Saturday, August 27, 2016

Music and Civil Rights in Memphis

My trip to Memphis with my friends was a very full one, and we were enjoying it all.

On day three, we were up bright and early to pack up and check out of the Madison Hotel. We had enjoyed our stay, but we’d be checking into Big Cypress Lodge in the afternoon for a completely different atmosphere.

My breakfast stop with Brittany, Angela, and Kylie had a very familiar name, Frost Bake Shop. Ironically, it was not a relative and not anyone’s name (it’s owned by the Kloos family), it was a play on words for “frosting.”

Although the bakery was a bit out of the city, I had received a tip that it was well worth the trip and it certainly was.

Frost Bake Shop provides cheesecakes to William Sonoma and also makes cupcakes, pies, and other baked goods that are loved all over Memphis.

We were able to sample all types of goodies, including their top sellers – Gooey Butter Cookies and the Memphis Cream Cupcake.

I didn’t leave without also tasting the delicious cheesecake and taking a box full of goodies to go.

Our next stop was yet another memorable Memphis attraction, Stax Museum of American Soul Music . It’s located on the site of the original Stax Records, which was also the home of the Stax Recording Studio.

It has great memorabilia, more displays of musical history, from Chicago Blues to the birth of Soul. We saw instruments and costumes from famous soul performers, such as
Ike and Tina Turner.

We enjoyed walking through the hallways of albums. We even got to try on some costumes of our own for a little trip back into the 60s

After Stax, we were hungry and ready to finally try some Memphis barbecue. Central BBQ was recommended and we headed there.

We ate some great barbecue nachos and pulled pork, their specialty. I also loved the Southern sweet tea.

From lunch, we went to what is probably now my favorite museum in the country. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis underwent a huge renovation around the Lorraine Motel, the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.

The exploration of civil rights in this venue is as complete as I’ve ever seen anywhere, still preserving the rooms King was in just before he was killed, and the balcony he was on when he was shot.

Powerful exhibits are everywhere you look. They begin with slaves arriving to U.S. from Africa and end with the 2008 election of an African American President, and civil rights violations today around the world.

Among the things you can’t miss at the Civil Rights Museum are a wonderful exhibit on the Brown V. Board of Education decision and its effect on schools throughout the country; the bus from Montgomery Bus Boycott; the lunch counter from Jackson MS sit-in; and an actual partially burned freedom ride greyhound bus.

We left the museum and went to check in at Big Cypress Lodgeat the Bass Pro Shops in the Pyramid.

This is without a doubt the most unusual accommodation I’ve ever been to, with 103 rooms and suites spaced around the pyramid, with balconies overlooking the store.

Our rustic room and the great outdoors feel of Bass Pro Shops made it feel like we were really staying in the wilderness, but the service and attention to detail was more like a luxurious accommodation.

I had stayed at Bass Pro Shops' other resort, Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri two years ago, and it definitely has some of the same touches, such as the delicious warm cookies delivered to the room every night.

I also liked the living areas between rooms at Big Cypress that made it comfortable to relax in.

We had the night free and we decided it was time to head down to Beale Street in Memphis
It reminded me a lot of New Orleans, with music in the street, restaurants, and stores. 

We did some shopping and decided on the Blues City Café for dinner and blues.

When we got back to the Big Cypress Lodge , exhausted from the long day, all was quiet at Bass Pro Shop and we had a peaceful night sleep, before our final day in Memphis.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Busy Day through the Attractions of Memphis

We had a full schedule for day two in Memphis and we were up early at the Madison Hotel to get started.

I headed downstairs with my friends Angela, Kylie, and Brittany to the Eighty3 Restaurant in the hotel for breakfast. 

The menu had many choices, but we all focused on one – the Elvis Waffles.

It’s no secret that Elvis Presley liked peanut butter and bananas, especially not in his hometown of Memphis

Eighty3 had the waffles bearing his name done to perfection, with a whipped peanut butter and marshmallow sauce, fresh sliced bananas, and Applewood bacon.

After we ate all we possibly could we drove to Memphis’ most famous attraction, Graceland.

The former home of Elvis Presley is more like a city than an estate.

The “King” made quite a home for himself and his former wife, Priscilla Presley, and daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, have definitely maintained it as quite the attraction.

Now, this is the place I make a confession… I was never an Elvis fan. Not of his music, and not of his movies. 

I still felt I couldn’t go to Memphis without going to Graceland, and I’m glad I did because my opinion definitely changed.

I didn’t realize until after the Graceland tour just how diverse the talent of Elvis was. I also did not know how much he had given to charity and the people around him.

I also enjoyed the tour since it was narrated – on the individual IPad we received when it started – by John Stamos, who graciously retweeted me when I made that statement on Twitter.

Stamos took us through every foot of Graceland, from the grand entrance of the mansion, through the dining room, living room, kitchen, and Trophy Room, which has a Hall of Gold (records).

That is only a small part of the estate. We saw collections of Elvis memorabilia which was made and sold -- dolls, hats, sneakers, guitars, sculptures, and even an Elvis Presley game. We walked through the Record Room, which looks like it will never end.

We saw clothing displays that included Priscilla’s wedding dress and Elvis’ army uniform, as well as many of the elaborate costumes he performed in, including some he wore during his 1968 TV Special.

Outside the house, Elvis Presley’s grave is in the garden, next to a fountain.

There are also separate buildings for Elvis: The Entertainer Career Museum, Presley Motors Automobile Museum, and Presley Cycles.

After we left Graceland, we drove back to downtown and had lunch at Trolley Market Stop, a popular casual eatery with delicious sandwiches and sides, before we headed to Sun Studio.

Sun Studio, or Sun Records, as it is also known, was started by Sam Phillips and has been called the “birthplace of rock n roll.” Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, sometimes all at once all recorded here.

This National Historic Landmark has been restored, complete with a lunch counter that sells drinks and snacks for you to have while you wait for the tour.

It’s still a hot spot for musicians to stop in and record. In fact, Lisa Marie Presley rented the place out to record in.

Next on our schedule was the Memphis Rock n’ Soul Museum, which is also on the free shuttle that takes you from Graceland and around to some of the city’s top museums.

Outside Rock n’ Soul we saw a sign dedicating The Blues Trail and the museum took us through the history of soul music in this part of the south.

From there we walked through the famous Beale Street (which we were saving to explore the following day) to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

It was another interesting look at the music that has made and maintained this Tennessee city.                                                                                      
We headed back to the Madison Hotel and were happy our dinner would be back at Eighty3 and there was no more walking to be done.

Angela and I started off with some cocktails. I was intrigued by the drink menu and went for the Long Kiss Goodnight Martini (Stoli Vanilla Vodka, Dark Godiva Liqueur, Godiva White Chocolate, cream, and a chocolate kiss).

We ordered Fire Grilled Chicken Wings, fried calamari, and Eighty3 signature cornbread for appetizers.

For dinner, we each chose something completely different, all of which were good options: filet mignon, Pecan Crusted Catfish, seafood pasta, and rigatoni with short rib and burrata. We also had a side of macaroni and cheese.

We were all stuffed, but the desserts at the Madison Hotel looked too good to pass up so we decided to share an order each of the Deep-fried Oreos cookies and (ice) cream and Dark Chocolate mousse covered in fudge.

It was a perfect end to a perfect day in Memphis.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Road Trip to Memphis

I had been to Memphis, Tennessee, once before for a brief trip. I didn’t get to see much. When I had the opportunity to go back and spend four days, I couldn’t wait.

It’s only about a five-hour drive to Memphis from here.  I left early with my friends Angela, Kylie, and Brittany for jam-packed girls getaway. They hadn’t spent much time in Memphis either and we were all anxious to arrive.

The one thing that became abundantly clear to me when looking at the itinerary is the vast difference between Memphis and Nashville, though the two cities are not that far apart. The difference is in the music that was started: country for Nashville; rock, soul, and blues in Memphis!.

We would be dividing our stay between two hotels and our first was the Madison Hotel.

The Madison Memphis is a beautiful modern hotel that we enjoyed exploring, but the definite highlight for us at the Madison were the elevators. We had fun during the rides checking out all the album covers of great musicians. We found new ones on each ride.

After we settled in and freshened up, we took an Uber (readily available and inexpensive in Memphis) to Celtic Crossing restaurant. It’s an Irish Pub in the Cooper-Young district.

They had live music out on the patio and lots of corned beef (my favorite meat) in various forms.

We started with some delicious cocktails. The Irish Redhead was a mixture of Absolute Vodka, raspberry liqueur and cranberry juice, with a splash of soda. It was very refreshing on a hot night.

My next cocktail was a bit sweeter, though equally good. The Jamison Jewel is made at Celtic Crossing with Jameson Whiskey, Peach Schnapps, Pineapple Juice, and Blue Curacao.

While Angela and I were sipping cocktails, we were also all nibbling on the Corned Beef Bites, a Reuben in the round, coated and fried, and the Irish Nachos.

These were probably the best Irish Nachos I’ve ever had, made with hand-cut fries and topped with melted cheese, corned beef, and tomatoes.

It was more corned beef for most of us for dinner, with Kylie and Angela getting the dinner and me with the Celtic Corned Beef sandwich. Brittany decided on the Salmon and was not disappointed.

The dessert menu at Celtic Crossing was nothing short of spectacular and we could resist ordering a little bit of everything: Slainte Pie, an icebox pie covered in caramel, pecans, and coconut; Dublin Brownstone (the favorite), a fudgy brownie topped with cream cheese ice cream and cherry sauce; and raspberry cheesecake.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. We finished the night with a cocktail and great view at the Twilight Sky Terrace at the Madison Hotel. Then it was off to bed. Our second day in Memphis was going to be a full one, complete with museums and Graceland.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Grand Rapids Beer and LaughFest Finale

My friend Lisa and I started our morning with a room service breakfast at the Amway Grand Plaza, Curio Collection by Hilton.

I had the Michigan Cherry Bread French and she chose the Eggs Benedict. Both were excellent.

After breakfast, we headed to Founders Brewing Co. for a tour and tasting. It was pouring rain so we decided to take an Uber.

I didn’t know too much about this place before we arrived, but left with a lot of knowledge and a very positive experience.

From the outside, the building could blend into the neighborhood. Inside, Founders Brewing was massive, new, and modern, even though they are working on yet another expansion.

The history of Founders Brewery only goes back a few decades, but it’s rise in its industry came swiftly and has continued to flourish. The tour is definitely worth it to learn more about it. I have never seen such a clean and detail oriented brewery.

It has been set up so that everything could be done to make quality beer under this roof.

All the employees we encountered were also generally happy to be working there.

At the end of the Founders Brewing tour, we finished up in their tap room. This was far from an ordinary tasting room. 

They give the option to enjoy all of their beers here, in addition to buying food.

Lisa, my official beer taster, really liked the rich, coffee-flavored Kentucky Breakfast, as well as their signature Dirty Bastard.

I was quite impressed with the deli menu.  It included snacks such as nachos and Beer Cheese Dip, as well as handcrafted sandwiches.

I had to give the Louis A. Cornelius a try when I read the description: Corned Beef, Roasted Chicken, Cheddar & Cream Cheese, Dirty Bastard Sauerkraut & 1,000 Island Dressing on Polish Rye.

I am not a sauerkraut fan and left that out. The sandwich was outrageously good, and so big the two of us together couldn’t finish it.

Lisa and I still had a full night to go on this rainy day so we decided to head back to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel for a few hours of rest before we showered and got ready for dinner.

We just had to walk across the street to the Six One Six restaurant at the JW Marriott Grand Rapids.

There we met Stephanie and Kelly from Experience Grand Rapids for dinner.

Everything on the menu sounded wonderful. We took some advice from the women, who had been there before, and ordered some small plates to start with our cocktails.

I was unable to eat the Truffle Fries because they were cooked with the seafood, but Lisa loved them while I enjoyed the Cheesy Pesto Flatbread.

All the main courses were popular, but I definitely picked the best of the bunch with the Butternut Chevre Pasta, filled with fresh ingredients and a perfect balance of flavors.

The desserts at Six One Six were also hard to pick from. We ordered an assortment. While the Crème Brulee was very good, the winner was definitely the Chocolate Madcap,  a chocolate lover’s dream.

We didn’t have long to sit around with our desserts as Lisa and I needed to go down to the Fountain Street Church to catch one of the LaughFest acts I was especially looking forward to.

Chris D’Elia is known for his stand-up comedy as well as his stints on the television sitcoms Whitney and Undateable. I had enjoyed watching him on the latter and his performance kept everyone in the audience laughing.

We headed back to the Amway Grand Plaza by Hilton for our final night in Grand Rapids after the show. It had been quite a trip and I was sure I’d be returning to this city again.