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Strolling and eating in New Orleans

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New Orleans is known for its food – from Creole, Cajun, and French-inspired delicacies to sweet beignets and pecan pralines. I visited The Big Easy last month for work and didn’t have much free time to explore, but I did manage to find a lot of great food and to revisit some of my favorite places.

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I started with lunch at Café Beignet (334 Royal St.) in the French Quarter. Its tagline –  “Beignet…done that” – made me groan every time I saw it, and I saw it a lot, because there are several locations and not a small amount of advertising. I was too late to order breakfast, and all their sandwiches were much too meaty for my vegetarian diet, so I ordered a modified sandwich with cheese, lettuce, and tomato on a toasted croissant. I sat inside the small restaurant, but diners could also eat at the adjacent courtyard.

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I spent the afternoon walking in the French Quarter, strolling through the French Market (above) and flea market on Decatur Street, until I reached Frenchmen Street – my favorite place to hang out in New Orleans. It’s a small area just past the east end of the French Quarter, across Esplanade (a lovely boulevard with charming homes and huge oak trees).

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Frenchmen Street is known for its live music, funky shops, and restaurants. I revisited the Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor (610 Frenchmen St., above) where I got my first tattoo, and stopped by the Spotted Cat music club (623 Frenchmen St., below) to listen to some live jazz.

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Eventually I got hungry and climbed the stairs to Adolfo’s, a small Italian restaurant on the second floor above a jazz club. The place is cash only, which is kind of inconvenient, but the food was excellent. A lot of people were eating mussels, which is apparently a specialty, but I had a cheese-filled pasta that tasted incredibly fresh, and the price was very reasonable.

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I also revisited a small tavern called Erin Rose, a place I discovered years ago on my first trip to New Orleans. Erin Rose (811 Conti St., just a block off Bourbon St.) is a small Irish pub, just teeming with tradition and memorabilia. During that first visit, this was the first place I felt at home in the city, as a solo female traveler. The bartenders were friendly, and I had some interesting conversations with other bar patrons. I felt at home, I guess, because it seems a lot like an Iowa dive bar! It was also the first place I ever drank an Abita, and I’ve enjoyed that beer ever since.

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The next morning, I headed for Café du Monde (800 Decatur St.), expecting to find a long wait. I got lucky and was able to grab a sticky, powered-sugar-covered table right in front. Café du Monde coffee stand has been operating since 1862, and all it serves is chicory coffee (I always order it café au lait) and beignets – French-style donuts served hot from the fryer, three to an order, covered with like half a bag of powdered sugar. You can get stuffed to the gills for $6. Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except on Christmas day and during the occasional hurricane. It’s a joyful experience. By the time I left, the line was down the block.

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I ate dinner that night with a group of editors from all over the country. We walked from our hotel to NOLA (534 St. Louis St.), one of the well-known restaurants owned by famous chef Emeril Lagasse. I enjoyed my dinner there; it was not as fancy nor as expensive as I expected. Several in my group ordered local cuisine like shrimp & grits, gulf fish, and alligator. I played it safe and got a quattro formaggio pizza. The service was good, and we were able to get out of there with separate checks.

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The next day was a full day of conference sessions, but we had an hour and a half to do lunch on our own. I ate at the Café Fleur-de-Lis, an old-fashioned diner at 307 Chartres St.

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I love eating breakfast, so I just ordered some scrambled eggs, a biscuit, and a cup of coffee. It was very rich-tasting and filling.

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My last day in New Orleans was warm and sunny, and I couldn’t wait to find an outdoor café. I spotted the Palace Café at 605 Canal St. and enjoyed a cheese plate and people-watching. Palace Café is a Dickie Brennan restaurant, and when I went inside to use the restroom, the interior was so stunning that I almost wished I’d eaten inside.

I had some time to kill before I had to head to the airport, so I wandered through the French Quarter, poking around in some shops. Many of the souvenir stores sell nothing but tourist tchotchkes: Mardi Gras beads and masks, pralines, alligators on a stick, and X-rated T-shirts. But there are also some adorable little boutiques if you look around. I went in several of them and found them on the pricey side, but one in particular appealed to me. Lost & Found (323 Chartres St.) was filled with reasonably priced, ’50s-style cotton dresses and other throwback styles. I love that look, but didn’t know where in the world I would ever wear a dress like that. But then I found a tank top with little French cats all over it – for just $18 – and I knew I had my New Orleans souvenir.

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My final stop in the French Quarter was at a French Truck coffee shop (217 Chartres St.), drawn in by the colorful yellow cup. I sat in the window and watched the people go by. It was a great way to end my visit to New Orleans.

Here are some final street scenes from my walks:

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Tanzania: A photo safari

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Hosting an Iowa State alumni group on the “Best of Tanzania Safari” through Thomson Safaris is undoubtedly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I expected to see abundant wildlife – and I did – but I’m not sure that I expected the tremendous service, hospitality, and warmth of the people, nor the exhilarating “summer camp” experience that brought our group extremely close to each other and to nature. I started dreaming about going on an African photo safari more than 30 years ago, and it did not disappoint.

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Several of us arrived together at Kilimanjaro Airport late in the evening and were whisked to Rivertrees Country Inn (above) near Arusha, Tanzania, where we spent a full day and two nights getting acclimated.

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After our full group – 12 of us total – arrived, we took off on a short, scenic flight in a very small airplane, landing on a remote air strip in the Eastern Serengeti. We met our guides and drove to our first Nyumba (camp) in an area known as Enashiva. This 10,000-acre nature refuge is owned and managed by Thomson Safaris and is jokingly referred to as “Giraffic Park” because of the large numbers of giraffes that are thriving there.

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We spent two nights in Enashiva, and I was in heaven the whole time. Surrounded by wildebeest and zebras and giraffes and Thompson’s gazelles and ostrich and many other animals, we literally heard the animals around us all night long. Wildebeest are loud little dudes, I will tell you that. And zebras bark like dogs. And they both will thunder by your tent at 2 in the morning, which is the coolest way ever to be woken up. Our little group of 12 had the whole camp to ourselves and ate all our meals together.

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At Enashiva, we went out on several game drives in our Land Rovers, and we also took a morning hike through the land near our campsite – with the animals always maintaining a comfortable distance from us – and had a bush breakfast (with eggs and crepes and fruit and local honey) and a nighttime game drive to see nocturnal animals. We took warm showers in our really awesome, spacious, comfortable tents (so much better than I expected). Slept with rain pelting our canvas roofs. Drank cups of strong, hot coffee every morning, delivered to our front porch with a cheery “jambo, jambo!” by the Nyumba crew.

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We visited a Maasai women’s collaborative to see (and purchase) their intricate beadwork, and we traveled to a Maasai boma, a settlement of circular mud-and-dung homes. We also visited a school and dispensary (clinic) supported by Thomson and saw many Maasai herders with their flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle.

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Enashiva was so comfortable and delightful and magical that I didn’t want to leave, but after two days we struck out in our dual Land Rovers for Serengeti National Park. It was a long drive, but who’s complaining? We were in the Serengeti. We stopped for a picnic lunch, and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons, a mother lion (below) with her cub, cape buffalo, impala, and other animals.

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The land was very different from the Eastern Serengeti, with tall grasses and flat-top acacia trees and rock outcroppings. Our Nyumba was similar to the one at Enashiva, but there were more tents and a larger dining area. Within view of our tents were always two cape buffalo, whom we dubbed the camp’s mascots, and usually an elephant or two. On one of the three evenings we were there, so many elephants came into the camp that the crew had to shoo us away for our own safety (of course, we were all taking pictures). But I really think they were just passing through.

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Most of our time in Serengeti National Park was spent on morning and evening game drives. We saw lions every day, and those were the sightings that made us the happiest (and caused the biggest safari vehicle traffic jams). Many pairs of lions had separated from the pride because it was mating season, so we got to see some lion love.

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We also got to see a pair of cheetahs, and that was a really amazing experience. They started out as specks on the horizon but slowly, slowly came closer and closer until they walked right by our Land Rovers and to the other side of the road. I don’t think I breathed the whole time.

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On our second full day in the national park, most of our group (along with a second Thomson group that had joined us at the camp) got up at 4 a.m. and piled into safari vehicles to ride to a balloon launch site. We were there before dawn and got to watch four huge hot-air balloons inflate. Each balloon basket held 16 people plus the pilot, and we took off one at a time for an unforgettable flight over the Serengeti.

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At times we were high in the sky; at other times we were barely skimming the tall grasses and the tops of the acacia trees. It was a spectacular experience and a lovely day for the flight. We saw hippos hurrying to get into their pools, a group of lions prowling in the distance, a family of warthogs, spotted hyenas, and more. Just seeing the park’s rutted dirt roads, the animal paths, and the trees from the air was a real treat.

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We flew for about an hour, and after we landed we had a champagne toast followed by a bush breakfast (with more champagne) and a nearby lion sighting. It was a good morning, to say the least.

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The day we left our Serengeti Nyumba was perhaps the best day for animal viewing in the park. We saw literally thousands of wildebeest and zebras, plus elephants, lions, cape buffalo, giraffes, and other animals. This was a big migration area for the zebras and wildebeest, and they were everywhere. It was thrilling to see so many animals at one time.

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En route to our next tent camp near Ngorongoro Crater, we stopped at historic Olduvai Gorge for a brief lecture and box lunch. The remaining drive to our Nyumba was so surprising: The ecosystem changed entirely, and the emerging lush greenery began to remind us of Hawaii, or maybe Costa Rica. Our Ngorongoro Nyumba (below) was set in a magical, tropical place near the crater rim, and it felt like paradise.

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We were there only one night; we set out the next morning to explore the crater floor. We spent the day in the crater observing zebras and wildebeest, baboons (below) and cape buffalo. We spotted several elusive rhinos (above) and a flock of flamingos. This crater – 10 miles wide from rim to rim – is said to have some of the most abundant and largest variety of wildlife anywhere in the world.

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We had box lunches inside of our safari vehicles near a hippo pond – our guides said if we ate outside our food would be snatched by the poorly behaved birds circling the picnic area. We were happy to oblige.

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To say I was not ready to leave our animal-viewing safaris is an understatement, but as we left the crater (Please, just one more lion sighting! Just one more elephant!) we left the wildlife behind and headed for Gibbs Farm in the Ngorongoro Highlands.

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Gibbs Farm, an 80-year-old former coffee estate that’s been turned into a world-class eco-lodge, was actually a lovely place to spend the next two nights, decompressing before returning home.

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The farm had a 10-acre organic fruit-vegetable-and-herb farm with chickens, cows, ducks, and goats. They grew and roasted their own coffee (yum). The setting was even more paradise-like than the Ngorongoro Nyumba, and we all very much enjoyed sitting out on the deck, taking long showers in our comfy cottages, and eating an incredible array of fresh, exceptional foods.

After two nights of pampering at Gibbs, we headed back to Kilimanjaro Airport (we saw the mountain!) and back to our real lives. I feel so fortunate that I had this experience – and that I got to have it with such a great group. (Asante sana, you guys!)

Here are a few more of my favorite photos:

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Iowa Girl’s guide to Walt Disney World at Christmas

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I’m no expert on Disney World. (You’ll find plenty of those online, both official and unofficial.) But I’m an enthusiastic consumer, and I have a lot of experience (and, no surprise, opinions!) with WDW parks, attractions, and resorts.

I first visited parks with my young daughters (ages 5 and 9) back in the 1990s, then as older kids, and teens/young adults. More recently, I’ve gone with just my husband, Dave, and with just my adult daughters. (My older daughter worked at Magic Kingdom during a semester-long program while she was a student at Iowa State, so I have some insider information.) I’ve visited in spring, fall, and winter (I’ve managed to avoid the heat and crowds of summer, which I recommend). And with my last visit, I can say I’ve been with the whole family during Christmas week, widely known to be the busiest days of the year at the parks.

My recommendations and experiences are in many ways general, but some will not resonate with families with young children. (For these families, I’d just say to go when the parks are LEAST crowded – fall, January-February – and the weather is mild. I would also suggest not trying to see everything a park has to offer in just one day; go multiple days or prioritize your top interests and leave everything else for another trip.)

THE HOLIDAYS AT WALT DISNEY WORLD

 

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Know before you go

  • Plan in advance! The Christmas holidays are CROWDED. Book your resort a year in advance, if you can. I literally tried to book one of the Animal Kingdom Villas in January before our December visit, and they were already sold out.
  • Stay on property. If you stay in a WDW resort, you’ll have access to the transportation system, get “extra magic hours” in the parks, and get to book your FastPasses first.
  • Go to just one park each day. If you try to do a park-hopper pass, you will lose valuable time during these busy days, and in extreme cases, parks can actually be filled to capacity by afternoon.
  • Schedule meals in advance. If you want to do character meals or any sit-down meals in the parks, resorts, or Disney Springs, make plans early and schedule your reservations so you have the best choice of restaurants and times. (Restaurants are pricey, but it’s definitely nice to do a few of these.) If you’re staying in a WDW resort, you can reserve meal times 180 days out.
  • FastPasses are essential, and if you haven’t been to Disney World lately, the system has changed. A lot. You’ll be booking online and they’ll be loaded onto magic bands that you wear at all times. The system can be complicated, with tiers of attractions from which to choose (I learned a lot from Mouse Hacking), but the basic thing you need to know is that if you’re staying in a Disney resort, you can book FastPasses 60 days in advance of the first day of your stay. You’ll be allowed 3 FastPasses per day.
  • My husband, Dave, and I (in consultation with our daughters) had our list of top rides and attractions ready for our 6 a.m. (7 a.m. Eastern) window of opportunity for FastPasses on Oct. 24, and it took us just 13 minutes to scoop up everything we wanted. But some popular rides were already starting to be booked up – our Slinky Dog Dash FastPass was for 6:15 p.m. – the earliest time available on our very last day. More on this later.
  • Plan, plan, plan each day before you get to the park. Keep in mind that it will take time to get to the park via Disney transport (on Christmas Day, our bus to Animal Kingdom filled up with others at our bus stop who were smarter and more assertive than we were; we had to wait for the next bus, making us later than expected). Once you get off the bus, you’ll still have to go through security and then the gates before you’re actually in the park. This all takes a while, so get there early if you have an early FastPass or want to jump onto a popular ride for which you don’t have a pass, or if you have a character breakfast reservation. Early mornings in the parks are really special, too, with dramatic light and fewer people, so it’s a great time to take photos. Get there early!
  • Download the app. This will let you know how long the lines are for rides and attractions at any given time, when the next bus will arrive (we did not find this to be very accurate, so plan accordingly), and show all of your FastPasses and meal reservations. You can also procure additional FastPasses and meal reservations while you’re in the park.
  • Have a detailed list of your top priorities and plans so you don’t miss out on the things you want to do most. Don’t expect to do everything. Let every family member choose the one thing they want to do so nobody is too disappointed.
  • Enjoy the decorations, the special light shows, the Christmas parade, the holiday treats, and other things that you can only see during this special week.
  • Expect big crowds, but don’t let them spoil your fun. It’s completely doable if you plan in advance! And it’s really, truly magical. I highly recommend it.

 

Epcot

 

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When the kids were young, Epcot was their least-favorite park. Now it’s their favorite. And that’s because there’s shopping, great food, and drinking around the world in the park’s World Showcase. For little kids, there are some good shows, like “Turtle Talk with Crush;” rides, like “Frozen” and “The Seas with Nemo & Friends;” and plenty of characters to meet. For adults, there’s “Soarin’ Around the World” (better than ever; this is our favorite Epcot ride, hands down) and the best selection of restaurants in all of Walt Disney World. It’s a super-fun atmosphere.

 

We got to the park on Christmas Eve day just before it opened. Without fast passes, we stood in very short lines to meet Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Goofy in Future World and ride the Nemo ride. We had a morning fast pass for “Soarin’ Around the World” and after that we walked to the World Showcase to check out the line for the “Frozen Ever After” ride in Norway. I expected the line to be very long, but it really wasn’t (the standby wait time was listed as 60 minutes, but we were on the ride in less than 40 minutes). It’s a cute, new-ish ride, and I’m glad I got to experience it. I recommend it, especially if you have kids who love the movie, but I wouldn’t stand in a super-long line for it otherwise.

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By this time, we were hungry/thirsty. Let the feasting begin! We sampled foods from Mexico (pork tacos for my carnivorous family members, guacamole, fantastic margaritas), shared several cookies from the Holiday Cookie Stroll (available for $2 each in most of the lands), and caramel popcorn from Germany. I made the mistake of ordering a drink called “Tipsy Ducks in Love” from the tea stand in China – holy moly, that was a strong drink. It’s fun to say the name, but I don’t recommend it.

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We saw Mulan, Mary Poppins, and Alice in Wonderland (above) doing meet-and-greets; rode Spaceship Earth (why this ride is popular is beyond me, but we always seem to do it anyway); had a beer at the Rose & Crown Pub; saw Santas from around the world (below); and listened to fun, rowdy musical performances in Canada and the UK. We walked through a lot of shops, which are always fun to browse.

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Our dinner reservation was at Tutto Italia Ristorante at 7:30 in Italy, and we were ready to sit down. We had a nice (rather expensive) meal and afterwards were ready to go back to our resort. (Epcot has an evening fireworks show, but we didn’t stay long enough to see it. We did see a bit of the special holiday Candlelight Processional, with its huge orchestra and choir. There was a very long line to sit down to watch it.)

 

Animal Kingdom

 

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Merry Christmas! Today we wore our matching Mickey/Minnie holiday shirts. Even Dave.

We chose to be in Animal Kingdom on Christmas Day because we were guessing it would be the least-crowded of the parks. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the crowd wasn’t too bad except a couple of times when slow-moving scooters and strollers created a bottleneck.

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We hadn’t been at Animal Kingdom for several years, and a lot has changed. There’s a whole new land: Pandora, modeled after the movie “Avatar,” which I’ve never seen and don’t really care about. But the design is pretty cool; it’s mostly weird, oversized plants (above). There are two major attractions in Pandora: “Avatar Flight of Passage” and “Na’vi River Journey.” We had a FastPass for “Flight of Passage,” one of the hottest rides in all of Disney World right now. It did not disappoint. The guy next to me on the ride was obsessed; he described it as “Soarin’ on steroids.” After riding it, I’d go a step further and call it “Soarin’ on acid.” Almost. It’s a visual, physical adventure into a world I don’t recognize. You hop on a flying “banshee” and off you go. I sometimes avoid these kinds of rides because I am prone to motion-sickness and also am claustrophobic, but I’ll say that this ride was pretty thrilling. If it had gone on much longer I might have become slightly nauseated, but as it was, I made it out OK. It’s worth a long wait in the stand-by line.

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My favorite ride at Animal Kingdom is “Expedition Everest” (above). It’s a fantastic roller coaster and, again, worth a wait. We had a FastPass for this one, too, and it was thrilling as always.

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We also stood in a reasonable line for the “Dinosaur” ride and also for the “Festival of the Lion King” show (below). The show features really terrific music and gymnastic stunts – I highly recommend it.

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Animal Kingdom is known for its animals, obviously. The “Kilimanjaro Safari” is still awesome, and they’ve removed the storyline from the ride through the animal park, which I’ve always found annoying. You almost need to go on this ride twice if you want to get decent pictures; sit on the left side first and then the right side of the tram to see animals on both sides and maybe do it later in the day for different light.

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We saw lions, giraffes, elephants, zebras, hippos, and many other animals. Disney has done a terrific job with what is basically a zoo-like large-animal enclosure, and after the safari you can also walk through the “Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail” for primate encounters.

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We found mostly good things to eat at Animal Kingdom. I struggled a bit at lunch and ended up eating pre-packaged hummus and veggies, but others in the family ate shrimp mac and cheese and some kind of chicken. In the afternoon, we splurged on pineapple Dole Whip with coconut rum – it went down so easy! I wanted more.

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We took a lot of photos at the Tree of Life and enjoyed the early-evening light in the Asia section with its glowing lanterns. We saw Russell and Dug (characters from the movie “Up”) – adorable!

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Our Christmas dinner was excellent. We had a reservation at Yak & Yeti, a Pan-Asian restaurant. We got there early and sat in the bar for a while, which was very enjoyable. The restaurant menu was not as vegetarian-friendly as I’d hoped, but our server recommended a tofu dish that was incredibly tasty. I think everyone found something good to eat.

 

Magic Kingdom

 

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I guess I failed to mention why we decided to go to Disney World over Christmas in the first place. My birthday is Dec. 26, and I turned 60 this year. I wanted to do something really special with the whole family, so this was it. We spent my birthday in Magic Kingdom and even in the enormous crowd, I felt like the center of attention.

Disney people are so nice. They give you a birthday button and then all the cast members say “happy birthday” to you all day long. One of the Disney photographers took my picture at the parade; even people IN the parade said happy birthday to me! I was surrounded by Disney love.

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We got to the park early (we had an “extra magic hour” starting at 7 a.m. that morning) because we were afraid it would take forever to get there (it didn’t). So we got through security and the entrance gates in no time. There were not many people there when we arrived, and I’m guessing those who were there were heading for some top attraction for which they had no FastPass. We took advantage of the emptiness and took a gazillion photos in front of Cinderella’s castle. The morning light was perfect! (see above) We even got to see the park-open show (below).

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We had an 8:30 reservation for a character breakfast at the Crystal Palace. I’ll admit it – I wanted to have breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and friends! This is a great thing to do with kids, but it’s fun for grownups, too. Once you get to your table, you have access to a huge buffet of very good food, and you can eat as much as you want – including, of course, Mickey-shaped waffles.

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The characters – Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and Eeyore – come around to each table and will let you take pictures to your heart’s desire. You don’t even feel rushed. I was wearing my “60 and fabulous” shirt and hammed it up with all the characters. The food was great; I ate way too much. It was a good time and worth what we paid for it.

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Before the park got too busy, we stood in a short stand-by line for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride (meh) and then used (some would say wasted) a FastPass to meet Mickey at the Town Square Theater. We claimed our spots on the curb along Main Street well in advance of the noon Christmas parade. We had a clear view of Cinderella’s Castle as the parade began (it came from that direction) and the sun was in the right place for perfect viewing and photos. (This never happens!)

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The Disney Christmas parade is something I watch on TV on Christmas morning (or record it and watch it later), and I’ve always wanted to see it in person. I was pretty excited, and it did not disappoint. Disney does everything right, from the music to the dancers, to the floats, to the characters. It was fun, fun, fun.

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I should mention at this point that if you’re planning to visit Magic Kingdom in December but not the week of Christmas, you can pay extra for “Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party” on some evenings. If you choose not to do that, you won’t have access to all the holiday specialness, like the parade and some of the shows.

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We had a FastPass for the “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” ride, which is cute and entertaining but not worth a long wait. And then we were stuck in Fantasyland with thousands of other people in crowds so big we could barely move. We might have gotten a little bit crabby. We tried to find a place to buy beer, because that would have cheered us right up, but although Disney World overall has really stepped up its game in terms of adult beverages, the Magic Kingdom is still rather dry. You can only get drinks at the sit-down restaurants, and for that you must have a reservation on a day this busy. So, no drinks for us.

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We walked around, drooled over the holiday treats, and took notice of the stand-by line waits – many were 180 minutes. That’s three hours! No thanks! We tried to ride “It’s a Small World” because the line seemed reasonable, but it didn’t move fast enough for us so we bailed. We had an afternoon FastPass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which is always a thrilling ride.

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And then it started to get dark, so I took a lot of early-evening photos with the Christmas lights and the castle. At around 6:15 they do a holiday castle-lighting ceremony with “Frozen” characters, and the castle becomes a winter wonderland right before your eyes (below). The only thing that would make this ceremony better is FEWER PEOPLE in front of me, or perhaps to be taller so I have a better view.

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Once the castle was lit, it was only a matter of time before it got dark enough for the holiday fireworks spectacular, but first we watched a very cute holiday show in front of the castle (below).

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We were hungry so we sat in Tomorrowland and ate bad food and shared a cake-batter-flavored shake from Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies. And then we went to the “Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor” show. You can always count on this show to be hilarious, even if you’ve seen it 20 times.

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We stood at Casey’s Corner for the fireworks. Again, there were SO MANY PEOPLE that it was hard to get good photos of the full castle with the fireworks behind it, but I tried valiantly. The show was wonderful, but I honestly think the “Wishes” show I’ve seen so many times before is actually more magical because it has more of a storyline. But I’m not complaining – Disney does the best fireworks in the world.

 

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And thus ended my magical birthday at Magic Kingdom.

But wait! This is Disney! When we got back to our resort, the staff had loaded our room with birthday balloons, cookies, a jar of cocoa mix, a mug, two bags of popcorn, and a birthday card. That was a wonderful end to a wonderful day. I was too giddy to go to sleep.

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Hollywood Studios

 

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Our day in Hollywood Studios started with some logistical stuff. We had to check out of our room, stow our luggage at the resort, and make a reservation for the Disney transport to take us to the airport later that night. Our adventure was coming to a close much too soon. But we made the most of it…with matching shirts.

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We arrived at Hollywood Studio right as it opened, and based on our experience the day before, we made a beeline to the “Tower of Terror” ride and got right on. (By the time we rode, the stand-by wait time was 60 minutes, and later that day it was 175 minutes!) We grabbed a coffee and walked around a bit, then went back to “Tower of Terror” and rode it again with our pre-arranged FastPass. We love this ride. We got to be in the front row the second time, which is always the best.

We hung out by Aerosmith’s Rock’n’Roller Coaster until it was time for our 11:55 FastPass, then walked right on. We love this roller coaster, and it never fails to thrill. You just scream the whole time and then laugh when it’s over.

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Hollywood Studios has greatly improved its food and drink options since the last time we were there. We didn’t have reservations, but after a short wait we snagged a table at the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge and enjoyed drinks and small plates on the patio. In the afternoon, we went to “For the First Time in Forever: Frozen Sing-Along Celebration” stage show (above), and we stood in a not-too-terrible standby line to ride “Toy Story Mania!” (The line is almost as amusing as the ride.)

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Although “Toy Story Mania!” has been open for several years, Toy Story Land is a new section in Hollywood Studios. It’s adorable; at least I think it is – it’s kind of hard to see with so many freaking people. It was really crowded. The line for “Slinky Dog Dash” was ridiculous – at least three hours; but then again, other rides in the park had lines that long as well. It’s just that time of year.

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No matter, we had our final FastPass for “Slinky Dog” so our wait was not long at all.

This ride has received some rave reviews, but honestly, I didn’t think it was that great. Sure, it was fun, and it was really cute, but to wait in line for three hours? No way. My recommendation is, if you don’t have a FastPass and the line is more than an hour, just go look at the ride and say, “Oh, how cute!” and then go ride something with a shorter line. It did not thrill me. (However, I will say it’s a good first roller coaster for a younger kid. So, again, if the line is short, ride it.)

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We drank beer and shared a big pretzel and a cheese plate on the patio at the new BaseLine Tap House, which was a really fun atmosphere. And then we watched the Flurry of Fun “Sunset Greetings” light show at the Hollywood Tower Hotel – a just-for-the-holidays light show, complete with “snow.”

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It was a great way to end the day. (There’s also a fireworks show, but we needed to head to our hotel to sleep for a few hours before our early-morning flights home.) Here are some parting shots from Hollywood:

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Disney Springs and the resorts

 

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I should mention that we stayed at Coronado Springs Resort (above), which was nothing too fancy but was in an ideal location – not too far from anywhere. It’s one of WDW’s “moderate” resorts – nicer than the “value” resorts but not nearly as pricey as the deluxe resorts. Our room was fairly comfortable, considering we had four adult human beings all trying to get showered and dressed at the same time every morning. Someday I would love to stay at the Grand Floridian or Animal Kingdom Villas, but when you figure how little time you actually spend at the resort, it just doesn’t seem worth the extra cost.

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We visited the Grand Floridian on this trip; the resort has fabulous holiday decorations, as you would expect (above). We shopped and then ate lunch outdoors. We also visited the Yacht and Beach Club and BoardWalk Inn (all next to each other) and enjoyed a huge family-sized “kitchen sink” sundae (below) from “Beaches and Cream” by one of the pools.

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We also spent some time our first day at Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which is an expanded shopping and dining destination (above). We spent some money there, walked through the Christmas Tree Trail, and ate dinner at Frontera Cocina.

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All in all, it was a fabulous vacation for my Disney-loving family and a great 60th birthday adventure for me.

 

 

Minnesota’s north shore: My happy place

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This year’s fall color on the north shore of Lake Superior is the BEST. I drove up there on Sept. 29 and hiked for a couple of days on the Superior Hiking Trail and stayed at Cascade Lodge (Cabin 2), my all-time favorite place in the world. The weather was cool and damp. I ate a lot of wild rice and drank a lot of lattes. It was fantastic.

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Driving up on Saturday, I stopped and took a brief hike, turning at Hwy. 61 milepost 73 and driving up Sugarloaf Road. The color was pretty and the trail was nice and flat, with no bugs and very little mud. It was a nice little leg stretcher. Here are a couple of pics:

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The next day I set off for a full-day hike. I drove down Hwy. 61 to the intersection of Hwy. 1, just north of Tettegouche State Park. My goal was to hike for four hours, turn around, and hike four hours back to my car. I layered on some warm clothes and brought enough food and water for about three days.

And then I started hiking. I was at the trailhead at 9:45 a.m. and I started with a steep scramble up some boulders on a spur trail to connect with the main SHT. I climbed and climbed and climbed until I reached a very pretty overlook (below)…which confirmed my suspicion that I was GOING THE WRONG DIRECTION.  I was supposed to be on the other side of Hwy. 1! So then I had to climb back down the precarious rock formation, swearing under my breath and already starting to sweat through my fleece.

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I came back to the intersection of the spur and main trails, with this confusing signpost. No wonder I screwed up!

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And then, to add another layer of annoyance, the trail to the north was on the other side of Hwy. 1, right across from the parking lot. I didn’t even need to take the spur trail to get to it. Ridiculous!

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I had spent about 20 minutes going the wrong way. Once I got on the right trail, it started off fairly flat and easy, but then it became steep and a little bit slick. I fell once on the spur trail up to Fantasia Overlook. Just BAM, I was on the ground. My foot went off the edge of the trail into some tall grass – I didn’t know I was so close to the edge. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt. (My biggest fear when I’m hiking, especially when I’m hiking alone, is falling and breaking a bone. I’m old now, and this is a real possibility.) I’m also glad nobody saw me fall; it was not at all graceful, I’m sure.

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I continued on and enjoyed the overlook (photos above), with views of Mt. Trudee, Palisade Head, Lake Superior, and the Silver Bay Harbor, and then carefully went back down. DOWN is the scariest part for me. Once I got back on the main trail, I fell again while crossing some rocks over a slippery stream. But, again, I didn’t hurt myself and nobody saw me, so I kept hiking.

I stayed on this trail until I arrived at the Wolf Lake overlook (below). It was spectacular!

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I know I was here once before, but it felt like a completely new experience – truly breathtaking. The lake is down in a deep depression, and it was surrounded by trees in various stages of turning to their fall colors. I soaked in the beauty (see more photos below) and then decided to head back before my old legs became any more wobbly. I made it back to the trailhead without any more falls.

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I was happy with my hike, and loving the weather. It was supposed to be cool and overcast, but it was sunny and warm, getting up into the 50s. I stripped off all my layers and would have taken off my long-sleeved T-shirt if I had a short-sleeved one underneath; it was that warm. Here are more photos from today’s hike:

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The next day was supposed to be rainy, but when I checked my weather app that morning, the rain had been taken out of the forecast. So I left my raincoat in the cabin. I also wore fewer layers based on my experience the day before.

After eating breakfast at the Cascade Restaurant, I drove Hwy. 61 to milepost 92, turning on Cook Co. Rd. 4 (Caribou Trail) and parking at the trailhead about four miles down the road. From here, you can choose to go south toward Lutsen or north toward Cascade. I headed south, because I wanted to see Lake Agnes, one of the prettiest areas of the entire Superior Hiking Trail in my opinion.

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My confidence was a bit shaken, based on my falls the previous day, and I knew this was a tough section to hike. So I took it slow. The first part of the hike is a very long spur trail to hook up to the main SHT at Lake Agnes. There’s even a spur off the spur to climb to White Sky Rock overlook. I decided to save that for last, if I was still up for it.

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The fall color on this section was stunning, and the forest trail is just incredibly beautiful. This section has some scary areas for me – big boulders and a log ladder (above) – but I was careful and managed to get up and over all of the obstacles. The trail flattens out for a while and comes to a campsite with a latrine (below), which I used (perhaps the prettiest area I’ve ever stopped to pee).

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Lake Agnes was surrounded by glorious fall trees. I could not stop taking pictures (see a few of them, below). Every view seemed more spectacular than the one before.

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Once I left the Lake Agnes area and the trail became steep, I decided to head back. I was glad I did, because it was about this time when it started raining, and it rained lightly the rest of the hike. Oh, and did I mention it was cold, too? I kept on my fleece and gloves the entire hike, and I could have used a stocking cap.

I was even more nervous about going down the log ladder and boulders in the rain, because they’d be extra slippery, but I managed to do it without falling down once. (I will admit that I scooted down a couple of the biggest boulders on my rear end, just to be safe.)

When I got to the White Sky Rock overlook spur, I almost didn’t take it, because it was raining harder, but then I thought, What the heck? I scrambled up the steep, slick trail without incident. The view from up there is incredible (photos below).

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I managed to get back down without falling. Success! And at that point, I decided I didn’t want any more scary challenges, so I headed back to my car.

Here are a few more shots of today’s hike:

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I spent the rest of the afternoon in Grand Marais, eating lunch at Gunflint Tavern, wandering through the shops without buying anything, and then sipping a warm maple latte at Java Moose.

Back at Cascade Lodge, I met some women in the bar from the Twin Cities who were impressed that I’d stayed at Cascade 20+ times. I thought at first that they were being friendly and interested in my experiences, because they asked me a lot of questions. Afterwards, I decided they were more like anthropologists, studying an alien species. Oh, well. Whatever.

That night, I tried to build a fire in my fireplace because it was cold and rainy outside, but I’m never very good at building fires. So it burned for a little while and then went out. But the cabin was still warm and cozy and wonderful.

The next morning I headed home. Here is my parting shot from the north shore: Split Rock Lighthouse:

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Pumpkins, please!

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I love pretty much everything about fall: Sweaters, boots, fall leaves, cool days. I especially love pumpkins and apples and the farm markets that sell them. Central Iowa has lots of options for families who want to choose pumpkins, pick apples, ride wagons, wander through corn mazes, and participate in other fall-related activities.

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I visited Geisler Farms last week for a work-related event. What a great place! All the grownups were loving the corn maze and games. I loved the pumpkins and wanted to buy all of them.

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You can find Geisler Farms just three miles east of Ankeny at 5251 NE 94th Ave., Bondurant. The corn maze and “fun zone” are open weekends through Nov. 1. Admission is $8. And it’s not too early to start thinking about Christmas, right? Geisler Farms also sells fir trees, beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Philadelphia

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After visiting the city four times now, Philadelphia is becoming one of my favorite places to travel. It’s a fabulous walking city. It’s filled with history and art and incredible architecture. And the food is pretty great, too.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Philadelphia earlier this month to interview five Iowa State alumnae and attend a Cyclone football gamewatch party. Photographer Jim Heemstra traveled with me to shoot photos for VISIONS magazine.

So, yeah, mostly we worked. But it didn’t feel like work. We spent a full day with an alumna I met nearly 20 years ago when we traveled together on a tour of Alaska. We geeked out over the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the coolest examples of “preserved ruin” you’ll ever see – and it’s headed by an Iowa Stater. We shared coffee and laughs and heard great stories from three other Cyclones. And we enjoyed ONE day of sunshine and walked more than 40 miles in the 3.5 days we were there.

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We stayed in a residential area of Philadelphia (above), and this was such a great decision. Hotels are super expensive in the city center, and our roomy Airbnb was in a terrific location. We drank our morning coffee on the front stoop overlooking a garden area, just like the locals. We also decided at the last minute to cancel our rental car reservation, and that was another very smart decision. We used Uber to get around when we had heavy photo equipment, and we walked the rest of the time. We saved a ton of money and never had to hassle with driving or finding a parking place.

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We decided to explore the neighborhood the night we got there, just to get our bearings, but we ended up walking several miles, to Rittenhouse Square (above) and Market Street. We stopped at a good, local Italian restaurant called D’Angelo’s for dinner. It was delightful.

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We spent much of the next (rainy, gloomy) day inside, doing a long-form interview, but eventually we ventured outside for photos. We ate lunch together at the wonderful Gran Caffé L’Aquila and ended up, once again, walking all over the city. Here are some of the highlights of our day, including the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue:

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The next morning, we met an alumna at Rival Brothers Coffee at 24th and Lombard. It was warm and dry enough to sit outside, sipping our coffee while we talked, before taking her into charming, tree-lined neighborhoods for the photo shoot.

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Afterwards, we had some time to kill before our next appointment, so we walked around again, this time trying to find some of the murals Philadelphia is famous for (above), and ducking into the new Comcast Center to be entertained by the artwork and ongoing video show there. Take a look:

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We ate lunch at Honey’s Sit n Eat homestyle restaurant on South Street, where they serve a delicious breakfast (and other good stuff) all day long.

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Our afternoon appointment was with the president and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave), above and below. I’d been thinking about doing this story for years, ever since I’d visited the prison in 2013 when we were traveling for our VISIONS Across America project. I didn’t know at the time that an Iowa State alum was at the helm of this massive museum.

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It’s just as cool and creepy and wonderful as I remembered. I took way too many pictures.

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I also learned a lot, in talking with her, about the challenges of preserving the ruined state of the facility without it declining further, and also about the current social issues surrounding incarceration. It was a very insightful visit.

So, that was a long day. We shared some nachos at a bar/grill in our neighborhood before calling it a night.

The weather finally cooperated on our last full day in Philadelphia. We started the day at Fitzwater Street Philly Bagels, boasting five generations of bagel-making. (The bagels were great, but the service was iffy at best.)

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We had a morning appointment with an alumna in the Rittenhouse Square area, which was hopping. Diners were lined up for brunch on the sidewalk in front of Parc, an adorable French bistro on the square, and the historic park itself was filled with shoppers there for the art festival and weekly farmers’ market.

 

We talked, we walked, she told us some Philadelphia stories and showed us some behind-the scenes gems like this grand organ, inside Macy’s:

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Afterward, we went together to watch the Iowa State football game with some fellow Cyclones at The Field House, right across from the phenomenal Reading Terminal Market.

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And then, we met up with our last alumna of the trip and walked with her to the city’s Historic District, where visitors line up to view the Liberty Bell and tour Independence Hall. I bought an overpriced souvenir keychain to take back to the office, Jim almost got run over by a tour bus, and we avoided the temptation of this old-timey ice cream shop.

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It was another long day, and our flight was scheduled for early the next morning. So we walked the miles and miles back to our neighborhood, stopping for Thai food along the way.

Omaha, with sisters

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Here’s a quick recap of a trip I took recently to Omaha. It’s a city I’ve visited often, and yet I found so many new things to explore!

I stayed with my two sisters from Kansas City in a charming historic bed and breakfast (above), the Cornerstone Mansion (140 North 39th St), located across the street from the Joslyn Castle. What a lovely neighborhood – the historic Gold Coast District – and what a cool home filled with fascinating stories! We stayed in Anna’s Suite, but our host, Mona, let us peek into the other six rooms (all with private baths), and we loved them all. Each is decorated uniquely; the Porch Suite was our favorite, with its huge adjoining second-floor sleeping porch.

Mona made such a huge breakfast the first morning that we barely made a dent in it: a generous yogurt/banana/granola parfait, an enormous portion of mushroom/hash brown/egg/cheese casserole, croissants, coffee (and sausage for the meat eaters). Holy buckets, that was breakfast AND lunch for us. The next morning, after we groaned that big breakfasts are not our thing, she served us peaches topped with yogurt and thick slices of strawberry French toast – a slightly lighter breakfast, but still a very filling way to start our day.

We were entertained the second morning by Mona’s mom, who came over to help with breakfast but ended up answering all our questions about the history of the house. We learned about the families who built the home and lived there – and who still may be knocking around, if you believe in such things. The 10,200-square-foot home, built in 1894, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Charles and Bertha Offutt; you’ll recognize the name because Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base was named for their son, Jarvis.

Cornerstone Mansion was a terrific base for our exploration of Omaha. We spent hours at the Henry Doorly Zoo, poked around the fabulous antiques shops in the Old Market (bordered by S. 10th St., 13th St., Farnam St., and Jackson St.), and tried to dine our way through the list I’d made of interesting local eateries. (However, our big breakfasts added an unexpected challenge.)

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The zoo (located at 3701 S 10th St.) was wonderful as usual. We were pleased and surprised that the weather was nice (we were expecting rain and cool temps) and that the crowd was small for a Saturday. We took our time and made our way around the entire zoo, exploring each of the exhibits. We loved the Scott Aquarium, Desert Dome / Kingdoms of the Night, and of course, the Lied Jungle. We saw a baby gorilla, fed giraffes, and hung out with the tigers. It’s hard to believe that this zoo continues to improve and expand and offers new things every time I visit. Here are a few more photos:

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We started our Omaha foodie tour at lunch on Friday at The Kitchen Table, 1415 Farnam St. This farm-to-table eatery is small – many diners at this downtown location were coming in to grab food to take with them – with a fairly limited menu. I had a buttery, melty grilled cheese sandwich with a side of seasoned popcorn and a cup of coffee. My sisters both ordered the BLT. It’s a hip, urban location that seems to be a favorite with local business workers. The Kitchen Table also has a second location at 4952 Dodge.

That night we ate at La Casa Pizzaria (4432 Leavenworth St.), serving “legendary” pizza and pasta since 1953. We got there early and the place was basically empty, but soon it was buzzing with large, enthusiastic groups of families and friends enjoying their Friday night. The large, rectangular pizza we ordered, cut in small squares, was more than enough for the three of us. It was a fun, local place to dine.

The next day we discovered Coneflower Creamery (3921 Farnam St.) just down the block from our B&B in the hip Blackstone District. I’d read about this ice cream store online; people were gushing about the flavors, so we decided to give it a try. As it turns out, this was the highlight of the whole weekend. We could not stop talking about this ice cream! Coneflower is a “farm-to-cone” operation that uses the freshest, most local ingredients. The place is tiny, with maybe two tables inside and a couple of larger tables outside, and the line was out the door and down the block. My sisters and I got different flavors, so I was able to taste six different scoops. My Archetype Coffee and Blackstone Butter Brickle were both to die for. I tasted the birthday cake, toasted coconut, dark chocolate, and sweet corn (yes, sweet corn) flavors, and all were fantastic. Apparently the flavors rotate, so my goal is to stop here every time I’m in Omaha, or passing through Omaha on I-80, or, what the heck, even marginally CLOSE to Omaha. This is my new sweet obsession.

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With our tummies filled with late-afternoon ice cream, we decided to share one vegetarian platter (above) at Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine (4422 Cass St.) for dinner on Saturday. I love Ethiopian food, and neither of my sisters had ever tried it. We liked this place, located in an old Pizza Hut, but I will say that our meal didn’t compare with some of the Ethiopian food I’ve had in Washington, D.C. and New York. Still, we got out of there for under $20 for three people and had a wonderful time trying something new. We especially loved the hot, spicy tea.

Here are a few other restaurants I would love to try next time I’m in Omaha:

  • Saddle Creek Breakfast Club, open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., 1540 N. Saddle Creek – banana pancakes, anyone?
  • Dante Ristorante (full service in West Omaha, 16901 Wright Plaza #173) or Dante Blackstone (counter service, 3852 Farnam St)) – for pizza and pasta
  • Modern Love, 1319 S. 50th – a vegan restaurant
  • Block 16, 1611 Farnam St.
  • Amateur Coffee at 3913 Cuming St. – a vegan coffee shop!

 

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 3

Well, I definitely saved the best for last. After visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder museums in De Smet, S.D.; Walnut Grove and Spring Valley, Minn.; Pepin, Wis.; and Burr Oak, Iowa, this summer – and greatly enjoying each one of them – my visit to southern Missouri (and Kansas) on the last weekend in August was by far my most fulfilling Laura Ingalls Wilder experience.

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MANSFIELD, MISSOURI

I arrived at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes & Museum in Mansfield, Mo., late last Friday morning after a long drive. I kept thinking, as I drove in my comfortable, air-conditioned car, holy moly, how long and difficult these drives must have been for the Ingalls family and later for newlyweds Laura and Almanzo in the 1800s.

Mansfield is a small town (population 1,450) about 45 miles east of Springfield on Hwy. 60. It’s not hard to find, and it’s definitely worth the 7-hour drive from Ames. (Also, I cheated and spent the night in the Kansas City area with my sister.)

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The first stop is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located at 3060 Highway A. The exterior of the building looks like a white barn; inside is a spacious museum (by far the most thorough, modern, and professional of all the L.I.W. museums), a small theater, and a gift shop.

I paid my $14 entrance fee and learned that photography would not be allowed inside the museum or the homes. This was disappointing to me. I also learned that a guided tour of the Wilder farmhouse at Rocky Ridge Farm would begin in 20 minutes (tours are given on the half-hour from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with shorter hours on Sunday) and that an 8-minute film would give me a nice introduction to my visit. So I started by viewing the film, and although I feel like I’ve been immersed in all things Laura lately, I learned a few things from the film and also really loved hearing Laura’s voice. She was recorded as an older woman after becoming a famous author.

I learned that the farmhouse was started well after Laura and Almanzo and their daughter, Rose, arrived in Mansfield in 1894, living first in town and then in a cabin on their acreage. Laura’s descriptive skills – which she would later use to become a best-selling storyteller – were honed during all the years she spent describing what she saw to her sister, Mary, who was blind.

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After the film ended, I walked up the hill to the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and waited with a small group of visitors for our tour to begin. Right at 11:30, our tour guide, Stanley, came out and introduced himself. We were reminded of the no-photography policy and also warned that  touching anything inside the home was not allowed.

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Let the tour begin!

Stanley reminded us that the Wilders’ first house was actually a log cabin. Almanzo added a kitchen to the cabin, then detached it and moved here to the top of the hill. He basically built the farmhouse around the kitchen, one room at a time, over the next 17 years.

In the kitchen, we saw a life-sized cutout of Laura as she looked as an older woman; her actual size was just 4’11” – she was so tiny! The kitchen was built for her, so all of the surfaces are unusually low. Stanley said Laura loved dishes. Her wedding china is on display – in a beautiful blue willow pattern. Everything in this kitchen was actually Laura’s – no reproductions here. This is really what makes this visit soar above all the rest: You’re walking through Laura’s house with Laura’s things, just as they were when she lived here. She died three days after her 90th birthday in 1957, and they left the home exactly as it was when she died, as she was very famous. Stanley pointed out that the wood in the stove has been here for 61 years.

Moving on: There’s an opening between the kitchen and dining room, with steep stairs leading up to the sleeping attic and Rose’s bedroom.

Laura’s favorite rocker is in the next room; this is where she answered her fan mail – averaging 50 letters per day. Stanley said she received 1000 cards on her 90th birthday.

Also in this area is the clock she received as a Christmas present – Almanzo traded a load of hay to buy it, and it’s still in perfect working order after all these years.

Next is the bedroom and a bathroom that was added in 1920; we can see the twin beds, Laura’s makeup table, and an old Montgomery Ward catalog on the nightstand. The floor was ordered through that catalog (beautiful!). There’s a 1950 Philco radio (Laura and Almanzo never had a television), Laura’s sewing box, and many things Almanzo made by hand: a table, lamps, and more. On the wall are framed Currier & Ives prints, taken from magazines and calendars.

The next room is the smallest room in the house: Laura’s office. She was 65 years old when she started writing her books; it took 11 years to finished them at age 76. There’s a small “fainting couch” in her office. It’s a very cozy room.

We continue our tour into the parlor, a 1913 addition to house. Almanzo built almost everything else himself, but he hired help to build this room, using local wood. Stanley explained that Almanzo had a stroke at age 29 and walked with a cane; there are many canes inside the house, all carved by Almanzo himself. He also hooked rugs and built much of the furniture in the home. The parlor has a large window with a window seat; Laura reportedly loved the window seat, saying the window was “like a living picture, always changing.”

A music room has a pump organ and electrola (not to be confused with a victrola) with wooden needles. The Wilders were avid readers; the library is filled with some 300 volumes. Stanley said Laura and Almanzo would read aloud to each other in this room, snacking on popcorn, walnuts, and apples.

Upstairs is a guest bedroom, storage (“junk room”) and Rose’s bedroom; the second floor is not open to the public. All told, the farmhouse has 10 total rooms – nine more rooms than most of the homes Laura lived in growing up.

At the end of the tour, Stanley took questions and expressed his delight in giving tours of Laura and Almanzo’s home. “I don’t go to work,” he said, “I go to play,”

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Exterior photos of the home are allowed, so I walked around the grounds a bit before heading to my car and driving to the Rock House.

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The Rock House is located about three-fourths of a mile away from the farmhouse, along a rugged walking path. The story goes that in 1928, daughter Rose Wilder Lane returned home from her travels abroad and wanted to build a retirement home for her parents.

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The home is open to visitors between 10 a.m. and 4:20 p.m., with a half-hour break at 12:30. I squeezed my visit in just before the lunch break. No guided tours are offered, but a docent, Marie, was in the home to tell visitors about its history and answer questions.

The Rock House is built in an English cottage style, with plans purchased from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Laura and Almanzo lived here for seven years before moving back to the farmhouse. They kept the Rock House as a rental property until 1943 when it was sold. Laura reportedly said she moved back to the farmhouse because she was “homesick for the old place.”

I liked both houses a lot. The farmhouse feels like home, but the Rock House is really adorable; it made me think of a gingerbread house. And it was filled with all the modern conveniences of the time: Running water, electricity, forced-air heating, and a garage for the car.

There’s a beautiful view from the front room of the wooded, shady lot; the room has French doors and casement windows that let in lots of light. Marie says, “The view is unbeatable” and added that it probably hasn’t changed very much since Laura and Almanzo lived here.

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Photos throughout the house show how the rooms looked in 1929. Displays include Laura’s Haviland china and pink depression glass. There’s a modern kitchen with electric appliances; Laura’s bedroom, with a sewing machine, bed, and dresser; Almanzo’s bedroom; and a bathroom with authentic tile (only the toilet has been replaced).

Laura did some writing here before moving back to the farmhouse. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Foundation bought the house in 1990, and Marie said they were fortunate that the house was cared for so well by its owners.

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After touring the Rock House, I headed to the museum. I already felt like I’d had a nice tour, but the museum really blew me away. As with the house interiors, I wish I had photos to show you, but you’ll just have to make do with my notes.

I started at the front of the museum and then went left, which makes sense to me because you read left to right, but actually if you go to the right and wind your way around you’ll view the books and their attendant displays in the order they were written.

There are so many initial highlights in the front of the museum. Here are just a few:

  • “Little House” stamp issued in 1993
  • Versions of the “Little House” books in many languages
  • Original photos I’ve never seen before
  • Ingalls and Wilder family history
  • Information about the Wilders’ daughter, Rose
  • A timeline of Laura’s life with a backdrop of U.S. history
  • Laura’s life after Almanzo (he died 1949)
  • Replica of a “hack” (wagon) used by the Wilders (this is one of the few replicas in this museum; nearly everything is original)

As I mentioned, many of the displays go along with the times the books were written:

  • “Little House in the Big Woods” – Pepin, Wis.: Laura’s first sampler, a handkerchief she made (how did it last all this time??? It is so sweet!), Mary’s nine-patch quilt
  • “Farmer Boy” – New York to Spring Valley, Minn.: Wilder memorabilia and photos, Almanzo’s watch, license plates (Almanzo saved them), his handmade canes and shoes
  • “Little House on the Prairie” – Independence, Kan.: Quilts Laura appliqued, a TV show display
  • “Banks of Plum Creek” – Walnut Grove, Minn.: Photographs, Laura’s jewel box, Laura and Mary’s school slates, Nellie Owens’ name cards (Laura changed Nellie’s name to Oleson in the book series, one of only two names she ever changed)
  • “Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie” and “Happy Golden Years” – all set in De Smet, with artifacts from the time
  • “The First Four Years,” published 1971, 14 years after her death, found as an unfinished manuscript; it details Wilders’ early married life 1885-1889
  • “West From Home” – Letters Laura wrote from San Francisco in 1915; the letters were discovered after her death
  • “On the Way Home” – Diary of her trip from South Dakota to Mansfield 1894

There’s a display about Laura and her fans; original manuscripts; her sewing machine. Another display shows her travels with Rose, with photos of the train and souvenirs she purchased. Separate display cases highlight the lives of sisters Grace (1877-1941), Carrie (1870-1946), and Mary (1865-1928), with Mary’s gloves and crocheted bed jacket. Other displays show Charles and Caroline’s books, original photos, and wedding certificate; Laura’s Bible, and the Ingalls family Bible. There’s just so much wonderful, original stuff here! I was starting to geek out at this point.

And then, there’s the travel lap-desk she used, her billfold, and a “luncheon set” she made by hand (napkins and tablecloth). Here are clothes she made and wore! My notes say I am becoming emotional. There’s a black velvet dress, a burgundy velvet dress (her favorite), and a white “lawn dress” from 1900. Here’s Laura’s cow creamer, her roosting hen dish, a blouse, her fancy dress-top, her beloved glassware, swan plate, and dishes…all the pretty things she loved.

All this stuff, preserved so beautifully, was starting to make me an emotional wreck. And then I saw it: Pa’s dear old fiddle. I pretty much lost it at that point. Pa’s fiddle played such a huge part in Laura’s childhood and in her stories! It was made in Germany in 1850, and Charles played until he died in 1902. It was sent to Laura in 1944. I’m told the fiddle is still played during special occasions.

I stumbled out of the museum in a daze. What a wonderful experience. But now I have to snap out of it and move along.

In the museum gift shop, I bought two books: “On the Way Home,” and “The First Four Years.” I asked the clerk for directions to the cemetery in which Laura and Almanzo are buried, and I also asked for recommendations for a place in Mansfield where I could find some lunch. She helped me with both requests.

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First, lunch. I ate at Sweet Nellie’s, which looks like an ice cream shop, but they serve breakfast, sandwiches, burgers, daily specials (meatloaf, catfish, etc.), caramel rolls, and huge apple fritters. I had a grilled PB&J from the kids menu (recommended by the cashier after I told her I was a vegetarian). It was gooey and delicious.

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After lunch, I walked around the horseshoe-shaped Mansfield “square” with its historic bank, shops, and other businesses on three sides surrounding a park with a gazebo and a bust of Laura as older woman (above). I got a little bit choked up again. The citizens of Mansfield really loved Laura, and it shows.

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Finally, a few blocks away is the cemetery, where you’ll find the well-marked graves of Laura (1867-1957) and Almanzo (1857-1949) sharing a headstone. Daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) is buried beside them. The headstones are well maintained, framed by bushes and covered with small rocks and toys.

My overall rating for Mansfield: 9 out of 10. It would be a 10 if they’d allow photography inside the museum and the homes. But this place is the BEST if you’re a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan; it’s definitely the site to visit if you can only see one place.

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INDEPENDENCE, KANSAS

The next day I drove to the Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, Kan. It was pretty much the exact opposite of my experience in Mansfield: The museum stands on the land where Laura lived with her family in a log cabin in 1870, but there’s absolutely nothing original here.

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I arrived early (the museum opens, theoretically, at 10 a.m.) even though Google Maps took me first to the wrong location. I went into the small town of Independence to get gas and then followed the brochure directions to the museum south of town off of U.S. Hwy. 75. Rain was falling steadily. I waited in my car until after 10, and nobody had arrived to open the buildings, so I decided to get out of my car and walk around. A few other people had also arrived by this point.

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I took some exterior photos, watched burros and a donkey play in the nearby field, and then parked myself impatiently on the porch of the gift shop. Finally, at 10:20, someone arrived to unlock the building, but immediately she put a CLOSED sign on the porch and scurried back inside. Several minutes later she came out and let us know it would be a few more minutes as she went to unlock the other buildings. It wasn’t until 10:35 that the museum site was open to guests.

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At that point, I paid my $3 admission fee and then walked from building to building and took pictures inside. Since nothing is original to the Ingalls family, and since I’d seen the acreage in De Smet and all the other sites, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the turn-of-the-century post office …

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… or the one-room school house (built in 1872)…

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… or the reconstructed log cabin.

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There’s some nice signage, with stories and quotes from the Ingalls family’s time here (1869-1871), the original setting of the “Little House on the Prairie” book. One sign says: “The Ingalls family arrived here in 1869, believing the land would soon be available for legal purchase…after over a year in Kansas, they returned to their home in Pepin, Wis…. Charles Ingalls never filed on this land, making identification of the exact location of their log cabin challenging.”

Baby Carrie was born in the cabin in 1870. Charles built a barn and dug a well, had a garden, and hunted for game. Laura wrote that Independence was 40 miles from the cabin when in reality it’s about 12 miles, but, as one sign said, it seemed like 40 miles when riding in a wagon and fording creeks.

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Another sign notes: “It was a perfect location here except that it was on the edge of the Osage Diminished Reserve, and who owned the land was in question. In “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura writes about the tension and fear associated with the land dispute between Congress and the Osage tribe.

The gift shop offers some nice hand-made pottery and Christmas ornaments with the “Little House” logo, but I didn’t buy anything here. I was back on the road by 11 a.m.

Honestly, this is not a bad place to visit. But for the amount of time it takes to drive here from Iowa, I’d say it’s #7 on a list of the seven sites I visited. I’m super happy I was able to check it off the list, but I’m not sure it was REALLY worth the effort, if I had it to do over again.

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So, now what? I’ve gone to each of the places Laura lived and wrote about. I’ve bought a ton of books and a cool map. Now I need to read all of these books, some of which I read years ago and some that are new to me:

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I also think I will re-read “Prairie Fires,” minus the long, drawn-out chapters that deal with Rose, because it will be more meaningful to me now that I’ve seen each of these locations and visited the museums.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived an amazing life, and she was an inspiration to me as a strong female, a great writer, and a late-in-life modern career woman. I’m happy so much of her story has been preserved for us to experience.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 2

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I continued my Laura Ingalls Wilder tour last weekend with three stops: Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. All three were very much worth the drive.

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PEPIN, WISCONSIN

I started in Pepin, Wis., the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is where her story begins: “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”

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There are actually two L.I.W. sites in Pepin. The first is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located right on the main street through town (306 3rd St). For a $5 entrance fee, you can tour the museum, which includes original quilts belonging to Laura and her sisters. When the Ingalls family left Pepin, they took all of their possessions with them. So the only items that actually belonged to the family that are displayed at this museum are two quilts and a doily. These items were sent from Mansfield, Mo., after Laura’s death.

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Displays in the museum include Ingalls photos and documents, dolls, clothing and artifacts of the time period when the Ingalls family lived here, and a “world-wide Laura” exhibit. (The Little House books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have created a number of pop-culture spin-offs including lunch boxes, board games, dolls, and other items, below.)

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There are also some interactive exhibits here for kids: a log-cabin dollhouse, covered wagon display, riverboat replica, and costumes to try on.

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The gift shop has some interesting prints and posters for sale. I bought a map of Laura’s travels for $3 and got directions to the log cabin, which is the second L.I.W. site in Pepin.

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I ate lunch at the Pickle Factory, a bar and grill located on the shore of Lake Pepin, took a walk along the lakeshore, and then drove around town (highlights are a pretty winery, a small depot, and a farm stand) before heading out to the cabin.

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The Little House Wayside, 7 miles north of Pepin on Country Road CC, marks the spot where Laura was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in a small cabin built by her father.

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The original cabin is gone, as are the big woods, replaced by fields of corn and soybeans. But still, this feels like a pilgrimage to the shrine of Laura – truly hallowed ground.

On the site is a replica of the cabin that became the famous “Little House in the Big Woods.”

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Late in 1868 or spring of 1869, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin and traveled by covered wagon to Kansas. But they returned to Pepin in late 1870 before again leaving the area in 1873 to move to Minnesota.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are held in Pepin during the second full weekend in September. The event includes a Laura contest, cabin activities, fiddle contest, spelling bee, square dance, craft demonstrations, a parade, and a “famous” chicken dinner.

SPRING VALLEY, MINNESOTA

Spring Valley is just south of Rochester, Minn. This Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is a bit different because it focuses mostly on the Wilder side – Laura’s husband, Almanzo, and his family.

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I arrived in Spring Valley before the museum opened at 10 a.m., so I walked around the small historic business district (below).

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The Wilder museum is housed in the Methodist Church at 221 W. Courtland, just two blocks from the main highway through town.

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The Wilder family, made famous in the book Farmer Boy, moved to Spring Valley in the 1870s. Construction of the Methodist Church began in 1876, and the Wilders helped support the building costs. After Laura and Almanzo were married, they lived in Spring Valley with their daughter, Rose, in 1890. So there’s plenty of history here.

Museum entrance is $7, and for that, you get a guided tour of the displays, most of which consist of photos and historical documents. My tour guide was Alexys, age 14.

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Alexys really knew her Wilder history. I may have thrown her off script a time or two with questions and interjections, but she did a great job. Displays told the story of the extended Wilder family in the town of Spring Valley. Photos show their original home, where Laura lived as a young mother. A letter from Laura to a fan of her books in 1952 is on display.

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If you’re interested in more than Wilder history, the museum also includes an 1874 fire wagon, the Richard Sears exhibit, camera collection, old-fashioned kitchen display, and other historic items. I walked through these areas quickly without a guide.

I’ve been trying to complete my Little House book collection, and I didn’t own Farmer Boy, so I bought it at the gift shop before leaving the museum. It seemed only right to buy it here.

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Spring Valley has two more sites worth visiting: An acreage just a few blocks northwest of the church houses the Wilder family’s original barn and farmland (below). This is private property, so I parked down the block and photographed the barn with a long lens so as not to be annoying.

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Before leaving Spring Valley, I visited the cemetery where some of the Wilder family is buried.

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BURR OAK, IOWA

I then headed to Burr Oak, Iowa, about a 45-minute drive from Spring Valley. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from that visit, but it really exceeded my expectations. The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak is actually the only place Laura lived as a child that exists today on its original site.

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In 1876, when Laura was 9 years old, the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove, Minn., and moved to Burr Oak to help manage the Masters Hotel, owned by William Steadman. Laura never wrote about her Burr Oak experience in the Little House series. Apparently she was eager to forget about her time there, as she didn’t enjoy living in town and working at the hotel.

The old Burr Oak Savings Bank is the first stop on the L.I.W. tour, where you pay $8 for a guided tour. I joined a group of four with a tour already in progress, led by a tour guide named Annastacia. She gave us some background information about Burr Oak: When the Ingalls family lived here, it was a bustling town of 200 with frequent stagecoach stops, two hotels, a saloon, grocery store, and schoolhouse.

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As a group, we walked across the street to the Masters Hotel, built in 1851. Much of the building has been renovated, but you can still see some original floorboards and many other original parts of the structure. We watched a short DVD telling the history of Laura’s time in Burr Oak as well as a brief history of her other homes. I was reminded that after living in the hotel, the family moved in Kimball’s grocery (two doors down) and then to a home they rented just north of the main road, where Laura’s sister Grace was born in 1877.

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We toured the hotel, which is furnished with period items and also contains some Ingalls history displays. There’s a place setting from Laura and Almanzo’s wedding china, first editions of some of Laura’s Little House books, a brick from the house where Grace was born, and documents from when Laura’s sister Mary attended a school for the blind.

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The first floor consists of one bedroom, a lobby, and parlor. Annastacia played “Sweet By and By” on the pump organ in the parlor, one of the songs Charles is said to have played.

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Borders stayed in small bedrooms upstairs, often sleeping three to a twin-sized bed (men only, side by side, feet on the floor) for 25 cents a night.

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The lower level is where the Ingalls family slept (below) and where Caroline cooked and served three meals a day, six days a week.

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Outside, you can see the creek Laura played in and the hill on which she sledded in the wintertime. In this back area, during Laura’s time, you would have milked cows and parked your wagon. A church bell has been relocated here – the exact bell that rang at Laura’s church.

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I loved this tour! After it was over, I grabbed a walking-tour map of Burr Oak and walked to the cemetery and the Methodist church (built in 1893 by Almanzo’s uncle) and the mercantile (below)…

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… and to the Advent Christian Church (built when the Ingalls family lived in Burr Oak, below), to a park with a pretty bridge, and to the site where Grace was born.

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Today, Burr Oak’s population (166) is smaller than when Laura and her family lived here.

I’ve now visited all of the northern Laura Ingalls Wilder museums (in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa). Next up: A trip to Mansfield, Mo., where Laura lived as an adult and wrote the Little House stories.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 1

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I’m probably no more or less interested in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder than the average person. I’m sure I read some of them as a kid – although I don’t really remember – and I definitely read some of them to my own daughters. I liked the stories, and I appreciated the quality of the illustrations.

I enjoyed watching the television series, although I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. At best, I was ambivalent.

So why am I now, at age 59, embarking on a tour of all things Laura?

My interest was piqued last year when Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was published by Caroline Fraser. It drew a lot of mixed comments from people who loved the Little House books, which portray pioneer life as seen through happy, rose-colored glasses. The book was fairly controversial.

I decided I should read it. But when I got it from the library, I got confused and instead checked out Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. This is definitely not the same thing. Pioneer Girl is written by Ingalls Wilder herself and is actually the first draft of what would become the Little House series. It’s a little bit rougher and grittier than the final children’s series, but it’s mostly the same stories of her early pioneering life, only less embellished. The book is heavily annotated by Pamela Smith Hill, which is sometimes annoying but other times helps to put Ingalls Wilder’s words into the context of the times.

I enjoyed reading that book, and it occurred to me that I live awfully darn close to most of the places Laura and her family lived: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), Missouri, and Kansas.

Laura’s life intrigued me – especially her early years – and I was also interested in the history of the frontier, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl.

So I decided to go ahead and read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whoa, this is a different story altogether. For one thing, this book is big and dense, and Laura’s early life only takes up about the first quarter of the pages. It took me a very long time to read – it’s 640 pages but seems even longer. But it’s very well researched, and I appreciated that. I felt like I learned a lot about Laura’s growing-up years, what she really went through (extreme poverty, near-starvation, nearly freezing to death during horrible blizzards), and what her parents were like. More than that, though, I learned more about the history of homesteading, farming practices, federal programs, relationships with Native Americans, and other events of the nation during those times.

The book continues into the time of Laura’s marriage; much of it describes the life of her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – probably more than I wanted to know. But it gets into the writing (and editing, and re-writing) of the Little House books and Laura’s ascent into fame as an author in her sixties, all of which is pretty interesting.

Bottom line, it made me want to visit the places I’d been reading about. So, when my husband Dave announced that he was going to North Dakota and asked if I wanted to tag along, I said yes, on one condition: That we stop in Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D. on the way.

WALNUT GROVE, MINNESOTA

Walnut Grove, you may remember, was the setting for the long-running “Little House on the Prairie” television series (which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off”) and was the basis of the book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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On the day we visited, we arrived in Walnut Grove early, before the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum opened, so we drove around. We went to the Ingalls’ 1874 dugout site but found that it was closed due to flooding. (Indeed, it was raining steadily when we got there.)

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So we stopped for a cup of coffee at Nellie’s Little Café on the Prairie (promising “homestyle cooking”), which was actually fun. (Dave had milk and cookies). The café is thoroughly decorated with photos of the much-abhorred character Nellie Oleson from the TV series, played by Alison Arngrim, as well as other photos from the series, many of them autographed. You will definitely not forget where you are.

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Just across the street from the museum, which was still not open yet, we found the Masters Store & Hall (below).

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According to the sign on the building: “William J. Masters moved to Walnut Grove when he sold his hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. Around 1847 he built this hotel. Laura wrote about her time here in Pioneer Girl. The Ingalls [family] sold the Plum Creek property and left Walnut Grove in 1876. They returned in 1877 when Pa bought a lot in the pasture behind this hotel and built a small house for his family. After returning from Burr Oak, Laura found work here setting tables, washing dishes, and folding laundry for 50 cents a week.”

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recently purchased the Masters Store & Hall; Charles Ingalls is said to have actually helped build it.

Once we finally got into the museum, it was pretty much as I expected.

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I bought some of the Little House books at the gift shop and we started our self-guided tour. We saw some pretty basic stuff in the first museum building (the Depot Building): Reproduction photos of Charles and Caroline, a timeline of the family’s travels (including Laura’s birth on Feb. 7, 1867), more photos and memorabilia, Laura’s quilt, and some documentation about the books.

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There’s an entire room dedicated to the TV show, with a painted mural from the show’s main street (below), and lots of photos and memorabilia.

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Besides this main museum, there’s a chapel (not authentic)…

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… and a building they call Grandma’s House (below), which was built in 1890 but has no actual connection to Ingalls Wilder.

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Inside the house is an exhibit featuring illustrations by Garth Williams, who illustrated the Little House books as well as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and other children’s books. I love the style of his illustrations, so this display was fun; included many of his original sketches.

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I also enjoyed the exhibit that shows some of the less-well-known writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and also those of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Some of Laura’s hand-written letters are even on display.

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Also on the property is a dugout-style home similar to the one Laura describes in Plum Creek.

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Dugouts were usually temporary structures used for a few months until a permanent home could be built.

A little red school house represents the kind of one-room country school Laura might have attended.

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A settler’s home is also on the property, moved there from property owned by a neighbor of the Ingalls family on Plum Creek. The two-room home is furnished to represent a pioneer home of the late 1800s (below).

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Finally, we visited the Heritage Lane building, which displays a covered wagon, a railroad history exhibit, the original Walnut Grove telephone switchboards, the original Walnut Grove Tribune newspaper office equipment, and more.

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If you go to Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located at 330 8th Street. Admission to the museum, including the replica dugout, schoolhouse, etc. is $5 per person. Museum hours vary; when I was there this summer it was open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., but hours are limited during other times of the year and the museum buildings are closed during the winter.

The original dugout site is located at 13501 County Road 5, 1.5 miles north of Walnut Grove ($5 per car).

If you’re really into it, there’s a big ol’ Wilder Pageant held during weekends in July. The pageant is “an outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove,” and admission ranges from $18 (bring your own blanket) to $20 (chairs provided). Apparently there’s going to be another “Little House” cast reunion July 11-14, 2019, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the TV show, which makes me feel really old.

DE SMET, NORTH DAKOTA

From Walnut Grove, we drove on Hwy. 14 to De Smet, S.D., about two hours straight west.

Known as the “little town on the prairie,” De Smet offers two ways to explore Ingalls Wilder’s childhood: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes and the Ingalls Homestead. We started at the homestead.

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This is the original 160 acres of land the Ingalls family homesteaded in 1880, and although little remains from the Ingalls family on that acreage, it was still very cool to stand on the site and imagine what it must have been like back in those days.

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We started at the visitor center and gift shop (I bought more books), then headed outside – with homestead map in hand – to visit a dugout, a claim shanty, hayroof barn, school house, church, and other places of interest.

Here’s one view of the homestead from the top of a look-out tower:

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Back on land, we saw an exhibit chronicling Laura’s travels as told through her Little House series, with photos and illustrations.

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We visited an original claim shanty built in 1878 by early Kingsbury County residents…

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…and the dugout, which was slightly better than the dugout we’d visited earlier in the day, though both were mighty smelly.

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We stepped inside the hayroof barn, built as Charles Ingalls would have done.

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I was especially interested in this little barn, because there were chickens, a baby calf, and a litter of kittens inside. I mean, who doesn’t love baby farm animals?

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There’s also an heirloom garden (below), wildflower display, and native grass prairie.

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Just outside the livestock barn, we boarded a covered wagon and rode to the little prairie school.

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I believe we were the only tourists without children in tow. Now that I think of it, we might have had the most fun of anyone.

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I will say that this part of the tour took longer than I would have liked; once we got into the school we were pretty much stuck there and had to listen to an overly long lecture by the resident schoolmarm, including a lengthy history lesson and a reading lesson, from which we could not escape.

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Poor Dave was made an example of when he didn’t keep both hands on his desk (or something equally absurd) and had to stand with his nose on the blackboard. (He was a good sport and played along.) Mercifully, the lessons ended and we re-boarded our mule-led covered wagon back to the barn.

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We walked around for a bit, visited the West Bethany Church (shown above, built in 1905 and originally located 10 miles north of the Ingalls homestead) and “Ma’s Little House,” a wood-framed home reconstructed on the location and to the dimensions of the Ingalls claim shanty built by Charles Ingalls in the spring of 1880 (below).

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Five cottonwood trees still remain from the thousands that Charles Ingalls planted on his homestead claim (below). These last living cottonwoods, dedicated to his five girls, are located in the Laura Ingalls Wilder memorial site and donated to the L.I.W. Memorial Society after Laura’s death in 1957.

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Admission to the homestead is $15 per person, including all activities and the covered wagon ride. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; hours are shorter during fall and spring, and the grounds are closed during the winter.

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Okay, by this time in the day I will admit I was pretty tired. We’d driven a lot and toured fairly extensively. So when we got to the historic homes area in town and found out that the only way to see the inside of the buildings was through a $12 two-hour guided tour, we decided to pass. Instead, we just walked around the outside of the buildings…on our own…for free.

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It’s actually an impressive group of buildings: the original Ingalls home built by Charles in 1887 (after Laura moved to Missouri); the original first school of De Smet, attended by Laura and her sister, Carrie; and the original surveyors’ home from By the Shores of Silver Lake. Kids can enjoy the Discover Center for hands-on activities.

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The L.I.W. Historic Homes and Discovery Center are located at 105 Olivet Ave. Admission, as I mentioned, is $12, and hours vary depending on the season. Remember, admission is by guided tour only. (It’s probably very interesting.)

Like Walnut Grove, De Smet also has an annual outdoor Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “These Happy Golden Years,” held in July.

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We made one last stop before leaving De Smet: We visited the Ingalls’ grave sites. Buried there are Charles and Caroline Ingalls; Laura’s sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and Laura’s son who died as an infant. (Laura is buried in Mansfield, Mo., where she spent most of her adult life.)

You’ll notice I called this post “Part 1” because I have a second trip coming up! Get excited! I’m planning to visit the Ingalls’ homesteads in Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seat.