DRIVE TIME FROM LARGE METROPOLITAN AREA:
-Kansas City area: 3 1/4 hours
During Branson's holiday season, iconic Silver Dollar City after dark, is the definition of magical. Hundreds of thousands of lights glow and twinkle across the theme park landscape, from intricate designs on antique-style buildings to fully-covered massive outdoor trees. Other lit trees - adorned with hundreds of ornaments - stand inside crowded gift shops. No matter where you look, there's a Christmas reminder.
A great place to see live entertainment, year-round, Branson really pulls out the stops during the holiday season. Dozens of shows are booked throughout days and evenings, from secular and religious choirs to enormously talented musicians. During our press visit, we enjoyed Irish music, by Dublin's Irish Tenors & The Celtic Ladies, and marveled at incredible physical artistry among the Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai. We checked out live entertainment with a patriotic and Christian vibe, on board the Showboat Branson Bell, and we even caught an afternoon performance of A Christmas Carol The Musical.
Watching the performer who mimicked Elvis felt like we were seeing the actual singer. And the Rod Stewart performer looked exactly like the iconic entertainer, as he held a mike near his face.
This is only a sampling of what Branson offers during the holiday season. If you plan your visit right, you may also catch the daytime holiday parade. And, for more stellar indoor entertainment, board Titanic Branson. The massive, boat-shaped museum owns 400+ artifacts, valued at more than $4 million (a second Titanic operates in Pigeon Forge, TN).
*Amid the pandemic, do check in advance re: open venues and local COVID regulations.*
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary meals, lodging, and admissions during my visit to Branson. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME FROM LARGER CITY:
-Chicago: 1 1/2 hours
I stared through the window, open-mouthed, as 'wings' on the outside of the Milwaukee Art Museum slowly opened and closed, creating new views of the building's exterior every few minutes. This wasn't the first time I had visited the museum, but it was the first time I was lucky enough to view the wizardry of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, as it unfolded.
One of three structures in the museum complex, The Quadracci Pavilion is my favorite - especially when a visit coincides with the twice daily opening and closing of its 217-foot move-able sunscreen - the Burke Brise Soleil (“wings”). The Pavilion has been a local landmark since 2001.
Inside, Calatrava's architecture creates a breathtaking entry hall with a vaulted, 90-foot-high glass ceiling, Hung high high above us, a series of opened umbrellas created a whimsical vibe during my latest visit. In addition, a long, colorful glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly (one of my favorites!) temporarily hung near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked Lake Michigan, and a pianist playing a baby grand piano.
Our group toured the museum during the annual Art in Bloom exhibition. It was so cool to see spring arrangements from local florists, designed to replicate the palettes and styles of multiple art pieces. But this event involves more than beautiful flowers and great art, displayed in the Collection Galleries.
For the 2019 event, additional Daily Activities included:
I loved my latest visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Did we see anything else? Of course! But the beauty of art is its indelible mark on each individual who views it. These were my indelible images.
*Amid the pandemic, the Milwaukee Art Museum reopened to the public by August 2020.*
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary meals, lodging, and admissions during my visit to Milwaukee. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
I love taking cooking classes during my travels. No matter where you enroll, these courses often reflect local cuisine while providing new ideas for use at home. From Santa Fe to the Finger Lakes region of New York & agriculturally rich Wisconsin, these schools feature friendly, knowledgeable instructors, cool food prep tips, and great flavors. Here are four of my favorites:
Opened as The New York State Wine & Culinary Center, in June 2006, Canandaigua-based New York Kitchen pairs a gorgeous building with state-of-the-art kitchen facilities. Whether you take a hands-on class or view a culinary demo from comfortable arena seating, this nonprofit cooking school beautifully showcases the state’s food and wine bounty throughout its curriculum. Enjoy tasty, scratch-made cuisine and you may even improve your knife skills (as I did!).
For more than 30 years, Santa Fe School of Cooking has offered cooking demonstrations to hands-on cooking classes. You can choose from a .chile workshop, learn how to make traditional tamales, or even create classic mole sauce. Fresh and local ingredients always star in these, and many other dishes. And, no matter which class brings you to this beloved cooking school, the focus is always 'to celebrate and share the distinctive techniques and flavors of regional Santa Fe cuisine.'
I've also enjoyed classes at two Wisconsin culinary schools. At the L’Ecole de la Maison Cooking School, inside the Osthoff Resort (Elkhart Lake), gourmet fare rules,. During my first class I, and other travel writers, created a five-course French-inspired meal served with premium wine and white linens. My second visit involved a more casual menu, full of fresh produce from the Resort's massive garden. In each case, our gregarious chef/instructor provided patient and thorough instruction, for delicious results..
In Ellison Bay/Door County our press group enjoyed a culinary class showcasing summer produce, at Savory Spoon Cooking School. Longtime culinary professional, Chef Janice Thomas, has owned this school since 2005. It operates inside a renovated 1879 schoolhouse equipped with state of the art culinary equipment, tools and appliances. After three hours spent preparing a summer feast, we sat at well-dressed dining tables and enjoyed perfectly paired wine with our meal..Classes are available in June through October.
During the pandemic, be sure to check the website of each school for updates regarding the status of in-person classes.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary meals, lodging, and admissions during my visit to each city. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME FROM LARGER CITY:
-San Antonio: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Key in hand, I approached the tiny house with pale yellow siding, white trim and a tin roof - my private home through the next four days of our press trip. The door beckoned below a small overhang,
This is a Fredericksburg ‘Sunday House,’ amid Texas Hill Country. This local tradition began when German farm families maintained the tiny properties for short stays in town. From the late 1800's into the 1920's, these miniature homes provided easy access to Saturday markets and Sunday worship. They also made it far easier for hard-working families to participate in Fredericksburg's special events, and to accomplish other business.
But as automobiles became increasingly popular, day trips replaced long 'layovers' in town. And having a Sunday House (haus, in German) became less of a necessity for many families. Simultaneously, some retiring farmers moved into their previous weekend homes, full-time.
Today, many remaining Sunday Houses have become homey accommodations for tourists. They’re often located within an easy walk from local restaurants, shops, and churches. There’s a Sunday House for any taste, whether you prefer space for two, or a family of four. Surround yourself in antique flagstone and pecan trees, enjoy a rocker on your private front porch, or book one of 14 Sunday House cottages, at Fredericksburg Herb Farm.
My Sunday House opened onto a compact living room, with mustard-colored walls and antique wood furnishings. A small couch and coffee table occupied much of the cozy space. German beer steins and figurines filled a massive hutch.
Beyond a wide archway a pastel quilt accentuated the white, wrought iron bed. It sat snugly, between two side tables. The compact bathroom felt bright and cheerful. Country-inspired décor filled the small kitchen, where a well-wrapped plate of pastries awaited me on the table, each morning. It was the perfect accompaniment to my freshly brewed pot of coffee.
If the weather had been warmer, I might have enjoyed breakfasts at the picnic table on the expansive deck,,or watched the river, from a bright Adirondack chair. To choose your perfect Sunday House for a stay in this vibrant small city, check out Visit Fredericksburg.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary meals, lodging, and admissions during my Fredericksburg visit. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME FROM LARGER METROPOLITAN AREA:
-Kansas City area: 3 hours
It has been 83 years since the Nifty Nut House opened, on a quiet Wichita street. From the beginning, the store has stocked raw nuts and house-roasted salted, or roasted unsalted, nuts.
Today, this iconic third generation family-owned business offers 110 nut options. Buy raw pine nuts, Macadamia Nut Roasted Salted, Maple Nut Clusters and even Organic Hazelnuts. Chocolate lovers will find plenty of delicious options, too, from Mint Chip Malt Balls and Espresso Bean Dark Chocolate to Lindt Truffle Balls and Butterfinger Minis. Are you a fudge fan? Choose from among half a dozen flavors.
Kids of all ages love Nifty Nut House's colorful array of gum balls, and licorice varieties that include Licorice Money. Buy some candy necklaces and Pop Rocks too. Health-conscious customers also appreciate dried fruits, or vegetables such as Dried Green Beans, and many sugar free items that include dried unsweetened papaya spears.
The company moved to a larger building near its original site a couple of years ago, with a can't-miss mural that spans the entire front outdoor wall. It would be easy to spend an entire afternoon exploring this massive, well-stocked store. In fact, Nifty Nut House's current inventory includes more than 3,000 items plus holiday extras such as classic candy corn or American flag Tootsie Rolls
Where else can you purchase 10 pretzel flavors? Choose Peanut Butter Filled Pretzels, and dark or milk chocolate pretzels, to name a few. There's wedding-appropriate candy and treats to help announce the sex of a new baby. Purchase Good 'N Plenty or Cherry Sour Balls, or find Nostalgic Candy Mixes that reflect several different decades.
Love Jelly Belly candies? I doubt you'll find a larger selection anywhere. Choose your favorites from at least 60 flavors.
There's also plenty of fun stuff to see here. 1,000 vintage gumball machines that line upper walls reflect a collection spanning more than three decades, and colorful, locally handmade pinatas hang within view of the entrance. If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to visit the Nifty Nut House when you're in Wichita.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary meals, lodging, and a Nifty Nut House tour during my Wichita visit. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME FROM LARGER CITY:
-Mobile, Alabama: 1 hour, 4 minutes
I have attended dozens of press trips throughout an equal number of years. But some of my favorite trips have included special events. I've enjoyed Fiesta San Antonio, Ann Arbor, Michigan's KindleFest, and holiday events in Fredericksburg, Texas.
During late 2018, our group traveled to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. Not only would we become acquainted with this gorgeous place throughout our visit, but our group would also serve as judges for the 7th annual World Food Championships!
The 2018 event took place under enormous white tents, only minutes from shopping and dining inside The Wharf at Orange Beach. During the WFC's initial nighttime event - a fundraiser dinner for Operation BBQ Relief - dramatic lighting decorated tall palms amid the quiet shopping district.
Drawing 1,500+ contestants from 42 states, and 12 countries, 2018 WFC categories included Bacon, Chicken, Seafood, Barbecue, Chili, Steak, Burger, Sandwich Dessert and (best) Chef. And the payoff for five days of intense competition? A share from more than $350,000 in cash and prizes.
Beginning on the following day, we had plenty of time to watch early phases of competition. It was such a blast to see so many talented chefs at work. Each of them had won other competitions, first (a requirement for participation). Tents were filled with excited voices, smoke and hungry spectators.
Some of the event statistics were staggering:
-50,000 pounds of food in the WFC pantry
-10,000+ social media impressions and 3,738 article mentions before the event even started
-the oldest competitor was 91
-the youngest competitors were 14
-more than 500 culinary teams...
.....created nearly 7,000 dishes for judging
377 E.A.T. Certified Judges participated, with our group receiving onsite training. I then watched several judging categories, before it was my turn. Although judging Desserts captivated my sweet tooth, the time went so fast! Each participant showcased a complete dessert before presenting a single portion to each judge. Within minutes, desserts that crowded the table before me demanded judging in three categories: Execution (35 percent scoring weight): Appearance (15 percent); and Taste (50 percent weight). Judging required a lot of quick thinking, for everyone.
If all goes well, the 2020 World Food Championships will take place November 6-10, at Dallas' iconic, indoor, Fair Park. In the meantime, here are more photos from 2018.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received complimentary admission, judge training, meals and lodging, for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
For more than 60 years, the Castroville Artichoke Festival has been a much-anticipated spring event, celebrating the area’s reputation as ‘Artichoke Center of the World.’ (As of today, this year’s event will take place on August 8 and 9. Check the website for updates). A year before the festival began, a young actress named Norma Jeane Mortenson – later known as Marilyn Monroe – became California’s first honorary Artichoke Queen.
During the typical two-day Festival, daily crowds top 20,000 people. Sip and quaff favorite beverages in the Wine, Beer & Spirits Garden, and listen to live music. Watch professional chefs demonstrate how to prepare artichokes and much more, then load up your car with fresh produce from the farmers market.
There’s even an unusual Agro Art competition. Participants create three-dimensional fruit and vegetable sculptures in front of festival attendees, for a chance to win a total of $5,000 cash prizes. Perhaps the best way to understand why Castroville is considered the Artichoke Center of the World is to take a 90-minute educational tour of artichoke fields. The California Artichoke Advisory Board sponsors this activity, with advance ticket purchases required.
There's a good reason why banners throughout Castroville's quaint downtown declare this the Artichoke Center of the World. That’s because 70-80% of U.S. artichokes grow in the area. This perfect growing climate is usually cool and overcast with the peak growing season from March through May, and a smaller harvest in October.
Italian immigrant, Andrew Molera, got things started during the 1920s, when he planted an acre of artichokes on his ranch. Two years later, Angelo del Chiaro and his cousin leased 150 acres from Molera, which significantly expanded the crop size. Within a few short years 12,000 acres in California – most in Castroville – produced artichokes. Today, Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms is the nation’s largest artichoke producer.
While in Castorville during a typical artichoke season, there are several must-visit destinations. The first is family-owned Pezzini Farms, which has grown heirloom Green Globe artichokes (and other crops) for more than eight decades. Inside the open-air farm stand, artichokes of multiple sizes occupy a wall full of waist-high displays. There’s plenty of other fresh produce here too, as well as mouthwatering baked goods and shelves full of pantry items.
No matter what time of year you visit, artichokes star in packaged foods too. Purchase items such as artichoke Parmesan pasta sauce, artichoke seasoning, and artichoke pesto. If you time it right, you may also get to order fresh, fried or steamed artichokes from an onsite food truck.
The other can’t-miss stop is the Giant Artichoke Restaurant (in Salinas, CA). In fact, there’s no way you can miss the enormous decorative artichoke beside the entrance to this eatery, which has operated for decades.
The restaurant is famous for fried artichokes served with a choice of dipping sauces. In addition, try an artichoke dip with jalapeno or spinach; artichoke salad; artichoke and angel hair pasta; meatloaf with roasted veggies and artichokes; or The Giant Artichoke Burger. You may even find artichoke cupcakes on the menu.
If you love artichokes, be sure to visit Castroville when you're in California, for sights and tastes of the freshest artichokes available in the U.S.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received a complimentary tour and samples, for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME TO LARGER CITY:
-Milwaukee: 2 hours, 2 minutes
I have no idea how I missed this year's National Cheese Day, on June 4. I guess I'll blame it on the pandemic. When I realized I'd forgotten this important holiday I found myself reflecting on cheese makers I've met through my travels. One of my favorite cheese makers was Hook’s® Cheese Company, Inc.
Co-owners and college sweethearts, Tony and Julie Hook, operate in the heart of charming little Mineral Point, WI, an hour from the bustling college town of Madison. They have perfected their craft through nearly five decades, with plenty of awards to show for it.
During our factory visit, Tony Hook described the process of making blue cheese while holding two large molds used to craft it. He then invited us to sample ultra-fresh and luscious cheddar cheese varieties, alongside Colby and specialty cheeses.
Julie’s 1982 Colby won ‘Best of Class’ and ‘Finest Cheese in the World’ recognition (out of 482 entries) at the World Cheese Championships. And their Ten Year Sharp Cheddar won first place in the 2006 American Cheese Society competition.
Today, the company makes 50 different cheeses. In 1997, the pair began crafting Blue Cheese and they added a Gorgonzola four years later. The dizzying array of cheeses that Hook's Cheese Company currently makes also includes Muenster; mild, medium and sharp cheddars. Monterey Jack comes in a variety of flavors such as Hook's Maple Jack and Hook's Pesto Jack. The company also makes Tilston, Gouda, Havarti and Pecorino cheeses, to name a few.
This is a must-do visit for cheese loving travelers in Wisconsin. Check for current hours and tour availability during the pandemic.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received a complimentary tour and samples for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
DRIVE TIME FROM LARGER CITY:
-Mobile, AL: 1 hour, 4 minutes
Inside the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach, a pale lilac chandelier overhangs a spacious gallery area. On first glance, I could have sworn this was a creation by renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly. But then I learned the piece was actually handcrafted by two artists who staff The Hot Shop, near Gulf beaches. Visitors are welcome to watch artists at work in what has become Alabama’s premier hot glass blowing facility. This is also a great place to take a "Make Your Own Glass" class and walk away with your choice of a paperweight, vase, tabletop decorative glass piece or even a holiday ornament.
During my first visit, I crafted a turquoise ribbed Christmas ornament with the expert help of our instructor. On my most recent visit, I created this gorgeous paperweight that now adorns my desk.
It was such fun to see our pieces emerge from nothing! Super-heated metal rods, and water became the vehicle for converting glass beads into molten and cooled layers. Our instructors used hand tools and we shared blow torches with them, to further transform each piece. The entire process took less than 20 minutes.
Creating gorgeous glass pieces inside The Hot Shop was a blast. Classes are available on weekday mornings, cost $85, and require reservations. Treat yourself to this creative opportunity, the next time you visit Orange Beach, Alabama.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received a complimentary class for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
More chocolate? Heck, yes - especially since it's one of my favorite foods. Make that chocolate organic, ethically sourced, and stone ground, and I'm even more interested. Such was the case during our group visit to Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co., which bills its products as 'Southern Artisan Chocolate.' The state’s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker, this small operation uses pure brown sugar plus cacao without preservatives. Everything is hand molded with shipping available throughout US plus overseas.
From the moment we arrived, at this Nashville shop, I felt intrigued by what we would find. I wasn't disappointed. The retail space exuded an old-school vibe, from antique shelves that displayed vintage-inspired labels on round containers of specialty candies, to the vintage Hershey's cupboard that supported a broad display of chocolate bars.
Gregarious owner, Scott Witherow, hosted our brief tour of the small factory, where we saw cacao roasting and the massive stone grinder, which help to create Olive & Sinclair chocolate. We also watched as an employee enrobed small candies from a compact assembly line.
But, the number one draw, for me, was the chocolate bars. They broke with a cracker-like snap and burst onto my tongue with rich chocolate goodness. Luscious flavor profiles such as Mexican-Style Cinnamon Chili (a 2012 Specialty Food Association Silver Finalist for Best Chocolate), Salt & Pepper (a 2010 Specialty Food Association Silver Finalist for Best Chocolate), or 67% and 75% Cacao, aren't your kid's chocolate bars either.
If you're visiting Nashville and love great chocolate, pay a visit to Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co. For a small charge, book a factory tour too, beginning July 11, 2020. Make your reservation here.
Please note: As a writer associated with the travel industry, I received a complimentary tour, and several sample chocolate bars for the purpose of this review. While it has not influenced this post, I wish to disclose all potential conflicts of interest.
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