Cities are constructed of stories as much as they are buildings, and while some places have stories we’ve all heard, there are other (perhaps more interesting) stories just beneath the surface. Yes, West Texas has football and wide prairie, but it’s also a growing wine region, and in Orlando you can experience an immersive vacation on another planet. Kansas City is much more than barbecue and sports.
Giving the gift of travel means tailoring the destination to someone’s passions and interests, but it’s important to remember that every city has more than the obvious to offer.
A Taste Tennessee
The 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville is directly across the Cumberland River from the stadium home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. The rooftop suites have decks that open out onto the downtown skyline and a river view, and for hardcore music fans, the hotel is a short three-block walk from Broadway with its abundance of honky-tonks, museums, venues and bars. Better known as the home of country & western music, Nashville is also important because it’s the best place to stay if, like me, you’re headed to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
Before embarking on what ends up being nearly a full day tasting whiskey in Lynchburg, I visited Husk, the restaurant made famous by Chef Sean Brock. He severed ties with the brand in 2019, leaving the Nashville eatery in the more than capable hands of Catoosa, Oklahoma, native Chef Katie Coss. Husk is known for Southern cuisine, and Coss has stayed true to that focus, including amazing catfish, zippy deviled eggs, crispy fried chicken and, of course, pork belly. The whiskey and wine lists are both impressive, and service at the bar top is excellent.
Gray & Dudley is the restaurant inside 21c, and like all 21c restaurants around the country, the cuisine is chef-driven and the concepts operate semi-independently from the host hotels. Gray & Dudley’s menu is eclectic in the truest sense: steamed beef rangoon shares space with bacon and sauerkraut lumpia, duck fried rice, biscuits and gravy and steaks. The bar boasts an impressive spirits selection, including a bottle of WhistlePig’s signature The Boss Hogg. I grabbed breakfast there before heading for Lynchburg in a chartered mini-bus. Several of these services provide transportation to and from Jack Daniel’s, and the one I was on as a solo passenger also provided whiskey … at 8:30 a.m. I declined.
Like many drinkers, I had formed an opinion of Jack Daniel’s based on their ubiquitous Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey, along with commercials touting Lynchburg as a small town where everyone knows their neighbors. In a world made cynical by advertising, it’s good to know that not all commercials are based on lies. The town is small, the people are friendly, and the Jack Daniel’s operation is run by locals, often with three generations of the same family involved in various aspects of the process.
My tour group, which included Travis Clark of Clark Crew BBQ, had transportation issues, so I lucked into a solo tour with veteran tour guide Jon Teal. “I quit my job and moved to Lynchburg because I wanted this job,” he told me. “It’s literally my dream job.” His passion for the brand and its story was evident as he walked me through every stage of the operation – from burning the wood for coals, to the water source, to fermentation, filtering and bottling.
I finished the day with an interview with Master Distiller Jeff Arnett and lunch at Miss Mary Bobo’s Restaurant, the repurposed boarding house adjacent to the distillery. Tour groups are seated with hosts – many of whom are retired locals – who act as storytellers, historians and conversation facilitators for the home-style lunch of fried chicken, meat loaf, fresh veggies and pie. It’s homespun awesomeness, and should be added to any tour.
Arnett came to Jack Daniel’s from Proctor & Gamble, where he was an expert on the decaffeination process. An automotive engineer by education, Arnett is one of the best systems thinkers in the country, and he understands distilling at the molecular level, talking easily and brilliantly about yeast strains, microbiology and aging. An evangelist for the Tennessee style of whiskey, he explained the advantage “mellowing” brings to all the Jack Daniel’s products. “Mellowing can do in days what takes years in barrel,” he says. “Bourbon producers call it a ‘short cut,’ but it’s really a head start.”
My last morning in Nashville was focused around one more stop: Five Daughters Bakery. I had heard more than a few locals talk about the 100-Layer Donut, a Nashville variation on the cronut that takes three days to produce. Just imagine 100 layers of delicious donut with cream and glaze, so, yeah, you’ll want to get one before you leave the city.
West Texas Wine Tour
For Oklahomans, the lure of Lubbock, Texas, tends to be collegiate sports. Why else make the short flight or five-hour drive to a small city in the middle of a massive prairie? Surrounded by cotton fields and perched atop the Caprock Escarpment, the geological endpoint of the High Plains, Lubbock is mostly known for Texas Tech athletics, but the university also boasts one of the nation’s largest public art programs, including more than 100 pieces scattered around campus.
Since the early 1970s and accelerating in the past two decades, many of those cotton fields have been repurposed as vineyards, thanks in large part to the work of Clinton “Doc” McPherson, a Texas Tech professor who was the first to plant Sangiovese in Texas. McPherson believed the High Plains had the perfect combination of soil and climate for certain grapes, and he spent most of his career as a grower experimenting with varietals. His son, Kim McPherson, now owns McPherson Cellars near downtown Lubbock, and with all due respect to the Red Raiders, McPherson ought to be the biggest draw in town.
The Pioneer Pocket Hotel is six blocks from McPherson Cellars, and it was my first pocket hotel. The rooms are on the third floor of a downtown apartment complex in the fully restored Lubbock Hotel, an historic landmark that was built in 1926, and all steps in the process – from booking to check-in to room access – are handled via cell phone. It’s very much like a perfect marriage of Airbnb and hotel. The rooms are spacious, with plenty of work space, and the ground floor is home to a brewery, coffee shop and one of Lubbock’s best restaurants. The West Table is an upscale, casual dining experience in a beautiful setting with a menu that changes daily, an excellent whiskey selection and an impressive wine list, including tons of Texas options.
Kim McPherson is the winemaker Dave Phinney (of Orin Swift fame) sought out when he wanted a Texas wine for his Locations series. A graduate of Cal-Davis, McPherson has the chops to make wine anywhere in the world, but he’s happiest expanding the program his father started, and his Chenins Blancs – still and sparkling – are among the best I’ve tasted from any region. Tours and tastings are available, and you’ll want to pick up his Mourvedre, Picpoul, Cinsault and Carignan to bring home.
Walk across the street to Sylvia McPherson’s (married to Kim since 1979) La Diosa Cellars for lunch (Friday and Saturday only) or happy hour. The restaurant specializes in tapas, but color, art, texture and lighting are also featured in bright, complex explosions of color and texture. You can also taste McPherson’s wines alongside some of Lubbock’s best food.
For other dining options, don’t miss King Street Pub for dinner. Chef-owner Sara North has put together a remarkable menu and expansive wine list. You’ll find selections from McPherson, English Newsom – another Texas winery that’s a must-try – and familiar names from regions around the world. There is game on the menu every day, so trust the chef and get it, especially antelope or wild boar. Everyone you meet is going to tell you to get the coconut cake from Queen of Tarts Bakery adjacent to King Street; you will thank them if you follow through.
While in Lubbock, make time for a tour of English Newsom Cellars in the Old Cap Rock Winery, and let Andy Timmons take you on a tour of Texas Wine Company in nearby Meadow. Hit those two places, along with McPherson Cellars, and you’ll join the growing chorus of wine lovers who insist West Texas wines are to be taken very seriously.
An Adventure Far, Far Away
It was hot – hot as only a planet with three suns can get. I was on Batuu, a planet on the edge of Wild Space and a hide-out for the Resistance forces trying to regroup to battle the First Order. In spite of the underlying anxiety, life goes on. Batuuans greet one another and guests with the traditional “Bright Sun” and go about their daily chores. It’s a bit disconcerting for Earth visitors, but you soon get used to it here in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Walt Disney World in Orlando.
This may be the most immersive experience in the park. I wandered through the marketplace, looking at droids, lightsabers, stuffed porgs and Kowakian monkey lizards. I drank blue milk and sampled Batuuan dishes such as the Felucian Garden Spread with an Oi-Oi Puff for dessert. (Very tasty!)
Best of all, I co-piloted the Millennium Falcon. Each outing consists of a crew of six – two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. I wish I could say I was good at it … but I ran into buildings, smashed through mountaintops and collided with asteroids, all while being fired upon by enemy ships.
I was there for the park’s opening in August and I can tell you, for Star Wars fans, this is an absolute must. And the ultimate experience opens in December – The Rise of the Resistance. We were given a sneak peek at part of this newest attraction and, believe me, this will be one mind-blowing experience.
Then there’s the whole rest of Walt Disney World. A trip to the park is a big investment, but there’s a reason so many people consider this the world’s premier theme park. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is icing on the park cake.
Kansas City Prime
“While you’re in Kansas City, you have to eat at (favorite barbecue joint)!” Cities are known for certain things – this is no secret – so it’s not surprising I received no less than half a dozen recommendations on “the city’s best barbecue” before I headed north. However, I was off to do the unthinkable: eat and drink in KC without so much as walking by a BBQ joint. Texas barbecue is the best west of the Mississippi anyway, and I was more interested in two restaurants that have drawn the attention of the James Beard Foundation (the non-profit organization that gives annual awards for the nation’s best bars and restaurants), and three cocktail bars generating regional and national attention.
I made two trips to KC in 2019, the first to tour distilleries Union Horse, J. Rieger and Tom’s Town. A traveler can plan any number of itineraries in a city of this size, and on my second trip I was fortunate enough to be in town for “30 Americans,” an installation featuring the art of 30 African-American artists at the stunning Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Like many cities of its size, KC has a thriving sports culture – the Royals, the Chiefs – but there are several ways to build an experience of this city, including food and drink.
Kansas City has a well-deserved reputation as a bar-centric culture, and while much of the credit is given to the Prohibition-flaunting speakeasies that Tom Pendergast, the head of the KC Democratic “machine,” protected throughout that dark period of our nation’s history, it’s impossible to know exactly how much a nearly 100-year-old story affects the modern bar scene. Still, it’s a good story, and in the midst of a trend toward overusing the word “speakeasy” to describe new bars that definitely are not speakeasies, Manifesto – in the basement of the Rieger Hotel – is definitely true to the ethos and atmosphere of those bygone underground bars.
The Kansas City Marriott Downtown recently underwent a $65 million renovation, and they invited us up to stay and play. Located just north of the Crossroads district, the hotel is a handful of blocks from all three Interstate corridors, meaning everywhere I wanted to be was about ten minutes away by Lyft, and Manifesto was almost walking distance. Asking at the hotel restaurant hostess stand where the speakeasy is gets you a sympathetic smile and directions, much like a lost 10-year-old would receive if trying to find the bathroom, but I endured the silent ridicule and make my way to the alley … only half convinced the hostess wasn’t Snapchatting me for laughs.
Manifesto was actually a speakeasy during Prohibition, and they’re happy to tell you Mr. Pendergast himself was a customer, as was Al Capone. In fact, a brass plaque above a urinal in the lobby bathroom announces “Al Capone pissed here,” in case that’s the sort of celebrity-adjacent experience you’re looking for. Truthfully, the best drink I had in KC was at the Rieger Hotel’s bar, but the cocktails in the basement are boozy, smart and complex. The tab reflects that, just as it does at The Monarch, an uber-sleek, modern-art-focused cocktail bar in the Country Club Plaza district. A semifinalist for a James Beard award, The Monarch is a marvel of comprehensive, integrated design – interior, peripherals and cocktails – and bar director Brock Schulte is a masterful technician and creative genius.
In 2019, Kansas City received eight James Beard semi-finalist nominations. In addition to The Monarch, The Antler Room’s executive chef Nick Goellner was nominated Best Chef in the Midwest. The menu is small and focused, and however much food you think you’ll want when you go in, you’ll want more. Everything from the salad course to the soup dumplings to the best duck I’ve tasted was perfection, and bar manager-partner Leslie Newsam Goellner’s wine program has garnered more national accolades than the food. A very pleasant surprise was finding OKC’s own COOP Ale Works Spare Ribs Pale Ale on the happy hour menu.
Around town, people kept talking about The Savoy, the bar-restaurant inside the 21c Museum Hotel, where I’d had a wonderful stay in January of this year on my first trip to KC. Mainly, though, they were talking about the bar, which is the polar opposite of the almost cafeteria-style vibe of main dining. The Savoy Bar feels historic; there’s a weight to it, and it’s the perfect place to start the day with breakfast, and end the day with an amazing whiskey selection.
Of those eight award nominations, only one advanced to the finalist stage: Chef Michael Corvino of the eponymous Corvino restaurant. The giant corvid on the main dining wall sets the quiet mood in the Supper Club. Dim lighting and soft-spoken service are the norm. (Corvino is divided into supper club and tasting menu concepts, with seating in supper club much easier to come by, and much more affordable.) I started with an Old Fashioned, and then ordered what I was really there for: Michael Corvino’s famous uni toast, a bright, umami-rich indulgence. I told the bartender a friend had recommended the burger, but I was going to pass because I felt like I should go a little more upscale at Corvino. “I think you’ll regret that decision,” he said. He was right. Maybe ambience really does matter, but the burger was extraordinary, and walking out of a James Beard nominee’s restaurant for under $100 is a pretty sweet night out, too.
Norway by the Sea
The hardest thing about going on a cruise is the making the decisions and filling out the paperwork before you go. I’ve never been a cruise fan, and haven’t taken one for years – until this summer. Times have changed; ships have changed and now I’ve changed.
Holland America and its newest ship, the Nieuw Statendam, are responsible. From the minute we arrived at the ship terminal in Amsterdam, all my worries melted away. These folks are so organized, pleasant and helpful – from the porters who handle the luggage to the captain of the ship – our vacation became a constant delight.
First off, the ship is gorgeous. It was just the right size, and even with approximately 2,500 passengers, we never felt crowded. The décor was stunning; interesting and unusual with lots of art generously displayed in public areas. The main dining room was elegant, and the Lido Market’s elaborate buffet was scrumptious and beautifully presented. Specialty restaurants presented a variety of cuisines and casual cafes made snack meals a pleasure.
When we made our plans, I thought the ship was just a means of getting to ports along the Norwegian coast. And we did enjoy each of our stops – seeing Viking ships and a folk-life village in Oslo, wandering quaint streets in Kristiansand and Haugesund, traveling into the mountains above Eidfjord to see waterfalls. But there was so much to do on the ship, we wished for more time at sea! Activities ranged from cooking demonstrations to illustrated lectures about Norway, movies, games from chess and bridge to pickleball, wine tasting … I don’t have space to list everything to do. Then, of course, there are hot tubs and pools, a casino and entertainment.
Besides the art, music is key on the ship. Most of the decks are identified by composers’ names, and there was live music for every taste. Venues include the Lincoln Center Stage (classical music), B.B. King’s Blues Club, the Rolling Stone Rock Room and, our favorite, Billboard Onboard, where dual pianos played all sorts of favorites and encouraged singing along. There’s also an excellent spa, which I indulged in, and a fitness center, which I didn’t.
Our cabin was great – plenty of room for three of us – and the bathroom was much more than the tiny compartment we’d experienced before. Our stewards were excellent, turning down our beds each evening, leaving chocolates on our pillows and surprising us with different towel creations. (And yes, there’s a class on board to learn to fold towels.) First, we had a simple stingray, and each night, the animals became more complex. The last night’s pièce de résistance was a monkey hanging from a light fixture.
The Nieuw Statendam also has a kids’ program, and there were children on the cruise. I personally think this cruise is ideal for grown-ups. For families with small children, I’d suggest a Disney cruise or a ship like Carnival’s new Mardi Gras, debuting in October. That ship even has a roller coaster high above the water.
For me, Holland America has me sold. I’ll happily book future trips with them. And I’m saving my money so that when senior living becomes a necessity, I can forget about a retirement facility. I want to live on a Holland America ship.