Journey to Gurnee or Sealed with a Chris

Time for a travel tale of a different sort and you can get twice the bang for your buck as you can read my brother’s take on this story at his blog.

I have three brothers (Brian, Dan, and Jeff) and six weeks or so ago, my brother, Dan, texted out of the blue with a suggestion that the four of us take a road trip together.  He had suggested Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH, but that was a bit far for a weekend trip for 3 of us and would be tough to coordinate as we each live in different states and the nearest major airport to Sandusky was over an hour away.

Add that to the fact that timing would be delicate.  Most amusement parks close after Labor Day or have greatly reduced hours.  Add that to the fact that Jeff and I will be out of the country for most of September and that essentially left August unless tabled for another year.

Jeff’s husband, Scott, suggested a visit to Six Flags Great America in much closer Gurnee, IL might be a more viable option.  It took a bit of doing, but the 4 of us managed to clear our schedules at the end of August to make this trip.

Sadly, Dan had to bow out at the 11th hour due to illness, but he encouraged the three of us to continue the trip and kept in regular contact via text to enjoy things somewhat vicariously.

My older brother and I live almost equidistant from Gurnee, but he was kind enough to drive to Omaha so we could make the trip together.  He even agreed to my plan to take a more roundabout route as the initial route seemed to go through Chicago proper and I had little desire to battle that maniacal traffic or pay a series of potentially usurious tolls.  Furthermore, I wanted to split the trip down over 2 days so we wouldn’t be overly worn out for doing things after arriving in the Gurnee area.

Thursday night found us heading out on the road after a quick meal at Chick Fil A.  Animated conversation made the time go quickly and we pulled over shortly after midnight at a Sleep Inn in North Liberty, IA.

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Brian photobombs my photo of Sleep Inn in North Liberty, IA.

I was wired and didn’t drift off to sleep until after 1am and slept rather fitfully.  Brian and I rose early and had breakfast in the hotel dining room.  It was adequate with the sausage links being tasty, but the biscuits were a little tough and needed a knife and fork to cut.  Brian ate 4 mini cinnamon rolls for his breakfast.

Shortly afterwards, we were back on the road.  My roundabout route took us through quite a few lovely small towns which I rather enjoyed.  We actually passed through Galena and I got to show Brian the B & B I had stayed at there, the former Bernadine’s Stillman Inn.

I actually made some notes of locales to visit for future journeys, but Brian got slightly annoyed due to a neverending stream of construction we went though in these small towns that slowed us down.

Eventually, we reached our destination, Springhill Suites in Waukegan, IL, but found that the exits leading to the hotel were blocked by more construction and it took nearly 30 minutes for Google Maps to suss out a route that finally allowed us to reach the hotel.

 

 

Springhill Suites was a pretty modern hotel and the rooms were quite nice, but not exactly suites in the strictest sense of the word.  They were actually expanded rooms, but did grant quite a bit of space.

We puttered around for a bit.  Brian and Jeff engaged in a pair of cribbage games while I watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  After Brian took Jeff in 2 straight games, we headed out to dinner and tried nearby Anastasia’s, a sports lounge.

You get pretty good value for your money as you get a good sized meal for your cash.  Jeff had a meatball sandwich while Brian supped on blackened cod and I had a gyro sandwich which really hit the spot.

After dinner, we engaged in one of my favorite activities:  mini golf!!  We visited Lighthouse Miniature Golf which was a little family owned course.  The grounds were lovingly maintained though a little refurbishment could be used here and there.  The course had a ton of character and very fun and challenging holes.

 

 

I ended up finishing in third, being unable to find my groove until closer to the end.  But I did manage to win the Ace Award with a pair of holes in one on the last two holes.  The hole in one on the 18th hole netted me a free game which I will be glad to use when I’m back in the area.  Someone mistook my calm poise and skill for ridiculous sloppy luck on that last hole, but what the hey.

With the links putted, we went back to the hotel and hooked up Brian’s Wii where we played a few rounds of Mario Party 9 before getting some shuteye to attack the park the next day.

Fortunately, all three of us are early risers, so we were able to get up and get some breakfast in the hotel dining room.  Again, the food was just so so.  The turkey sausage patties were pretty good and the biscuits and gravy were actually even tougher than the ones I had in Iowa and again needed a knife and fork to eat them.

As the park didn’t open until 10:30am, we even had time to squeeze in a round of Phase 10.  Now my brothers often curse my unbelievable luck in the game.  I do admit that I seem to have a penchant for obtaining wild cards, but I attribute it to the universe being nice to me because I’m pure of heart.  However, my brothers have actually labeled various winning hands as “Chrises” depending on the number of wilds in it. All the way from a regular Chris for three wilds to an Omega Chris if a winning hand ever has all 8 wilds.  Once again, I won the game and sealed it with a Chris.

 

 

It was a perfect day for parking as the weather was a glorious spring day without a whit of humidity.  Six Flags Great America is coaster crazy with a whopping 16 roller coasters to try.  The park wasn’t overly full and we usually didn’t have to wait very long for rides. Some of the rides even had single rider lines which we used to get on rides in a matter of minutes.  Highlights included American Eagle, a classic wooden coaster that has the herky jerky movement and the body rattling jolts of an old fashioned coaster; X-Flight, an inverted wing coaster that has some impressive barrel rolls and a 180 degree swoop through a narrow chasm; The Joker Crazy Coaster, a unique coaster that climbs 12 stories and flips you over several times; The Goliath, the world’s fastest and tallest wooden coaster with an initial job of 180 feet and inversions that were nearly loop the loops.  This was easily one of the best coasters I’ve ever ridden and was the only ride we hit twice.  Our final ride was Superman:  Ultimate Flight and the one we waited the longest for at 95 minutes due to its being a signature ride.  This is an inverted coaster, but the seats actually pull up and lock into place so the riders face parallel to the ground to simulate flying like Superman.  I freely admit that right before the first drop, I held up my arms in flying pose and said, “I’ve waited all my life to say this.  Up, up and awayyy!!!!”

What better way to close the night than with more mini-golf.  So we were off to Aloha Falls in nearby Libertyville.

 

 

Aloha Falls was the course I had originally wanted to play, but we were stunned to learn that it is only open on the weekends and only until about 8pm.  The course’s signature Waterfall Course is listed as the 8th toughest in the USA and the clubhouse holds some classic board games and video game systems to play.

This is one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever played with extremely lovely and difficult holes.  It lives up to its rep as a tough course, but I played one of the best games of my life ending 3 under par on the front nine which allowed me to race toward a fairly easy victory for the night.  Though this is very much a quality course, all 3 of us liked Lighthouse more due to its character.

We were starving after the game as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast so we stopped at a Chili’s near the hotel for dinner.  I packed away one of the biggest meals in recent memory with a Chili’s chili burger and I also scarfed a fair number of the chips and salsa Jeff got as a free appetizer.

With full stomachs, we returned to the hotel where we played a last round of Mario Party in which fate stole my victory at the last moment.  Then it was to bed as Brian wanted to leave very early in the morning to get back home.

At 7:40am, Brian and I bade good-bye to Jeff and headed back home.  Brian wanted to take the most direct route so it was all interstate for us.  Truthfully, it would not have been so bad using this route on the way to Waukegan as it skirted around Chicago, but it did take us through 5 tolls so my route did save us a bit of dough.

Though we were short a Musketeer, it was still an enjoyable trip and it was nice to bond with my most of my siblings.  If the stars align, maybe Cedar Point can be done next year.

Until the next time, happy travels!!

McNeill Stone Mansion: Oskaloosa’s Fortress of Solitude

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My eyes fell upon this bed and breakfast while I was preparing my hunt list and once they did, I immediately moved it to the top of my visitation list and I certainly am glad I did so.  My stay at the McNeill Stone Mansion has proved to be one of my most enjoyable visits to date.

This trip was blessed from the start.  On a day that was supposed to be cloudy and cool, I ended up getting a proper spring day, full of sunshine and warmth.  I arrived in Oskaloosa a little earlier than I intended, but found that they had a college (William Penn University) nearby.  I wandered around the tiny campus for a little bit and even managed to get a small workout in as I did two miles on the indoor track in the school’s fitness center.

From there I attended worship services at St Mary’s.  I was fortunate to be attending the school’s First Communion service and it warmed my heart to see these children begin another step on their journey with God.  Most interesting, the children actually prepared the communion wafers used at this service.  They were just made out of wheat and water and Father Jeff said they would be different from traditional wafers.

He was quite right in that aspect, but I liked the message he tied it to after Communion.  Father Jeff said that people’s faces seemed to indicate, “Whoa!  That was different” and he said people are just like that when they allow Jesus into their hearts.  And he hoped that people would see us and say, “Whoa!  He or she is different.”  I’ve never heard the message of salvation so simply and aptly put.  Right on, Father Jeff!!

After church, I headed over to the McNeill Stone Mansion which is an imposing edifice at the end of a block.  I was heartily greeted by Ginny Walker who gave me a tour of the inn.  Ginny really knew her history, showing me articles and photos from when the mansion was originally built up until the present day.  At one point, the home had been abandoned for 18 years and was buried beneath an overgrowth of trees until Ginny and her husband, Gary, bought it and spent 7 years restoring it to its original splendor as pictured below.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Foyer

Foyer

Living Room

Living Room

 

I stayed in the Far East Room which was the mansion’s guest room when originally built.

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This room was a palace.  By far, the biggest room I have ever stayed at a bed and breakfast and one of the nicest, as well.

Once I had settled in and relaxed for a few hours, I headed into town and enjoyed a meal at Tasos’ Steakhouse.  This must be a popular restaurant as it was jammed to the rafters.  Fortunately, I was able to be seated very quickly.  I decided to try Tasos’ House Ribeye sautéed with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers.  It was one of the best cuts of meat I have had in a while.  It was cooked to absolute perfection and I took most of it to go for my lunch today.

It was about 9pm when I got back to the inn so I drew a hot bath in one of the deepest bathtubs I have ever seen and nearly fell asleep as I was so relaxed.  As I prepared for bed, I realized I had forgotten the small fan I travel with for the white noise I use to help me fall asleep.  Fortunately, the room had an electric fireplace which I turned on and the illusory flames lulled me into a deep and restful slumber.

Upon awaking the next morning, I headed down to the dining room for one of the most enjoyable breakfast experiences I’ve had in a bit.  After three straight reviews where I was the only guest at the bed and breakfast, I actually had some company.  I had the privilege of meeting Dave and Monica Settle of St Charles, MO who were visiting the McNeill Stone Mansion for their 30th anniversary.  Happy Anniversary!!  So aside from the outstanding food, I also had the pleasure of some wonderful conversation.

Breakfast was a grand affair, beginning with a dish of fruit topped off with a yogurt.  I enjoyed several bites, but knew I had to save stomach capacity for the other courses.  After the fruit, was a cinnamon roll topped with almonds that was moist and delicious and practically melted in my mouth.  Afterwards was the main course of egg casserole which looked like a quiche stuffed with ham, cheese, and other tasty items along with some bacon for a side dish.

When breakfast had been eaten, Ginny surprised the Settles with a little yellow pudding cake she had made for their anniversary.  And if you’re wondering, yes, the Settles were kind enough to share a bit of their cake with me.  It was delicious, btw.

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Before I knew it, 75 minutes had passed and I knew I  had to hurry if I were going to write up this adventure before I left.

If you find yourself in Oskaloosa, make a point of staying here.  You’ll be treated to a truly delightful pair of hosts, some excellent food, and brilliant conversation.  Even better, if you like classic cars, start up a conversation with Gary as he has a national reputation for restoring them.

Last Exit To Vegas (For Now), Day 2: Where on Earth is His Luck?

As I watch a glorious sunset from my suite, I find myself at the keyboard once more to report on the adventures of the day.

As I suspected (and hoped), my headache was merely the result of exhaustion as a good night’s sleep cleared it up.  A long, hot bath in the morning cleared up any residual traces and I was ready for some breakfast.  Once more, I headed to the Gold Coast to enjoy their delicious (and affordable) breakfast buffet.  After a filling meal, I was hoping my peculiar luck was ready to surface and further pad my bank account.

As you may have gathered from the title, that most assuredly did NOT happen.

I could not get any serious runs going on any machine I tried.  I was frequently teased with bonuses that did not manifest, fried by Godzilla on Monster Island, haunted by The Phantom of the Opera, slimed by Ghostbusters, slapped around by Superman, and blasted by Back to the Future

Once I had taken enough of a beating, I decided to make use of the nice day and do some exploring.  I decided to actually go inside many casinos that I had never stepped inside or hadn’t stepped inside for years.  I made a further exploration of the Bellagio which is actually quite artistic.  Many of the ceilings are decorated with butterflies and they also have some elegant gardens in the resort. 

I also wandered about the Monte Carlo, New York New York, the Cosmopolitan, Harrah’s, and the Mirage.  And at the Mirage, some semblance of my luck managed to show its face as I found a kindly The Twilight Zone machine which allowed me to play steadily for a long while, but didn’t net me big bucks. 

After six hours of walking around, I was ready to return to the Rio and put my feet up for a bit.  Upon resting for a while, I decided to take my $1 bills and give it one final shot.  This was my luckiest moment as Judge Judy was quite benevolent.  I ended up earning 8x my investment.  It was a true pity that I only had put $5 into the machine.  Ah well.  A win is a win.

I ended up having my supper at the BK Whopper Bar at the Rio.  Whopper Bars began appearing a few years back.  Their menu is actually pretty limited as they only serve Whoppers or Double Whoppers, though they also have a traditional breakfast menu in the mornings.  The big difference is that you can get fixings that aren’t available at a regular Burger King and you can also get a beer if you desire.  I had a Whopper with the traditional fixings, but added pepper bacon and sautéed mushrooms.

Tonight I’ve decided to take it easy and perhaps watch the cult comedy, Kung Pow!:  Enter the Fist.  Tomorrow will be spent at Qua Baths and Spa, though this time I will be paying for it out of my own pocket.  However, I must take a moment and put it into perspective.  The Vegas casinos have been kind enough to pay for my spa visits the last three times.  Including tips, that means they have paid out somewhere between $800-$850 total.  They barely got a fraction of that back from me today, so I can still claim ultimate victory in the money wars.  Also, thanks to the free room upgrade, I’ve actually broken even and may even be slightly ahead asset wise.

Until the next time. . .

Viva Las Vegas, Day 2 or Where Does He Get His Luck?

Another day in Las Vegas and it was actually quite chilly today.  But it’s not going to stand in the way of this adventure.

I was feeling in a particularly good mood, so I bought breakfast for my companions at the Port O’Calls Buffet at the Gold Coast Hotel & Casino.  This is a very reasonably priced buffet and the food tastes great, especially the French Toast which is the most delicious I have enjoyed.  There is actually a story behind this delicacy.

The second time I ever went to Vegas with Mat and John (and a third friend, Matt Haynie), Haynie, John, and I enjoyed the French Toast, but Mat was too full to enjoy a piece.  The three of us raved about how wonderful it was and Mat thought we were jerking his chain as this raving continued for the next year.

Mat and I returned to Vegas a year later where we again ate at Gold Coast and I asked Mat if he were going to eat the French Toast.  He said he would just to get me off his back.  I saw him slice off a bite and pop it into his mouth.  Immediately, his eyes popped open and revealed the truth of the incredible taste.  Mat’s expression said he didn’t want to admit how good it was, but he finally grunted, “D–n it!!  It is good.”

After a hearty meal, we returned to the Rio where my legendary luck surfaced again.  I am not much of a gambler, but 9 times out of 10 I am unusually lucky.  We found a Lord of the Rings slot machine where I did decently, ending $40 ahead.  Then I attempted to play a Judge Judy machine and wasn’t having much luck and I decided to take one more spin.

BOOM!  9,000 penny jackpot.

From there, with the aid of good spins and bonuses, I ran it up to being $250 ahead.

After my profitable morning, Mat and I headed over to Harrah’s where we enjoyed the Mac King Comedy Magic Show.  This has been voted the best afternoon show in Vegas for a number of years and is well deserved.  Mr. King is an excellent magician with an easygoing, likable manner.  Even better, he’s clean.  This is a very family friendly show and one of the most affordable shows in Vegas.  Top tickets only cost about $50, plus tax.

After the show, Mat and I ran to the Mirage so I could try to find the Ghostbusters machine that was so generous to me last year.  I found it and, this time, it wasn’t quite so giving and it ate some of my winnings.  A Superman machine managed to dig me out of the loss a little.  I then decided to give the other Ghostbusters machine one last chance.  KA-POW!!  Started earning some more profits.

After I felt I had bled the luck out of the machine, we returned to the Rio where Mat took a break and I proceeded to have a little bad luck and lost a portion of my winnings back to Judge Judy (and blackjack and Spider-Man).

That evening, I finally got to go to downtown Las Vegas for the first time.  It was truly a unique experience.  I enjoyed the Fremont Street Experience (a massive light show), saw a street magician, and proceeded to lose some more money on a Godzilla slot machine and a The Price is Right machine at the legendary 4 Queens Hotel & Casino.

From there, my cohorts and I traveled to Binions where Mat spied a Superman II slot machine and I felt I had to play it.  I hit a bonus where I won 3 2,000 penny jackpots in a row, so now I had recouped all the money I had lost and then some.

After a tiring, but fulfilling day, we returned to the Rio for a well deserved rest.