Sunday, July 31, 2016

Free Attractions in Missouri - Girls' Trip Part Two

The third day of the annual girls' trip found us in St. Louis, with a full day scheduled. We started with the first tour of the day at the Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate Factory. Because we would go right into the factory where candy was being made, we dawned the required protective head gear. We got an official picture during the tour. The picture below includes Denisa's sister Connie, Denisa, Denisa's Mother, and Denisa's sister Debra.

We've gone on over 20 different girls' trips all over the country, so we are well-practiced at traveling together. We also know that we all enjoy a good factory tour--especially if it includes food. We watched as they made batches of candy from scratch. On these rolling trays (that look like hospital gurneys), are huge slabs of caramel that are now cooling so they can be cut into one-inch squares.

This man is forming the caramel and pecan centers that are being covered in chocolate on the left-hand side of the picture. That combination would usually describe something called a pecan turtle candy. But that name is actually trademarked by a different company. So this St. Louis company names theirs Tootles.

On this line, the guy on the right in lining up the just-baked graham crackers, so they can run through a machine that covers them in milk chocolate. The woman on the left will adhere a just-made marshmallow onto each while the chocolate is still warm. That row of white topped candies on the conveyor belt on the far left are headed into a machine that will completely cover them in chocolate to complete them into smores candies.

We were surprised to see that the candies are formed and constructed by hand. After our free tour (and free sample), we definitely spent some money at the gift shop. We bought a couple tootles, plus key lime, carrot cake, and strawberry truffles.

We also bought a bag of sea salt chocolate caramels, and another bag of imperfect truffles from the "oops" table. We didn't even wait to get out to the car before we started cutting up our chocolates so we could taste them all.

A few blocks away is the Herbaria soap company, so it was time for another group picture at their factory tour.

We were there on a soap-making day, so we saw the chandler--a fancy name for a guy that makes soap--stirring the big vat of vegetable oils.

We watched as the chandler dipped out enough of the oil for two batches. Then he added a little lye, some clay, parsley for the green color, essence of oil for the fragrance, and several other ingredients. All that is blended for about 15 minutes, until drips from his mixer will form small indentations as the mixture thickens.

This green-pea-soup-like mixture is poured into soap molds lined with plastic wrap. They are then covered with blankets, where the process of hardening puts off heat over several days.

When hardened, the bolts are removed from the forms above to uncover a large chunk of soap. Because it's hard to shower with that big piece of soap, it is then cut down to size, using the two pieces of equipment on the table.

The finished bars are allowed to dry out and age on these trays, in a factory that will totally confuse your nose because of all the aromas. They will be hand-wrapped here in St. Louis, in this small store that does most of its business through internet orders.

Our next stop in St. Louis was Forest Park--home of the 1904 World's Fair. This large green space in the middle of the city is filled with remnants of a grand fair that brought 20 million people here from all over the world. This is the grand basin, with the city's art museum in the background.

The other delightful thing about Forest Park is that almost everything here is free! So even if you're not a huge art critic,  the art museum is still a cool and comfortable place to spend some time. Another bonus is that all the museums have wheel chairs available in case you are traveling with an 86-year-old with some mobility issues.

Outside the museum is this larger-than-life statue of King Louis IX of France--the namesake of the city of St. Louis. The formal name of the statue is Apotheosis of St. Louis, and it looked even grander when it was framed with the fluffy white clouds of the day.

Another stop in Forest Park was the Missouri History Museum. That banner out front is advertising the "Little Black Dress" exhibit that we enjoyed walking through. We saw everything from black mourning dresses of the 1800's, to black Chanel dresses of the 1900's, to black dresses made from film from the 2000's.

This building was built on the entrance site of the 1904 World's Fair, and was originally named the Jefferson Memorial Building. The World's Fair commemorated the 100th birthday of the Louisiana Purchase, made when Jefferson was the President of the United States.

Inside the museum is also a replica of Lindbergh's famous airplane--"Spirit of St. Louis."

But we most enjoyed our walk through the Route 66 exhibit, which featured stops that have grown famous along the Mother Road. There was a whole section on Ted Drewes concretes.

Forest Park is a 1,300 acre green space, filled with flower gardens and green lawns. Other free sites that we didn't visit include the St. Louis Zoo and the Science Center. We think St. Louis would be a great place for families on a budget to visit! We could have enjoyed all these sites more if the temperatures weren't teetering around 100 degrees. It seems our visit coincided with a record-breaking heat wave that drove temperatures up ten degrees higher than usual for July.

If not for that record-breaking heat, we would have also attended a play in Forest Park's Muny Theatre. This is the largest outdoor musical theatre in North America. This summer, St. Louis had welcomed the Broadway casts of favorite musicals like Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, and 42nd Street. The productions usually run for a week to ten days, with only a single night in between to change out stage sets. The day we were there, they had staged the new show--Mama Mia. That means the actors had practiced on the outdoor stage in the afternoon in this 100 degree heat, and would have a performance that evening.

The first production was here in 1917, so they will be celebrating their 100th year of theatre productions at the Muny next summer. This outdoor theater has 11,000 seats. For each performance, they leave the 1,000 seats in the back open for people to enjoy the plays for free. We wondered how many people would brave the heat to stand in line for those free seats this evening.

We thought about doing that, but instead we headed to an indoor place called "The Puzzle Warehouse." It featured room after room of puzzles of all shapes and sizes.

They also had completed puzzles, framed and hung on the wall. This wonderfully colorful picture below was actually just a small piece of an even bigger puzzle.

That bigger puzzle had 24,000 pieces, and was so big it couldn't fit into a single camera frame. Connie is standing in front of it, just to prove how big it is. If that puzzle wasn't big enough, there was also a 36,000 piece puzzle available for sale at the Puzzle Warehouse.

We still had a little daylight, so we headed to the little city of St. Charles, about 30 miles northwest of St. Louis. With its brick streets and old store fronts, the historic downtown is filled with shops and restaurants.

But we headed to the river, where we toured the Lewis and Clark Museum and Nature Center. Inside, they showed models of the different type boats that the Lewis and Clark expedition used to traverse from here to the west coast.

Outside in the parking lot are life-sized reproductions of those same boats. This keelboat was built in 1996 for the re-enactment of the first seven weeks of Lewis and Clark's voyage on the Missouri River. This journey was filmed for public television, to show the rigors of this epic expedition. Connie is standing beside the boat to give a sense of scale to these boats. (It's nice to have sisters around to be in pictures!)

There was also a perfect reproduction of Lewis and Clark's white pirogue--a long narrow boat usually made from a single tree trunk.

Normally this museum would cost $5 and would close at 5 p.m. But we lucked into visiting on a special day. St. Charles was hosting the finish line of the MR 340 race. The MR stands for the Missouri River, and 340 is the number of miles between the starting line to the finish in St. Charles. We got to watch as kayak racers came in off the wide Missouri River.

These racers had left Kansas City two days before, paddling down stream on the river. After that much time in those little boats, most of them had to be helped out of their boats and up the incline to the shore.

There were  different categories of racers--including categories for tandem, teams, and solo, men and women, stand-up paddle board, and pedal-drive boats. This rigorous race was a test of stamina, with a twist of risk. They were bringing ice packs for the man sitting on the hay bale in the foreground. He had been hit in the shoulder by a large carp on the river and had to paddle the remainder of the trip with one arm.

Assorted kayaks were littering the grassy area close to the river. These are serious boaters, so these are examples of serious boats.

There was food, water, and medical care available at the finish line in St. Charles. Boaters were given four full days to complete the race, and the awards would be handed out at the end of the fourth day. From the race headquarters we could already see that the fastest solo time was 40 hours and 58 minutes, while the first paddle boarder completed the 340 miles in 51 hours and 16 minutes.

This was an unexpected stop with an unexpected fun bonus. Even on girls' trip we can wander into serendipitous stops. Almost all of our stops were free while we were in Missouri--if we don't have to count the shopping and bounteous eating we also enjoyed on our trip.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Girls' Trip to Missouri - Part One

Denisa has gone on annual girls' trip with her two sisters and her Mother for the last 24 years. We missed a few years when our children were very young, but we've made it a priority to get together for around twenty different adventures. This year's destination is Missouri.

To introduce our cast of characters for this trip we have the following picture. Yes, we are all dressed alike in the blouses we bought on last year's girls' trip. We got lots of smiles and a few very puzzled looks when we dawned them again this year. The picture below is of Denisa, her sisters Debra and Connie, and her 86-year-old Mother, Betty. (We have found that after 80, women are proud to publicize their age. We will not be divulging the ages of the other members of our party.)

Our first stop was Joplin, Missouri, where we had lunch at Sandstone Gardens. Betty is standing among the 50,000 square feet retail store filled with everything to decorate homes inside and outside. We were more interested in the bistro, filled with everything to fill up our insides. We thought the carrot cake with cream cheese icing was especially good.

Our second stop was Branson, Missouri, where we changed into our matching blouses just in time for the evening performance of "Moses" at the Sight and Sound Theater. We love this theater that "brings the bible to life." It took 48 18-wheelers to transport the costumes and stage sets for this show, and we understood why when we saw it. They do a monumental job of using the entire theater, and we always enjoy the live animals that are part of the cast. We have seen their productions of Noah and Jonah, but Denisa now thinks her favorite is Moses.

The next morning we got to meet up with some more relatives--our aunt and cousins from Colorado. They just happened to also be vacationing in Missouri at the same time.

Our next stop in Missouri was to St. Louis--home of the Cathedral Basilica.

It's a grand church on the inside and the outside. The mosaics that cover the interior are made up of 41.5 million tiny pieces of tile.

Most of the mosaics included portraits of people. Looking up into the domes and arches, we felt certain that the faces were painted because they were so clear and detailed.

But when we looked closely at a face, we could see that it was made entirely of tiny pieces of tile, about one-half inch square.
Really zoomed in, we could see that all that detail was achieved by using tiles of unexpected colors. The artists used over 7,000 different colors of tile to do the shading and texturing that look so real from a distance.

Seeing the detail up close made us appreciate the grand pictures that these tiny tiles can produce. The museum in the basement of the church describes the process used to make these large murals. The tiles are actually temporarily glued upside down onto paper, in sections that can be lifted to the ceiling. The back sides of the tiles are then cemented to the ceiling, and the temporary paper patterns are cleaned away from the front edge.

Just like the artists used unusual colors in the shading of the face, we noticed unusual colors sprinkled into what looked like solid colored backgrounds. Those subtle green tiles among the solid brown background fooled our eyes into adding texture.

Wikipedia says that the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis has the largest collection of mosaics in the world. All we can verify is that it was a beautiful place to be this day!

Nearby, we saw familiar bright blue and yellow of the Ikea brand. Since two of us had never been inside an Ikea store, we took a tour.

Here's the difference of shopping habits between a sister that lives in a big house, and a sister that lives in a motor home.

When we travel, we try to taste foods that are locally famous. That would include something called toasted ravioli. They were accidentally invented when a cook dropped the ravioli into hot oil instead of hot water. This toasted ravioli appetizer was followed by a St. Louis style pizza, made on a cracker-like crust with whole slices of bacon and local provel cheese instead of mozzarella.

Speaking of iconic St. Louis food, we also made a trip to this Ted Drewes location, made famous for its location right along Route 66. That long list of menu items on the side of the building describes the many different flavors of frozen custard they serve.

Around the corner is where the constant line forms. Most people are ordering their most popular item--concretes. Made from frozen custard, a concrtete is mixed so thick that it is served upside down. On this day with the temperatures close to 100 degrees, we didn't try the upside-down test. That heat also kept the lines short, as we heard there are often people standing all the way around the corner.

We also went in search of another St. Louis treat--Ooey Gooey Butter Cake. We made a stop at Gooey Louie's, but had enough sense to leave when we found our only option was purchasing an entire cake. Instead we purchased a single piece at a bakery.

This is a close up of the Strawberry Gooey Cake that we were too full to finish.

We have definitely consumed more than our share of calories in our attempt to eat our way across Missouri. But we have more adventures than one blog can hold, so we'll continue it tomorrow.