The Fourth in Wausau (But First in Class): Stewart Inn & Wausau,WI

Stewart Inn

Today the road has brought me to Wausau, WI.

After 4 months, I was more than ready for a relaxing return to the road.  I’m currently in the midst of my regional play reviewing season, but my Fourth of July weekend was open so I decided it was time to partake in my 70th B & B review.  My choice:  Stewart Inn, owned and operated by Randy and Sara Bangs.

I couldn’t have asked for a better road trip.  I had to deal with a little rain, but also got to enjoy lunch with my best friend, Josh, when I made a brief stop in Fort Dodge, IA.  I had a peaceful layover with a comfortable suite at the Holiday Inn Express in Albert Lea, MN and then took a more scenic and circuitous (by 15 minutes) route to Wausau.

Mid-afternoon on Saturday found me in Wausau and I soon found myself outside the impressive edifice of Stewart Inn.  A quick text to Randy gained me entry into the mansion.  As the first arriving guest, Randy gave me a thorough tour of the inn and its rooms.

Stewart Inn is designed in the Revival style by George Maher, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright.  This is a big house, but it’s very wide as opposed to being tall.  It has the biggest commons area of any inn I’ve visited with a mammoth living room area, a library where one can curl up with a good book while seated in a comfy chair in front of a fire, and a TV room that could seat 6 people. 

Architectually speaking, everything in the house is original:  the wood, the fixtures, the fireplaces.  The furniture is not, though some of it is period.  After showing me around, Randy brought me to the Foster Room which would serve as my home away from home for a few days.

The Foster Room is very intimate with a working fireplace, a cozy chair, a small library, a desk, a queen-sized bed, and a TV mounted in the far wall.  Stewart Inn actually has a pillow menu, but the soft, squishy pillows set on my bed fit the bill just fine. 

Each room of the inn contains two unique amenities:  a steam spa shower and an Amazon Echo Show.  The Echo Show is voice activated with Alexa and you can get weather reports or enjoy some music.  The steam spa shower lets you turn the shower into a steam bath.

It was a perfect day (perfect weekend, for the most part) with very comfortable temperatures and very little humidity.  So I decided to walk to church to worship at Church of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  At least, that was the plan.

When I arrived, I was puzzled that no cars were in the parking lot and I found the doors locked (a fact that saddened me as, once upon a time, churches were unlocked all the time).  Someone connected with the church appeared and asked me if I needed help and I befuddledly answered that I was hoping to attend the 4pm service.  The helpful stranger told me that the 4pm service was at St Michael which I would never make.

As I walked back to the inn, I pulled up the church’s website and there it was:  4pm service.  Then I read the rest of the line “at St Michael”.  It turns out the website was for all the Catholic churches in Wausau and not just Resurrection.

So I enjoyed a leisurely walk around the neighborhood and downtown area before returning to the inn where I worshipped via a streaming service performed by Fr. Jack Sheaffer.

As it happens, Wausau is the hometown of my brother-in-law, Scott, and his mother, Pam, suggested I have a meal at the Pinewood Supper Club. So I made a reservation.

Pinewood Supper Club

If you want to enjoy fine dining, I recommend giving this club a try.  It’s located by Half Moon Lake so you can dine with a view of the water.  It also has a well-stocked bar for those who would like to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.  I was seated by the window where I enjoyed viewing the lake while noshing on a relish tray. 

My dinner consisted of a salad with a dill ranch dressing and a main entrée of Blackened Salmon Oscar served with jasmine rice, fruit salsa, and grilled asparagus.  The salmon was exquisite and I spent over an hour savoring the meal and even indulged in a post-dinner cordial of a grasshopper.

I drove back to the inn and took in another constitutional before retiring to my room for the night.

I awoke from a great night’s sleep and made use of the steam shower (very relaxing) before heading downstairs for some breakfast.

Down in the commons, I met Jodi and Brian with whom I enjoyed some conversation during the meal.  Randy had promised some really great coffee.  Now I don’t drink the stuff, but Jodi does and the self-professed “coffee snob” said it was really great coffee:  very dark and rich.  So consider that a recommendation from a connoisseur. 

Breakfast was served in 3 courses.  The first was a tasty yogurt served with grain-free granola.  The second was fresh strawberries from the Farmer’s Market with homemade whipped cream.  The final was biscuits and gravy.  All of it was wonderful and I truly appreciated the portion sizes as they didn’t leave you feeling stuffed to the gills.

If you’re into nature and outdoor activities, Wausau has a number of parks and is famed for skiing.  Given that it was summer, I decided to visit the Monk Botanical Gardens.

I was somewhat disappointed by the gardens simply because nothing seemed to be in bloom.  However, I did enjoy walking the trails and got to play around with a flower kaleidoscope.

I returned to Stewart Inn where I took a longer walk around the downtown area where I looked at the famed Grand Theater and the 400 Block which is an outside concert venue that plays host to many summertime concerts.

Sweets on 3rd

It started to mist a bit as I walked back towards the inn so I ducked into Sweets on 3rd where I nibbled a cup of Ultimate Oreo ice cream while I waited for the weather to clear up.  Once it did, I returned to the inn where I organized photos and then headed out for a tour of Yawkey House.

Yawkey House Museum

Yawkey House was the home of Cyrus and Lisa Yawkey.  Cyrus was a lumber baron and had the house started in 1899 and it was completed in 1901 at a cost of $35K ($1,000,000 in today’s numbers).  Six years later, Cyrus had the house completely remodeled to keep up with the Joneses due to the popularity of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright whose revolutionary designs made Yawkey House’s original design seem passe. 

Cyrus was part of what was known as the Wausau Group.  They were a group of powerful businessmen who pooled their resources to bring a massive economic boost to Wausau (known as Big Bull Falls at the time).  So massive was Wausau’s growth as a result of their efforts that Wausau nearly took over as the state capital.

Yawkey House is definitely worth a tour, especially at the low cost of $7.  The house has had some restoration, but the woodwork is all original (most of which is no longer commercially available) as is most of the furniture. 

After my tour, I came back to Stewart Inn where I did some prep work on the article until dinnertime.

And my evening meal was eaten at Milwaukee Burger Company.  Now I rarely partake of a truly junky meal, but allowed myself to do so on this night.  I tried a Spicy Curd Burger with a side of chili cheese fries.  Everything about this burger screamed spice.  Aside from the two pieces of spicy curd, the burger also brings the heat with a spicy chipotle spread and jalapeno infused bacon.  The burger was nice and juicy and it definitely had a lingering heat as I very nearly broke out into a sweat.  The service wasn’t quite up to snuff and that’s even making allowances for the Great Resignation.

After dinner it was back to the inn to begin writing and just relaxing for the night.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a delightful Almond Joy Crustini, cantaloupe, and polenta with chicken sausage. Conversation ran the gamut from music, to pets, to fitness, to employment. As we left the table, Randy gifted us with discount coupons for stays at Inns of Choice (11 best B & Bs in WI), future stays at Stewart Inn, and a last one for any B & B in WI.

A very wonderful and relaxing inn experience and I was sorry to see it end. But if you find yourself, up Wausau’s way, take in a night or two at Stewart Inn. It’s a haven.

Have a fun Fourth and, until the next time. . .happy travels.

Natural Tranquility: Hidden Serenity & West Bend, WI

Hidden Serenity Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to West Bend, WI.

It’s nice to get back on the road after the winter months.  Though, honestly, I was originally going to take this trip back in January as the Midwest had been experiencing a very mild winter.  However, the night before my trip, the state of Iowa got crippled by a monster blizzard which stopped my excursion cold, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Mercifully, the owners of the inn I planned to visit were gracious enough to let me move my reservation to March so I wouldn’t be out the money plus the good people at Holiday Inn of Cedar Rapids gave me a refund on my nonrefundable rate without my having to ask so it all worked out for the best.  Thus, I finally found myself on the road to Hidden Serenity Bed and Breakfast, owned and operated by Chris and Sally Cochran.

The trip didn’t start off the greatest as I had to listen to my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes make an ignominious first round exit from the NCAA BB tournament due to a combination of ice cold shooting and the refs missing some blatant fouls that would have likely led to us winning in spite of our shooting woes. 

A meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, and a free upgrade to a king suite at the Holiday Inn at Cedar Rapids helped to improve my mood as well as grant me a satisfactory night of rest.

A grim and rainy day met me the next morning and followed me all the way to West Bend.  Hidden Serenity is located on a secluded acreage outside of West Bend and the bright white house shone like a beacon in the gloom.

I pressed the doorbell which chimed out a charming tune and the door was answered by Sally who showed me around the common areas and, to my delight, offered me a free upgrade to the inn’s honeymoon suite, the Kettle Moraine.  After showing me all the ins and outs of my room, she left me to my own devices.

Hidden Serenity isn’t your typical B & B abode.  The Cochrans built the house in 1997 from wood on their acreage and it was their private home where they raised “four extraordinary children”.  The Cochrans also hosted exchange students for years and have a travel bug that might even exceed mine.  But once the children had grown, they decided to start sharing their home with the public, filling the house with fine furniture and they are currently in the process of renovating the basement area into a spa complete with hot tub, sauna, and massage room (this is currently in use).

The house evoked memories of my visit to Otter Creek Inn in Eau Claire, WI in the sense that the house has more of a lodge feel with its massive great room which includes a pool table guests can actually play. The house is also a unique fusion of rustic and luxury.

The Kettle Moraine has the same blend of swank and hominess possessed by the rest of the house.  A soft king-sized bed is the centerpiece of the room, but it also contains a pair of comfortable leather easy chairs with a beautiful view of the forest.  A faux fireplace graces one of the walls and the mirror above it contains a hidden LCD TV.  The bathroom contains heated tiles, a rainfall shower, and a two person slipper tub.

I didn’t have too long to putter because I had a massage scheduled at 4:40pm.  I met my masseuse, Joann, who led me to the basement and the massage room.  As I readied myself for my massage, I noticed the starlit roof which made me feel like I was in a planetarium.  Soon all thoughts fled my brain as Joann worked the kinks out of shoulders and the aches out of my feet.

Jail House

Feeling good and relaxed, I headed out to get some dinner at the Jail House.  Sally had told me that the place might be jumping and right she was.  Luckily, on Fridays, the Jail House only accepts reservations for parties of 5 or more so people can move in and out more quickly.  I was told I’d have to wait 30-40 minutes which I was fully prepared to do as I had a new volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches to read.  However, I only ended up waiting for about 20 minutes before being seated for dinner.

I opted for a Southwest Salmon served with homemade black bean salsa, a bowl of seafood chowder, and a side of steak fries.  The broth of the chowder was a little thin and could have used a bit more seafood, but had a good taste, especially when enhanced with a bit of pepper.  The salsa and salmon were excellent.  The salmon had a sweet chili glaze and was just slightly blackened which made it incredibly flavorful.

After dinner, I returned back to the inn and I advise caution as there are no street lights, but a path of lanterns does light the way to Hidden Serenity once you get close to the inn.

I started watching Cinderella Man, based on the true story of James J. Braddock, a promising boxer who saw his career derailed by injury and descended into poverty due to the Great Depression.  He staged a miraculous comeback which saw him upset the virtually unstoppable Max Baer for the world heavyweight championship.

Slumber beckoned to me throughout the film, so I stopped it and went to bed.

And sleep I did, not awakening until nearly 8am which is practically unheard of for me.  I spent a little time watching the The Price is Right channel before heading to the dining area for breakfast.

I saw the inn’s other guests being entertained by Chris as I took a seat.  Soon a plate of fruit and a small pot of herbal tea was placed before me.  The tea was an amazing blend of rosemary and peppermint which I contentedly sipped while nibbling on kiwi, oranges, strawberries, and blackberries.

Course number two was Polish sausage with peanut butter cream cheese stuffed French Toast served with the inn’s own maple syrup (also available in a peanut butter variety) and a maple vinaigrette salad.  For dessert, there was a concoction of blue Jell-O and Blue Moon ice cream which was a tasty treat of an exclamation point to the meal.

After breakfast, I headed out to West Bend to Blades Barbershop for a bit more pampering.

Blades Barbershop

Blades updates the traditional barbershop experience for the modern times.  I decided to have a shave and a haircut with Julie Kidder.  I was long overdue for a haircut and felt the relief of having a pound of hair cut away from my head.  But the shave was the real joy.  Julie treated my face with some tonic before lathering me and scraping off my beard with a straight razor.  I truly felt clean shaven afterwards and she mentioned I had an extremely thick set of whiskers (no hyperbole as I can grow a full beard in roughly 2 weeks).

For once, I decided not to book any other activities.  I just wanted to relax so I returned to Hidden Serenity where I walked its trail and then returned to my room to finish Cinderella Man.  With the movie over, I drew a bath and added a bottle of peppermint bath salts and just soaked until the heat left the water. 

St Frances Cabrini

With the bath done, I was ready to head off to worship at St Frances Cabrini.  It was a nice service with Father’s sermon focusing on how the time is now to change your heart as the theme of Lent this year is about conversion.  I also found it apropos as the Catholic church is making a concentrated effort to evangelize and St Frances Cabrini seems to be ahead of the game with literature encouraging their parishioners on how to welcome those curious about this branch of Christianity and not to be afraid to explain the ritual parts of the service to those unfamiliar with them.

After getting my praise on, I needed some dinner.  My first choice, Main Street Café, was closed so I went to Omicron Family Restaurant.  There’s nothing fancy about this place.  It’s just good, old-fashioned comfort food and I enjoyed a Gyro sandwich before returning to Hidden Serenity for a bit of writing and beddy-bye.

I was pleased to wake up to a sunny day which would make for a very pleasant drive home.  I really didn’t want to go home, but reality was calling.  But at least I could enjoy one more nourishing breakfast before I started the drive.

Today’s repast started with a bowl of carrot cake oatmeal. So tasty!! This was followed up by a custom made omelet (I had mine with the works. Ham, bacon, cheese, onions, olives, tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms) with a bit of fruit and asparagus. Last, but not least, was a pair of chocolate cake/fudge bars drizzled with chocolate and (I believe) caramel. A fine, bracing meal to get me on my way.

This was a fine return to the B & B world and I consider Hidden Serenity to be my own personal Walden. So if you want to get away from it all and I mean REALLY get away from it all, book a stay at Hidden Serenity and enjoy some rustic luxury.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Christmas Lights it Up: Fargo Mansion Inn & Lake Mills, WI

The Fargo Mansion Inn

Today the road has brought me to Lake Mills, WI.

Yes, sir, it’s time once again for my favorite event and, I hope, yours.  It’s the annual Christmas B & B review.

This year’s review brought me to Lake Mills and The Fargo Mansion Inn owned and operated by Tom Boycks and Barry Luce. 

Fargo Mansion Inn is an 1881 Queen Anne mansion which had been bought by E.J. Fargo, son of the founder of Wells Fargo, in 1883.  Fargo was also a bit of an inventor as he created the central vacuuming system still used in homes today.  He lived in the mansion until his death in 1921 and his third wife continued to live there before moving to a nearby nursing home where she passed away at the age of 67.  At that point, the mansion was transformed into apartments for years before falling into disrepair and condemnation.

Boycks and Luce bought the mansion in 1985 and spent two years restoring it and were actually one of, if not the first, B & B proprietors in Wisconsin.  In fact, the partners are the founding members of the Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast Association.  If the inn and the association don’t keep them busy enough, Boycks and Luce also have several other business interests in the community.

Unlike a great deal of my outings, I was only going to have one day to enjoy the inn and community so I had to hit the ground running.  Once I spotted the mansion, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

One of the inn’s calling cards is that the owners like to decorate it according to a 19th century Victorian Christmas and I felt my Christmas juices flowing when I saw the Christmas tree and pine strings decorating the outside of the inn along with cutouts of toy soldiers.

Tom opened the door before I even had a chance to ring the bell and welcomed me into the home where I also met Barry.  Tom gave me the quarter tour of the home and I marveled at the decorations and period antiques in the common areas.  He then led me to the Enoch J Fargo Suite which was my room for the night.

This is Fargo Mansion’s largest room and dubbed the honeymoon suite containing a queen-sized bed, English writing desk, and a secret.  Don’t worry, I won’t keep you in the dark.  The bathroom has a secret entrance behind one of the bookshelves and is the closest I’ve come to seeing a true secret passage.

Once I got settled, I returned to the commons where I took a really good look around and enjoyed the fresh, piney smell of a real Christmas tree and took a close look at the intricate Christmas decorations and enjoyed some photos of the mansion back in its original heyday.

Before I knew it, it was time to go to church.  I visited St Francis Xavier and this was a mighty small chapel; about on par with my visit to Our Lady of Victory in Limon, CO over the summer.  Father Bob conducted the service and he was a gregarious and entertaining pastor.  This was the third Sunday of Advent known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday and is represented by the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath.  Rejoice was the key word of the service as Father’s sermon centered around rejoicing that our Savior was coming and our Savior was here and with us.  It was definitely a good one to feel the Spirit moving and I left worship with a flutter in my heart and a rumble in my stomach.

It was indeed dinnertime and I headed over to the nearby town of Johnson Creek to eat at Crawfish Junction.

Crawfish Junction

Crawfish Junction is a bar/restaurant known for its Cajun fare.  Surprisingly it does not seem to serve gumbo (unless it pops up as a soup of the day), but does serve an excellent plate of jambalaya to which I added some delectable shrimp and forewent the hush puppies for homemade mashed potatoes and gravy.  The gravy had a great taste, but was much too thin, but the potatoes were right on the mark.

Satiated, I then headed to Janesville, WI to enjoy one of the region’s premier holiday events:  the Holiday Light Show at the Rotary Botanical Gardens.

I had read of the event prior to my arrival, but, thanks to Sandy, whom I met in my previous review, I learned that the tickets had to be bought in advance and would not be sold at the door.  So keep that in mind if you want to visit.

This truly is a popular event as there was a large line of people still waiting to get into the gardens, but it is well worth it.  A million lights transform the gardens into a Christmas wonderland where you get to see flowers, Christmas trees, old-fashioned lampposts, sea serpents, Old Glory, and many other colorful surprises guaranteed to make your eyes pop.

I could have spent hours there, but had to settle for 40 minutes as plummeting temperatures were turning me into a Chrisicle.  Afterwards, I returned to Fargo Mansion for some article prep and then sunk under the thick quilt for the night.

I wish I could sleep like that all the time.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them it was nearly 6am.  I had some time to write and ablute and then went down to breakfast.

Tom served up some lemon bread with a granola/yogurt/fruit dish and a main course of cheesy scrambled eggs, orange slices, and sausage links.  Tom is easily one of the best conversationalists I’ve had as a host and he may be the future version of myself as we seem to share similar senses of humor and personality traits.  But he is truly a master at the art of hospitality as we talked about the B & B industry and the events of the day.

Alas, I had to start heading the preparations for my drive home.  But if you’re in Lake Mills, especially around Christmas, stay at Fargo Mansion.  You’ll have an excellent pair of hosts, a wonderful mansion to relax in, and a fine feed in the morning. 

And that wraps up this review, join me in about two weeks when I close out the year with a special holiday series when I travel to Orlando, FL to experience Walt Disney World for the holidays.  It’ll be a grand adventure.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Christmas in March: Christmas House & Racine, WI

Christmas House Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Racine, WI.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I enjoyed my last normal B & B run when I visited Astor House of Green Bay, WI.  So it seems apropos that my most normal run since the start of the pandemic would also take place in Wisconsin.  My destination for this journey would be Christmas House Bed & Breakfast owned and operated by Pamela Deskins.

The trip couldn’t have started out any better.  The weather was absolutely perfect and I managed to dodge the rush hours of both Omaha, NE and Des Moines, IA.  I got to enjoy a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, listened as the Iowa Hawkeyes delivered an absolute drubbing to the Nebraska Cornhuskers in basketball and arrived early at my first stop, Davenport, IA.

I had booked a junior suite at the Holiday Inn & Suites, but I didn’t know how good of a room it was going to be.

Holiday Inn & Suites of Davenport, IA

This was a very elegant Holiday Inn.  I’d put it at 4 stars.  Thanks to digital check-in, I was able to check-in the day before and merely had to pick up my key at the front desk.  My room was on the top floor where I had a good view of the city and, while I’m not positive, I think I might have been upgraded to a full suite as I had a spacious living room, bathroom with a double sized shower and a separate bedroom with a king-sized bed.

I had a good rest that night. 

I decided to eat in the hotel restaurant, the J Bar, for breakfast.  Even had my diet not been limited by Lent, the breakfast buffet still would have been overpriced at $10 as it only consisted of a few items.  I had some scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and a granola bar.  The server did bring me a wonderful green salsa that added the perfect kick to the eggs and potatoes and the orange juice was mighty smooth.

At 11:15am I checked out, gassed up and continued the jaunt to Racine.  My journey took me on the toll road that has taken me to Algonquin, IL on several occasions, but I was surprised to learn that all of the toll booths were closed.  To pay, you need to go to the Illinois Tollway website and register your plate. Then the Tollway will eventually charge your credit or debit card.

Around the 2pm hour, I got off the interstate and started passing through small towns.  I smiled as the towns seemed a bit more vibrant and enjoyed the vast farmlands and imagined what the leafless trees would look like in full bloom.  Around 3:20pm, I saw the mint-colored Christmas House looming in the distance.

If this is your first time visiting my blog, you should know that I am a Christmas nut.  It’s my favorite holiday and I feature a Christmas B&B review on my website each year.  Thus, Christmas House called out to me with all the subtlety of the ringing of a chow bell.

I was met by Pamela who gave me a tour of the mansion before leading me to the Glam Suite which would be my base of operations.

The Glam Suite offers one plenty of room to stretch out and relax.  The room’s mint-colored walls and off-white carpeting promote a calming effect.  The room contains a small kitchenette with a fridge that contains complimentary water, a pair of comfortable red leather chairs, a large TV and a comfy king-sized bed with what felt like a memory foam mattress.

Once getting settled in, I started a more detailed exploration of the mansion.

Christmas House had been built in 1893 by Emily Baker, the widow of former Racine mayor Robert H. Baker, and one of the original “Big Four” partners of the J.I. Case Company, nowadays known as Case New Holland.  The mansion has been home to some of the most powerful people in Racine’s history and also served as the women’s dorm for the St Luke School of Nursing for 35 years.  It gained its name in 1987 when it began hosting the Christmas House for Cancer benefit which it did until 1995.

The house is actually a blend of two styles.  It is built in the Colonial Revival Style, but follows the plan of a Queen Anne.  It is also mammoth.  This is easily one of the three biggest inns I’ve visited, yet it only contains 4 suites which allows for plenty of privacy.  A Carriage House is also available for rental for even further seclusion.

And, yes, the theme of Christmas is prevalent in the mansion as the first floor contains Christmas trees, knick-knacks, decorations and a life-sized Santa Claus.

When I finished looking around the mansion, I took a constitutional around the neighborhood and soaked in the view of Lake Michigan.  From there I returned to the inn where I relaxed for a bit before picking up some dinner from Red Lobster in nearby Mount Pleasant.  I enjoyed some Salmon New Orleans with mashed potatoes and a Caesar Salad.  After my meal, I spent a quiet evening watching a little TV and organizing photos.

Breakfast was a grand affair the next morning.  An extra leaf was added to the table for social distancing and I met a truly charming couple, the Jacksons, from Bloomington, IL.  We had some incredible conversation and I thank them for pointing me towards my next major B & B outing, Black Bear Manor of Ouray, CO, which I hope to do this summer after I’ve had a poke or two of COVID vaccine.

Pamela whipped up a delicious skillet of sunny side up eggs, sausage and hash browns along with cornbread crumble and Kringle, the famed danish pastry of Wisconsin.  I also learned that Pamela has almost limitless energy and boundless humor.  Pamela is not only extremely knowledgeable about the Racine area, but she is well known for her entrepreneurship and philanthropy.  Aside from owning Christmas House, she is also a realtor and “Big Sister” for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Kringle, breakfast skillet, and cornbread crumbles

She bought the inn in 2014 after it had been in foreclosure for 7 years and was responsible for over 70% of its restoration into the grand inn it is nowadays.  To give you an idea of its disrepair at the time of Pamela’s purchase, the house literally had no roof.

For the first time in nearly a year, I actually managed to enjoy some local activities.  I began with a long, leisurely walk through Petrifying Springs Park where the gurgling water of the streams provided some succor to the soul.  I also had a phone call with my best friend, Josh, and some childhood memories were triggered as I saw some children enjoying themselves on classic playground equipment of slides, swings and merry-go-rounds.

After my hike, I visited a Kenosha, WI classic:  Mars Cheese Castle.  Admittedly, I originally thought it was a castle made of cheese.  It is actually a store shaped like a castle that sells cheese, meats, clothes and old-fashioned candies and sodas.  It even has a deli, restaurant and bar.

Mars Cheese Castle

From there it was back to Christmas House when I did a little writing and took in an online worship service with Fr. Matt Barone. 

When the service was completed, I was faced with a quandary.  Did I want to have a very early dinner or wait until my normal dinner hour?  Pamela had mentioned a local eatery called Kewpee’s, but it closed at 5pm.  I thought about it and realized I wasn’t in the mood for a regular meal that night, so I went with the extra early dinner.

Kewpee’s is actually a Racine stalwart.  There actually used to be a chain of them, but now only six are left and the Racine location is the only one in Wisconsin and it’s been operating since 1926. 

Kewpee’s Sandwich Shop

The restaurant has the look of a fifties diner and is inspired by the famous kewpie dolls and there is a display case full of them inside.  Being so close to closing time meant that there weren’t a lot of people inside so social distancing was an easy task.  I ordered the double cheeseburger with the works, a side of fries and a Coke. 

Not only does the place look like a fifties diner, it also has portion sizes to match with prices not that far behind.  I personally appreciated the portion sizes as you get a great meal without feeling overstuffed.  These are old fashioned burgers cooked fresh on a flattop grill and the fries are crinkle cut.  Kewpee’s is also noted for its homemade root beer which I’ll make a point of sampling at some future date.

With dinner digesting, I returned to Christmas House for more writing, reading, photo organizing and some classic game shows on BUZZR.

Another great night of sleep led into a new day. Breakfast that day consisted of a pecan Kringle, strawberry waffles with whipped cream and cornbread crumble had sausage and egg added to it for quite the tasty melange. I had another satisfying round of conversation with Pamela and the Jacksons where I was introduced to the dancing skills of Pamela’s dog, Dewey.

Strawberry waffles with whipped cream, cornbread crumble and pecan Kringle

This trip was just what the doctor called for and if you find yourself in Racine, make plans to stay at Christmas House. It’s truly as festive as the name sounds.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

A Christmas Kind of Town: Phipps Inn & Hudson, WI

DSC02873

Phipps Inn

Today the road has brought me to Hudson, WI.

December has arrived which means it’s time for the annual Christmas review here at the Corner.  This year’s selection was Hudson, WI which is located right across the St Croix River from the Twin Cities and is home to Phipps Inn, owned and operated by Maryellen and Rich Cox.

Weather wise, I had a considerable amount of good fortune as no snow had fallen in the region so I had a clear and safe drive over to Hudson.  I arrived in town about 4:30 and was blown away by the activity in the downtown area.  I mean the joint was jumping!!  Very surprising for a small town.  Later I was to learn that Hudson is considered part of the Twin Cities metro area and receives a lot of visitors in the downtown area due to its plethora of restaurants and shops.

As my car slowly creeped through the heavy traffic, I could already tell that Hudson was a Christmas kind of town with the beautiful Christmas decorations hanging over the main drag as well as the colorful displays in the shop windows.  Once past the main drag, I was able to turn off into the historic district where I found Phipps Inn.

Phipps Inn is an 1884 Queen Anne Victorian mansion that had once been owned by, you guessed it, the Phipps.  They were a wealthy and philanthropic family which, regrettably, has died out though smatterings of their history still exist, both in the form of the inn and in at least one local museum.

I was greeted at the door by Maryellen Cox who gave me a quick, socially distanced check-in and led me to the Peacock Chamber which would serve as my headquarters for a few days.  The inn was lovingly decorated for the holidays and Maryellen told me normally they have even more decorations out, but kept things a little simpler this year due to the pandemic.  Personally, I thought it was just right.

The Peacock Chamber is located on the third floor of the mansion and the floor was once the ballroom before renovations.  The chamber itself is just perfect for a writer.  A half canopy queen sized bed is at the center of the room.  The room contains lush wood paneling, a gas fireplace and a massive two person jacuzzi tub with waterfall faucets.  A small table is located in the corner for breakfast in the morning or, in my case, a place to get some writing done.

After leaving me to my own devices, I did a quick exploration of the house, getting photos of all the Christmas goodness before donning my coat and hat and walking around the neighborhood to get photos of Christmas lights.

After a brisk walk, I decided to get some dinner and ordered some takeout from a popular local bar/restaurant called Paddy Ryan’s and ordered one of their house specialties, Irish Stew.  The stew was right on the money with a lightly spiced broth filled with lamb, bacon, and vegetables.  After dining, it was time to give my Christmas itch a serious scratch so I visited the nearby town of Somerset to take in Sam’s Christmas Village.

Sam’s Christmas Village is located on a 40 acre piece of property by the Apple River in Somerset and boasts a series of displays with a total of over 6 million lights.  Two of the hallmarks of the Village are its 500 foot light tunnel and 50 foot animated Christmas tree.  The property also boasts an onsite restaurant, gift shop and S’mores cabins (cabins that contain fixings and means of making s’mores).  The lights are all outside so social distancing is a snap.  A series of firepits along the path will help ward the chill out of your bones and a mask also makes for a dandy face warmer.  Sometimes Santa Claus can be found wandering the property spreading Christmas cheer.

This place truly awoke the kid in me as I marveled at the intricate light displays.  I honestly could have spent hours there, but, man, it was a frigid night.

I returned to the inn where I reviewed a new album by Omaha musician, Billy McGuigan.  You can read that review here.  At that point, I curled up under the triple sheets of my oh, so soft bed and put out the room lights shortly before my own went out.

The next morning, I rolled out of bed, turned on the fire to warm the room and proceeded to fill my tub.

Now this jacuzzi is a bathing tub, but you have to have the jets turned off when you want to scrub.  The tub has a very interesting effect when the jets are on.  A second waterfall faucet cascades water while the jets are going, but, somehow, doesn’t seem to add any extra water to the tub.  I’m not sure what the trick is, but it’s a neat effect.  After a good long soak, a knock at the door let me know breakfast was ready.

Normally you can have breakfast either in the dining room, your room or the front porch.  For social distancing, breakfast is currently only served in the room.  I found a basket with food and cutlery waiting for me and I enjoyed orange juice, milk, a Pecan French Toast cake or souffle for lack of a better word, raisin scone, sausage, fruit and a couple of chocolate chocolate chip nuggets.

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Raisin scone, fruit, OJ, milk, Pecan French Toast Souffle, Sausage, and some dessert is hidden behind the fruit.

With breakfast put away, I took another walk around the neighborhood for some exercise as well as to get photos of houses with Christmas decorations that can only be viewed in daylight.

At noon, I stopped at the Octagon House Museum for a private Christmas tour.  The house had once been home to the Moffatt family and for Christmas the theme is the Christmas of the late 1800s.  The tour guide, Linnae, admitted that they embellish the theme a bit.  The Moffatts were from Scotland and Wales during the Victorian period and Victorian Christmases are very flashy.  However, the Moffatts were devout Baptists and lived very austerely and so would not have had the flash and sizzle of a traditional Victorian Christmas.

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Octagon House Museum

It was a pleasant way to see how life was lived in yesteryear.  Photos were not permitted inside the house, but I did buy and photograph some postcards showing the home’s interior so you can get an idea of what the interior looked like.

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Upper Left: Living Room Upper Right: Music Room Lower Left: Kitchen Lower Right: Dining Room. The china had been owned by the Phipps family.

When my tour was done, I listened to the Iowa Hawkeyes put a beating on Illinois in football.  Admittedly, it took a couple of quarters for Iowa to kick it into gear, but it’s how you finish that counts.

My stomach started to rumble so I ordered some dinner from the Milwaukee Burger Company and picked up their Jalapeno and Smoked Cheddar Infused Burger with a side of Tailgater’s Chili that I enjoyed in my room.  The burger was just right.  Perfect kick.  Smoky.  And the chili really stuck to your ribs.

I did another walk around the neighborhood and visited the downtown area to get photos of their lights.  I thought about working on this article when I got back and decided I was taking the night off.  The instant I did, my body said, “You got it, boss” and I felt my adrenaline shut off and the toll of a long drive and the running around I’d be doing hit me all at once.  I drew a hot bath and let the jets massage my lower back for about 20 minutes before crawling into bed and reading myself to sleep.

I tell you there’s nothing like a full night of sleep.  I awoke ready to write and breakfast arrived about 9:15am.

Today’s repast included a sticky bun that had an apple cinnamon sauce and sliced pecans (I think), a baked apple with a cherry on top, a tiny square of mint cake, a casserole of eggs, sausage, cheese, potatoes that came with a brown, spicy salsa and my milk and OJ.

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Mint cake, milk, OJ, Baked Apple, Breakfast Casserole, salsa, sticky bun and bread.

Another fine meal was tucked away and left me time to finish writing and begin the trip home.  But a stay at Phipps Inn in the quiet town of Hudson can be a restful retreat for you and if you like Christmas there’s always Sam’s Christmas Village and the Twin Cities are just a short drive away.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. . .and happy holidays!

Yesteryear’s Luxury: Rochester Inn & Sheboygan Falls, WI

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Rochester Inn

Today the road has brought me to Sheboygan Falls, WI.

At long last, it was vacation time!  But what a change in plans.  Originally, I had been gearing up for a trip to England which would have begun next week, but that plan had to be put on the back burner.  So if I couldn’t be in England, I decided I would experience a bit of New England in the Midwest with a visit to Rochester Inn owned and operated by Ray and Kelly York.

I was struck by an incredible sense of déjà vu as Green Bay, WI had been the last place I visited before normalcy got upended in March.  And the route to Sheboygan Falls is identical except for the last 45 minutes.

The trip started off rather well.  I had a clear stretch of road.  I enjoyed a meal at my favorite hole in the wall, Iowa’s Best Burger Café, in Kellogg, IA and arrived at the same Hampton Inn in Cedar Rapids that I had stayed at when I visited Green Bay.

Again, I had a very restful night, though I was somewhat disappointed by the breakfast.  During the week, they still serve a hot meal, but during the weekends, they serve a to go bag.  Mine had a banana, a honey bun, and a bottle of water.  One would think that the hot meal would be served during the weekend and the to go bag during the week, but my best friend thought they were catering to business travelers during the week which was an angle I had not considered and could very well be correct.

Saturday was gray, murky, and rainy.  But it was still an enjoyable drive.  I ended up arriving in Sheboygan Falls earlier than planned and was hungry so I stopped at a McDonald’s to eat a sandwich and small fries while I read another mystery in a Sherlock Holmes pastiche I had been reading.  Then I drove around the town for a bit before arriving at Rochester Inn.

Rochester Inn is located in the Cole Historic District and had been built by local businessman and pioneer, Charles Cole, in 1848.  The building had been built in the Greek Revival style and was originally a trading post and general store with the Cole family living on the second floor and the third floor being used as a meeting place for the Midwest’s first temperance society.  It is also believed that the building may have served as the town’s post office as Cole had been the postmaster.

The building had been several other businesses before falling into disrepair.  In 1986, it was restored to its original grandeur and became a bed and breakfast.

The inn is reminiscent of a New England inn at the turn of the century and if you want seclusion and social distancing, this is the B & B for you.

Possessing only 6 suites, Rochester Inn is the first inn I’ve visited that has no common area outside of the entry hall which I suspect is normally used for checking in and out.  The inn is currently utilizing a socially distant self check-in process and I found an envelope containing a welcome letter and inn keys waiting for me when I arrived.  I made my way up the back stairs and reached my room, the William Brian Donlevy suite.

Rochester Inn is famed for its two floor suites and I was hoping this would be the one I would be given.  Without question, this is the most luxurious suite in which I’ve stayed to date.  The first floor features deep blue carpeting adorned with symbols that reminded me of my old Webelos badge along with a leather couch, an elegant coffee table, and two armless easy chairs.  On a table by the door, I found a plate of cookies containing caramel or butterscotch chips (perhaps both) which I munched on while walking upstairs where I found a four poster queen-sized bed, writing desk, vanity area, and bathroom containing a very deep two person jacuzzi tub.  Flat screen TVs are located both upstairs and downstairs with the upstairs one having a DVD player and a DVD library is available in the main hall.

After getting settled, I relaxed for a bit before heading out for a little walk in the historic downtown area and the nearby neighborhoods.

Sheboygan Falls strikes me as a very well to do town due to the quality of homes I saw on my amblings.  It also contains a large number of parks and I spent a bit of time at Sheboygan Falls View Park looking at the town’s namesake falls.

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Dinnertime had arrived and I made the brief journey to Duke of Devon in nearby Sheboygan.  Duke of Devon is an English gastropub that practices pretty good social distancing.  I sipped on a ginger ale while enjoying a cottage pie which is a beef stew with tomatoes, marmite, and a mashed potato topping and it was quite tasty and filling.

After dinner, I returned to Rochester Inn where I spent the evening relaxing before retiring for the night.

I rose quite early the next morning and watched a little TV while I waited for my breakfast to be delivered.

As I stated earlier, there are no common areas in this inn which means no communal dining room.  Breakfast is delivered within a thirty minute window that you mark on a card and hang up on your door.  For those who must leave early, a continental breakfast can be left for you if you need to eat on the go.

At about 8:45, a tray was delivered to my room.  It looked splendid and the food tasted even better.

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Herb infused eggs with ham and cheese, fresh fruit, cinnamon croissant, with apple cinnamon jam, and OJ.

The meal consisted of a glass of orange juice with fruit and a cinnamon croissant that was so good that I literally leaned back on the couch and tapped my toes along with a casserole dish of herb infused eggs with ham and cheese.  There was also a small serving of apple cinnamon jam.  Now I’ve never been a jam fan, but this was so good that I spread it on my croissant to increase the cinnamon goodness.

After breakfast, I drew a bath and decided to try the herbal bath salts.  It smelled like a field of flowers and I don’t know if it helped me to relax, but the perfect temperature of the water certainly did along with the massaging power of the jets.

After the bath, I started visiting the local parks beginning with Falls Park.  I enjoyed gazing at the eight foot high waterfall while watching the red and gold leaves of the trees in the park.  I spoke to my best friend for about an hour before the charge on my phone wore out.  Then I headed to Settlers Park where I saw a pond full of mallards swimming and honking away.

After a morning of exploring, I returned to the inn where I found a new plate of white chocolate chip cookies waiting for me which I enjoyed while doing a little writing and Facebooking.

About a quarter of six, I decided to walk into town and have an early dinner.  My choice was Fat Cow Pub & Eatery.

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Fat Cow Pub & Eatery

Very few people were in there which made distancing even easier and I decided for some local fare with the Cheese Curd Stuffed Cheeseburger.

This was a fantastic choice.  It was served on a garlic aioli bun with lettuce, pickles, onions, bacon, and a bit of BBQ sauce.  Juicy, filling, and just plain delicious.  Feeling contented I returned to Rochester Inn where I organized some photos, watched The Blind Side, and hit the hay.

The next morning found me enjoying another leisurely soak before I got back to writing this article.  A knock at my door at 8:50am brought a tray that consisted of fruit, OJ, little smokies, and Pecan Encrusted Cinnamon French Toast with authentic Wisconsin maple syrup.

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Pecan Encrusted Cinnamon French Toast with fresh fruit, little smokies, and OJ.

And with another satisfying meal tucked away, I was ready to relax for roughly an hour before heading for home.

But if you find yourself near the Sheboygan Falls region, do yourself a favor and spend a night or two at Rochester Inn.  You’ll enjoy some timeless elegance with some splendid meals and you can enjoy a bit of simplicity with the town’s numerous parks.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. Continue reading

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.