to Ponca, I passed through the town of Jackson where I decided to stop for church at St. Patrick’s.

St Patrick’s Catholic Church

Father had quite a good sermon as he talked about the gift of Jesus and how He wants to share everything He has with His people.  It provided some very loaded food for thought as I left the small church and continued my drive to Ponca.

I was testing out a GPS system and now I don’t think I’ll ever go back to paper maps.  This was so handy as the system told me where and when to turn right down to what lane I should be in.  This was especially useful as Gene & Julie’s house is located on a large acreage out in the country.

If I had any doubts that I was on the right road, they were quickly dissipated when I found the large line of traffic waiting to reach the house.  It just seemed to go on forever.

I turned into a field nearby the house and parked and just stared in amazement at the home and the line of people waiting to visit.

According to Julie, Gene started the tradition, originally for his children, about 20 years ago.  Fifteen years ago, Gene and Julie let some students tour the house and then it was decided to open the doors to the public.  Now thousands of people visit this monument to Christmas each year.

Gene loves Christmas and is dubbed a “Christmas hoarder” by Julie.  He is also a one man operation for this Christmas wonderland.  Gene does all of the designing and setting up.  He begins the day after Labor Day and finishes the entire project about mid-November.  From that point through the end of December, the couple holds open houses from 6pm-9pm each Fri-Sun.  Private tours can also be arranged through Gene and Julie.

The Christmas house contains 100,000 Christmas lights, 90 inflatables, 19 Christmas trees, and 6,000-7,000 Christmas figurines and animations.  Budget some time to really appreciate this house because it took me nearly 2.5 hours to get through the whole abode due to foot traffic and the sheer level of detail to observe.

Here are some scenes from outside the house:

The inside of the house is just as beautiful.  Julie and Gene are warm, welcoming people.  Julie greeted people at the front door while Gene mingled with the visitors.  Helpers were also on hand to give out free candy canes to the visitors.

I could have spent all night marveling at this cacophony of Christmas, but I did have to return home.  

There’s still a little time to visit the house this season and I highly recommend making the visit if you’re able to do so.  There’s nothing cheesy or kitschy about this Christmas house.  It’s a reverent, awe-inspiring display from two people who love the holiday and whose generosity and hospitality truly exemplify the reason for the season.  Visiting the house is free, but donations are cheerfully accepted.

For directions or a private tour, please call Gene or Julie at 402-755-2655.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Advertisements

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part II: A Cascade of Christmas

DSC00678

Oakenwald Terrace

Today the road has brought me to Chatfield, MN.

Welcome to Part II of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  The inn for this trip is Oakenwald Terrace, sometimes known as the Ellen Lovell House, owned and operated by Marion, Bob, and Ruth Ann Lund. When I was originally researching inns for the annual Christmas review, this inn launched itself to the top of my list with its advertisements for how seriously it takes the holiday.  So proud is Oakenwald Terrace of how it celebrates Christmas, that it even hosts an annual open house just so they can show off the inn.  For a Christmas nut like yours truly, it was like ringing the chow bell.  So I booked a stay.

Unlike the wacky weather of last week, this weekend was set to be frigid, but sunny.  Truthfully, this was the most pleasant drive I had enjoyed in a while.  I just felt more at peace than usual and my MP3 player was pulling up some long forgotten classics.  I also had the pleasure of watching the small town Christmases of a number of small towns as I took a scenic route to Chatfield through Fort Dodge to have lunch with my best friend, Josh.

I arrived in town with just a few minutes to spare, but wanted to swing by the old homestead.  When I last passed through in April, I had thought that the people currently living in my old home had finally cleaned up the backyard.  As I drove through the alley, I saw I had been quite mistaken.  All of the overgrowth is simply dead and currently buried under a pile of snow. Ah, well.

Josh and I met at Taco Tico where I enjoyed a few tacos and conversation.  I then suggested that we do a bit of mall walking so I could get a little exercise before driving another 3 hours and to build my strength after a recent illness.  Crossroads Mall was the hangout spot when I was a kid in Fort Dodge.  Not only did it have a stellar arcade in Aladdin’s Castle, but it also did Christmas right for the kids with Santa’s gingerbread castle.  Santa would visit with his kids in the front of the castle while Santa’s talking reindeer, Randolph (Rudolph’s cousin), would visit with kids in the back.

I fear Crossroads is on its last legs.  So much of it is shuttered and it has lost its three major stores of Younkers, J.C. Penney, and Sears.  I would not be surprised to find it permanently shuttered in the not too distant future.

I wished my old pal good-bye and continued the drive to Chatfield.

Chatfield is a tiny town in the Rochester region of Minnesota.  I easily found the house, though the driveway was quite icy from last week’s storm.  I was driving too slow to get up the drive, so I backed up and hit it with a bit more speed and powered my way up.  Keep this in mind for later.

As I walked towards the back door, Bob opened it wide with a smile on his face and welcomed me into the inn.  Once inside, I met Bob’s wife, Ruth Ann, and his sister, Elaine.  Bob and Ruth Ann led me to Mrs. Lovell’s Room, the bedroom of the house’s original owner.

Now I didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but I was blown away by the place just from my little walkaround of the first floor.  I had not been in an inn of this type since the Victorian Villa originally stoked my interest in B & Bs way back when.  And every room was jam packed with Christmas.  Trees, decorations, Nativity scenes, Santa Clauses.  You name it.

As I said, time was at a premium.  I had to head into Rochester in order to attend church for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

One good thing about Chatfield is that it has easy access to the highway, thus easy access to Rochester.  The downtown area can be a little confusing as the street numbers repeat themselves, quickly change direction (like 1st St SW to 1st St NE), and transform from street to avenues in the blink of an eye.  However, a good map allowed me to easily find St Francis of Assisi.

It was a nice little church that holds services in both English and Spanish though I suspect Spanish is the primary language as the priest made a joke about the bishop coming for a service so that sermon would be in English.  Father was from Colombia and he used the sermon to introduce a tradition popular in the Hispanic culture.  For the feast of Our Lady from Guadalupe, Hispanic families often take part in “The Night of the Little Candles” where a family will light a number of candles equal to the number of people in the family and place them in the main window of the house.  As such, Father had six candles lit on the altar.

DSC00604

Rochester Civic Theatre

After church I then headed to the Rochester Civic Theatre in order to review their production of Annie:  The Musical.  You can read my review for it here.

When the show was done, I returned to the inn where I once again didn’t give the car enough juice to get to the top of the driveway.  So I started reversing back down to take another run.  Only this time my car turned sideways and I got wedged in at the bottom of the driveway.  No trouble.  I got out of my car to kick some snow away and rock my way free only to find I had locked myself out of the car.

Luckily, Bob was still up and working as he and Ruth Ann were preparing for a luncheon the next day.  He contacted the police for me and within a few minutes the police had arrived and they managed to get my door open.  Bob then guided me out and I got the running start I needed to get back up to the top of the driveway.

Back in the house, Bob whipped up a bowl of chili for me as I had not eaten any dinner.  As I ate, Bob told me a bit about the house before giving me the formal tour of the house.

Oakenwald Terrace is an L-Shape Shingle Style Victorian mansion which boasts 23 rooms and 10,000 square feet.  It was the dream home of Ellen Lovell who had it built in 1897.  The Lund family has owned it since 1973 and, for the first 30 years of their ownership, Marion Lund operated it as an assisted living home.  In 2003, it was changed into a bed and breakfast and a bit of a living museum famed for its 4 course breakfasts.

After my tour, I finally got a good look at my room.  As I said, I was in Mrs. Lovell’s Room and it had originally been Mrs. Lovell’s bedroom. It holds one of the house’s original 4 fireplaces and the room is as Victorian as you can get.  A comfortable sitting room takes up the bulk of the room with several chairs and a settee.  Behind a screen is a bed with a private bedroom to its left.  I admired my Christmas trees and other holiday items before finally crawling into bed and calling it a night.

In the morning I grabbed a shower and sat down to breakfast.  Course #1 was a tiny dish of raspberries, kiwi, and cream.  Course #2 was a banana pancake.  Course #3 was grapes, ham omelet, and English muffin.  Last, but not least, was a piece of lemon sponge cake topped with an Andes mint.  In short, epic deliciousness and no need to eat again until night.  Bob joined me while I ate sharing stories about the history of the house and neighborhood and the history really adds a vital dimension to the experience.

After breakfast, I went back through the house to finally take photos.  Once I got some posted, I headed back to Rochester where I spent a few hours at The Machine Shed.

This is a tiny vintage arcade where $10 lets you play to your fill.  The arcade does not hold many games though there is an emulator that holds over 400 games.  I played a bit of Shinobi, Root Beer Tapper, Dungeons & Dragons, Sunsetriders, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:  Turtles in Time.

Where I was done gaming, it was back to the inn for some writing and then off to church at Assumption Catholic in Canton, MN.

My directions were. . .less than stellar.  Supposedly the trip would take 35 minutes, but it was 45 minutes before I even reached the town.  There my directions failed me utterly and it was only through divine aid or utter luck that I managed to stumble upon the church so I ended up being a little bit late, but still enjoyed a pleasant service.

When church was done, I returned to Chatfield where I had dinner at Jac’s Bar and Grill.  The joint was jumping and I managed to get the last booth.  I was told it might take 40 minutes to get food and I replied that I had a book.  I suspected it would take less time as I saw diners leave and not get replaced.  So within 15 minutes, I had my food as the restaurant continued to empty due to an Elvis Christmas show taking place at the local Arts Center a few blocks away.

I enjoyed a Monkey Burger which had ranch dressing, bacon, cheese, jalapenos, and a spicy sauce they called monkey sauce.  It was quite delectable and filled the cavity whereupon I returned to the inn for the night.

The first thing I did the next morning was stoke the fire.  Then I drew a hot bath where I just soaked until the heat was gone from the water.  Feeling refreshed, I was ready for some breakfast.

Today’s meal began with another dish of mixed fruit followed by an apple pancake puff.  Then there was a ham and cheese quiche with a peppermint ice cream cake for dessert.  Another filling meal with more conversation including a couple who were visiting Chatfield for the Elvis show last night.

And so ends this chapter of the Cavalcade of Christmas.  Chatfield is a nice little town with some interesting things to do and is near Rochester if you need some big city fun.  And Oakenwald Terrace should be your lodging of choice as it is a living museum loaded with history.  They do Christmas right.  They certainly do meals well.  The innkeepers are aces in hospitality.  And the inn is just a lovely step back to a less cluttered time.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

DSC00588

The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Ho Ho Homicide: Mont Rest & Bellevue, IA

058

Mont Rest Bed and Breakfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

056

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

037

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

001

St Joseph Catholic Church

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

002

Mmm!! Hors d’ouevres.

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

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

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

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

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

018

Officer Ima Fuzz

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

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

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

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

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

019

Quiche, fried potatoes, sausage.

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

Until the next time, happy travels.

Circle Theatre Holding Auditions for “Miracle on 34th Street”

Circle Theatre will hold auditions for the second production of its 2017-2018 season, Miracle on 34th Street. The production will run December 8-17, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m and Sundays at 3 p.m. Audtions, rehearsals, and production will be held at Hanscom Park United Methodist Church (4444 Frances St, Omaha, NE). Rehearsals will begin the last week of October. The production will be directed by Circle Theatre Associate Artistic Director, Angela M. Dashner. For more information, please contact Circle Theatre at circle.theatreomaha@gmail.com

Please note that the role of Kris Kringle has been pre-cast.

Of Outlaws, Nature, and Elegance: Excelsior Springs & The Inn on Crescent Lake

051

“The road is now calling and I must away.”—Billy Boyd

The presents were opened.  The cheer was shared.  And, once more, the road was calling me to a new destination.  So it was that I found myself heading southwards on a pleasant, but frosty, Sunday towards the spa town of Excelsior Springs in Missouri where I would visit the Inn on Crescent Lake.

Excelsior Springs was famed for its mineral waters once upon a time and people came from miles around to bathe and be cured of their myriad illnesses.  The town pays tribute to its past with its Hall of Water exhibition in the downtown area, but it is also known as a bit of a resort area thanks to the Inn on Crescent Lake and the Elms Hotel & Spa.

Excelsior Springs is also located near several historical towns such as Liberty and Kearney as well as being a suburb of Kansas City.  In short, it has all the elements for a nice little weekend away.

I arrived in town shortly after noon and immediately headed downtown to have a bit of lunch.  Unfortunately, my initial choice was not open on Sundays.  Luckily, I found the Mill Street Restaurant and proceeded to have an enjoyable meal.

The restaurant was bustling, but I managed to find a seat and perused the menu.  Opting for a patty melt and fries, I sat back and relaxed, reading my Christmas gift, The Last Confession of Sherlock Holmes.  Within a few minutes, a piping hot plate was set before me and I enjoyed a perfectly prepared melt as well as some crisp, crinkle cut French fries.

Once lunch was done, I made my way to the town of Kearney, MO so I could visit the Jesse James Farm & Museum.

The James farmhouse.

The James farmhouse.

Jesse James and his brother, Frank, were two of the most legendary, and notorious, outlaws of American history.  They planned the first daytime bank robbery in history and embarked on a 16 year crime spree before Jesse was shot in the back of his head by Robert Ford.  Frank had retired from crime to raise a family and ultimately surrendered himself to the Governor of Missouri after being promised a fair trial and protection.  Frank and Jesse had been bushwhackers, a term used to describe guerrilla Confederate troops who attacked in quick bursts and slipped away.  Bushwhackers were often mobbed and hung and were stripped of many citizen rights after the Civil War.  The James brothers were often lauded as heroes fighting the tyranny of the Union which contributed to their legend as Robin Hoods of the South.

The James Farm is a very interesting piece of history.  The original farmhouse still stands and carries many interesting tales as related by our tour guide.  The most notable tale was the story of the Pinkerton raid in which Pinkerton agents attempted to capture Frank and Jesse (who were not at the farm at the time of the attack).  The raid resulted in the bombing death of Frank and Jesse’s 8 year old half-brother, Archie Samuel, and the loss of the arm of the James matriarch, Zerelda.

Jesse was buried on the family farm, but the tombstone erected on site is not the original.  We were informed that it was the third replica of the original marker.  The first two had virtually been eradicated by souvenir hunters who had chipped the two into oblivion to gain a piece of Jesse James’ tombstone.  What is left of the original is housed in the museum.

The James’ family was nothing, if not entrepreneurial.  Zerelda gave tours of the farm until her death.  She sold the rocks covering Jesse’s graves as souvenirs for 25 cents apiece.  When she ran out of the original stones, Zerelda brought stones from the nearby creek and sold them as “originals”.  She also was known to protect the original tombstone by keeping a loaded shotgun by her bed which faced the tombstone so she could always discourage would be souvenir hunters.  At her death, Frank took over tours until his death.  Eventually the county bought the land from the James heirs to build the museum and continue the tours.

After my visit to the farm, I returned to Excelsior Springs to check into the Inn on Crescent Lake.

I admit that I was blown away when I laid eyes on the estate.  The Inn on Crescent Lake is the most beautiful and luxurious inn I have visited since I began this project.  The 100 year old (it still looks brand new) Georgian Colonial Mansion is seated on a 22 acre property encircled by two crescent shaped ponds known as Crescent Lake.  Aside from the mansion, there is also a swimming pool with a hot tub and pool house that holds a massage room and extra suite for guests.  The property also boasts a small walking trail.

I rang the doorbell, which was attached to an intercom.  It was answered by owner, Beverly Bohnert, who told me to enter the foyer where I would be greeted.  I was met by owner, Craig Bohnert, who gave me a quick tour of the place.

My jaw nearly dropped as I gazed at the beauty of the inn.  My personal favorite was the living room which had a Christmas tree and a beaut of a fireplace.  I still marvel at the fact that the house is 100 years old because it looks pristine and new both inside and out.

032034

Eventually, Craig led me to the McCleary room which would serve as my home for the next two days.  The room was massive with a king sized bed gracing the center of the room.  The soft blue of the walls began relaxing me from the moment I entered.  After giving me a list of restaurant recommendations, complete with directions, Craig left me to my own devices.  I settled into the room and began exploring the rest of the mansion.

The McCleary Room.

The McCleary Room.

The Solarium.  This also doubles as the breakfast room.

The Solarium. This also doubles as the breakfast room.

After exploring the inn (and enjoying a couple of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of Beverly), it was time for supper so I decided to try El Maguey for a bit of Mexican fare.  I had a delicious quesadilla fajita and continued reading my latest adventure of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  My server forgot to tell me that I needed to head up front to pay the bill, so I spent a half hour wondering why he wasn’t picking up my check until I saw someone heading up front with their bill.  Well, at least, I got a lot of reading in.

I returned to Crescent Lake and enjoyed my whirlpool bathtub where I scraped off the beard I had been growing for the last few months and nearly took a nap in the hot, swirling waters.  Afterwards, I posted some pics while I watched an episode of A Touch of Frost.  When the show was over, I read myself to sleep on the nice firm mattress of my king sized bed.

The next morning I finished my novel and headed downstairs to the solarium for a hearty breakfast and I emphasize the word, hearty.  Craig presented me with a glass of orange juice and a meal fit for a king.  It consisted of two biscuits, a hash brown, two small sausage patties, a slice of orange, and a piece of casserole that contained sausage, egg, cheese, onions among other ingredients.  It was so tasty, but I ended up losing to the meal which bested me by a biscuit and an orange.  But, trust me, defeat never tasted so good.

After that wonderful meal, I hopped in my car and drove to Watson Mills State Park.  I had hoped to get a tour of the Watson House and the wool mill at the park, but found that those tours are only held during the weekend at this time of year.  It wasn’t a complete loss as I enjoyed a 4 mile hike around the lake which brought back memories of my walk through Azabu-Jaban in Tokyo several years prior.

With the completion of my constitutional, I returned to Crescent Lake where I began a new mystery novel featuring Frank Cannon and relaxed to the music of the night as I listened to Highlights from the Phantom of the Opera.

At 1pm, I headed down to the pool house for a 90 minute massage with LaVerne Gardiner.  If you stay at this inn, be certain to schedule some massage time with LaVerne.  It will be well worth your while.  This was one of the best massages I have ever received as I could feel muscles knots pop and dissolve under her ministrations.  I was loose, limber, and had full range of motion in my neck after that session.

I kicked back in my room for another couple of hours before taking another whirlpool bath and then went downtown for supper at Ventana’s Gourmet Grill, the personal favorite of Craig and Beverly.

As I went into the restaurant I was greeted by the smiling visage of a mannequin depicting a Victorian Santa Claus and another Christmas tree.  I entered the little eatery and sat down at a table.  The service was a little slow and a couple who entered after me had their orders taken before me.  But the quality of the meal made up for the misfires in the service.

I began my meal with an American salad with a slight drizzle of ranch dressing.  The vegetables were fresh and crisp.  For the main course I had the Garden Chicken plate which consisted of a lemon pepper chicken breast with grilled zucchini, mushrooms, and the fluffiest, tastiest mashed potatoes I had ever tasted.  I savored each delicious bite and polished off both my plate and my other novel.  From there, I returned to the inn, enjoying the Christmas decorations and lights along the way, to relax for a few hours before another blissful night of sleep.

The next morning, I was back in the solarium reading an old Reader’s Digest and enjoying another fabulous breakfast of honeydew and cantaloupe, bacon, and blueberry French toast.  I peered out over Crescent Lake and felt sorry that I would have to leave the inn.  I would definitely like to return to this inn, especially if they mount a mystery weekend which is something Craig and Beverly have been considering.

I give this place my highest recommendation for a visit.  If you want sweet seclusion, elegance, and fine dining then the Inn on Crescent Lake should be your lodging of choice if you find yourself in the city of Excelsior Springs.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I’ve compiled a large list of inns to visit for this project, but there are undoubtedly many, many more which I’ve yet to discover.  If there’s an inn that you think I absolutely must visit, feel free to comment on my B & B posts and I will add it to the visitation list.

Double Bill Christmas Show Provides Mixed Bag of Gifts

In one night, you’ll get the gamut of Christmas with a story about the birth of Christ and a story about jolly old St. Nick in the Circle Theater’s productions of Waiting for Gordy and Bang!  Zoom!  To the Moon!

The night opens with Doug Marr’s brief one act play, Waiting for Gordy.  This is a very sentimental, sweet, holiday take on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  Two men, Earl and Vic, have been waiting on the steps several times a week for 4 weeks waiting for Gordy to come and tell them when it’s time to leave.  During their conversation, a star appears and we get a modern take on the birth of the Savior.

As Earl, David Sindelar gives a remarkable, beautifully underplayed performance.  With a serene, confident delivery, Sindelar’s Earl exudes a warm assurance that Gordy will, in fact, come.  He is quite clearly the rock in his friendship with Vic, gently persuading him to wait with him for the mysterious Gordy.

Matt Allen’s Vic provides a fine foil to Sindelar’s solid Earl.  Far more animated, sensitive, and a tad scatterbrained, Allen’s Vic comes off as very childlike.  He’s impatient, forgets what they’re waiting for, and takes offense at perceived slights.  Yet that slightly vinegary interpretation provides a needed dynamic with Sindelar’s sweetness.

Combined, these 2 characters are the everyman.  The faith and the doubt.  And the work of these 2 fine actors made for one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in many a moon.  The play may seem static as neither actor moves much, but that is absolutely critical for this tale as it’s truly about what they say and not what they do.

From there, it was on to the featured play, Bang!  Zoom!  To the Moon! written by David Sindelar.

In this story, it’s Christmastime again, and Santa is getting ready to deliver presents.  However, when his GPS system is broken by a klutzy elf, Santa ends up on the moon where he is held captive by the Moonians who are upset that their Christmas wishes have long been ignored.  It takes the help of Santa’s witchy (literally) wife, daughter, elves, and inventor to save Father Christmas and preserve Christmas for Earth.

Sindelar’s script is full of zingy one liners and is a cohesive, well planned story with some amusing bits.  One of the more entertaining moments is that the moon is so barren that the Moonians don’t even have a proper cell to hold Santa.  They have a cell door which they force Santa to carry around which provides for some good, physical comedy.

Real life mother and daughter, Stephanie Anderson and Stella Ehrhart, play the Moonians, Difray and Angon.  Anderson, in particular, is a hoot with alien, staccato speech patterns, robotlike movements, and a monotone laugh.  Yet, she also is able to mine the role for some sympathy with her sad tale about Santa never granting any of her Christmas wishes.  Ehrhart manages to match her mother for delivery and humor, especially with her attempts at trying to hijack this tale with a telling of Zippy, the Christmas Narwahl, though at times she slips out of her Moonian accent and does not cheat out enough to the audience.

Sarah Ervin nearly steals the show as Oopzit.  Oopzit means well, but she is an unintentional force of nature that breaks everything she touches and constantly injures herself.  Displaying an excellent sense of timing and physicality, Ervin is an absolute scream as the klutzy elf as she politely swears (Cheese and rice!!) and flops around the stage.  Adding to the realism of this character is the fact that Oopzit is noticeably more banged up each time she appears on stage.

Dylan Marr gives an exceptional performance as Quinn, Santa’s absent-minded genius inventor.  With good use of voice and body language, Marr’s Quinn has genius and uncertainty all rolled into one and makes for some delightful moments.

Laura Marr and Matt Allen play Weeble, Santa’s chief elf, and Gunar, Santa’s inept #2 and reindeer wrangler.  Laura’s Weeble is tough as nails and always ready to take charge.  Her inability to call a GPS by its proper initials is the best running gag in the show.  Allen’s Gunar is a lisping, cowardly buffoon, though he does have toughness when the chips are down.  Allen’s performance needed to be reined in as he was a bit too over the top for the show and his awkward gestures and poses often distracted from the show.

Another real life mother and daughter team, Christa and Katya Reason, played Santa’s wife, Driselda, and his daughter, Lisbeth.  These two are witches and Driselda handles the magic side of Santa’s operation while Lisbeth just wants to learn more spells from her mom who is too busy to teach her.  Christa Reason’s Driselda is a bit ill tempered, easily frustrated, and slightly arrogant.  But underneath beats a heart of gold and a person who can admit her mistakes.  Katya Reason’s performance as Lisbeth is a little rough around the edges.  She needs to be a bit more animated and broke character on a few occasions, but still had a nice, bratty charm.

As Santa, David Sindelar plays the straight man of this group of loons and does it very well.  Santa is clearly the boss of the operation as proven when he orders a mandatory Hawaiian casual week when the others at Santa’s Workshop laugh at the only garments he has left after Oopzit destroyed his wardrobe.  But being the kind soul that he is, Sindelar also shows a warm heart and loving nature with this character as he listens to the plight of the Moonians and vows to do better by them.

Waiting for Gordy and Bang!  Zoom!  To the Moon!  runs through December 21 at the Circle Theatre.  The show begins at 8pm with an optional dinner starting at 7pm.  Performance days are Thurs-Sat with one matinee performance at 2pm (lunch at 1pm) on December 15.  Ticket prices are $25 for dinner and show for adults, $23 for seniors, $20 for students, and $16 for children.  For just the show, prices are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $8 for children, and $10 for active military and TAG members.  Reservations can be made at 402-553-4715.  The Circle Theater is located at 726 S 55th St, Omaha, NE  68106 in the basement of Central Presbyterian Church.