Monday, July 31, 2006

Time Travel

"What were they thinking?" We've all stared at an object from the past and had that same thought. With some of the strange contraptions on display at Wheels Through Time, I'd love to have a time machine to go ask a few questions.
In some instances you can tell what they were thinking. They were looking for merely a solution to a problem, such as the creative biker who was clearly at a disadvantage against other riders. At Wheels Through Time, you'll find a range of American automotive and motorcycle history with a few things that border on the downright bizarre mixed in too.

The museum is located in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, not far from Asheville, North Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee. Driving in can be fun with the beautifully twisting highways that lead to the area. Souvenir shops, ice cream stands, small motels and various tourist stops dot the landscape of Maggie Valley. While slightly heavy on the tourist-oriented kitsch, it's still a neat place to visit. The Wheels Through Time museum makes it worth the drive.

The place is like a small slice of heaven to a motorcycle enthusiast. What's truly fascinating is that the vast majority of the machines they house are in running condition. I did wonder how some of their displays ran when they were new, much less 50 or more years after the fact. Currently they have a special display featuring women as a part of motorcycling history, mostly told through photos and documents. You could spend days and never see all of it, there's so much attention to even the finest details in every piece. The owners know it all by heart; ask a question about any piece in the entire collection and they can answer plus give you a complete history of the piece. It's an amazing experience for anyone who likes antique machinery, and especially for those with an affinity for motorcycles.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Blowing Rock, North Carolina

The whole area looks something like this.
Yes, it really is this stunning around almost every curve. There's no lack of curves either.

The Blowing Rock area can be simply described in one word: beautiful. Situated just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in the North Carolina mountains, it's a quaint town with upscale shops, interesting restaurants and quick access to some of the most scenic and challenging roads I've ever traveled. It only takes traveling down a few of the 469 miles of this parkway to give you an aching neck from constantly turning your head to soak in the views from all angles. (Above Photo compliments of my own Canon Powershot S80.)

The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through the Appalachian mountain range starting in Virginia and continuing south to North Carolina. While there are numerous entry points, there are no gas stations along the parkway itself. Take a camera and prepare to stop often, as around every bend is another panoramic vista begging to be captured on film (or your choice of digital media.) With the number of miles covered by the parkway, it falls well within a day's drive of many areas of the east coast and westward to the Mississippi River, possibly even farther in southern areas.

Regarding hotels, my husband and I spent a few days at the Meadowbrook Inn. Rooms are nice, especially for the rates. The hotel staff really made the visit exceptional as they were sincerely helpful. Every single person you'd meet in a hallway or ask for anything at all was friendly and eager to assist. The decor is simple and traditional, with a mix of antique and classic style. It's well worth checking into the upgraded suites as some have amenities such as fireplaces, two-person jacuzzis, large 4-poster king beds, even a private swimming pool!

I can't offer a lot in the way of restaurant evaluation, as I was attending an event that was mostly catered. The bartenders at the Meadowbrook Bar were in keeping with the rest of the hotel staff; they even went as far as to rename a couple of drinks just for our group of car enthusiasts spending a few days there. Thus the "Radiator Flush" and "Battery Acid" were on the list of recommend beverages.
(If I recall correctly, these two are also known as a "Red Headed Sister" and "Jager Monster". A more accurate name for either would be simply "woah," as that's the feeling you have after consuming just one of them.)

Just a tip for those considering the area as a destination: The hotel staff indicated that hotel rooms throughout the area go quickly in the fall, as the changing colors and moderate temperatures make it the most popular time of the year to visit.

I can definitely see a trip back to the Blue Ridge Parkway and all it's scenic overlooks in my future. This one easily falls into the "Good Roads and Good Eats" category.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A Whirlwind Trip to Baltimore

I want to complain about my trip, I really do. Trekking through the airports all day is never a very appealing task; especially when you are due to arrive at your destination at 1 am. Despite my daring the airport, airline and crew to make my trip miserable, they just wouldn't cooperate. The airport staff, even the ones who normally just give you a barely audible grunt were amazingly friendly. People were helpful, even the general public didn't seem all that irritated to be herded through the lines like cattle; I suppose that was because we weren't being treated as such.

The hotel however, did find ways to disappoint. This is my second stay at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. The rooms were adequate, the bed linens were some of the best I've found in a hotel yet. When the bed linens are the bright spot, you know it's not a good sign. Suffice it to say they completely twisted around the reservations such that they had our reservation cancelled at one point. Upon arrival, the long hallways to reach your room seem infinite. I was there two nights, and both mornings I woke up to the chants of protestors. They were close enough to be heard in the room, but not nearby enough to interpret beyond a repeated chorus of "What do we want?" Not a fault of the hotel, I understand, but an annoyance nonetheless. Overall the hotel was probably quite nice about ten years ago, and the upkeep has been just adequate. It was not worth the rate of over $300 per night. Internet access was inexcusably atrocious, but I digress.

Regarding restaurants and meals, the bar at the hotel was moderately priced, had a reasonable selection and the burger I had was good. The view from the bar area was lovely, overlooking the harbor. Some of my traveling companions had dinner at Windows, the restaurant in the hotel, and came away unimpressed. The hotel is attached to a shopping area, with several other stores and restaurants located just across the street on the harbor. The attached area has a variety of chain fast food eateries, so there are plenty of places to grab something on the go. I did have one excellent meal, our group went to Ruth's Chris for dinner one night. This was the location where my husband and I first acquired our addiction and have been happily scouting out other locations around the US. I strayed from my usual Creme Brulee and had the Pecan Pie for desert, it was truly outstanding.

This wasn't my first trip to the area, so I skipped on the tourist spots this time. Two that are worth noting however are ESPN Zone and the National Aquarium. ESPN Zone is similar to a Dave & Buster's but with more emphasis on the sports theme, including TV's with nearly every game on the planet blaring at you. Not my sort of place, but popular enough to mention, plus the building is architecturally interesting. The National Aquarium is well worth visiting, it's one of the nicest I can recall seeing in my travels. I suspect it's as close to literally swimming with the creatures of the sea as you can get and not wear scuba gear. My last visit there was at least 4 years ago, but I was told it is still just as beautiful.
Photo from the National Aquarium Website, showing a Southern Stingray.

It was a quick trip, an enjoyable one at that, but after being beholden to the schedules of airlines, restaurant reservations and hotel housekeeping I appreciate being able to hop in my car and go on my timetable.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Visiting St. Charles

I was reading a recent article about St. Louis in a local newspaper and it made me think about my last visit to the area. The article encouraged the reader to realize there are things other than ball games in the area. There's a professional sports team there? Really? I must have forgotten...

For this trip, I was traveling with my parents and husband and we stayed in St. Charles, Missouri, located just across the Missouri River. It's a charming town that has a wonderful riverfront district full of unique shops and restaurants. The area has a historical feel without being overtly a tourist trap. A casual stroll down the sidewalks of Main Street will leave you relaxed and not absorb every dime from your wallet.

When it's time to dine you'll find a large range of choices, and we weren't disappointed with any meal. We had dinner at Lewis & Clark's the first night; the view and atmosphere was excellent, the food was good but not worth noting. Also during the trip we had lunch at Mother-In-Law House, which had great outdoor seating and very good sandwiches. The best meal of the trip was at Little Hills Winery Restaurant, which was fantastic. The chicken and Brie is a house specialty and worth the calories, the chicken nachos are also delicious, and portions are generous enough to share. If you're looking for the night scene, there's a number of small pubs and coffee houses with live bands to tap your toes to well into the night.

I was very pleased with our hotel accommodations. We stayed at the Country Inns & Suites, and I've often paid far more for far less of a hotel. The hotel is situated at one end of the historical district, within a short walk of the shops. Some parking is covered, and a full hot breakfast is included daily. The rooms are quiet and clean, with decor that is appropriate for the area.

If you're staying in the St. Charles area, it's worth your time for a day trip to the St. Louis Zoo. Admission is free, but to park within a reasonable distance, plan to pay for parking. The penguin exhibit is exceptionally nice, as is the majority of the zoo. For less crowds, visit on Monday through Thursday; Friday is known as "school day," when area schools arrive for field trips.

Just a little note: I have been pleased with the value for the money when I've stayed at Country Inns & Suites in several other locations. The hotel chain is usually moderately priced but with overall accommodations that are superior in to what you would find at a similarly priced hotel.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

New Links Added

If you look to the bottom of the list on the left, I've added some new links.

Trip Advisor is an excellent source for guidance on hotels and destinations in general. Rarely have I found the comments from previous travelers been misleading, so when there are 15 comments saying "This place was awful" it's worth taking note.

Google Maps - Good maps are essential for travel, and this is one place that will help you get from point A to point B without fuss. There's lots of other great software out there, and for the GPS inclined, you might check out one of these.

Arkansas State Parks - Supporting my home state probably isn't a bad thing. Plus, they have some really nice parks! I'll be visiting Mt. Magazine State Park soon, so you'll hear firsthand if it's good (or bad).

Kentucky State Parks - I've included Kentucky's parks because they are so beautiful and such an exceptional value. The cabins are very reasonably priced and while they are not 5-star accommodations, they are nicely appointed.

Blue Ridge Parkway - To satisfy your desire for beautiful scenery and a road trip all in one, this parkway is the destination.

Segway Tours - I just can't describe how entertaining it is to run around on a Segway, and with tours in lots of major cities, your opportunity may be on your next trip.

Do you know of any websites that are invaluable travel tools? Post a comment below and I'll add it to the list.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Upcoming Destinations

I've got a few upcoming trips and any recommendations of good eats, good roads and just good things to do while I'm there are welcome and highly encouraged.

Some places I'll be visiting soon:

Renaissance Harborplace Hotel - I have been to this hotel a few years ago; it overlooks the harbor in Baltimore, Maryland. Last time I went with a group to the Rusty Scupper for dinner one night. I didn't exactly have what you'd call a broad culinary range of taste at the time, so remembering the food was of low priority. I have heard that Legal Sea Foods is the place to go if you want the ultimate in seafood. I might make it there, but I suspect that if possible we'll pay homage to the place where my pursuit of the perfection of tender beef began, Ruth's Chris Steak House. Unfortunately the timing of this trip doesn't allow for a road trip, so instead of enjoying the scenery up the east coast, I'll be trudging through the Atlanta airport during a delightful four hour layover.

Mount Magazine State Park - Located in western Arkansas, this park has a brand new lodge and cabins, plus it's on one of those roads like what the lovely Highway 9 was supposed to be. I've heard that the area is breathtaking, but I can only stand there saying "Wow, that's a nice view..." for so long and then it's time to go exploring.

Gaylord Opryland Hotel
- When you're presented a map upon arrival at the hotel and you're truly thankful because you know you'll need that map, that qualifies as a ridiculously big hotel. This small city, or rather "hotel," is located in a classic southern city, Nashville, TN. The trip will be a driving trip, but the destination isn't really the hotel; it's the VIP tickets to see Alton Brown, my favorite chef. More to come later...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Highway 9 was nice

About two weeks ago three of us took off to visit a specific road; it starts with one of those great signs that anyone looking to put their driving or riding skills through their paces is thrilled to find. It looks similar to the one at right. The sign I was looking for was at least past the minimum for making it "worth the drive." How do I calculate the minimum? It's a simple formula. The higher the number of miles on the sign, the more likely it is to be worth driving to get to that starting point.

We had a great trip getting there. Highway 25 leading west into Batesville, AR is entertaining through Strawberry, AR and has some shady areas where the trees give you a canopy of relief on a hot summer day. Batesville is a nice town, with a variety of restaurants to stop in for lunch or dinner. We chose to stop for lunch at Elizabeth's Place, located downtown. It's one of those great places that let you stuff yourself silly on very good rolls to begin with, so when your Quiche lunch special arrives, you're already mostly full. I think the club sandwiches were a little better than the Quiche. It's a good place to stop for a light lunch, and the old renovated building makes for a casual, quaint setting.

We moved on through to Mountain View, where we turned north on Highway 5, leading up to the wonderful road I'd remembered from summers past... Highway 9.

But alas, it wasn't all that glorious anymore.

If you care remotely about the paint and windshield of your car, or if you're a motorcyclist and like to keep your bike upright, I encourage you to avoid this highway for now. The highway department has decided to "resurface" the road. In this case it was clearly done by the very lowest bidder, and they wanted to pocket as much as possible. It's covered in loose gravel and chat 90% of the way, both directions. I'm not sure if their plan is to let this settle a bit then oil or pave over it, but for now it makes for miles and miles of misery. We took a turn on a mystery road just to see if we could get around the mess, but ended up at a dead end (i.e. another actually worse gravel road.)

After grumbling our way through to Melbourne, AR, we stopped to regroup, refuel vehicles and ourselves. To console ourselves a bit, we made our way back home through Highway 25 up to Ravenden and Highway 63, where the fun comes to an abrupt halt as you pass over the river.

It was still a fun trip, and I'd recommend most of the route as overall good roads. Watch your speed on Highway 25 as homes are close to the road and animals roam freely, sometimes into the road.

(Thanks to The Motorcycle Tourer's Forum for having just the kind of picture I needed, sounds like they had a fun/painful ride!)

Dallas for a Day - Part Two

I didn't have a bad meal the entire trip. Nice!

Grotto is an Italian restaurant located on McKinney in the Uptown Plaza. They have a large menu and all pasta is made in-house. I chose the Ravioli Alla Vodka and it was exceptionally good; the fresh pasta makes all the difference. My husband had the Pork Chop Milanese, which has to be the most evenly pounded to thin pork chop I've ever seen. While very mild in flavor, it was tender and quite tasty. We saw the desert cart pass by before we ordered, so it was obvious saving a little room was important. The pata a choux pastries were very good, but the toffee cake was even more memorable.

Room service breakfast at Hotel Zaza was very good. The homemade granola is a must, and the bread basket also is a good choice if you're in a hurry. Also the applewood smoked bacon was well worth the price.

Ruth's Chris Steak House. I just don't think I can explain how good this place is. Yes, it's a chain, I know I said I'd avoid chains. But they do have their place, and this one's place is right up there on the top end of my list.
My love affair with Ruth's began a few years ago, when we "discovered" this smaller chain at their location in Baltimore. I haven't found a consistently better steak anywhere, and believe me it's not for a lack of effort. My husband and I along with a small group of friends chase after that prize of a perfect steak and the standard test it must pass is the one big question: "Is it better than Ruth's?" While it might be good, and I've found a few get very close to being equal, none have been better. When I find that elusive flawless piece of perfectly cooked beef, you'll know.
While they do serve a fabulous steak, their garlic mashed potatoes, potato chips (where available), BBQ shrimp and Creme Brulee are all also exceptional.

Dallas for a Day - Part One

Actually it was a couple of days, but it went by quickly.

I can sum up Dallas this time of year in one word: HOT. That doesn't really cover it accurately, but it's the best I can do. Strangely enough, those who live in the area don't seem to be bothered by it. Despite the heat, it was still a fun place to visit.

From my area, the drive to Dallas is uneventful. It's flat and mostly interstate. I've not found a great way to drive there that doesn't require you to take the interstate most of the way. You can see the transition from lush plants to sparse as you head west on I-30 across Texas. Within a short time you stop seeing houses tucked among the trees and the ranch gates start to appear along the roadsides.

This wasn't my first trip to Dallas but the first time I've stayed in the Uptown Arts District. It's a very trendy sort of area, LA done in Texas style. Compared to LA, there's a slightly slower pace, and plenty of southern hospitality to greet you.

The Hotel Zaza is a prime example of this sort of atmosphere. If you like to lounge by (but not in) the pool while sipping a drink, this is your place. The decor overall is elegant yet sensual. Lots of dark colors pared with cool earth-tone tile. The Shag-a-delic suite was groovy baby, yeah! Complete with purple shag carpet, lava lamps, Austin Powers movie posters and a working disco ball, it lived up to the name.

My honest opinion: It wasn't worth the price. If you have no intention of being in your room until 2 am, you're probably ok. If not, this room is situated in a nook on their limited-access 4th floor placed above the pool area. It makes for a great view of the front lobby area where you can watch the flow of various interesting cars, but the music from the bar is loud enough you really don't need a radio in the room. The service from the staff was for the most part prompt and very friendly, although room service did arrive considerably later than planned one evening. If you can get a room that does not face the front of the hotel, I would recommend it. Overall, I think the hotel would be an interesting break from the usual as a place to stay if you're traveling with friends who are night owls or want to spend an evening socializing with a client.

What this blog is about...

I like to both cook and consume good food. I also like to travel. Whenever it's possible for those two joys to combine, you know I'm having a good day. This blog is my record of adventures in travel and tastes, with hopefully plenty of both.

I expect the majority of my travel will be in the US, focusing on the Southern US as it is the most convenient for me to explore. Chain restaurants have their place, so they might get the occasional mention here, they are not my real focus. I love finding those local gems down the lesser known road with the breathtaking view.

Maybe the next time you're in a small town like Waldenburg, Arkansas (population 80), you'll know that the Dairy Bar is worth the wait and that three days a week you can treat yourself to some of the best BBQ in the area. I'll also warn you that you should go on a day when you don't care how dirty your vehicle is because when you get back it will be worse.