Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wisconsin Bound!

I have just returned from my second trip to Road America for the Kohler International Challenge and it was worth the 1700 mile trip including that still endlessly dull drive back and forth through some of the flattest areas of Illinois.

This year we would need to haul not only our luggage for the week, which isn't all that much, but also folding chairs and my parents luggage, and really needed comfortable on-the-road seating for four. So we started the trip with another short journey not far from home. Having found that the selection for renting land yachts is sorely lacking in our area, my husband and I made the choice to pick up a SUV in Memphis to take on our trip. In an effort to support local business and break up the monotony of another trip to Memphis, we opted to fly a local commuter flight one-way and drive the SUV back home. It turns out that was a great decision, as the flight on SeaPort Air's nine seat Pilatus PC-12 was comfortable and quick. The staff and crew were not just friendly, but truly helpful and made the experience something I wouldn't hesitate to repeat. If only all airlines could be run with such a relaxed demeanor I'd be willing to burn through my stockpile of frequent flyer miles a whole lot faster.

A couple of days later, we stopped at Collinsville, Illinois to meet up with friends and caravan northward. That evening we went to dinner at Sage just across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Clearly a trendy hot-spot in the area, the food is a melting pot of contemporary American cuisine. The stuffed chicken breast was excellent, although the fifteen spice ribs could have used a bit more spice, maybe that missing sixteenth one would have been the magic touch. Being a hot-spot, the noise level was a bit much and left us all straining to hear each other. A little sound control could go a long way in improving the overall experience here; however I got the impression there was a bit of something to being seen here, not just dining and enjoying the meal and present company.

We spent the night at a ho-hum Doubletree Hotel in Collinsville. I had decided to try it since our usual Hampton Inn in the area was sold out and it was the other top ranked hotel in the area according to Trip Advisor. It definitely is a business travelers and convention / meeting place hotel. For a quick overnight stay it was ok but nothing exceptional.

The following day we set out for Wisconsin and stopped for lunch at Hearthrock Cafe. It was one of those odd internet finds that I kept coming back to, thinking it looked just too interesting to pass up. Inside an older downtown three-story building that now houses a proprietor of home furnishings, kitchens, flooring, landscaping and other such items. The menu was perfect for a light lunch and the store provided us with a good excuse to get out and stretch a bit.

Later that day we arrived at our destination, check into our hotel and headed to dinner at the Millhome Supper Club in Kiel, or rather somewhere in the middle of nowhere near Kiel. Sadly the food was disappointing. Our friends had a good recommendation for the place but it turned out to be mostly food-service entrees of the heat and eat variety. Adding to that was its preparation by a chef who clearly had been fired somewhere else for under-cooking food, thus everything was overcooked by 15 to 25 degrees as was evidenced by the rubbery shrimp and scallops and medium steaks that were brown all the way through. However the place was nearly empty so it wasn't crowded or noisy which made for a nice contrast to the previous night's deafening volume level.

This was a fun trip and more than my fingers can handle in one round. More coming soon...

Goodbye 309

For the fifth year in a row, my husband and I made our way east to Blowing Rock, North Carolina for a car event. The beautiful area and opportunity to visit with friends makes the drive across the entire state of Tennessee worth the journey every year, despite the usually somewhat ho-hum journey getting there.

During this trip, I learned some very valuable lessons. First, I learned that I do not like Indian food. While I admit I've been wanting to try Indian cuisine sometime, one of the first nights of my trip was not the "sometime" I intended. This leads to lesson number two; when traveling with a group, be careful who chooses dinner. Otherwise it can lead to unplanned adventures in cuisine that may or may not be to your liking. On the upside, I no longer wonder if I like Indian food; I know that I really don't. One less experiment needed later anyway!

Blowing Rock is nestled along the Blue Ridge Parkway and twisty mountain roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Elevations in the area vary from about 3000 feet to the summit of Grandfather Mountain towering at just shy of 6000 feet. The past winter has not been kind to the parkway and surrounding mountains; there were still signs of debris along the roadway, although the worst had been cleared away by the time we arrived in early June.

This year we visited three destinations new to us, all in the Banner Elk, NC area. The first day we arrived, we met up with more from our event at Jackalope's View Restaurant. The salmon was very good, as were the rest of the entrees, but what really made this place special was the view. Photos can't begin to capture the panoramic mountain scene visible from every angle of the deck and windows across the whole back of the restaurant. It's slightly quirky interior began with the real vault door every patron walks through going into the restaurant. Wine corks adorned the walls in somewhat organized patterns, with space to expand the collection over time. It was relaxing and a wonderful way to begin our time in the Blue Ridge Mountains. (It was also a very welcome return to good food after the previous night's "culinary adventure" aka Indian food.)

The following evening, our group had reserved the great camp at The Lodges Eagle's Nest, and I use the term "camp" very loosely. Sitting on a mountainside a few miles from Banner Elk, the Eagle's Nest is actually a gated golf club community minus the typical high-society stuffiness. Oh and minus the golf too. And the indoor fancy clubhouse. In its place is a large open pavilion on a hillside, complete with hand-carved over-sized picnic tables, an enormous eight foot wide fireplace, full size catering kitchen, and even a nearby band shell, plus even more amenities than I can recall. The owners and staff were gracious and attended well to our group. Sledgehammer Charlie's provided the catered bar-b-que dinner and the meal was excellent, as was the setting overall. With the blended upscale yet very rustic setting, the idea of a group rain dance effort to stop the steady drizzle that settled in during the course of the evening might have proved worthwhile, but instead we just wound our way back down the mountainside into Blowing Rock and caught a little extra rest.

Our other new destination was a different car owners group gathering in the tiny town of Banner Elk. Sitting at just over 5000 feet and maintaining its own private grass airstrip, the area caters well to the wealthy but at the same time provides hotels and resorts at more moderate prices too. It also boasts the east's highest sled run. This of course is lesson number three of the trip; some of the more interesting oddities to be found are those things we stumble on purely by accident when traveling. I have to admit this wasn't a revelation to me on this trip, but is something I noted long ago. It just served as a good reminder that going with the flow can lead to good things (and not always to Indian food. It really was that bad.)

I've since found out that our event will be changing locations next year. The hotel at Blowing Rock has become too small to fit our growing group of car nuts and after 10 years in the same spot, the organizers have decided it is time to change things up a bit. Next year, we will convene at Little Switzerland, about an hour south of Blowing Rock, so we can begin a whole new set of adventures and find more roads to explore. So after five years in room 309 at the Meadowbrook Inn, late Sunday morning I closed the door and said goodbye to a room that had become like a second home in the mountains and looked forward to the new experiences to come in 2011. I'm sure I'll learn more lessons then too.