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Friday, March 17, 2017

Shawnee Lodge in Shawnee State Park, West Portsmouth, Ohio

On a recent visit to south-central Ohio, I needed to find lodging for just one night. We were headed to a college campus for a visit and tour with my son and would be out the door early in the morning. I have loved staying at lodges in state parks. The setting is so much more serene and peaceful than a Best Western situated next to an expressway exit.

Unfortunately our drive to Ohio lasted all day and got us there well after dark, so we didn't get much of a change to see the grounds. I'd love to visit again to spend more time in this beautiful park when the weather is warmer, the days are longer and there's time to explore.

The lodge was renovated in 2012 and has the amenities you'd expect at a family lodge and some that would definitely be absent at a roadside express hotel. The grounds include a restaurant and bar, indoor and outdoor pools, game room, fishing, canoe and paddleboat rentals, tennis, volleyball, basketball and other fun activities.

Originally our trip was planned with 6 of us and trying to find a hotel to accommodate that many people in one room can be difficult. I was happy to find this room that was reasonably priced and had two queen beds and two bunks. We also took advantage of a good grade discount. My son brought his report card along and they gave $10 off for each "A" up to 5.

We did enjoy a hearty breakfast in the lodge before checking out and were able to take in the breathtaking morning view.

The property also includes 25-fully-furnished cottages and the lodge has a total of 50 rooms.

For those who love the outdoors, you'll be in paradise. Just one warning - from someone who spends most of their time driving the very flat terrain around Chicago, I had a bit of a white-knuckle drive through the hilly area in the dark getting to the lodge - which if I had planned better and left in the very early morning would have been much easier to maneuver in daylight when I arrived.

Shawnee Lodge is a perfect place to relax on a rocking chair on the porch as you enjoy nature and escape the hectic pace of everyday life. For more information, visit ShawneeParkLodge.com.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Carew Tower Observation Deck in Cincinnati

I've always been one who enjoys getting a birds eve view whenever I can. I love seeing Chicago from the top of the Willis Tower (Sears Tower to longtime Chicagoans) or the John Hancock Center or the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. I loved flying over Niagra Falls in a helicopter. I enjoyed dining at Nick and Nino's in Springfield from the 30th floor. If there's a tourist destination somewhere up in the sky that gives me a great view, I'm all over it.

So, when I was traveling through Ohio last month and decided to spend a couple days in Cincinnati, I was excited to see that there was an observation deck at the top of the Carew Tower where I could look out at the Cincinnati skyline, the many bridges that cross over the Ohio River and the river towns in Kentucky.

Construction on the building began in January, 1930 and they set a record by setting 15,000 tons of steel framework in only 61 days. The building has beautiful art deco accents, including 23 elevators that shuttle visitors up and down quickly - just 32 seconds to go 574 feet. 

To get to the 49th floor observation deck at the top, you switch elevators and then have to make your last light by way of stairs. The observation deck is outdoors and completely open, something I wasn't expecting. But, since we were visiting on a very unseasonably warm weekend where it hit 70 degrees in February - it couldn't have been a more perfect time to visit. 

If you find yourself in Cincinnati, be sure to take time for a visit. The observation deck is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Also, keep in mind that they take cash only, so be prepared so that you don't have to make your way back down to search for an ATM. Admission is $4 for ages 12 and under, $2 for age 6 - 11 and free for 5 and under.
We were staying at the Residence Inn by Marriott in the historic Phelps Building, which was just a few blocks away. And, as I mentioned, we had perfect weather so it was a great time to take a walk and explore the downtown area. I would highly recommend it for lodging, especially if you are traveling with kids.

Portsmouth, Ohio

I took a recent road trip with two of my boys to Ohio. My 17-year-old will be graduating from high school this spring and was interested visiting Shawnee State University's campus in Portsmouth, Ohio. So, we were there for just a day and spent most of that time touring the campus, but should it be where he ends up going to school the next four years, it's an area I'd love to explore more.

Portsmouth (which I understand is pronounced Portsmith by locals) is situated in the Ohio River Valley in Scioto County in south-central Ohio. The campus sits just along the Ohio River with a pretty view of the Kentucky mountains on the other side. The U.S. Grant Bridge is a beautiful structure that can be seen as you make your way around the downtown area.

The town's Historic Boneyfiddle District is known for its antique shops and dining. The flood wall murals artistically portray the history of Portsmouth and was declared the largest continual work of art by a single artist.

We also paid a visit to Shawnee State Park, which was just about 20 minutes away.

For more information on Portsmouth, visit ohiorivertourism.org.

Looking through town at the U.S. Grant Bridge and into Kentucky.

Heading onto the U.S. Grant Bridge heading into Kentucky.

Coming into Kentucky across the U.S. Grant Bridge from Portsmouth.

My sons on the campus of Shawnee State University with the U.S. Grant Bridge in the background.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mark your calendars for the Three Oaks Flag Day Celebration

For several years we have been visiting Three Oaks, Michigan in June for their annual Flag Day Parade. The weekend is full of festivities culminating with a long parade on Flag Day that is really just small town Americana at its best. The parade is about two hours of patriotic veterans groups, marching bands and floats with royalty from little towns in Southwest Michigan. As I tuned in to the Inaugural events on Friday, I noticed the Mid-America cowgirls were participating. They are always part of the Three Oaks Flag Day parade, so it reminded me that I now have a 2017 calendar going and its time to add this favorite annual event.

Three Oaks is one of our favorite places for a summer day trip from the Chicago area. With a downtown area full of artsy shops, cute cafes, a local history museum, a distillery, art galleries, a live theater and a theatre that features independent and foreign films, there's plenty to do do and see within just a couple blocks on the main street. Add in summer farmer markets and scenic roads that entice bicyclists and it adds even more reasons to visit. It's also close to many beachside towns that sit along the shores of Lake Michigan and within a few miles of several wineries.

Find updates on the festival and parade on the Facebook page "Three Oaks Flag Day Weekend and Parade."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Travel and Adventure Show

If you're in the Chicago area or not too far from it, you may want to consider paying a visit to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center where the Travel and Adventure Show continues tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Learn about hundreds of vacation destinations across the country, across the globe or in your own back yard - from Belize to Taiwan to Italy to South Dakota, Florida, Arizona and places as close as Michigan's coastline, Springfield and Milwaukee.

Kids age 16 and under are free, so it's an economical way to have some family fun as you dream together about your next travel adventure. Some of the hand-on fun includes scuba diving, riding a camel and trying out a segway.

On the several stages are speakers and demonstrations, including travel celebrities Rick Steves and Samantha Brown, experts on travel adventures brought to you by AAA and chefs and local food celebs. Take in the Culinary Fight Club at the Taste of Travel Theater at 1:30

If one of your resolutions this new year was to do more traveling, this is the place to be. So many ideas under one roof. For more info and tickets, go to travelshows.com

Friday, December 30, 2016

Blue Gate Garden Inn

Several years ago we planned a short family trip to Shipshewana right after Christmas while the kids were off school for the holiday break. The area was breathtaking with a substantial blanket of snow. That year, late fall and early winter had been mild and we hadn't seen any snow yet, so when we arrived to all that freshly fallen white stuff, the kids were excited and mesmerized. As we arrived in town, we noticed beautifully carved blocks of ice in some of the parking lots of the businesses. We just happened to be visiting during the annual Shipshewana Ice Festival. Throughout town we got to see several more sculptures and got to watch some being carved.

So, this year when I wanted to plan a short getaway between Christmas and New Year's, I immediately looked up the ice festival dates and decided it would be a great place to visit. On our previous visit, we stayed at a hotel that had a small water park. It has since changed ownership and become the Blue Gate Garden Inn and the water park was replaced with a pool, but has a lot of nice amenities for families as well.

The Blue Gate Garden Inn has some common spaces that are inviting and cozy and spacious and I love seeing families gather there to spend time together. On our last visit and this one as well, I noticed many multi-generational groups together. They were playing board games, watching the football game, sewing, eating. I even learned from watching a grandmother show her granddaughter how to make a fleece tie blanket. It seems to be a popular spot for family reunions or multi-generational outings. It's a great place to spend time with family and connect. It's also great visiting at this time of year because the inn, like every place else in town, is still decorated nicely and all lit up for Christmas. The lobby was adorned with a tree and sleigh and some wreaths and greenery, but these huge poinsettia hangings were absolutely stunning.

So often on our trips, we are running all day to attractions and museums and then the evening may be dinners out or shows or sporting events and when we get back to the hotel, we just crash.

On this trip, we spent time at our hotel together and made memories instead of running until we were all exhausted. Pretty much all the shops and stops in Shipshewana close up around 5, so evening options are limited to dinner or to a show if there's one playing that evening. We opted to stay at the Blue Gate for dinner.

We went down to the arcade and played a few rounds of ping pong and air hockey and skee-ball and we ordered a pizza from the Creamery - a little cafe set just past the lobby offering freshly-made pizza and ice cream. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much from a pizza made inside the hotel, but I was really blown away when I tried it.

When you are used to Chicago pizza, you don't find many places where the pizza measures up to the high standards you've set from eating years of Chicago-style pizza. If you find something while traveling that is the equivalent to a chain like Dominoes, it's usually the best you can expect. What made this pizza so delicious was the cheese - I'm guessing it's locally made, natural stuff and you could totally taste the difference. The meats were also very tasty and the crust did not disappoint. This is one of just a handful of times I've found really good pizza outside the Chicago area. So, if you stay there, rest assured that the pizza will not be a frozen pizza out of the box, but a delicious home made one that you'll really enjoy.

Pizza was followed up by ice cream, which we couldn't resist after smelling them making the waffle cones and waffle bowls all afternoon. The ice cream was creamy and the waffle bowl was just so good and fresh. The Creamery is a cute little retro looking eatery with black and white checkered floors and bar stools and an old soda fountain. In the back there's a table inside an Amish buggy where you can enjoy your meal or just pop into for a picture.

The rooms are really cute - decorated with country touches that are far from what you'd find in a standard chain hotel. I loved the quilts and the charming wallpaper borders. It really has such a homey feel and an atmosphere more like grandma's house than a hotel.

Breakfast was included with the room and it's far from the basic sweet rolls and granola bar breakfast that many hotel chains pass off as a continental breakfast. This breakfast has many hot dishes to choose from - we filled our plates with eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy and a ham and potato casserole.
There's also a station where you can have a custom made omelet made and there are make-your-own waffle makers with several different flavors.

Lodging that includes breakfast is always something we seek out when finding a place to stay in our travels. It makes the trip much more economical. It saves the time of driving to a restaurant and then waiting for a table, waiting to order and then waiting for your food. Sometimes you're in for two hours or more with transportation, waiting, ordering and then eating. It's so nice to just slip downstairs, fill your plate and have a hearty meal before heading out for the day or getting back on the road.

Shipshewana and the nearby communities of Nappanee and Middlebury are ones I would definitely recommend for families. Exposing kids to the Amish lifestyle is a great lesson in appreciating simplicity and the Blue Gate Garden Inn is an ideal lodging option for a visit to the area. There's also a car museum just steps away that all ages will enjoy. Visit BlueGateGardenInn.com for reservations.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Potawatomi Inn in Angola, Indiana

Fireplace off the main lobby
One fun thing we've discovered in years of traveling is that it's always nice to forego the chain hotels and stay somewhere more interesting. It doesn't always turn out to be amazing. We've had a few crazy  stories where it didn't turn out as well as we'd hoped. In the majority of cases, we've been pleased and often the bed and breakfasts, historic hotels, independently-owned cabins or other overnight spots have exceeded expectations.

I have loved finding inns located at state parks that may not be decorated in the most modern fashion or equipped with the most modern technology, but are full of history and style and just so cozy and inviting.

View from interior back hallway at Potawatomi Inn
We stopped recently in Pokagon State Park in Angola, Indiana to check out the toboggan run and visited the Potawatomi Inn while we were there. The toboggan run is a huge draw in the winter months, but the grounds and lake look like they're pretty stunning and fun during the warmer months. Throughout the inn are little pieces of history - chairs and taxidermy animals and little plaques giving historical tidbits. There's a large formal dining room where I'd hoped to have a meal, but we happened to be there during the 2 - 5 p.m. span when the restaurant is closed between lunch and dinner and didn't have enough time to hang around until it re-opened.

The toboggan run at Pokagon State Park
The in has 138 guest rooms as well as 8 historic cabins and four luxury cabin suites. The inn includes an indoor swimming pool, an arcade lounge and craft room. What I found most charming were the common rooms where families sat in front of fireplaces or snuggled on sofas or tucked away in corners playing board games. On the back of the inn is a long hallway that is all windows and filled with seating facing out at the lake. It's a perfect place to just curl up with a book and a cup of tea and get lost for hours.

If you plan on making a visit to Potawatomi Inn in the Winter (or 6 other state park inns), you can take advantage of a 2 for 1 offer that is valid Sunday through Thursday until March 2 (excluding the holiday break - December 25, 2016 - January 5, 2017.) If you stay for two nights, you just pay for one. To make a reservation, visit IndianaInns.com or call 1-877-LODGES1.