Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Missouri Road Trip Continues into Lake of the Ozarks

My friend Jaimee and I left the Sheraton Westport Plaza Chalet in the suburbs of St. Louis and headed to Jefferson City, Missouri. We were to meet Deb Hendricks of the Lake of the Ozarks tourism board there to get our itinerary for our adventure on Fun Lake, as they accurately call the area.

From Jefferson City it was only a short hour’s ride to the Country Club Hotel and Spa. We were surprised how large the place was, complete with an indoor pool and banquet facilities. It reminded me a bit of the Catskill Mountain resorts I stayed at growing up.

Our rooms were not ready, but that was fine because we were more than ready for lunch. Lance Utley, the hotel’s director of marketing, joined us at the Rafferty Restaurant on the property for a wonderful chicken salad with grapes and pecans.

During lunch, Lance gave us some basic information about the area he knew well. It was obvious that he was passionate about Lake of the Ozarks and we were soon to see why.

We hopped in the car for a quick trip to the Tan-Tar-A Resort. It was here that we were to meet the boat for the Tropic Island Cruise.

It was a bit windy so we stayed inside most of the time. On the 90 minute ride we learned a lot about the lake.

It all started with an idea in 1912, but the actual dam off the Osage River didn’t begin until investigation and funding was received in 1929. It was considered the largest construction project in the country at that time so there was no problem getting people to work on it.

In February of 1931, the water began to fill the lake. It would be finished with a shoreline of over 1,300 miles, but the Truman Dam (built in the 1970s) would lessen that amount to 1,100 miles, an amount still more than the coastline of California.

It was fascinating to see the variety of houses, restaurants, and boats along the shore of this massive lake. Since the lake does not freeze, many people don’t even realize that Lake of the Ozarks is a year round destination. I knew this was the first, but not the last, time I would visit.

We were back at the hotellate afternoon. We each had a junior suite which was quite spacious and included a kitchenette.

Dinner was quite an adventure as we took a Water Taxi.
Unfortunately, I can’t relay my experience at The Duck, a fine dining experience accessible by boat, at this time. Look for my story in the summer issue of Midwest Living Magazine.

I do have a lot more to say about Lake of the Ozarks, where we still had another day to eat, drink, spa and explore after a good night’s sleep.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Missouri Road Trip Begins in Maryland Heights

I had finally made it to St. Louis (twice) after a decades long absence, but I knew there was a lot more of Missouri for me to see. I decided to cross some of it off my list with a week long road trip through the state, and I brought my friend Jaimee along for most of the fun.

Jaimee was flying into St. Louis and wasn’t able to meet me until very late the first night. I thought it would be a great opportunity to check out a suburban hotel, and meet my cousin Linda for dinner.

As soon as I saw the photos of the Sheraton Westport Chalet, I knew it was what I was looking for. It was near the airport and referred to as in St. Louis, but it’s actually in the suburb of Maryland Heights.

The hotel did not let me down. The perfectly landscaped property with the European shutters and balconies were beautiful.

As soon as I arrived, I couldn’t help but explore the adjacent pedestrian plaza. It was a quaint little village with tiled walkways that definitely didn’t make you feel like you were anywhere near a big city, even though it was attached to a building with a jazz club, sports bar, and comedy shop.

The staff at the Westport Sheraton Chalet couldn’t have been more friendly. If I even looked like I had a question they were there with an answer. 

I was also more than happy with my room, which had a large work area, plenty of outlets, and a pull out couch. My room also overlooked a sprawling fountain outside.

Linda met me at the hotel and we walked over to the Westport Plaza next door. She had been coming here for years and enjoyed reminiscing.

The ball player in front of Patrick’s Sports Bar paid homage to the importance of sports to this Cardinal Nation. Family Nuts sells candy, trail mixes, and any kind of nut or chocolate you desire, and the Trainwreck Saloon seemed quite popular judging by the crowd.

We decided to have dinner at Paul Mineo’s Trattoria and we weren’t disappointed. We both ordered the pasta primavera, and it was one of the best I’ve ever had. It was filled with fresh asparagus, artichokes, broccoli, and eggplant.

I was asleep before Jaimee came in and we were both up fairly early. We had access to the executive lounge and it’s an upgrade I definitely recommend.

The executive club lounge at the Westport Sheraton Chalet was one of the best I’ve seen, especially in the U.S. Like the chalet, the breakfast was very European, with platters of cheese and fruit, as well as yogurt, muffins, eggs, and an espresso machine.

They even had a fully stocked refrigerator with soda, juice, and bottled water. We took some water for our road trip.

Before we hit the road, we walked around the property a bit. They have a nice pool area as well as a courtyard, where many guests gathered in the morning and evening. 

We then packed up and got in the car for our next stop, Jefferson City. We were only stopping there to meet the representative from Lake of the Ozarks to pick up some materials.

It looked like a town I would return to, but we were anxious to get going to the Ozarks. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Family Vacation in Indianapolis

I haven’t done a lot of family travel adventures in the last few years. My job as the Midwest Travel Guide forAbout.com has dictated that I find I way to do this. Fortunately, I have some friends with young kid, and it’s always fun when you have little ones involved.

One trip I had recently was double the excitement with my friend Cortney and her five year old twins. They helped me check some very unique hotel rooms as well as one of the best zoos in the nation.

The Indianapolis Zoo introduced some new exhibits which I was especially anxious to see. They also have a Total Adventure Package which lets you experience it all, including the rides, for one price. One of the extras you get with the package is the interactive Zooper Challenge™. (You can also access Zooper if you have a zoo membership.)

The biggest and most exciting addition at the Indianapolis Zoo is the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. Unfortunately, the Skyway was not open the day we were there, but we did get to experience the rest of this new section.

Eight orangutans call this center home and you can watch them as their trainers and teachers show you more about the intellectual abilities of these fascinating apes. 

The center was established to expose zoo attendees to them, but it is also taking on the project of learning more about them in the hope that some of the research will keep these endangered species from extinction.

The kids especially enjoyed the opportunities the zoo has to interact, including the Shark Touch Pool – the nation’s largest -- and the Flights of Fancy bird exhibition.  

Even though we couldn’t actually touch them, we all had fun watching the walrus, penguins, and seals swimming in their tank.

We didn’t have to look through glass to see the show at the Dolphin Theater. It was a great show.

I am a cat lover so I couldn’t wait to see the lions, tigers, and cheetah. We got to see them in their habitat during the train ride through the Plains. Then we walked back to get a closer look.

We spent quite a bit of time with the brown bears, who decided to put on a show for us. They were being playful and seemed to love the attention they were receiving.

After the zoo we checked into the Crowne Plaza UnionStation. I had told the kids we were staying in a train room, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for just how unique this experience was.

The Crowne Plaza Downtown Indianapolis has 26 Pullman train cars converted into hotel rooms. They’ve done a spectacular job and the insides were even bigger than I thought they would be.

We had two connecting rooms and the twins were wide-eyed as they explored every inch of them. 

The only thing that stopped them from going back and forth was a special delivery from room service (available for purchase to anyone staying here) of milk, cookies, coloring books and M&Ms!

We didn’t indulge too much in the sweets because we were off to dinner at the Indianapolis Colts Grille. It is a very kid-friendly place and we collectively finished the Spinach Artichoke Dip and pita. I also took a cue from Foursquare and ordered the Pulled Pork with onion straws. I was not disappointed.

Back at the hotel, the kids had some cookies and milk while Cortney and I had our sweets with a wine she brought from her recent Utica trip.

The kids went for a swim at the hotel’s indoor pool in the morning and explored the hotel. I think they were almost as excited going up and down the stairs of the train rooms as they were at the zoo.

Before we left Indianapolis I got to have breakfast with one of my favorite public relations contacts in one of my favorite breakfast places. Morgan Greenlee, Senior Communications Manager at Visit Indy, met me for another delicious breakfast at CafĂ© Patachou. I love everything at this place, especially when it’s served with their fresh baked cinnamon toast. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

South Dakota Finale is Historical

My final day in South Dakota was filled with some of the nation's most important landmarks. I hadn’t seen any of them since I was a kid and it didn’t take me long to regret not having come back sooner.

I knew it was going to be a long day and I fueled up at the Hill City Holiday Inn Express with a yogurt, fruit and oatmeal breakfast before hitting the road.

My first stop of the morning was at Mount Rushmore. I was just blown away by this amazing mountain depicting four of our country’s most important presidents. It was even more special after I heard two kids playing “America the Beautiful” in front of the mountain, and then saw the film of how Gutzon Borglum, and his son, Lincoln, sculpted it.

I walked around Mount Rushmore National Park for a while before getting back in the car and heading for a short stop in downtown Keystone. It looked like a fun touristy town that I would probably spend more time in some day when I didn’t have such a full schedule.

I drove to Custer State Park next and parked by Sylvan Lake. The South Dakota Tourism Board had noted on my schedule that it was someplace I’d probably like to spend some time hiking around and they were right.

The lake with the mountain formation around it was just beautiful and I was happy that the rain stayed away long enough for me to walk around it.

It was then time for my drive along Needles Highway. It was something I’m not sure I’d do again.

Even though the scenery was breathtaking, it’s a narrow winding road with one way tunnels and a VERY long drop without guard rails. The abundance of motorcycles on the road didn’t help matters either.

I think the next time I return to Custer State Park I will be sure that I’m the passenger and not the driver.

I left the park and made my way to downtown Custer for lunch. I had heard that Black Hills Burger & Bun had been named “America’s Best Burger” by TripAdvisor and I was anxious to try it for myself.

I was not alone. I had to wait an hour for a table (the takeout line was even longer). I was glad I did as it was a delicious lunch.

Before I drove to the Crazy Horse Memorial, I decided to make a quick stop at the Flintstones Bedrock City. It had been a favorite show in my childhood and I enjoyed looking through this replica of Bedrock.

I was in for another memorable experience at Crazy Horse Memorial. Unlike the other places I had been, Crazy Horse is privately funded. That doesn’t give it any less significance.

The memorial was carved by Korczak Ziolkowski to “honor the culture, tradition and living heritage of North American Indians.” It is still a work in progress.

In addition to seeing the sculpted mountain – the largest of its kind in the world – the campus provides educational programming about the culture of Native American.

The Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center, and the Indian University of North America are all located here too.

The time I spent here was also not enough to take it all in, but I did learn quite a bit and look forward to returning when more of the carving has been completed.

I drove back to Rapid City for a delicious dinner with Julie Jensen, Executive Director of Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau. We went to the Wine Cellar Restaurant and owner/chef Pamela Light made us quite a meal, starting with a fantastic Burrata and continuing with risotto and a scrumptious chocolate dessert.

Julie and I walked around downtown Rapid City for a while. It was quite busy as they had live music in the street and at many venues.

My South Dakota adventure ended with at The Blind Lion. Unfortunately, I can’t write about that yet because I promised Midwest Living Magazine first showing.  Look for it in their Summer 2015 issue.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

South Dakota Tour Continues from Wall to Hill City

When I woke up in Wall, I was ready for a very full day two in South Dakota.

The rain had not let up all night and it was pouring as I headed into Wall Drug. From the moment I pulled my rental car up I knew this was going to be a place like no other. It seemed to go on for blocks and I soon learned that this was only the front.

I met with Rick Hustead, whose grandparents had started Wall Drug in 1931 as just a drugstore. Ted, a pharmacist, and Dorothy were having trouble getting customers until Dorothy had the idea to put up “Free Ice Water” signs along the highway.

The ice water turned into .05 coffee and both brought in enough customers for Wall Drug to now be 76,000 square feet and one of the biggest attractions in the country.

Rick and I continued to talk in the restaurant over breakfast about Wall Drug and the endless products being sold here.

Breakfast certainly satisfied my sweet tooth, though I did at least add a scrambled egg for a bit of healthy protein. The rest was cherry pie, a maple donut, and s’mores ice cream.

I had asked what their most popular breakfast items were and that’s what I got. I had to agree that they are worth stopping at Wall Drug for – especially the Cherry Pie.

He also showed me the Wall Drug wines, available in the restaurant and for sale in the stores. Then Rick took me to explore some of the complex.

We walked over to the Old Fashion Soda Fountain. It’s a favorite of customers as there isn’t anything like it around here. This is where you can get their homemade ice cream and hand-made sodas.

Next there was the souvenir shop, a window of musical puppets, jewelry store, donut shop, gift store, Rockhound shop, a travelers chapel, and, of course, a pharmacy.

After a while, I left Rick to head out and explore on my own. I knew I couldn’t see everything (that would take a full day), but I wanted to take some photos and look around.

Behind the stores there were alleyways with artwork and additional places, such as the Western Art Gallery, the Print Shop, Western Wear store, leather goods shop, and more.

That wasn’t the end of it either. If you headed outside, you’d find the Wall Drug Backyard, with additional stores and attractions, like the Mining Experience.

I paid for some souvenirs I bought and I walked around the town of Wall for a short while, but I had to get on the road for my next appointment in Hill City.

Fortunately the drive didn’t take too long and I was soon at my next stop, Prairie Berry Winery. I met with Michelle Slott for a tour and tasting of their large selection.

The Red Ass Rhubarb is the most popular wine here, but my favorite was definitely the Pink Slip Moscato and I left with a bottle to take home.

The food at Prairie Berry Winery was also quite impressive. The menu was filled with fresh items and lots of vegetarian. I really enjoyed my meal with Michelle.

It was raining very hard and I decided to skip my visit to Miner Brewing on the other end of the parking lot. It looked like the brewery was quite full.

I drove the 10 minutes to my hotel, a very welcoming Holiday Inn Express. After I got settled and the rain had let up, I headed out to explore.

I walked around downtown Hill City before I headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. The downtown offers shops, restaurants, and a selection of unique places, such as the Black Hills Institute Museum.

There was also Teddy Bear Town, a shop that holds the Guinness World Record for the largest Teddy Bear Collection. They have over 6,500.

Just outside of the entrance to downtown Hill City is the Black Hills Central Railroad. From this depot in Hill City you can take a two hour roundtrip ride on the 1880 Train to Keystone and listen to a narrated history of the area.

It was raining when I headed to High Country Guest Ranch for the Chuckwagon Dinner Show and the Native American Brulee Show. I had been warned that the latter might not take place if the weather didn’t improve. Unfortunately, it did not.

I did get to enjoy the musical cowboy show with a dinner of beef, chicken, potatoes, applesauce, and cowboy beans. I can’t say it was the best meal I had in South Dakota, but I did enjoy the signing and the fun, relaxed atmosphere.

After dinner, I was detoured by construction to downtown, so I took it as a sign and stopped at one of the bars for a nightcap before I headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep. Day three in South Dakota was not only full, but it was very special as I was going to see some of the nation’s most treasured sites.