Road Trip: Orlando to Chicago

In June of 2021 I sold the Lexus Ls460L to Dani and we took a road trip to transfer the car from Orlando to Chicago. It was our first trip since the Pandemic began in March 2020, so we started out rather gingerly, with AirBnB’s booked along the route, wearing masks, and only dining outdoors. But after traveling through Georgia and spending a lot of time in Tennessee, we got used to the laissez-faire attitude prevalent everywhere and loosened up. By the time we reached Chicago, all mask mandates had been lifted, and life was starting to return to normal.

Here are photos from our trip along with a chronology.

June 2

The longest drive of the trip was from Orlando to Atlanta, so we wanted to get it over in a hurry. We stopped along the way for a good hamburger at Espresso 41 Coffee Roasters in Tipton, GA.

We checked into the Atlanta Lama Luxury Cottage, and AirBnB at a small llama and alpaca rescue farm owned by two women, one of whom it turned out knew Linda from WDI days! It’s to the southeast of Atlanta, in a nice area of wooded rolling hills. Lovely cottage.

Arrived in time to host the weekly Wednesday AMI Wine Zoom (we brought the wines for the next two weeks).

Fed the llamas carrots, and had dinner at a nice place they recommended in the gayborhood, Argosy.

June 3

Visited the Georgia Aquarium. Dani wasn’t expecting much, since she grew up at SeaWorld, but when we entered the tank with three full-size whale sharks swimming overhead, her jaw dropped.

Visited the Cocal Cola museum, which still gives you the ability to taste the more interesting soft drinks they make in other parts of the word, but unfortunately doesn’t offer them for sale. Beverly from Israel is always my bitter favorite!

Visited S.O.S. Tiki bar. It’s neat inside, but we had drinks on the patio.

June 4

Picked up some sandwich makings at Public and headed for Gatlinburg, TN.
Stopped at Tallulah falls along the way. The visitor center and view were just meh. Had a picnic in the car.

Beautiful drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stopped at an interesting mill and other abandoned cabins. Dani got an audio guide that provided interesting GPS-triggered narration as we drove.

Gatlinburg was a hell-hole. Traffic inching along the only road through town, and hordes of unmasked people packing the sidewalks. Nothing but tacky tourist chains–not the charming kind of home-grown tacky, just mass produced tourist traps, half of the seemingly owned by Ripley’s Corporation.

The AirBnB was fine (we had to bring our food in from the car because of bear warnings) but the traffic was so bad we just ordered really mediocre Mexican food delivered.

June 5

We decided to abandon our AirBnB a day early and I booked a night at The Tennessean Hotel in Knoxville.

In Gatlinburg we road the chairlift to the top of the mountain and walked across the glass Skybridge.

We got a cheap discount on a photo package with our tickets (well worth it), then another company tried to sell us different photos at the top!

We finished our Great Smoky Mountains audio tour outside of Gatlinburg, then drove through Pigeon Forge–another hell hole of tourist tacky, but more spread out than Gatlinburg.

The Tennessean is right next to the old World’s Fair site, the only obvious remnant of which is the Sunsphere. Nearby there’s a nice square with lots of restaurants, but it was bustling, and the good ones were all booked. Dani got a kick out of posing on Gay Street!

We had a lovely dinner at the hotel restaurant/bar, and also had breakfast there the next morning. Very gracious service and good cocktail mixology.

June 6

On the way to Chattanooga we stopped at Lost Sea Adventure, a neat lake in a fairly deep cave. It’s a nice cave walk, because there is less elevation change than you’d expect, since you enter from the side of the mountain. The lake is stocked with trout, and you go on a short boat ride to watch them being fed. Pretty cool.

Another nice AirBnB across the river from Downtown. We ate at a big outdoor place called State of Confusion.

June 7

Just a bit outside of Chattanooga is Ruby Falls, a very deep cave you need to take an elevator to access. This is a very well-developed site, and they use Alcorn McBride equipment to tell the engaging story of the caves discovery, and to put on a beautiful light show of the very tall waterfall at the end of the path. There are a few tight spots and low ceilings, so not for the claustrophobic.

Lunch was outside at Main Street Meats, and excellent deli. Then back to the AirBnB for the Monday Wine Club Zoom.

June 8

An OK breakfast at Ruby Sunshine, a local breakfast chain, and then on to Nashville.

We stopped at Old Stone Fort State Archeological Park, which has a decent visitor center, and a pleasant walk on the river, but there are really no runs to see here, just some mounds.

The Jack Daniel’s Distillery tour was excellent. Great visitor center, and we had an excellent guide who took us on a tour and conducted a tasting of four of their whiskeys. It was really interesting to learn that their whiskeys are all the same as far as production, barrels, and aging. The only difference is how high (and therefore hot) the barrels have been stored in the warehouse prior to bottling.

Our place in Nashville is the top level of a four unit townhome near the college. Quite nice to be a bit out of downtown. It was an easy walk to dinner at a tapas place, Barcelona Wine Bar, where we ate outside.

June 9

Lunch was downtown at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which was better than when I ordered it shipped during the pandemic, but not life-changing. I think I am over Nashville hot chicken.

We spent an hour at the Country Music Hall of Fame, which neither of us were interested in, but you have to in order to tour RCA Studio B, which was quite interesting. It’s where hundreds of hit records have been recorded, including most of Elvis’. It was fun seeing all the old recording equipment, having used much of it myself, and also interesting to get a peek into the still-operational modern control room.

Chopper is a great tiki bar! It has a giant robot over the bar, and robot-shaped tiki mugs. I had a tiki drink with coffee in it that I really liked. Here’s my approximation of the recipe:

Dopamine Tiki Drink from Chopper Nashville
Bourbon 1-1/2 oz.
Demerara rum 1-1/2 oz.
Coffee 1-1/2 oz.
Coconut Syrup 4 pumps (about 1 ounce)
Lemon 3/4 oz.
Cinnamon

We had a nice dinner at Butcher & Bee, recommended by one of Dani’s friends who went to Nashville for graduate school.

June 10

After an okay breakfast at nearby Fido we headed for Memphis.

The Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, TN does a great job of presenting the history (and mythology) of that famous train wreck.

Our AirBnB in Memphis was in a particularly nice area, obviously the gayborhood, and walking distance to lots of restaurants. For dinner we walked to Alchemy and had a nice meal and cocktails on the sidewalk.

June 11

Another excellent restaurant was right around the block, so we had lunch outdoors at Central BBQ. Yum.

For me, one of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Following a path through 25 very well-interpreted display rooms, you find yourself looking through a glass wall into the room where Martin Luther King was staying when he was assassinated. Seeing his everyday belongings scattered about the room really brought the reality of it home.

We stopped for a flight of bourbon at just a few blocks away, at Max’s Sports Bar. Max’s is owned by a couple who owned a condo next to our in Chicago, and they kindly invited us to drop by. At their suggestion we had the BBQ nachos, which were amazing, actually better than lunch at Central BBQ!

We drove along the river and stopped for ice cream at A Schwab, a vintage pharmacy selling tourist junk on tourist junky Beale Street.

June 12

After an excellent to-go breakfast from the very busy Cafe Eclectic, we headed for Branson.

Our first stop was at the Sultana Museum, right after crossing the river into Arkansas. The Sultana was a steamboat that sank, killing 2300 or so Union soldiers who had been prisoners of war and were being returned to the North at the end of the Civil War. It was the largest maritime disaster in US history, but hardly anyone has heard of it because it happened the week after Lincoln was assassinated. The museum was hosted by a very sweet, knowledgeable woman who gave every visitor a self-guided tour of their many displays, photos, and artifacts. Highly recommended.

Trying to avoid the interstate, our lunch stop was at Whilma’s Filipino Restaurant, which was still pretty much in pandemic mode, with almost no tables, and ordering at a desk. A lot of fried stuff, not that good.

At Justin’s suggestion, we stopped at Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail for a fun golf cart journey through a beautiful (but man-made) journey through rock work, waterfalls, a cave with a tiki bar in it, and an expansive view.

Then we made our way through Branson to our condo in a luxury resort, which involved very confusing directions and an odd, after-hours check-in procedure. But the room is beautiful. We ordered pizza delivered for dinner.

June 13

This is the day that desensitized us to pandemic crowds. We went to Silver Dollar City, and the place was packed. We started with a false sense of security on the Flooded Mine ride, which we had to ourselves. It’s a charming and nonsensical boat ride / shooting gallery through animated scenes of prisoners trying to deal with leaking water.

We didn’t have such luck at Mystic River Falls. It LOOKED like a reasonable line. 2-1/2 hours later(!) we boarded our river raft. I must say, though, that it was a great ride. And we got soaked.

I’m not sure why the throughput on that ride is so slow. It seemed like it could have handled a lot more boats, and some went through empty.

After a truly horrendous BBQ bowl and a cinnamon role to recover we headed to Walmart for dry shoes, Dinner at the nearby El Lago Mexican restaurant was surprisingly good, and the GIANT margaritas were great.

June 14

Before leaving Branson we stopped at the WORLD’s Largest Toy Museum Complex. They aren’t kidding. This is a highly recommended stop, with buildings full of every imaginable toy, curated by type and vintage. An hour was not nearly enough time to explore here.

I was surprised that I liked Branson. It’s tacky, but my kind of home-grown tacky; the roads are laid out on the ridge lines, so there are great views; and there are lots of alternate routes, so the traffic isn’t as bad as in some tourist areas.

We had lunch at the Funk Yard in the gloriously tacky Uranus, Missouri, where every employee is in on the pre-teen joke (“The best fudge comes from Uranus.”)

We made a brief stop at t. James Winery, which has been a long-time supporter of the Florida State Fair Wine Competition where I’ve judged for the past 30 years. Typical of hot, humid states their wines are mostly really sweet. I bought a Pink Catawba and a Concord, both of which ended up being enjoyed as mixers during the following week.

Our last night was spent at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis. Road construction made it so difficult to get to this hotel that we just had dinner in the lobby at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

June 15

The drive from St. Louis to Chicago is almost as tedious as the one from Orlando to Atlanta. We stopped at 217 Roadhouse Bar and Grill, where the hamburger was a lot nicer than the server.

And then, by late after noon, we arrived at out condos, and Dani was reunited with Trish.

Best of all, the car fits in the garage.

Chicago, New Orleans, Orlando – Linda’s Road Trip Blog

I flew up to Chicago on Friday to spend some time with Steve and Dani. The weather is very strange this time of year – we had lunch outside yesterday and it went from very sunny to threatening to rain with the temp varying by 20 degrees all in the course of one meal!

IMG_7764Our view of the Wrigley Building.

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Yesterday we went on a tour of the Chicago Theater which is about to celebrate its 95th birthday. It was originally built as a movie palace – outside of stunning architecture its claim to fame was air conditioning when it opened. Since films were silent then it has a massive pipe organ – the largest pipe was built of wood and was just over 33 feet long! The organ console has “special effects” buttons built in for car horns, sirens, etc. to accompany the silent films. The theater sat over 3500 folks and was actually a medium sized theater for the chain that it was a part of. When it opened there were well over 100 ushers employed all of whom had “to be well brought up young men of good character with a minimum of a high school education”. They also had to be 5’7″ tall and 135 lbs. to fit into the standard uniforms. Similar to our Disney operator signaling systems today, there were elaborate button and light panels all through this massive building so the ushers could communicate where empty seats were. Very impressive for its day!

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I finished a cross stitch that I have been working on for 4 years this afternoon so we are going to take it to a framer tomorrow morning before we leave Chicago.


 

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Our first road trip stop is in St. Louis. We are staying in a Four Seasons with a lovely view of the arch which unfortunately is closed due to urban renewal around its base. Also unfortunate is that the view of everything around the arch is a collection of decaying riverfront factories with black walls and smokestacks – no wonder they built the arch so high – perhaps the goal was to be able to see into another state!

Strangely adjacent to this nice hotel is a new casino which is quite lovely but filled with the dregs of humanity – dedicated gambler that I am even I was scared off and retreated back to the room.


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Memphis was much nicer than St. Louis. We stayed at the original Peabody – what a wonderful blast from the past! And best of all the ducks are still there. It was so fun – the Duck Master comes out (sort of like a Ring Master) all dressed up in a fancy red coat and after a spiel to the crowd (of several hundred) he ceremoniously lowers red carpeted duck sized stairs and escorts the ducks to the elevator for the ride to their duck palace on the roof. In Orlando, once released from their fountain the ducks broke the land speed record to escape the lobby full of children; the Memphis ducks seem to have much more decorum and walked down the aisle with a majesty that would have befitted the Queen of England.

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We ate at a restaurant called Flights. They had wine flights of course but also had food flights as well – so for example they had a salad flight consisting of (3) salads – thank goodness we just ordered one – portions were huge – I forget this is the South and all. Along those lines it is kind of telling how many billboards there are for cardiac care!

In the morning we took a quick drive down Beale Street just to check that off the list (they were still cleaning up from last night’s partying). It’s not quite as romantic at 8:30 AM!

I took my turn at driving today as we continued down I-55 through Mississippi – what a great drive! I have spent so much time driving in Florida with idiots that I had forgotten what it was like to share the road with folks who know what they are doing. And best of all there are virtually no towns en route, so there aren’t any cops either. Everyone has agreed to go 80 MPH and it’s an overall dandy arrangement. I was driving Steve’s stretch Lexus which is SO comfortable – the only bad thing is there is absolutely no feedback as to how fast you are going – I caught myself doing 90 at one point!


IMG_0370New Orlean’s French Quarter defies description – you have seen the pictures of course but the ambiance is kind of like the seedier part of Las Vegas mixed with the funkiness of San Fransisco’s water front with a dollop of New York street life thrown in for good measure. Walking the streets is kind of like driving in Florida – you have to assume you are going to be cut off at every pass – folks start to drink around 11 AM and it is legal to carry drinks with you on the street – so it’s a happy but directionally and balance wise challenged crowd. Bourbon Street is sort of like an exercise in natural selection – the street itself is closed to traffic but the cross streets are not – you get the picture.

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Just one block over from Bourbon is Royal Street – a very different vibe. There are still many tourist shops here but there are some fine antique stores as well. We spent an hour in one that was more like a museum with price tags. It was not uncommon to find prices around $75K and there was a painting that had been sourced from the Vatican that was close to $1M. And heaven knows what they had hidden in the back! The place was huge and among other treasure they had a collection of precision world clocks from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Commander’s Palace turned out to be a dud – incredibly high wine prices, a fairly limited menu and fractured service – oh well.

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Last night however we went to and absolutely fabulous new restaurant (R’evolution). Great wine list and the food was outstanding. Steve and Dani had a 1907 Madiera to finish off the meal – perfect in every way!

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Halloween in New Orleans is… well let’s just say it ain’t Disney style.

On Bourbon Street one passes cigar puffing men in red tutu’s and matching bustier’s with a lot of muscles and an overall bad attitude. The young ladies in similar attire go down the street without comment. The young ladies (?) hooking for the strip clubs hang out with mostly bare tops covered perhaps by black paint at the most. They are about 15′ away from young boys tap dancing on the street in violation of every child labor law I have ever heard of. We saw a very dapper pair of elderly men (clearly well monied) with impeccable suit jackets, killer shoes and no pants save for very colorful boxer shorts. Then there was the black robed young woman with a large live snake draped around her neck. And the crazy guy naked but for black Speedo who was bragging about being both drunk and high on cocaine… And everyone else is just pretty much 3 sheets to the wind. Several schmucks had fallen by the road and were sleeping it off on the sidewalk. And this was about 5 PM last night. So what I could not get my head around was about this same time a NOLA police car was driving down the road – could not fathom what infraction they were going to go for first? These folks have taken live and let live to a whole new level!

IMG_0471So what I neglected to mention is the music. Music oozes from every pore of the French Quarter – they seem to be be born knowing how to play an instrument. There is nothing repetitive about it – every performance is improvised – as opposed to soul music this is music from the soul – amazing! There was a street band led by an older black lady clarinet player – the best I have ever heard! Her name is Doreen Ketchens; here is one link on YouTube but you can find others as well:

There was also a band that played in a lounge in our hotel. The room was about the same size as lounges on cruise ships and I always felt a slight rocking sensation (but it might have been the champagne…).


IMG_0529Yesterday we had had enough of the city and drove about an hour out of town to a riverfront plantation, Oak Alley. It was a rainy day so it was very uncrowded and it was a little easier to get a sense of what it must have really been like. It is named Oak Alley because an unknown Frenchman planted an avenue of oak trees 80 feet apart in the early 1700’s. He never lived to see them in their full majesty but now they have grown together and form a magnificent arch leading to the river. They funnel any breeze and in the early 1800’s a wealthy French officer built a magnificent home at the end of the Alley for his bride (who sounds like she was actually a pill but whatever.)

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The plantation grew sugar cane and employed about 100 slaves. There was an inventory of them from the mid 1800’s and their values ranged from $25 for a very sickly older person to $1500 for a skilled self taught botanist. Morality aside, just from an economic standpoint most of them were not given sufficient food/clothing to survive adequately – they had to supplement their incomes/food by raising crops and animals in their “spare” time; seems a pennywise approach to treating your work force.


 

 

So then it was off to Biloxi and the Beau Rivage. It is kind of sad – sort of a southern Las Vegas built on the cheap for senior citizens who have never gotten the chance to travel anywhere else. The only fun fact is for inexplicable reasons it is mandated that the casinos themselves have to be built on barges. So the hotels are built on the water’s edge and the barges are seamlessly attached to them – you can’t detect the seam from the inside. And no, I cannot figure out how they deal with the tides and it’s bugging me…

IMG_0550Last night we had a lovely dinner in a steak house on the top of another hotel – they had a very nice wine list and also were having a 50% off special on the wine – no limits! Had some really good Burgundy at below retail – yeah! And I even won $15 at the casino last night.

Eating habits in the South – no wonder insurance rates are so high! It is just kind of sad. We went to a sushi restaurant in Biloxi and out of 40 rolls only 3 or 4 of them did not feature tempura battered something or overall deep fried or both. Yuk! Amazingly their sashimi preparations were spot on.


 

En route to the Panhandle I was amazed by the sophistication of Mobile, Alabama – beautiful waterfront convention center and great local restaurants.


 

 

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Our final stop before Orlando was in Destin, Florida, at a kind of funky pseudo bed and breakfast with a killer Gulf view.

IMG_0573 I am going to sleep with the doors open and the waves lapping outside.

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Corn Maze and Apple Picking

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We took advantage of cool weather and beautiful blue skies to drive 60 miles west of Chicago to All Season Apple Orchard in Woodstock, Illinois. From Late August until early November they have a corn maze, apple orchard, and many other attractions.

We were fairly early, and I expected to be almost alone, but there were already hundreds of cars in the parking area, and a long line to buy tickets. I guess everyone else thought is was a great day to pick apples, too. Once inside, it wasn’t particularly crowded, as the place is huge, and it was mostly families with small children playing on the bounce houses and in the corn pit.

We began by watching the pig races, which were pretty funny.

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Then we ventured into the maze. Dani complained that I was looking at the map, but I pointed out that she was taking the well-trod paths, which seemed much the same thing. There was a fun “Clue” type mystery to solve by finding clues in the maze and punching your card.

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Once we found our way back out of the maze we had a quick bite to eat (while dodging the bees who really liked our cider). Then we took the wagon ride to the orchard to pick apples.

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We paid extra to pick Honey Crisp apples, and boy are they sweet and crisp, especially right off the tree!

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I had never been in a corn maze or picked fruit before, and both were really fun activities.

From Lincoln to Twain

At the start of the Labor Day weekend Dani and I made a quick overnight road trip to Hannibal Missouri to see Mark Twain’s birthplace. Along the way we stopped in Springfield, Illinois to checkout The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, where some of Alcorn McBride’s gear is used. After a nice lunch at Incredibly Delicious we headed for the museum, parking in the underground garage to escape the 95 degree heat.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

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I’m a huge fan of BRC Imagination Arts, the designers of this experience. Bob Rogers is a master storyteller, and this facility demonstrates the power of storytelling like few others I’ve encountered.

It’s amazing how much information you can retain when it is presented in a meaningful and moving context, and that’s what the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is all about.

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Both of the automated shows are real blockbusters, with amazing effects and immersive narration that really draws you in.

The “Holovision” show Ghosts of the Library uses a live performer and many of the effects developed for BRC’s famous Expo ’86 Spirit Lodge Show (and Knott’s Berry Farm’s Mystery Lodge), plus some new effects that will delight even jaded theme park goers like me.

The Lincoln’s Eyes show uses multiple screens and a lot of moving scrims and impressive theatrical sound to very effectively tell Lincoln’s story in an unconventional way.

Don’t let these elaborate shows fool you into thinking this is shallow theme park-like entertainment. You’ll leave them with a truly deep knowledge of history, having learned many things you never knew you didn’t know about a seemingly familiar story.

Equally impressive to me was the way that Lincoln’s childhood and presidency were presented in two separate walkthrough exhibits. Signage didn’t overwhelm, but was just enough to invite reading and interpreting each stop. I wish all museum curators would learn how to do this.

Similarly, the displays of artifacts were perfectly interpreted, with just enough information to draw us in without overwhelming us with verbiage, yet with plenty of hard information that was easy to absorb. I certainly learned ten times as much as I expected to.

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This museum is a delightful place to spend as little as a couple of hours, or as much as a full day. Highly recommended.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is at 212 N 6th Street, in Springfield, Illinois.

Hannibal, Missouri

In the afternoon we headed west, across featureless cornfields, for Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s boyhood home, and the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Hannibal sits just across the Mississippi River from Illinois, and it’s a bit of a one horse town.

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The major industry seems to be tourism along the four blocks of historic shopping that run from the Mark Twain Museum up to the statue of Tom and Huck.

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We stayed at a charming bed and breakfast called the Dubach Inn, and had dinner three doors away at LaBinnah Bistro. After dinner we walked down to the steamboat landing on the Mississippi River.

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In the morning we had a delightful breakfast with other guests of the hotel, who were emcees for a steampunk convention that happened to be in town for the weekend, and would provide some interesting color along the main street during our stay.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

Our first stop was the Mark Twain Museum. The ground floor provides a fairly elaborate interpretation of some of Twain’s books, including Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad, and his time in the gold rush territory of California. While these displays looked nice, they didn’t do a great job of conveying their message, especially to their intended audience, which seemed to be children.

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The upper two floors of the museum did a much better job, displaying artifacts and artwork from Twain’s life and books. For those with the patience to read the detailed signage, there was a lot of interesting information here.

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The museum ticket is available as a package that also grants access to other buildings down the street, and that’s definitely worthwhile. You can tour the homes that provided the inspiration for Tom, Huck and Becky, and all were interesting.

At the end of the street is a statue of Tom and Huck at the foot of the path that leads up to the lighthouse.

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Mark Twain Cave

After browsing through the steam punk festival’s booths, we headed three miles down river to Mark Twain’s Cave.

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This cave may not be filled with spectacular stalactites and other formations, but it is rich in history, since it is the cave from the Tom Sawyer novel (and four other Mark Twain books). Walking through its labyrinthian passageways really brings the book into focus, and the guides do a great job of identify various locations mentioned in the book.

 

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It’s a very easy cave to traverse, with flat floors, no steps, and no climbing. It’s also a cool 52 degree respite on a hot summer day, so bring a jacket!

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After our tour of the cave, we headed back, stopping at Lover’s Leap for a last look at what is still very much Mark Twain’s Hannibal before heading home.

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Road Trip: Orlando to Chicago

After purchasing the new condo in downtown Chicago we wanted to transport some big, heavy stuff like art work and dishes, so Dani and I decided to road trip via Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville. This would have the added advantage of a car in Chicago for the summer, which would ease the move from Evanston.

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The route

IMG_6852Only 1268 miles to go.

IMG_6862 Atlanta

IMG_6868 Atlanta. Dani tries out my new Apple watch.

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Opryland hotel. Impressive but probably wouldn’t stay here again. Checking in is like queuing at a theme park. In fact, it is a theme park, and I did work on an AV installation here many years ago.

IMG_6902Louisville slugger. I really like the 21c Museum Hotel next door. We’ve stayed there twice. Not much other reason to come to Louisville, though!

IMG_7114Home! (Well, actually we had to store the stuff in Evanston–or the trunk–for a couple of weeks until after the closing.) Some of the heavy stuff we transported.

Bristol Renaissance Pleasure Faire

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Having grown up in Southern California in the 1970s, I thought I knew what a Renaissance Faire was: a collection of tents and small booths set up temporarily on sprawling farmland.

Bristol Renaissance Faire is something completely different, and closer to an entire theme park than a temporary attraction.

Scattered beneath giant shade trees, and wandering its was over gentle hills, through glens and at one point even across a pond, the fair is comprised of more than 100 permanent structures, each uniquely themed as a period building.

Many attendees wear costumes, and fantasy attire is almost as popular as period dress, however most people just wear regular clothes, so you don’t need to feel self-conscious if you don’t look like a fairy.

Handicrafts and food, in many cases themed to the era (not sure about the medieval french fries) make for a delightful day.

Note that lines to get into the parking area can be VERY long, so plan to arrive early in the day, especially if it’s hot.

This is definitely a must-visit annual attraction.

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Mars Cheese Castle

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We passed this place on a drive to Milwaukee, and although we didn’t stop, I felt compelled to return. It’s a little over an hour north of Evanston, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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It was everything I expected, and more. Actually I was expecting nothing but a tacky tourist trap. But you can’t really call it a trap, since hundreds of fans return here, again and again. Why? Because of the sheer volume of “stuff” they have.

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Yes, there are T-shirts and souvenirs. But really the place is about cheese, beer, gourmet foods and wine, not necessarily in that order.

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They also have  a ton of hot sauces.

 

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The beer selection alone is vast. And there were many gourmet honeys, syrups, seasonings and biscuits I’d never seen before. Unfortunately the prices are pretty much at the level you’d expect, so I didn’t actually buy anything, but plenty of people were loading up.

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The cheeses I tried were actually fairly bland and forgettable, but them I’m more of a European cheese person. They also prepare hot food such as brats with cheese, which seemed popular, but I didn’t check out the menu.

On the drive back I happened to pass the Jelly Belly factory. Well, it’s not really a factory, just a warehouse and store. But at the store I made my sole purchase of the day: a carton of Belly Flops, defective jelly beans that sell for 25% of retail. I actually like them better than the regular ones, and they are certainly fresh. I think a lot of Dani’s friends are going to be getting jelly beans next week!

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Road Trip: Iowa

There is a lot of corn in Iowa. Seriously.

I think we might have crossed back into Wisconsin when this photo was taken, but you get the idea. Actually most of the day we were driving through southern Minnesota, and it was all corn fields, too.

We spent the night at the Hotel Julien in Dubuque, which is right at the corner of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. The recently renovated downtown Dubuque is cute and clean, and pretty devoid of people, at least on a Sunday evening. The hotel, thought to have once been owned by Al Capone, has recently had a $30 Million renovation itself, and is quite nice. The woman at the front desk was extraordinarily gracious, and seemed please to have customers. Not sure how they’re going to pay off that investment, though.

In the morning we drove across the bridge into Illinois, and a fairly boring drive. I was surprised that the corners of Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Iowa that we drove through were all more scenic than the middle of Illinois.

A good road trip. Friday-Monday, 900 miles roundtrip.

 

Road Trip: Minneapolis

State two in our three state road trip: Minnesota.

First stop: The Mall of America.

Well, it’s really big. The usual mall stores, some home grown ones, and a lot of restaurants. Many restaurants. Many chain restaurants. And a theme park. The mall is on 3-1/2 levels, each level pretty much equivalent to a standard mall. It surrounds the fours story high Nickelodeon themed park, which has a LOT of rides crammed into it. The mall was popular, although there weren’t a lot of people on the rides. Mini golf was busy.

Second stop: Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis. Very nice Starwood property, actually cheaper than the touristy semi-dump of last night’s stay in the Wisconsin Dells. Joining the Starwood preferred club (free) gets you free cookies, nice bathroom condiments, a high floor, a free drink in the bar, and free wireless. Good deal.

Third stop: Chino Latino, recommended by Jeremy, and billing itself as “Food from the hot zones.” Hopefully not contagious. The place was REALLY NOISY, but extremely trendy and delicious. We had Chinese 5-spice ribs, Tuna Drano balls (wasabi, tuna rice, wasabi roe and a touch of eel sauce), and really delicious spicy queso dip with mushrooms in it.

In the morning we walked to Hell’s Kitchen, and underground labyrinth of dining rooms that serves amazing lemon ricotta pancakes and an excellent huevos rancheros.

Then we headed for Iowa. On the way, we stopped at Mystery Cave, an interesting wet cave in a Minnesota State Park. Everywhere we’ve been on this trip, everyone we’ve encountered has been really nice, and the ranger guide here was particularly friendly and informative.

 

Road Trip: The Wisconsin Dells

Dani and I are on a quick weekend road trip to add three states to our list.

I’d always thought Orlando, and especially its International Drive (the old section) was the tacky capital of the universe, but I’d never been to the Wisconsin Dells. I’m nearly speechless at the colossal, all-consuming tackiness of the place. It’s so tacky its attraction is its very tackiness.

While International Drive is an embarrassment to Orlandoans, Dellers seem to revel in it. A watermark without a pyramid, coliseum, Trojan Horse of flying saucer would be a downright embarrassment. It’s a place where a family restaurant can advertise “Where size matters” and fit right in.

And as for culture, they got that to, in the form of museums. What vacationing family wouldn’t want to visit The Museum of Torture?

The Dells seems to be divided into two areas, the original Downtown, where things are a bit smaller and cuter, and the part that’s on the Interstate, where everything is GIGANTICALLY TACKY.

There are no bland buildings here, everything is outrageously themed. And the reason they need to be so huge is that most of the water parks are indoors. I was surprised by this, since I figured they were probably seasonal. But this is August. And this morning the temperature was 46 degrees!

As someone who wears loud Hawaiian shirts every day, I can appreciate tacky. I can even revel in it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Paul Bunyan’s for a Lumberjack Breakfast…