Best of 2017 [part 1]: Our picks for best attraction, show, new place, and people

Best of 2017 [part 1]: Our picks for best attraction, show, new place, and people

It is -6 degrees today where we live in Crete, Nebraska. Church was cancelled. We’re still in our jammies. And we’re not going outside.

Instead, we’re pouring a second cup of coffee, cranking the heat up, and reminiscing about some of our favorite travel experiences from 2017. So, snuggle up in a blanket, grab a warm drink, and take a trip back through 2017 with us as we unveil our Best of 2017 attractions, shows and concerts, new places, and people.

Best attraction – 

Garfield Park Conservatory (Chicago, Illinois)

We’ve been to Chicago many times, but February of 2017 was the first time we’d ever taken the train over to Garfield Park to see the conservatory there. It had been recommended to us by another travel blogger and we’re so glad we took her advice. Admission was free (although they appreciate donations) and we took our time to stroll the many paths inside, enjoying this hidden botanical treasure in the heart of urban Chicago. Inside its glass walls and curving roof, we found everything from tiny cacti to large palm trees.

We wrote more about the conservatory in our blog post about Our Weekend Getaway to Chicago.

Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois

Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois

Honorable mentions: The Pyramid at Chichen Itza (Mexico); Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha, Nebraska); Magnolia Market (Waco, Texas); Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari (Ashland, Nebraska).

Neither one of us had ever seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World until we visited the pyramid at Chichen Itza in 2017.

Neither one of us had ever seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World until we visited the pyramid at Chichen Itza in 2017.

The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, is consistently ranked one of the best zoos in the world and we agree. This jelly fish exhibit is one of our favorites.

The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska, is consistently ranked one of the best zoos in the world and we agree. This jelly fish exhibit is one of our favorites.

We loved our shopping trip (with our daughter, Meghan) to Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, this summer.

We loved our shopping trip (with our daughter, Meghan) to Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, this summer.

American white pelicans at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

American white pelicans at the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari.

Best show or concert –

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood (Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska)

We had seen Garth Brooks once before in Las Vegas (and we met him after the show and you read more about that HERE), so we knew he gave quite the concert. And he did. We were fortunate to see one of the six shows he did in Lincoln, Nebraska, at the Pinnacle Bank Arena this fall. He played all of our favorites like The River, Papa Loved Mama, The Dance, and Friends in Low Places. Garth Brooks is simply one of the very best entertainers in the world and we were so excited to see him and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, live in concert just a few miles from our hometown.

We'd seen him perform once before in Las Vegas and Garth Brooks put on another incredible show at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, this year.

We’d seen him perform once before in Las Vegas and Garth Brooks put on another incredible show at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, this year.

Honorable mentions: Willie Nelson (Pinewood Bowl in Lincoln, Nebraska); Moses (Sight & Sound Theater in Branson, Missouri); Kristen Chenoweth (Lied Center for Performing Arts in  Lincoln, Nebraska); Bruno Mars (Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska).

This outdoor amphitheater called the Pinewood Bowl is a Lincoln, Nebraska, treasure. We saw Willie Nelson perform there this summer and were amazed by his guitar playing.

This outdoor amphitheater called the Pinewood Bowl is a Lincoln, Nebraska, treasure. We saw Willie Nelson perform there this summer and were amazed by his guitar playing.

Moses statue, Sights and Sounds Theater, Branson, Missouri

This statue of Moses could be found in the lobby of the Sight and Sound Theater in Branson, Missouri.

An intimate evening with Kristin Chenoweth

An intimate evening with Kristin Chenoweth was an incredible concert. We love going to concerts at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Bruno Mars, Lincoln, Nebraska

Ann and her sister, Laura, loved the Bruno Mars concert in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he played all of their favorite songs.

Best new place –

The Pacific Northwest

At the end of the summer, we decided to take our first trip ever to the Pacific Northwest to see the coast, sip Pinot Noir, and watch our beloved Nebraska Cornhusker football team take on the Oregon Ducks in Eugene. My mom, Carol, went with us and after finishing up classes, our daughter, Meghan, flew out for the game, as well. Sadly, parts of the state were engulfed in flames from a fire that ravaged the area, but we were able to drive to the coast and experience the incredible beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Flower in Astoria, Oregon

We found this beautiful flower in Astoria, Oregon

We started in Astoria (where the movie Goonies was filmed) and worked our way down the coast with stops at Cannon Beach, Newport, Tillamook, and Carlton. We also enjoyed time in Portland and had a blast at the football game in Eugene.

We loved exploring the Pacific Northwest and despite a Husker loss, had a great time at the at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.

We loved exploring the Pacific Northwest and despite a Husker loss, had a great time at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon.

Honorable mentions: Our first Carnival Cruise; Waco, Texas; New Ulm, Minnesota; Pawhuska, Oklahoma; Mexico; and Vala’s Pumpkin Patch in Gretna, Nebraska.

Towel Animal on the Lido Deck of the Carnival Valor

This towel animal could be found at the towel station on the Lido (pool) Deck of the Carnival Valor.

Harp Design Co. candlesticks, Waco, Texas

There are many handcrafted wood items at the Harp Design Company in Waco, Texas. Some candlesticks like these came home to Crete with us.

New Ulm, Minnesota

New Ulm, Minnesota is full of German heritage, food, beer and very friendly people.

Pioneer Woman Mercantile, Pawhuska, Oklahoma

The Pioneer Woman Mercantile on the corner of Kihekah and Main in Pawhuska.

It was pretty overcast when we were in Mexico but colorful murals like this one brightened our day.

It was pretty overcast when we were in Mexico but colorful murals like this one brightened our day.

This was the first year we'd gone to Vala's Pumpkin Patch just of Interstate 80 near Gretna, Nebraska. If we'd only known what we'd been missing! This place was amazing and we can't wait to go back next fall.

This was the first year we’d gone to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch just off Interstate 80 near Gretna, Nebraska. If we’d only known what we’d been missing! This place was amazing and we can’t wait to go back next fall.

Best People –

Everyone in Pawhuska, Oklahoma

One of the things we love most about traveling is meeting new people. And, what can we say, we were overwhelmed with the genuine hospitality we received from everyone we met in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, on each of our four visits there this year. From the welcoming staff at the Chamber of Commerce and the young lady who keeps people in line at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile to the cooks and volunteers at the National Indian Taco Championship and ladies who own Handy’s convenience store there, everyone was just so sweet.

We've traveled all around the country and the world and can't think of a place we've ever been that made us feel more welcomed. The people of Pawhuska, Oklahoma are some of the most caring, genuine, loving people we've come across in all our travels.

We’ve traveled all around the country and the world and can’t think of a place we’ve ever been that made us feel more welcomed. The people of Pawhuska, Oklahoma are some of the most caring, genuine, loving people we’ve come across in all our travels.

Honorable mentions: Lois and Cornell at the Doubletree Hotel in Rochester, Minnesota; Tim and Dana Colvin at the Raine Motel in Valentine, Nebraska; employees of The Village Pie Maker in Eustis, Nebraska; Lucas Fowler and everyone at Waco Tours; Sara Broers and Lisa Trudell (and husband Tim) from Midwest Travel Bloggers.

Lois at the Doubletree in Rochester, Minnesota

For about 20 years, Lois has made guests of the Doubletree Hotel in Rochester, Minnesota feel both special and welcomed. Always ready with a smile and warm greeting, she makes breakfast a special time of day.

Cornell at the Doubletree Hotel, Rochester, Minnesota

Cornell at the Doubletree Hotel in Rochester, Minnesota, goes above and beyond to make guests feel extra special. Always ready with a warm greeting, he also leaves us extra chocolates on our bedside tables at night.

Fruit filling in a pie, Village Pie Maker, Eustis, Nebraska

The folks at the Village Pie Maker in Eustis, Nebraska, include a little love in each pie they make.

Lucas Fowler, Waco Tours, Waco, Texas

Lucas Fowler is a great guide for Waco Tours, giving guests insight and understanding of his city. Plus, he has a great singing voice!

Lisa Trudell (and her husband, Tim of The Walking Tourists) and Sara Broers of Travel with Sara have become good friends. We were thrilled that they traveled to our home in Crete, Nebraska, to watch the total solar eclipse with us.

Lisa Trudell (and her husband, Tim of The Walking Tourists) and Sara Broers of Travel with Sara have become good friends. We were thrilled that they traveled to our home in Crete, Nebraska, to watch the total solar eclipse with us.


Coming soon: Part 2 and our best restaurants, museums, views, and experiences of 2017. What were some of your “bests” from 2017? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you. 

My attempt at conquering a Vitek’s Gut Pak

My attempt at conquering a Vitek’s Gut Pak

When David Ridley of Waco Tours recommended the Gut Pak at Vitek’s BBQ, I knew that was where I wanted to go for lunch. Sure, he had a couple other suggestions, but the name piqued my curiosity and after spending two days at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile and Magnolia Market, I was ready go someplace with more testosterone than estrogen.

Vitek's BBQ in Waco, Texas

Vitek’s Market and Smokehouse is a local favorite in Waco, Texas.

Ann and Meghan agreed that since we were in Texas it would be a crime to not try barbecue so we headed over there for lunch. Vitek’s is what you’d expect a Texas BBQ joint to be: large with a strong smell of wood smoke. And, lots of bread.

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

Loaves and loaves of white and wheat bread lined the shelves at Vitek’s in Waco, Texas.

It has a complete menu listed at the counter, but my sights (and stomach) were set on the Gut Pak.

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

There were lots of appetizing options on the menu at Vitek’s, but I was intrigued by the Gut Pak.

I feel called to try anything with a name like Gut Pak. It’s a pretty simple dish made with a few of my favorite things: Fritos corn chips, cheese, chopped beef, beans, sausage, pickles, onions, jalapeno peppers, and BBQ sauce all served with a handful of sliced white bread. Of course I got the full order, not the half.

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

Everything was served in styrofoam boxes and labeled with your individual selections.

I also ordered an iced tea and was reminded that we weren’t in the Midwest anymore when the coolers were labeled “sweet tea” and “unsweet tea.”

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

The way they serve tea in the south — sweet or unsweet.

When our order was ready, I hefted my full Gut Pak order from the counter and lugged it over to a table. I opened the lid and peered inside at an impossibly huge pile of deliciousness — a chewy, crunchy BBQ flavored explosion.

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

The full Gut Pak served with a handful of white bread.

Ann ordered the pulled pork tacos (probably a more reasonable choice for lunch) and watched me try to conquer the Gut Pak long after she’d finished.

Viteks BBQ in Waco, Texas

Ann ordered the pulled pork tacos which came which were garnished with both cilantro and pickles.

I’d like to be able to report that I finished it off, but the truth is that it turned me into a quitter. In fact, I’m not sure I could have finished the half order. It was, however, a delicious experience, and I’ll remember it the next time we’re passing through Waco. Hopefully by then I’ll be hungry again.


Have you ever ordered something so large you knew it would be impossible to finish? Tell us about it in the comments section below. 

Explaining shiplap and shams to my husband at Magnolia Market

Explaining shiplap and shams to my husband at Magnolia Market

I’m still not quite sure how I convinced Steve to visit The Pioneer Woman Mercantile and lodge as well as Magnolia Market within 24 hours, but I did. After spending two days in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, where he waited in line almost two hours for a taste of Ree Drummond’s chicken fried steak while I shopped for kitchen accessories, Steve drove our daughter, Meghan, and me to Waco, Texas.

Steve: I’d just left my job as a school principal refereeing middle-school girl drama the day before only to find myself surrounded by middle-aged women going crazy for whisks and sprigs. Seriously, what was I thinking? I mean, the chicken fried steak was good, but how much can one man take?

I had wanted to visit Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market for some time after watching their now Emmy-nominated home renovation and decorating show, Fixer Upper, on HGTV. 

Magnolia Market #milestomagnolia

Meghan, Ann and Steve in front of the silos at Magnolia Market.

 

I had dreamed of walking into their meticulously organized home decor shop with stacks of wooden candlesticks, vases of flowers, and white washed shiplap walls.

What the heck is shiplap? Is that a word?

When we arrived in Waco, we made our way toward the now famous silos and began to look for a place to park. We found a great spot just a block or two away at the First Baptist Church parking lot. They charged what I thought was a very reasonable $10 for the day.

Magnolia Market Baptist Church parking

First Baptist Church offered $10 parking in the church lot near Magnolia Market.

Ten dollars? It’s not like it’s a Nebraska football game or anything!

Our first stop on the hallowed ground was at the newly renovated Silos Baking Co. building. It was absolutely adorable from the outside and I was so excited to get in line and wait our turn for a glimpse at the interior. I bribed Steve to join me in line with a promise of a cupcake at the end.

Not another line! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I mean, I like a cupcake, but let’s be honest, it’s not a chicken fried steak.

Despite his reluctance, he agreed to wait in line with me (again) and eventually, we made our way into the sweetest little cupcake shop I’ve ever seen. 

Loved this letter board sign on the wall at Silos Baking Co.

It was just like I remembered on TV — glossy white subway tile, black industrial shelving, and perfectly laid herringbone flooring. It was beautiful.

What did she think I was going to do? I’d already paid the Baptists $10 to park. I was getting a cupcake. And the Prize Pig bacon and cheddar biscuit.

The Silos Baking Co.

Eventually, we did get inside and each of us ordered a cupcake. I selected a Strawberries & Cream cupcake piled high with rich, pink, vanilla buttercream icing. Meg had the Lemon Lavender cupcake while Steve ordered the Silobration cupcake which was a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. The Shiplap cupcake and garnish looked amazing, as well. 

The menu at Silos Baking Co.

Magnolia Market silos baking shiplap cupcakes

The shiplap cupcake is vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream icing.

Okay. There is a shiplap flavored cupcake? Now I’m completely confused.

Of course, before we left the bakery, I had to check out the bathroom and see how it compared to the one at the Mercantile back in Pawhuska. It was just as well designed and included gorgeous black and white wallpaper, more white subway tile, and nicely framed inspirational quotes–all the things I love to see in a well decorated bath.

No Charmin toilet paper here, but I was glad to see they had Febreeze on the back of the toilet, if you know what I mean.

Magnolia Market Silos Baking bathroom

The bathroom in the Silos Baking Company.

 

After finishing our cupcakes on the outside patio, we began our ascent to The. Magnolia. Market. I was like a kid on Christmas morning, anxiously anticipating the wondrous gifts that awaited me inside.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … 

The front view of Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.

I had imagined the rich colors and textures of the rugs and blankets as well as the decorative lanterns and wall hangings that would surely adorn the shelves inside. I had my budget and my list and I couldn’t wait to go inside. But two steps into the front door, I found something unexpected.

I totally expected it.

Sadly, ivory colored candles and Clint Harp designed spindles did not immediately come into view. All I saw were women. Lots of women. And they were all frantically looking around, holding up various items and asking each other which would look better on their farmhouse table — the white sugar mold tray or the metal trough with wooden handles? They had armfuls of floral stems and seagrass baskets and Joanna’s leather totes draped over their shoulders.  

And I was thinking, “What fresh hell have I gotten myself into?”

As much as I love home decor, and believe me, I love home decor, it was a lot even for me. However, I was determined to find a few of the items I’d seen on Fixer Upper and spend at least some of the Magnolia Market gift card Steve had gotten me for my birthday the month before.

Magnolia Market store interior

Shoppers seeking that perfect home decor item at Magnolia Market.

Magnolia Market candlesticks

Wooden spindle candlesticks at Magnolia Market.

Staying together was obviously a lost cause, so Steve, Meghan, and I decided to separate and meet back near the front door in 20 minutes. Steve began a search for what he calls a “man chair” where he could sit and wait. Finding none, he ventured over to Chip’s Corner while I began to look around. I admired the handcrafted wooden serving trays, Jimmy Don’s metal signs, and the simplistic colors of all of the throw pillows Joanna had seemingly designed.

Tell me the difference again between a throw pillow and a sham.

It really was a beautiful store. Everything was there … the vintage seltzer crates, dozens of metal baskets, row after row of decorative flowers and all kinds of vintage metal letters that have become a signature design element for Joanna Gaines. I was in home decor heaven. Look at these pictures. Would you look at them?

Magnolia Market decorative sprigs

Some of the many floral stems at Magnolia Market.

Magnolia Market decorative signs

 

Magnolia Market decorative letters

Decorative lettering at Magnolia Market.

Magnolia Market paint colors

Paint colors are displayed on paintbrushes at Magnolia Market.

I made my way through the crowds of people women and found the items I was hoping to see — the signature Magnolia wreath, wooden pillar candle sticks, and the Aspen leaf stems I’d been unable to find back home.

I found a slingshot!

Steve had a great time playing around in Chip’s Corner

Chip’s Corner at Magnolia Market.

Even though it seemed to be moving quickly, I took one look at the long line at the checkout counter and decided that it might be best to come back later in the day to make our purchases.

Praise the Lord! I didn’t have to stand in another line!

We left the main store and ventured out back to a plaza-like family play area. People were lounging around at picnic tables, playing yard games with their kids, and enjoying the swings under the sunny Texas sky.

And, we were surrounded by food trucks! Things were looking up!

Magnolia Market silos

The iconic silos at Magnolia Market.

We grabbed an iced coffee from the Common Grounds food truck and found a shady spot to people watch for a bit. It was nice to see so many local restaurants have a chance to get in on a piece of the action by bringing their food trucks right onto the site. Club Sandwich, Milos, Co-Town Crepes, and Chuck’s Gourmet Popcorn all had spots near the lawn and visitors were able to enjoy a bite to eat and just chill out. 

Magnolia Market plaza

The plaza area behind the store where families and people could hang out.

After our refreshing beverage, we made our way over to the Magnolia Seed Supply shop where we walked through luscious garden beds filled with flowers, vegetables and herbs and even a fairy garden or two.

Umm …  I’m not even going to ask.

Magnolia Market fairy garden

A fairy garden.

Magnolia Market seed garden

Magnolia Seed and Supply has beautiful gardens with flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Magnolia Market herbs

One of the herb gardens at Magnolia Market

I loved smelling all of the fresh herbs and admiring the succulents which were displayed in such beautiful ways.

Magnolia Market air plants

There are lots of air plants available for sale at Magnolia Seed & Supply.

We purchased a few seed packets and a gift for my sister who has a newly-found love of gardening and then made our way back outside and down the street to the church parking lot.

Magnolia Market seeds

Loved these cute seed packets and plan to plant them in our garden boxes back home.

We spent the afternoon on a fantastic tour of the town with Waco Tours (more about that coming soon) and returned to Magnolia Market an hour or so before closing to make our purchases. I’m so glad we did.

Magnolia Market late in the day

The crowds are far smaller late in the day at Magnolia Market.

By that time, the crowds had dwindled and I was able to walk around the store with ease, oohing and ahhing over floral stems and glass jars, and visiting with several of the sweet employees who now had even more time to make us feel at home.

Magnolia Market helpful employee

One of the friendly, helpful employees at Magnolia Market.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much nicer it was near closing time. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere. And we were able to park on the street for free!

I found just the things I had come there to buy and right as I was about to check out, noticed a standing metal photo and card holder on the sale table! It was perfect for displaying our postcards so I added it to my pile.

Loved this metal card and photo holder we found on the sale table.

I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen a stand like that used by street vendors to display individual size packs of potato chips. Just sayin’.

We left the store just before closing time and took a few minutes to admire the outdoor spaces with far fewer people around. It was nice. We snapped some photos near the Silos and took it all in. 

Mother and daughter.

Our beautiful daughter, Meghan.

I’d had a great day in Waco. I couldn’t help but think about Chip and Joanna Gaines and how their love of family, community, and each other had inspired them build this amazing place that had become a bucket-list destination so many. It reminded me of the love I have for my own family and their continued willingness to do special things for me, like taking me on a pilgrimage across four states to look at home decor.

In the Gaines’ book, The Magnolia Story, they wrote that “there may be nothing greater than a life well loved.” I couldn’t agree more. And even though Steve can be quite a smarty pants at times, I always know how much I am loved.

Can’t argue with that. 


Have you been to Magnolia Market in Waco? What did you think? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

As always, thanks for sharing (and pinning)!

She said, he said at Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas.