Sunday, April 18, 2010

A View of St. Louis

If the only thing I can say was less than excellent was the temperature, that's pretty exceptional. That was mostly in the hands of Mother Nature although in hindsight I'd have either dressed better for the elements or sat indoors. Either way, Vin de Set is a fabulous bistro in St. Louis and I recommend it highly. The cheese course was delicious and generous enough to share. Our table required a second helping of the fresh baked bread. I ordered a tilefish entree, that evening's special and it arrived perfectly cooked served on top of some tender-crisp veggies, which isn't really my favored preparation method. I also tasted the flatiron steak and frites; the steak's juicy and meaty flavor reminded me that when cooked properly, flatiron steak is a cut well worth the calories. For desert, we sampled the beignets with various sauces, the raspberry being the most outstanding to me. I also ordered the lime and blueberry crepes which I thought to be even better, with the lime's tart flavor paring well with the warm blueberry.

With all that was going on in the area that particular weekend, our hotel choices were limited. We ended up at a Hampton Inn in Glen Carbon, Illinois. When we arrived, I heard the dreaded phrase "soccer team." Certain phrases overheard at checkout can strike fear or horror in the heart of a traveler, and any sort of sports team or group that arrives via school bus ranks highly on the list. Usually hordes of kids lead to noisy hallways later in the evening and very early in the morning and a breakfast area that has been picked clean of any remaining food by 7am. So it was quite the pleasant surprise when the only way we knew there was any sort
of sports team was sharing our hotel was seeing a few of the teen boys lounging in the front sitting area playing PS3 on the big screen tv.

Other than being a bit out of the way with virtually nothing located really close by, it was very quiet and had a thoughtfully designed floorplan to our room. Just what I want in a hotel. The hair dryer did quit functioning while we were there. Twice. Both times they replaced it promptly and were friendly as well.

During the drive home, we took a slightly different route south than the utterly dull I-55. We followed the Great River Road southward to just north of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. One of the more interesting things we found along the way was the giant Brook's catsup bottle as we were heading through Collinsville, IL. It's a 170 foot tall water tower built in 1949 for a local bottler of Brook's catsup. Just like the giant peach water tower in Gaffney, SC, it's a sight you can't miss and at the same time is difficult to capture in words. It's something practical turned into roadside art that captures a bit of the fun in engineering something otherwise ordinary and mundane. I'm glad there are designers who do that and make life for the rest of us a little more entertaining.

We crossed the Mississippi River at Chester, home to the creator of Popeye and his cast of characters. Statues of these famous names dot the town with the most famous namesake greeting visitors as they cross the river. It's just another one of those roadside oddities that make sharing the backroads with farm implements worthwhile.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Picnic in the Park

Last weekend Mother Nature finally allowed us to experience a bit of that wonderful spring weather I've been anxiously awaiting after what has seemed like an unending winter. So with temperatures predicted in the low 70's and sunshine on order, the husband and I decided to make a drive to Village Creek State Park near Wynne, Arkansas.

The state park falls along Crowley's Ridge, an unusual geologic formation that runs southward from the northeastern corner of Arkansas. In essence, it means for those with sports cars or motorcycles and a desire to find twisty roads it's a pathway to fun. The parkway that follows the ridge is favored among auto enthusiasts, motorcyclists and bicyclists that reside nearby. Driving to the park can be quick and bland by taking the main highways, or much more entertaining with decent quality roads (a little rough in some spots) that snake along the edge of the ridge. I did see one offshoot from the road we traveled with one of those magical "Crooked and Steep Next # Miles" signs and made note of the highway number. Oh yes, I will be back there to see if the sign is accurate and the road worthy of repeated travel.

The park itself is comprised of 7000 acres sitting atop Crowley's Ridge. It boasts two lakes and miles upon miles of trails for walking, hiking, cycling, or traveling on an ATV or horseback. We had our choice of many picnic tables overlooking Lake Austell and after a quick lunch went to the visitors center for more info about the trails. The one we walked, the Arboretum Trail, was a bit muddy in spots after the previous night's heavy rain, but that rain left every little creek running all along the trail. It's well marked, requires very minimal climbing and has signs pointing out some of the interesting trees along the path.

I was both pleased and impressed with the quality of the park. Arkansas does a great job with it's state parks; they're usually well maintained, clean and friendly to both the pedestrians and those on wheels. I hope to see more of the state's parks throughout the rest of the year. Right now I'm just happy to see spring!