Missouri

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Having recently returned from a trip to St. Louis Mo, I am anxious to share with all of you the wonderful things there are to do. I had not been to St Louis before, so I was looking forward to meeting the city. Kris had a brief visit years ago, so it was really all new to him as well.The United States bought St Louis from the French in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The Louis and Clark Expedition left St Louis in May 1804, reaching the Pacific in the summer of 1805. Both Louis and Clark lived in St Louis after the expedition. The city hosted both the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1904 Olympic Games, it was the first non-European city to host the Olympics. St Louis is probably best known as the home of Anheuser-Busch and the iconic Gateway Arch, but it is so much more… We found St Louis to be a friendly, multifaceted city; we explored historic neighborhoods, ate fantastic food, visited museums and got to know the real St Louis through St Louisans themselves.

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Our first day began with a visit to the Gateway Arch; built as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States it rests on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Designed by Eero Saarinen and soaring 630 ft, it is the tallest man-made monument in the US. It opened to the public on June 10, 1967 at a cost $13 million to build. We parked in a lot alongside the river, giving us a panoramic view of the city skyline, the Arch the Mississippi and its bridges. We had the perfect day for viewing, not a cloud in the bright blue sky, the temperature hovering around 60. I was astounded at the height! After Kris finished taking pictures of the exterior we headed under the Arch to the museums, I had no idea all of this even existed. This is the where you take the tram ride to the top, they have a tram-car on display for you to “try out”;  a small enclosed capsule that seats five, after the two of us sat in it, we mutually agreed we would not be taking the “Journey To The Top”.  The Museum of Westward Expansion follows the Louis and Clark Expedition; exhibits are modern and attractive, figures on display talk and move as if they were real, we found it very interesting to see what the old west was like. In addition you can also choose to see a documentary or a giant-screen movie.

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If you are ever in town the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis is not to be missed! Located on Lindell Blvd in the Central West End the building is a work of art. Constructed between 1907 and 1909 the exterior architecture is Romanesque in design, the dome and pitched roof are covered in green tiles making it hard to miss. The interior is done in the Byzantine tradition and is spectacular, I have never seen anything like it. Covering 83,000 sq ft, this is one of the largest collections of mosaics on the world, it took 20 artists 75 years to complete. We came in through the side door and were immediately taken aback by the beauty and craftsmanship of the building. To our right was a small and ornate chapel, the colors of the mosaics create sharp images. We followed other visitors into the main dome and my jaw literally dropped. It’s an amazing sight, a dome within a dome, every square inch covered in tesserae; a dark blue background surrounded by the stars of the heavens, mosaics of saints, the Beatitudes, and milestones of the Catholic Church in St Louis. Everywhere you look a story is being told, I read there are 8,000 shades of color tiles, gold being the predominant color. In addition to the two domes there are four chapels, each wondrous and distinct, again each depicting scenes from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The West Transept has the most vibrant colors; red, violet and blue images of Jesus’ baptism and Ascension to heaven. Along with a tour there were probably a dozen or so other visitors along with us taking an abundance of photos. You are free to wander the Cathedral except during a Mass, one was about to begin, so we took one last look before heading back into the sunshine of the day.

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We drove over to the South Grand neighborhood for lunch, known as a popular destination for immigrants from Vietnam, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Thailand and the Middle East, the variety of cuisines is amazing. We parked on the street and walked for a bit looking at our options. We approached a charming red brick building with black awnings, it was a Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Grand. We climbed the stairs and entered the contemporary Asian dining room, there were just a couple of open tables. The menu had a few pages, and everything sounded delicious, a basket holding squeezed bottles of house made sauces sat on each table. We picked 3 different dishes to share; beginning with a pair of the best spring rolls I think we have ever had, they were served with a wonderful sauce. Next up rice flour crepes filled with shrimp, pork, and a variety of veggies, awesome. We also had a noodle dish with tofu that was equally tasty, if we live in St Louis this would be one of our regular dining spots. Walking North on Grand to Arsenal we discovered a funky little coffee shop called Mokabe’s. We dropped in, struck up a great conversation with the girls behind the counter while enjoying really good espresso’s, what a great find!

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The Missouri Botanical Gardens are located on Shaw Blvd and feature 79 acres of horticultural displays. We didn’t have much time before closing so we had to go through kind of quickly. We began in the “Climatron”, a geodesic dome that opened in 1960 and the first dome to be used as a conservatory. Based on a tropical rainforest theme the dome houses lush foliage and waterfalls taking up 1/2 acre of space. I love coming to a place like this in the winter time, the green of the leaves, flowers in bloom and balmy temperatures. The Temperate House was next, this section was built in 1990 and is 8,900 sq ft. The temperate house features species that grow in a Mediterranean type climate along with a wildflower garden, rock garden and pretty flowering vines. My favorite spot was the antique portico that overlooks the moorish garden. Outside of the Climatron is a stunning reflecting pool, tall columns reach upward, statues designed by Swedish Sculptor Carl Milles balance on top. The sun was starting to go down creating an exceptional backdrop to the scene, Kris took some great pictures. We walked through one more greenhouse used to overwinter Orange trees and Camellias, also quite lovely. Being December the outdoor gardens were out of bloom so we didn’t feel too bad about not being able to see them. I would love to come back in Spring or Summer and really get a chance to see the whole place.

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University City Loop was the next neighborhood on our list to see. Delmar Blvd is the main drag; lined with eclectic shops, independent book stores,vintage clothing stores, music clubs and ethnic restaurants this area offers a bit of everything. Delmar is also home to the St Louis Walk Of Fame which honors famous St Louisans with brass stars and plaques embedded into the sidewalk. Here are just a few examples: Betty Grable, John Goodman,Kevin Kline, Miles Davis, Phyllis Diller, Vincent Price, Ike and Tina Turner, and of course, Chuck Berry. Chuck Berry’s star sits appropriately in front of  “Blueberry Hilll” a restaurant and live music club stuffed with pop culture memorabilia. We dashed into the Tivoli Movie Theatre to have a look around; there were movies playing in the theaters themselves, but we did manage to get a few pics of the lobby. At the far west end of the street we poked our heads into the University City City Hall building and were captivated by the incredible ornate stairway.

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Dinner time came around right about the time we came upon a restaurant named Pi (as in the mathematical symbol) that serves, you guessed it, PIZZA! The decor was modern and funky, large windows allow you a front row seat to the activity on Delmar. The list of specialty pizzas is long, without too much deliberation and some sound advice from our waiter we ordered a thin crust version of The Hill. Without much delay our pizza arrived hot from the oven, toppings were generous and the mozzarella cheese gooey, in other words perfect! The crust had a nice texture to it that comes from cornmeal, both crispy and chewy. We were very hungry from a full day of activities so we polished of the entire small. Then it was back to the hotel for a good nights sleep so we could be fresh for another day of exploring St Louis.

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After a peaceful night’s sleep and a good breakfast we were off to the “City Museum” on North Street. We arrived shortly after it opened and the parking lot was already getting crowded. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect; a good friend of ours told us it was this really cool place and we should check it out. We walked in the door and suddenly several of our senses were stimulated; first there was the shrill of children screaming, not in the near death way, but the I’m having a blast tone, everywhere I looked there was something going on, and there was an extraordinary amount of bright colors, I thought I smelled pizza coming from somewhere too…..We found our way to the ticket counter, purchased 2 tickets and placed the paper bands on our wrists, now what?

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There was an amazing stairway with dozens of multi-colored spindles on our left, we ascended it to the next floor. In the center of the room was a giant “hamster wheel” where a father and his two sons were running to make it spin, one of the walls was made up of what looked like a thousand old safe deposit boxes, and a giant vault room too. By now you are probably asking what is this place? Here’s what I have learned: City Museum is a 600,000 sq ft building that is the former International Shoe Company. Classically trained sculptor Bob Cassilly purchased the vacant building, he and a crew of 20 artists have turned it into what they call a combination of  “children’s playground, fun house, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel”.  The interior is made up of objects found in the city of St Louis itself; old chimneys, salvaged bridges, 2 abandoned airplanes, construction cranes, tons of tile, and refrigeration coil from Anhueser-Busch are a few examples. It’s absolutely INSANE, in the best possible way!

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Back to the first floor to get our bearings. The entire floor is made up of one giant mosaic, it’s so large it even climbs up the walls. The ceiling looks as if thousands of icicles are dangling from above. There is a large tree house in the room where small children would randomly shoot out of some sort of slide through the middle of the tree out onto the floor. Up in the branches (so to speak) full grown adults were walking through metal passageways, twisting and turning to accommodate the shape. A huge tank housed  bunches of turtles sitting on pieces of logs, sunning themselves under the warmth of the lights.  We walked a little more and found ourselves kind of behind-the-scenes in a cave area, an unexpected glass chandelier hung from the ceiling. Pushing forward we had entered the “enchanted cave” system so to speak, artificial lighting in different colors help guide visitors through the labyrinth.   I could easily spot the regulars as they brought their own mini-maglites. At one point we found ourselves in what seemed to be the central cave, everywhere we looked there seemed to be some pre-historic beast built into the concrete staring back at us.  On the third floor we discovered the Wurlitzer Pipe Organ, as the organ plays the sound resonates throughout the caves.

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The caves are built within the shoe factory’s tunnel system, they seem to go on forever, there are wide open spaces and narrow (very narrow) passages. There is no shortage of stairs either! Shoe shafts run through the center of the museum, you can climb the stairs up to the 10th floor and then slide down a 10-story spiral slide, the speed you will travel depends on your size, small children go pretty fast, adults…not so much, it sure was fun. We wandered around some more, I discovered where the smell of pizza came from; there’s a food court on the mezzanine level. On the lower level is a log cabin that is both a restaurant and a bar, you really could spend the whole day here.

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“MonstroCity” is located outdoors, yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds. The warmth of the day beckoned us to go outside and play.  Here  it’s all about climbing; 2 Saber 40 aircraft fuselages, a fire engine, a castle turret, a cupola and 4 foot wide Slinkies all invite you to scoot, duck, bend, climb, and crawl your way through them. Now mind you this takes you up pretty high, at one point I was in this tube made of wire that is welded together, wrapping my fingers around it like I was climbing a fence, taking turns moving my hands and feet skyward when I looked around and thought “what am I doing?”. I yelled ahead to Kris to reminded him where I keep my Blue Cross Card and forged ahead. Not all spaces are big enough for all persons, so I would advise you to always look ahead when deciding which direction to go. We climbed and climbed heading to the tallest platform that led to another slide that would take us back to ground level, it wasn’t so easy though….if it wasn’t for Kris pulling me up through a hole by my belt loops I may still be dangling there….but alas I made it! We waited in line for our turn to go down the slide, this one you had to lay back as to not hit your head, and it was fast! In the blink of an eye we were back to where we came in several hours before. City Museum is awesome, colorful, unexpected, industrial and spooky FUN!!

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After all that it was time to eat. Back to the Central West End, we had seen a lot of inviting places the day before. The neighborhood is definitely upscale; stately mansions line the streets, trendy restaurants and shops make up the business district, hipsters and professionals gather at coffee shops and bars. Euclid was quite active, so we had to watch closely for a parking space, got one. Just so happens it was directly across from a place called Sub Zero, ok so it’s a Vodka bar, but they had a neon sign that said sushi, good enough for us, actually, it was very good. We were seated at a high top table, our waitress arrived with menus for food and drink, turns out they are known for having the largest Vodka selection in the US, too bad I’m not a Vodka drinker. Kris decided to give one a whirl, he asked our waitress to choose; she brought him a house infused Vodka that he really enjoyed. The place is really cool inside, the vintage ceiling is painted white, accenting the blue and black decor. The bar faces shelves and shelves of back lit vodka bottles. We ordered a miso soup that was delicious, veggie potstickers, quite good, and sushi. The sushi was nice and fresh and everything tasted great.

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Central West End runs along the edge of Forest Park, which was where we were going next. At 1,371 acres Forest Park is one of the largest urban parks in the US. In 1904 the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition (World’s Fair) was held in Forest Park and drew more than 19 million visitors from around the world.  The park is home to the St Louis Art Museum, Science Center, Zoo, Jewel Box Greenhouse, History Museum and Muny Theatre. We didn’t have time to do them all so we just chose three. The Jewel Box is an Art Deco greenhouse built in 1936 using funds from the WPA. Renovated in 2002 to be used as an event venue the place is gorgeous! Except for the entryway it is completely made of glass. Lush gardens line the perimeter of the space, towards the back a display of palm trees give the room a tropical feel. To celebrate the holidays red, white and pink poinsettias line the edges of the plantings, it is festive and beautiful. I imagine many weddings take place here.

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On the northern edge of the park you’ll find the Missouri History Museum, along with rotating exhibits there are three permanent exhibits. The Charles Lindbergh section is really interesting, (he was actually born in Detroit) having made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, displays take you through his life and adventures. Seeking St Louis follows the history of the city from it’s founding in 1764 forward. My favorite section was the 1904 World’s Fair….Can you tell this had a huge impact on the city? They have all kinds of things from the fair; posters, mementos, but the photos are the best! It is unbelievable what they did back then from elaborate displays to entire buildings, fountains, landscapes, incredible. Did I mention the 16 ton statue of Thomas Jefferson? It is really worth seeing.

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The St Louis Art Museum was originally called the Palace of the Arts, it was the only permanent structure built for the World’s Fair. The exterior of the building is quite elaborate, there is no mistaking this is an important building. Tall Corinthian columns flank the entry doors, six individual figures stand atop the roof in line with the columns. Inside all of the focus is on the art itself, arched doorways separate the galleries. The museum is known for its Oceanic art, Chinese Bronzes, Pre-Columbian Art, and 20th Century German Art. Admission is free for each of the museums we visited, it was nice to see so many people in them. The Art Museum sits on an elevated area of land in Forest Park; in front of is a huge statue of French King Louis IX. The statue and the building overlook the Grand Basin, basically it is large reflecting pool with a series of eight fountains. As you probably have guessed, it was built for the World’s Fair and was a main gathering place for visitors. At night they light up the fountains, it is just stunning! As part of their promise to restore Forest Park after the World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Committee built the World’s Fair Pavilion in 1910 as a sort of thank you gift. It has since been converted into an outdoor rental venue and is also a great place for viewing and taking photos.

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It was a full day of discovery and adventure in St Louis. We headed back to the hotel for some dinner and relaxation, after all, tomorrow was another day.

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One of the best ways to get a feel for a city is to check out the local farmers market. Located on Carroll St in the Soulard neighborhood, this Farmers Market started in 1779 on what was then a flat piece of meadow land. The current building was built in 1929 in the Renaissance Style. Visit a farmers market on any given Saturday and you are sure to observe locals from every walk of life in the city. We began in the outdoor sheds, piles of fruits and vegetables sat atop tables and counters; citrus from Florida, home-grown apples, and Mississippi Pecans for only $3.80 a pound.  Continuing indoors the building has that historic charm, warm colored brick makes up the walls, double doors and arched windows are behind each stall, rectangular windows are placed high in the walls to let in more light, yellow banners hang above each stand telling you the vendor’s name and stall number. They have everything you’d expect from a farmers market, produce, meats, cheeses and baked goods. In addition you can browse a spice shop, pet puppies in the Soulard Pet Shop, buy Cardinal’s apparel, watch mini doughnuts being made, and try some pasta made of things like fruits, vegetables and even chocolate! While we were in the area we took a drive through Soulard, St Louis’s oldest neighborhood. The homes were originally built by the local brewery workers, many now house live music clubs, restaurants and shops. Steeped in French heritage they celebrate Mardi Gras in Winter and Bastille Day in July.

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Next destination Historic Cherokee Antique Row. Located south of downtown, the seven block area is home to Antique, Collectible, and specialty shops, galleries and independent retail. From vintage clothing and Mid Century Modern to antique china and period lighting, the shops are filled with rescued objects. It’s a beautiful street to stroll, homes are lovely, made of brick they are tall and narrow. On the corner of Cherokee and Illinois is a cafe/coffee shop called The Mud House, we stopped in for a snack and a coffee. At the counter we ordered espresso and a slice of  pecan pie, we found a seat by the window for a little relaxation before hitting the street again. Mud House has a warm and relaxed vibe, it is an obvious favorite to locals for both food and coffee. Rejuvenated, we continued shopping, we weren’t looking for anything in particular, more or less just looking. In and out of shops we saw something from each decade, books and records, automotive memorabilia, glassware and pottery. There was a fascinating shop called Saxquest, carrying both vintage and professional model saxophones, they have a sax museum on the second floor, the instruments are quite elaborate and elegant.  One of the galleries exclusively features St Louis artists, they also have a nice selection of T-shirts and city guidebooks.

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It was lunchtime and we were starving; a drive over to The Hill neighborhood would remedy that. The Hill is home to St Louis’s Italian heritage; Italian immigration began in the late 1800’s and continued for another 50 years. The neighborhood is home to authentic Italian bakeries, grocery stores, restaurants and trattorias, even the fire hydrants are painted red, white and green!  There is a wide selection of places to eat in this 50 block area along with coffee houses, a gelato shop, studios and Milo’s Bocce Garden. The neighborhood takes pride in the fact that Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck (Cardinals sportscaster) all grew up in this area. After a drive around we choose Zia’s On The Hill for lunch, we found parking up the street a little ways and wandered in. Named for the owners two aunts (Zia is Italian for Aunt) who were great cooks, Zia’s is a “Hill” staple. Housed in a former grocery store, upon entering you are in the bar area complete with tin ceilings and varnished wood.   Our waitress arrived with a bread basket and drinks, and helped us navigate the selections. The Zia’s salad is a must…crisp lettuce mixed with ham, artichoke hearts, green olives, Italian cheese and house dressing, it was excellent. We split the lunch sized entrée of Tortellini Piselli, they were kind enough to place it in two separate bowls. This stuff is out of this world….meat-filled tortellini in an egg cream sauce with peas and prosciutto ham. The waitress she highly recommended it, I can see why, this is some seriously good pasta. The only sad part was we couldn’t take our left-overs with us.

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We had been meaning to check out an area called Lafayette Square. Centered around the 30 acre Lafayette Park, this urban neighborhood is gorgeous! Amazing homes in the Victorian and Second Empire style grace the streets, the business district is made up of wine shops, nice restaurants, an arts center, brewery and several churches. Oh, there is one other place I should tell you about; Park Avenue Coffee which features St Louis’s own Gooey Butter Cake. Yes, we were full, but we had been hearing about Gooey Butter cake for days now, and here we were face to face with the real thing, there’s only one thing to do…. try it! Made by the Ann & Allen baking company of St Louis, they are up to 73 flavors of “gooey butter goodness”. I wanted to try the original, it was so good I actually started to giggle while eating my first piece; as you would expect it had a chewy crust and a delectable gooey center, the original is a yellow cake at it’s best, melt-in-your-mouth scrumptious, oh so yummy! Now we seriously needed to walk, we couldn’t have chosen a better place than the Lafayette Square historic district. St Louis prospered in the post Civil War years and Lafayette Square became one of the most fashionable neighborhoods. Unfortunately as early as the 20’s the area began to decline; homes were neglected and abandoned, many were destroyed.  At one point there were plans to bulldoze the neighborhood in favor of a highway; but as is often the case locals came together and saved the area from destruction. In 1972 Lafayette Square became the first historic district in St Louis, in 1973 it was placed on the National register of Historic Places. Today this neighborhood is thriving, homes are being restored, lofts are being renovated and condos are being built, Lafayette Square is now being recognized and appreciated for the superb treasure that it is.

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It was time to get back to the hotel, our New Year’s Eve plans consisted of relaxing at the hotel, eating dinner in, and having a drink at the bar to welcome in the new year. If that doesn’t sound very exciting to you, let me tell you where we were staying:  The Marriott at St Louis Union Station, and it’s  no ordinary hotel. Take a moment and click on the link to see the exterior of the building, go ahead, I’ll wait…….Amazing isn’t it?  While the grand Romanesque exterior is made of Bedford Indiana limestone and is quite impressive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  Enter the building, climb a few stairs and you are now in the Grand Hall, the 65 foot barrel-vaulted ceiling is magnificent with its gold-leaf detailing. The detail is incredible; Romanesque archways, fresco’s, mosaics and art glass windows. The most significant window can be found above the main entryway; hand cut Tiffany glass features 3 women representing the main US train stations during the 1890’s: New York, St Louis and San Francisco. Union Station was built for $6.5 million in the 1890’s, during the 1980’s the building underwent a $150 million dollar restoration. The place is seriously gorgeous!  This is probably the best experience I have ever had at a hotel; from the minute we arrived until we left, the service was exceptional. Everybody was kind and helpful, friendly and outgoing. The room was beautiful, clean, quiet, everything you hope for on a vacation.

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We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, Station Grille, New Year’s Eve. The food was outstanding, the service top-notch.  The dining room is elegant, all the wood is still original. The menu is well-rounded, one of our favorite items was the Charcuterie Plate; house made salami, pork loin, grainy mustard, pretzel bread, olives and pickled vegetables, excellent! I was also unaware that St Louis is known for its toasted ravioli, Station Grille’s is superb, love the sauce.  After dinner we set out to explore more of Union Station itself. Each evening we would walk around a bit and marvel at the grandeur of the place, tonight we headed out to the Midway and Train Shed areas and to visit the Memories Museum. Opened September 1, 1894 Union Station was owned by Terminal Railroad Associates of St Louis. The building housed a hotel, restaurant, passenger waiting rooms and railroad ticket offices. At the time of its opening it was the largest and busiest railroad station in the world, at its peak the station combined passenger services of 22 railroads. In 1903 the station had to expand to accommodate people arriving for The World’s Fair in 1904.  The Midway at 610 ft long and 70 ft wide once served more than 100,000 passengers a day, today the passageway is a mall with shops and restaurants. At 11.5 acres the train shed was once the largest roof span in the world.  The shed also houses retail shops, restaurants, a portion of the Marriott hotel, and a lake, it is truly a remarkable feat of engineering. The Memories Museum really puts things into perspective as to what train travel was like in the late 1800’s, it was no easy task. Trunks would be loaded onto wagons and taken by horse to the trains to be loaded. People did not have cars back then, so even getting to the station was a feat. The museum has great displays of dishes, period clothing and trunks, menu’s and train schedules… it’s all fascinating stuff. The museum is always open, located in the midway and shed area you can wander through at your leisure.

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Finally we migrated to the lounge in the Great Hall, there isn’t a prettier bar in St Louis. Todd, our bartender, whipped me up an awesome White Chocolate Russian, Kris a VO & Coke, as we watched all of the activity going on around us. People were dressed to the nines, they’d stop in for photos in front of the towering Christmas tree, or drinks on the way to their next stop, it seemed everybody was having a good time. While awaiting the arrival of 2012 we soaked in every bit of ambiance this place offered. Happy New Year !

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Give St Louis a try; a great Midwestern town with way more to offer than meets the eye ! Hmmmmm, sounds familiar, time to head back to Detroit ….

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