Down By the Bay: Astor House & Green Bay, WI

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Astor House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Green Bay, WI.

After 6 weeks of doing a play review or two each week, I was ready for a little downtime.  I started thumbing through my trusty B & B spreadsheet and began looking at Astor House Bed & Breakfast.  I was stunned at the affordability of the room rates and decided to book a little getaway.

So it was that on Friday night I found myself on the road again.  I managed to avoid the rush hour of Omaha and was enjoying a rather speedy and pleasant drive.  Around Stuart, IA I pulled over as I was hungry and decided to try an Impossible Whopper at the local Burger King (being a Lenten Friday and all).

The sandwich actually tastes amazingly similar to a Whopper.  The difference is only slight and my fries were fresh so I got to enjoy a very relaxing meal before getting back on the road.

Around 9pm, I arrived in Cedar Rapids, IA where I utilized my Hilton Honors membership to rest for the night at a Hampton Inn.

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Now I salute this hotel for some truly superior customer service.  I received a call from the hotel the day before telling me that the swimming pool and hot tub were unavailable due to a burst pipe and they offered to refund my fee if I wanted to find a different hotel.  While I had considered a good swim, it was tentative at best as I figured I would just be sleeping before finishing the drive to Green Bay the following day.

This Hampton Inn is currently undergoing renovations and my room was actually quite elegant.  The king bed was a little firmer than I would have liked, but its spaciousness helped to relax me.  I also noticed what appears to be a growing trend in hotels. . .no vending machines.  More and more, it seems hotels now have a little kiosk area where they sell snacks and drinks on the ground floor as opposed to the olden days where one would just stroll down the hall to a machine for a snack or drink.

 

I had a fairly restful night’s sleep and went down to the dining area for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn’t too bad.  This Hampton Inn offers some hot options along with cold cereal, bread and pastries.  Scrambled eggs, smoked sausage, bagel toppers, oatmeal and waffles were also available.  The oatmeal was fantastic, especially with a bit of brown sugar.  I also tried a bagel topper (half bagel with cheese and onions) and a tiny bit of smoked sausage.  As Nero Wolfe would say, “Satisfactory”.

This had to have been one of the more relaxing drives I’ve had in recent memory.  The roads were fairly empty and the road to Green Bay is mostly state highways so I passed through several small towns and even noted a restaurant called Tabbert’s in the minuscule town of Rosendale that I shall have to try during some future visit to the region.

Around 3pm, I arrived in Green Bay.  I drove around the downtown area for a bit before attending a 4pm service at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church.

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Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church

Archaic is the word that leaps to mind when it comes to describing this church.  The building is definitely old and feels more like a cathedral with its tiled floors and larger than life Stations gracing the walls.  This diocese had also instituted some changes due to the coronavirus.  No sign of peace and no Eucharist from the cup.  It made me wonder if my own diocese would be adopting these changes for the duration.

After services, I finally checked into Astor House, owned and operated by Tom and Linda Steber.  The Stebers purchased the property in September and are the third couple to continue the house’s legacy as an inn.  Both were very warm and welcoming and clearly relish their roles as innkeepers.  Linda’s father was a professional chef and she definitely has her own formidable culinary skills which I had an early sample of with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and cucumber water.

Astor House was built by businessman John Jacob Astor in 1888.  Astor, himself, would eventually be immortalized as one of the victims of the Titanic.  The house is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The inn contains five rooms, each themed with a different country.  Most of the rooms also contain a hot tub and a fireplace.

My room was the Hong Kong Retreat.  For pure value for the money, I don’t think the Astor House can be matched.  For the $115 a night price tag ($140 during busy season) I had the largest room I have enjoyed yet.  This room truly was a retreat with its pure white carpeting, soft queen bed with My Pillows (and you really do get a good night’s sleep with them), elegant fireplace and a 2 person hot tub set in the corner.

 

I was ready for some dinner so I headed to nearby De Pere, WI to try dinner at Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant.

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Nicky’s Lionhead Restaurant

I had a little cultural fusion for dinner as I merged Greek and Cajun cuisine as I enjoyed a Gyro Wrap along with a cup of Nicky’s highly touted gumbo.  You’d have to go to Louisiana to have gumbo as authentic as this.  This is what gumbo was meant to be.  Carefully spiced and seasoned stew with chunks of andouille sausage and chicken lathered over rice.  It was heavenly.  The wrap was also quite tasty and the restaurant even serves Pepsi products which would please my father to no end.

After the meal, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long soak in the jacuzzi (and only soaking.  Bath salts are provided for the hot tub.)  Then I got a little fire going as the night was getting a little chilly.  Then I finished a novel, organized some photos, watched a movie and had an amazing night’s sleep.

I was ready to attack the day, but needed a little fuel to get me going.  Astor House provides a menu so you can decide what you want for breakfast or even if you want breakfast.  Believe me, you’ll want breakfast.  Astor House practices sustainability so all foods are bought or grown locally whenever possible and everything is made fresh.

 

Breakfast began with a fruit salad drizzled with an organic honey/citrus dressing which was the bomb and I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever used that expression in a sentence.  The main course was a light and fluffy French Toast Brulee with crumbled bacon bits with a side of the inn’s signature potatoes.  There was even a dessert course of lemon pound cake (which became my afternoon snack).  The sideboard also had some of Linda’s award-winning doughnut muffins which are a must taste along with some lemon & lime water.

Filled with food, I was ready to do a little exploring.  I went to the unincorporated community of Champion to visit the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.  This is the only officially recognized Marian Apparition site in the United States.  In the late 1850s the Virgin Mary appeared to a young Belgian girl named Adele Brise and instructed her to make a general confession, offer communion for the conversion of sinners and to teach the young in this very wild area the catechism.  This Adele did until her death, walking everywhere within a 50 mile radius of the Shrine to teach.  As a servant of God, Adele would dress as a nun despite never actually being part of a formal order.

 

Miracles have reportedly taken place at the Shrine though none are officially recognized by the Catholic church.  Letters have come from many grateful visitors along with medical reports citing healings from various ills.  The most impressive event was the sparing of the Shrine from the devastating Peshtigo fire when a storm quenched the flames which occurred while those at the Shrine prayed a rosary asking for the Shrine to be spared.

I would think it would be next door to impossible not to feel God’s presence here no matter your faith.  It was a pretty moving and humbling experience to visit the grottoes and read Adele’s story and hear these tales of personal healing and conversion.

After my wanderings through the Shrine, I intended to visit the Badger State Brewing Company.  But I made a misstep.  I had hoped to get a tour of the brewery, but found they only conduct the tours on Saturday afternoons.  So I settled for a green beer before going on my merry little way.

As I left the brewery I saw the legendary Lambeau Field in the distance and decided to get a closer look.  For any readers who are not into sports, Green Bay, WI is the home of the Green Bay Packers, one of the National Football League’s first football teams.  Green Bay is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, cities to have a professional football team.  Unlike other teams, the Packers are actually owned by the city of Green Bay.

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Lambeau Field

After getting a photo and waving at the stadium for a friend of mine (she’s a huge Packers fan), I returned to the inn for a bit of writing and to finally enjoy the pound cake I couldn’t eat at breakfast.

Around 6pm, I decided it was time for dinner so I hit up a true Green Bay institution:  Al’s Hamburger.

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Great food lies inside this non-descript edifice.

Al’s has been going since 1934.  Inside the unassuming white brick edifice is a step back in time to the 1950s.  It’s a small diner with booths and classic tools and everything is a la carte.  It’s also cash only, but there is an ATM on the premises.  I had a deluxe (1/2 pound patty with bacon, lettuce and mayo) along with some fries.  The food is served on a tin tray and the burgers are nice and juicy.

With dinner out of the way, I took a walk around the Astor neighborhood.  This is a historic neighborhood and there are some impressive old money houses in the area.  I imagined what some of these homes might look like during the Christmas season, but a glance around told me how bitter the winter could be in the area.  Green Bay clearly had plenty of the white stuff this winter as large amounts of snow are still prevalent.

I actually had a pretty quiet evening.  Reading, writing and relaxing.  About 10pm I called it a night.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a “mushroom & swiss burger” quiche along with the signature potatoes.  Absolutely exquisite!  For dessert, I had an original creation from Linda.  An English scone pudding with a citrus whipped cream topping.  I was glad I had opted out of the opening course of berries and cream because I had just enough room to enjoy this sweet treat.

This has been one of my more enjoyable B & B outings and Astor House has definitely entered my top tier of inns.  If you want some fresh, homemade cooking, if you want some excellent hospitaliy, if you want some fun activities (especially during summer tourist and football seasons), then make a visit to Green Bay and book a room at Astor House.  It’s a dandy little oasis.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Wilderness in the City: Otter Creek Inn & Altoona/Eau Claire, WI

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Otter Creek Inn

Today the road has brought me to Altoona, WI.

Here it is, ladies and gents.  My 49th review and my first in the state of Wisconsin.  It is also the maiden voyage of my new 2018 Ford Focus on these excursions.

It was a bit overcast to start this journey.  I chased away the grays with a little conversation with Jesus and making liberal use of my free trial subscription to satellite radio.  Having the Beatles Channel is a little slice of heaven for a Fab Four connoisseur such as myself, let me tell you.

As I got deeper into Minnesota, the skies began to clear and the sun started shining down and the day had become quite beautiful by the time I crossed the border into Wisconsin.  Before I knew it, I had reached the Eau Claire suburb of Altoona and found the Otter Creek Inn.

The inn is located on a little acreage on Hansen Lane which you’ll find just before 10th Street.  I parked the car, stretched out the kinks in my hip, and walked up to the front door and rang the bell.  Almost instantly, I was greeted by the inn’s owner, Lisa Jenkins.  Lisa is actually a very new owner of the establishment.  The inn has been in business since 1987 and the original owners sold the property to Lisa over the summer.  Lisa shut down the inn for a few months for renovations before reopening it in November.

The inn still retains most of its originality and is more similar to a lodge than a house.  By that I mean, Otter Creek Inn is wide and long as opposed to being tall.  One of the first things greeting guests is the common area known as the Grand Room and grand it is.  Not only is the room massive, but it holds some games, some comfortable antique chairs, and a monstrous fireplace.  One will also find the breakfast options and can fill out what they would like to eat as well as time and location of the meal.

“Location?”, I hear you ask.  Unlike many other B & Bs, Otter Creek Inn does not have a communal dining room.  Rather it has several secluded areas where the guests can enjoy their meals in private such as a nook just past the kitchen or the 2nd floor balcony.  If you feel like it, you can even enjoy breakfast in bed.

Added to this sense of privacy is the fact that Otter Creek Inn is an adults only environment so you can really get away from it all.

Lisa led me to my escape for the weekend:  Dream Suite.

The room has blue flowered wallpaper, an incredibly comfy king bed, a 42 inch Smart TV, an electric fireplace, and a jacuzzi tub nestled in the floor by the bay window. It is also important to note that each of the 5 rooms contains a fireplace and jacuzzi which is a hallmark of the inn.

After I settled in, Lisa gave me a tour of the establishment where I snapped photos and got a little inn history.  Afterwards, I went to the hors d’oeuvres table where I had a little chip and dip and a Coca-Cola.  For the evening, a martini bar had also been set up for those who enjoy a good cocktail.

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Martini bar

I feel these long drives a bit more than I used to so I just collapsed on my soft bed, perused the movie menu, and just relaxed.  Before leaving for dinner, I filled out my breakfast choices and opted to enjoy it in bed.

Now most of my readers know that I tend to avoid chain restaurants, but even I had to yield to expediency on a Lenten Friday.  Luckily, there was a Red Lobster just a bit up the road.

The restaurant was packed and I was amazed that they were able to get me seated in about 15 minutes.  I looked through the menu to see what sounded appetizing, made my selection and waited for a server.

And waited. . .

Now I knew the place was busy, but I suddenly stopped to think that I had been seated for 10 or 15 minutes and I hadn’t even been brought water yet.  Just as I had that thought a young lady stopped by my table (I think it was the manager) who apologized for nobody waiting on me and she offered me a free appetizer or alcoholic beverage for the inconvenience.  I don’t know if she, herself, had noticed or if another patron pointed it out, but I thank whomever for the free cup of lobster bisque I ended up getting.

The bisque was rich and creamy and a dash of pepper added just the right amount of kick to it.  A garden salad and a half order of Salmon New Orleans with rice pilaf and mashed potatoes served as my main entrée.  The salmon was served in a creamy Cajun sauce and was garnished with shrimp.  It really hit the spot.

With a great meal in my stomach, I returned to the inn where I found a good meal really makes you notice how exhausted you are.  I dimmed the lights and filled up the Jacuzzi tub while an old episode of Law & Order played on the TV.

Now the jacuzzi tubs in this inn are just soaking tubs.  Soap flakes and salts are provided, but you can’t bathe in them as regular soap and shampoo aren’t good for the tub.  So I just sat and soaked, letting the jets massage my wearied limbs and the hot water unwound my mind.  Yes, sir.  I just sat and soaked until every joule of heat was absorbed from the water.

Then I got into my jammies and attempted to go to sleep, but it was too darn quiet.  I normally use a fan for some white noise and this room had no ceiling fan.  No problem, I just turned on the fan to the bathroom and, voila, instant shuteye.

I did some championship lounging the next morning.  Breakfast arrived promptly at 8:30 with my order of a small order of eggs benedict with ham, tomato, and onion served with a side of breakfast potatoes, cheese, and orange juice and hot chocolate.  It was 45 minutes of pure dining bliss and it was only as I was using my toast to get the last of the hollandaise that I realized I had forgotten to take a photo for the article.  But, believe me, it looked every bit as good as it tasted.

As I ate I watched The Mask of Zorro and then caught a shower and shave before heading over to visit the Leinenkugel brewery.

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Leinenkugel brewery

Leinenkugel is a family owned brewery (6 generations running) and was founded in 1867 in the small town of Chippewa Falls.  For $10 one can tour the brewery and have either 2 12 ounce lagers or a sampling of 5 5 ounce lagers.  Our tour guide was John, a former teacher, who was very knowledgeable about the Leinenkugel history and the process of brewing lager.  Most interesting was the revelation that Leinenkugel had to survive 2 threats to its existence.

The first, unsurprisingly, was Prohibition.  Leinenkugel managed to survive it by switching its manufacturing to ginger ale and non-alcoholic beer.  The second, and the bigger threat to its existence, was the great brewery purge of the 80s and 90s where many breweries started going out of business.  Leinenkugel escaped the purge by partnering with Miller which was a win-win for both companies and enabled Leinenkugel to continue thriving.

Leinenkugel is not only known for great lager, but also for being extremely charitable as they donate to or sponsor every charity within Chippewa Falls.  It is definitely worth a visit.

After my tour, I returned to the inn where I did a little writing and filled out a breakfast request for Sunday before I headed out to worship at St Mary’s.

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St Mary’s

It was a bit different, almost a blend of pre and post Vatican II.  Some parts of the service were recited in Latin and there was no sign of peace.  On the other hand, there was an excellent sermon on The Prodigal Son which Father argued should really be called The Merciful Father and it was definitely interesting food for thought seeing the parable from the point of view of the father.

After church, I went to downtown Eau Claire for dinner at Stella Blue’s.  This Cajun restaurant is easy to miss as it holds an unassuming spot in an unassuming building.  You’re probably likely to notice the parking lot first which is actually several blocks past the restaurant.

Despite a well-known reputation, Stella Blue’s has the look and feel of a hole in the wall eatery.  In my opinion that makes it better as those joints usually serve the best food.

It seemed to be my weekend for being overlooked/forgotten at restaurants as I once again waited about 10 minutes before a server got to me.  This time I got a free drink.  I started off with a gumbo appetizer and it was superior gumbo.  Theirs was closer to stew than soup and full of vegetables and even used bits of bacon instead of andouille sausage.  I mused about whether or not I should have just ordered the entrée version of that until they brought my main course of shrimp etouffee.  The spicy brown sauce was amazing, especially when mixed with the rice.

With another fabulous meal digesting, I returned to the inn.  When I entered my room, I picked up a white box which I had mistaken for a recharge port and found it to be a white noise machine.  Sleep would be easy to find tonight.

Another long soak.  A bit more writing.  Then I activated the illusory flames on my fireplace and set up the white noise machine to emulate the crackle of a campfire.  I almost felt like I was in the woods as the fictional fire snapped, crackled, and popped.

I enjoyed Sunday’s breakfast on the 2nd floor balcony.  Bacon fashioned in the shape of a heart along with pancakes with whipped cream, apple pie filling, chocolate chips, and maple syrup joined fruit, water, skim milk, and orange juice. Lisa was a most attentive host and even gave me leads on some new inns and a community theatre in Colorado (her old stomping grounds) which I filed away for potential future visits.

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Alas, all good things come to an end.  It was time to head back home.  But I enjoyed my stay in Altoona and my visit to Otter Creek Inn.  Not only is the inn a bit of big city wilderness retreat, but being near to the Eau Claire area means there’s plenty to do in terms of shopping, activities, and the arts. Otter Creek Inn is the perfect retreat for adults who want to get away from it all, yet still have plenty to keep them occupied.  It’s peaceful, elegant, and luxurious and Lisa will treat you like royalty.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.