Checking In: An Iconic Hotel by StayPineapple

Being a local to Chicago makes me one of the luckiest people when it comes to a staycation. Instead of airfare, I pay a round-trip price of $16 to get to and from the city and can plan a trip around hotel prices. Plus, the location can’t be beat. Even New Yorkers get out of their city when they take a staycation. I mean, that’s why the Hamptons exist, right? When I’m desperate to get away but don’t have the time or bandwidth to plan an actual trip, I’ll open Hotel Tonight or check a few of my favorite hotels in the city to see where I can find the best price…

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5 Late Fall Midwestern Getaways

Happy November! I hope All Hallow’s Eve went without any ghoulish surprises this year and was lots of fun. Now that November is here, fall is in its final few weeks. The leaves are falling rapidly, the colors have changed, and the weather has turned much more brisk. It’s delightful! With four weeks left until Thanksgiving and four weeks between T-Day and Christmas, now is the time to plan a last-minute fall getaway. With limited time to spare, a getaway that’s closer to home makes much more sense. For those of you Chicago-based or Midwest-based, I have five late fall getaways to put on your calendar. It’s a great time to travel to any of these locations because the height of tourist season is over. Rates are dropping and crowds are thinning. Take this as an opportunity to explore each of these Midwestern destinations at your own leisure…

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An Afternoon in Branson, Missouri

Branson is a city that I have known about and heard stories about but never really thought to visit personally. Since my aunt lives less than an hour's drive from the popular vacation spot, we decided to take a day trip down there so I could see what all the fuss is about. It's kind of the Midwest's version of Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It's definitely a vacation destination with similar attractions to Vegas with big, obnoxious sites like King Kong that kids just love, trendy restaurants with interesting themes, entertainment shows, boat cruises, shopping and more. But you know what? It was fun! We didn't do a whole ton because it was just a mini day trip but I felt like I got to experience the heart of the city properly.

Our first stop was Downtown Branson which has a charming, Old West feel to it. There are specialty shops and restaurants on a very hilly piece of land. Thankfully I was not the one driving but that did not make being in the passenger seat any more comforting. I had the same fear as in San Francisco that the car was about to tumble down a hill or not make it up one. Me + Cars + Hills = one terrified nightmare. We walked from Downtown Branson to the Branson Landing which is just at the end of the street and did some fun shopping. The landing itself is absolutely gorgeous. It's designed beautifully from the "streets" to the fountains and just the clean, simple architecture. 

A few of the shops I particularly loved were Don't 4Get About Me, The Spice & Tea Exchange and Versona. Don't 4Get About Me is a pet shop with treats, toys and other items for pet owners. I picked up quite a few treats for my pups at this store and wish that I could return monthly for more. They have several sizes of mason jars you can fill with any flavor you'd like. You could even mix and match. When the jar is empty, all you need to do is stop in the store and refill it. No need to buy a new jar if you don't want to and you won't have a collection of mason jars build up over time. If you're not local, like me, you can email them to have a restock of treats mailed to you. The have several different flavors, both sweet and savory, and in different sizes as well. Lou Lou loved them, so did Dalles. I still have some of the baby treats left that I give them once in a while. The Spice & Tea Exchange is exactly what it sounds like, a specialty food store that serves spices of all kinds and teas. My favorite item they sell are these packets of spice ingredients for recipes. I have one for a Mexican Chicken Tortilla Soup I'm waiting to use until fall. I whipped up their recipe for Mediterranean Orzo Salad while visiting my aunt. We paired it with a steak recipe from The Tucci Table, Stanley Tucci's second cookbook, and it was quite tasty. Finally, Versona is a women's clothing and accessory store that I am OBSESSED with. I really wish that we had one in the Chicago area because the style it carries is exact to my tastes. I bought a few things while there including one of my current favorites shirts. I swear that I wear it weekly.

A restaurant that we heard of, although I can't remember how, is Pasghetti's. I think it has something to do with the enormous meatball outside of the restaurant. It is the largest fork and meatball in the world, or claims to be at least. Anyway, we felt like this was a must during our visit, even if it were just for the experience. The main restaurant is designed, I'm guessing, like Little Italy in NYC. I wouldn't know since I've never been to NYC but I can tell you it doesn't look like Chicago's Little Italy. The space also has a ton of entertainment for the kids like a Ferris wheel, game room, themed rooms and more. The food, although tasty, is about average. There's nothing spectacular about the menu, it's really more about the experience than anything. I wouldn't knock it from your list though. If you want to go for the experience, you're going to get one and it's fun. 

There are a few other things to do I'd be interested in experiencing if and when I were to return. For example, my obsession with history is really intrigued by the Titanic Museum. I remember an exhibit came to the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry when I was a kid and I loved it. I also had a grade school teacher who's mom was a historian and did a lot of work with the Titanic. I've always been interested in it, probably because of her. I'd also love to go on a Cave and Cavern Tour. Missouri has beautiful rock formations everywhere so this is bound to be a fantastic opportunity to grab some incredible photos. Finally, a dinner cruise is always something I'm interested in. I love being on the water (not in it). There's something magical about the experience. 

Have you been to Branson? It's a great vacation spot for families with plenty to do. I'd love to spend more time in the historic downtown area, do more shopping at Branson Landing and check out some kind of boat activity. What are your recommendations for the city?

That Time I Ate My Way Through Springfield, MO

If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen a few snaps of my trip to Missouri earlier this year. My aunt lives in Republic which is a short drive away from Springfield and about 45 minutes outside of Branson. The flights to Springfield are teeny tiny planes so that wasn't going to happen. Instead, I opted for business on an Amtrak. Let's talk about those seats for a minute. They are so comfortable. They're enormous, they recline, have foot rests, decently sized trays and cup holders. I will never ride coach on an Amtrak. Call me a diva but those seats are too comfy to pass up. 

I've only driven through Missouri a handful of times but I never stopped anywhere. I also never paid attention much to the area because I'd either be asleep or driving. Taking the train to St. Louis and then along the Mississippi River was a memorable experience. I don't know what I was expecting from Missouri but if I'm being honest, it wasn't much. The rock formations are gorgeous, almost like a painting. It's so different from what we see here in Illinois. Even the highways are lined with beautiful rocks. You might be thinking, what's the big deal about rocks? I wish I took photos to show you but these were no ordinary rocks. They had many colors and were more like artwork. It was gorgeous. 

You're not here to listen about rocks though. You want the DL on the food scene. That was another huge surprise for me. I was not expecting the Springfield food scene to be so, well, diverse. I was thinking southern food, maybe an Italian joint here and there. I couldn't have been more wrong. They have an impressive diverse food scene from typical all-American to French and even Peruvian! I think the hardest decision was which restaurants to try in the short period of time I was there. While these three I'm about to share with you weren't the only spots I visited, they were my favorite. Pardon the phone quality photos.

Aviary Cafe - French | 400 West Walnut Street, Suite 100, Springfield, MO
If there is French food, I'm there. After visiting a small thrift store around the corner, we decided to stop by Aviary Cafe and Creperie for brunch. I should mention as a disclaimer, I was sick during this trip with the worst sinus infection of my life. So you'll notice that a lot of the food I ordered was either comforting or featured strong flavors. What can I say? A foodie knows how to get around slow taste buds. 

I ordered a cup of their Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup to start which was exactly what I needed in that moment. It was delicious, creamy and warm. My aunt ordered salmon toasts which don't appear to be on the menu any longer so I can't grab their exact name and description. I typically wouldn't go for something like this but it was delicious. They were refreshing and light with a hint of creaminess from the crème fraîche on top. Finally, for the main course, we ordered The Farmer, a savory crepe with scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese and ham wrapped in a sweet crepe. You can't go wrong with crepes. The are comforting, filling, satisfying and personal. A crepe can be filled with almost anything and this was the perfect first official meal in Springfield. 

Cafe Cusco - Peruvian | 234 East Commercial Street, Springfield, MO
Anyone else think Peruvian food in Missouri is a bit random? When my aunt told me about a Peruvian restaurant she loves to go to, my mind was blow. First, I live in Chicago and have never been to a Peruvian restaurant. One of the most overfilled melting pot cities in the country and I wouldn't even know where to find one. I didn't even know what kind of food to expect but that didn't matter because all of it was out of this world. My taste buds were starting to come back at this point but I still ordered spicy food to keep me on my toes. 

Not pictured are the Tequiños we ordered, crispy cotija cheese wrapped in empanada dough served with avocado dip. I wish I cold have packed up a thousand and took them home with me. They were large cheese sticks in empanada dough. The avocado dip was the cherry on top. My aunt ordered Mama's Drunk Goat, slow-cooked goat in seasoned Mother's Beer stew, with choclo, corn, peas and gold potatoes. This was quite a comforting dish. Think about your mom's beef stew from childhood. Now add extra flavor, rice, goat instead of beef and that's what you've got. 

I ordered the Spicy Pasta Rocotto, spaghetti noodles sauteed in garlic and white wine with spinach, black olives, tomato, capers and onion topped with spicy rocotto pepper tomato sauce and chicken. I loved my aunt's choice of dish but I LOVED mine. It was spicy, flavorful, permeated garlic in every morsel and made me feel fantastic. This was unlike any pasta I've had before (and that's a lot). I wish we had this restaurant closer to home so that I could order it weekly.

Koriya - Korean | 421 South Fremont Avenue, Springfield, MO
Koriya is like the Chipotle for Korean food but with more options. I never had Korean food so this was another cultural first for me. I am no expert when it comes to Korean food so I don't know how authentic this restaurant is but I am not one to judge. As long as it tastes good and the experience is memorable, I'm sold. You can either build your own dish, or "Bibimbap," or you can choose from one of their specials. 

I wasn't feeling so adventurous to build my own, more like I didn't want to make decisions, but I did order the Yaki Soba on the specials menu (top photo). Yaki Soba consists of stir fry noodles, veggies and I ordered mine with chicken. My aunt builds her own Hot Stone Bibimbap with veggies, Kochi sauce and shrimp (bottom photo). Both were delicious but you know me. If I have to choose between noodles and rice, noodles win every time. I am beginning to really love Asian flavors. They are fresh and unique making it a nice mix up from the norm if you don't typically eat Asian food. I'm still working on getting comfortable cooking with Asian flavors though.

These three restaurants weren't the only spots I tried in Missouri. I did visit a Waffle House when I arrived. If any of you are Britney Spears fans, you might recognize Waffle House as the restaurant they ate at towards the beginning. If you know how much of a Britney fan I am, you know that this was quite a moment for me to sit in a Waffle House. We also went to a casual Italian restaurant with fantastic pasta. They even give you olive oil and cheese to dip your bread. As much as we ate out, we did cook at home a bit as well. My aunt shares my love for food, and of course, French pastries. I have a sweets post coming soon so you'll have to wait for the pastries. These are some of the things we whipped up though.