In Best of 2017 [part 1] we posted our picks for best attraction, show, new place, and people. Today, we’re back to share some of the best food, museums, views, and experiences from our year in travel.
Best food –
Chicken fried steak at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile (Pawhuska, Oklahoma)
Chicken fried steak is a dish we’ve never made for dinner at home but enjoy ordering when we’re out. It’s a splurge for sure and if you’re going to take in the calories, you want it to be worth every one of them. The first time we went to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, this summer, it was a given that we’d try Ree Drummond’s chicken fried steak and it did not disappoint. In fact, Steve has tried chicken fried steaks all over the country and says the one at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile is, by far, the best he’s ever had. It was a fork-tender, thinly sliced ribeye, breaded and fried to perfection, served with a side of delicious mashed potatoes, all smothered in creamy country gravy and five months later, he’s still talking about it.
Honorable mentions: Sunday brunch at College of the Ozarks (Branson, Missouri); mini chocolate chip cookies at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch; the fresh fish and clam chowder up and down the Oregon coast; soup and salad at Salad Bros. (Rochester, Minnesota); and the garlic bread and steaks at The Peppermill (Valentine, Nebraska).
The College of the Ozarks in Branson, Missouri, serves an amazing Sunday Brunch that is prepared and served entirely by students who are working to pay their tuition.
These mini chocolate chip cookies at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch near Omaha were the perfect blend of crunchy, chewy and sweet. Ann had to make Steve count to 30 between cookies so they would last longer.
Ann and Carol tried the clam chowder everywhere we went in Oregon.
Ann’s favorite lunch in Rochester, Minnesota comes from a restaurant called Salad Brothers. It’s a mixed green/ranch pasta salad, a cup of wild rice soup and one of their delicious parmesan bread sticks.
The garlic bread at the Peppermill comes au jus for dipping.
Best museum –
Art Institute of Chicago
We love museums and make a point to go to them when we travel. This year, we visited several museums we’d never seen near our home in Nebraska, including the Benne Museum (Crete), Lincoln County Historical Museum (North Platte), and Homestead National Monument (Beatrice). But the museum visit we enjoyed the most was the morning we spent at the Art Institute of Chicago.
One of the most impressive pieces of work at the museum is Marc Chagall’s American Windows. These stained glass windows have recently been restored and are as beautiful as they are impressive.
Marc Chagall’s American Windows was absolutely breathtaking to see in person.
We also loved seeing the Thorne Miniature Rooms. We couldn’t get over the detail packed into these tiny rooms! Parquet flooring, tiny newspapers left folded on the table and even fruit trees outside the windows of these rooms were just some of the amazing details that made these miniatures look just like an actual room.
Steve looks at one of the many Thorne Miniature Rooms. We couldn’t get over the detail packed into these tiny rooms!
Honorable mentions:Space Center Houston (Houston, Texas); Centennial Museum (Valentine, Nebraska); Columbia River Maritime Museum (Astoria, Oregon); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City); Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum (Ashland, Nebraska); Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve (Bartlesville, Oklahoma).
The Apollo Mission Control room at Space Center Houston helped make history again and again.
We had never seen a hair curling device quite like this one we found at Centennial Hall. A number of readers remember them, though.
We spent several hours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City on our summer vacation with Meghan and some other college students.
This US Coast Guard lifeboat is on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Nearly impossible to sink, boats like this patrol the often dangerous Columbia River Bar and provide emergency assistance to boaters in need.
One of the hangars at the SAC Museum near Ashland, Nebraska. The museum allows visitors to walk right up the airplanes on display and even take a peek inside some of them providing a look into the history of military aviation.
Located near Bartlesville, Oklahoma, the Woolaroc museum is loaded with art and artifacts from the collection of Frank Phillips. Mosaics like this one show the high level of artistry you’ll find there.
Best view –
Off the stern of the Carnival Valor in the Gulf of Mexico
There is nothing more calm and relaxing that watching the wake (and the world) go by from the stern of a cruise ship. Let’s just say, this is Steve’s “happy place.” We’ve taken six cruises so far and one of our favorite things to do on each one is simply sit back, relax, and watch the water. The views are spectacular and the weight of the world just seems to drift away with every wave.
Steve loved watching the wake of the Carnival Valor on our trip across the Gulf of Mexico.
Honorable mentions: The shoreline at DePoe Bay (Oregon); from the top of the lookout tower at Nebraska National Forest (Halsey, Nebraska); from the blind at Rowe Sanctuary during the annual Sandhill Crane Migration (Gibbon, Nebraska); from the air while flying into Key West (Florida); from the deck of the lodge at Drummond Ranch (Pawhuska, Oklahoma).
We stood and watched whales in the Pacific Ocean in Depoe Bay, Oregon.
The view from the top of the Scott Lookout Tower across the Sandhills at the Nebraska National Forest. You could see for miles.
We watched thousands of Sandhill Cranes gather at sunset on the Platte River near Gibbon, Nebraska.
Passengers on flights into Key West get to see views like this as they approach the airport; views that tell them they made a good choice in going there.
The view from the lodge across the Drummond Ranch near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is absolutely incredible.
Best experience –
Watching the total solar eclipse from our own back yard
Of the hundreds of new new things we did while traveling this year, none compares to experiencing our first total solar eclipse from our own yard. We spent the day with family, college students, old friends, and new people we met that day. We were all in awe as we watched the sun go behind the moon and for two minutes and thirty-six seconds, we experienced one of the rarest occurrences in the universe. It was absolutely spectacular.
Steve and his dad, John Teget, watch the total solar eclipse from our front yard in Crete, Nebraska.
Total solar eclipse photo by Ronald D. Koch of Crete, Nebraska.
Honorable mentions: Whale watching in the Pacific Northwest; judging the National Indian Taco Championships (Pawhuska, Oklahoma); tasting Pinot Noir while feeding llamas at the Rain Dance Winery (Newberg, Oregon); traveling with our parents (Nebraska, Key West, Oregon, Oklahoma, Kansas); swimming in a cenote in Mexico; and throwing our boys off a tube on Table Rock Lake (Branson, Missouri).
Visitors to Depoe Bay, Oregon, can stand along this wall and watch whales breaching in the water below.
Indian Taco fry bread being cooked in oil at the National Indian Taco Championships in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
Meghan sips Pinot Noir while feeding a llama at Rain Dance vineyards near Newberg, Oregon.
We had a wonderful trip around Nebraska with Steve’s mom and dad this summer. Here we are at Smith Falls near Valentine, Nebraska.
We had such a good time with Ann’s tiny mom, Carol, on a trip to Oregon to see the coast and watch the Nebraska Cornhusker football team play the Oregon Ducks.
Meghan and Steve swam in this cenote (can you find them) on our family vacation in Mexico this summer.
Michael, Josiah, and Davron loved tubing on Table Rock Lake near Branson. Steve loved driving the boat and making them fly off the tube.
What were some of your “bests” of 2017? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.
Yesterday we received a nice surprise in the mail from the Nebraska Tourism Commission Staff. As a thank-you for our help spreading the word about Nebraska’s tourism industry, they sent us two beautiful calendars and each page included … wait for it … a postcard!
Nebraska Tourism postcards were attached to each calendar page.
What a nice idea and a thoughtful gift. We enjoyed turning the pages and seeing gorgeous photographs that were chosen from more than 800 submissions from amateur and professional photographers. Each submission had to include a photo that captured the artistic view of the subject, and a brief narrative that described how the focus of the photos bridged the past with the present.
Nebraska Tourism calendar
Browsing through the calendar reminded us of all the interesting places we’ve been and written about in our home state of Nebraska.
[blockquote source=”Ann Teget”]Whenever we have guests for dinner or a special holiday celebration at our house, I simply go to the freezer, take out a pie from The Village Pie Maker, bake it for a little more than an hour, and voila — our guests savor bite after bite of the best fruit pie they’ve ever tasted and I can say (without lying) that I baked it myself.[/blockquote]
Village Pie Maker pies
We were invited for a brief, but wonderful, tour of The Village Pie Maker operation in Eustis, Nebraska, and our blog post about this Nebraska small business was shared more than 4,000 times. We heard from dozens of Nebraskans (and several out-of-staters) about how much they enjoyed the post and, of course, The Village Pie Maker pies.
Workers at the Village Pie Maker fit the crusts to the pans by hand.
As I’m sure you can tell, we love Nebraska and are so happy to share our experiences from our home state with all of you. And while many of our readers are from Nebraska, we also have followers from most U.S. states and 45 countries, so we hope all of you will come visit our great state someday!
Need some convincing?
Here are just a few of our favorite posts about Nebraska destinations and attractions.
With more than 500 million candid traveler reviews, TripAdvisor has quickly become a go-to online resource for many travelers, including us. We often roll into a new city with cell-phones in hand, searching for a top-10ish restaurant to stop for dinner. We typically look for local places with a 4 to 5 green-dot rating, at least 100 reviews, and something in the comments that grabs our attention like “amazing food,” “impeccable service,” or “best _______ this side of the Mississippi.”
In all of the TripAdvisor reviews we’ve read, nothing has grabbed our attention more than owner/manager Robert’s responses to reviewers of his Peppermill Restaurant & EKV Lounge in Valentine, Nebraska.
Take this one, for example, from Sharity C. who thought the place was “Just ok.”
Robert J., owner of Peppermill response:
So, this is how this went down. You roll into the Nebraska Sand Hills, a scenic barrage of land and cattle. It is evident that this confluence of clean water, productive grasslands and plentiful grains produces the worlds best beef. A small town family cafe presents itself and you order the fish.
This Sand Hills fish fry is incredibly popular but you’ve find it underwhelming. What better way to strike back on your ONE TIME “just ok” visit than to launch a mostly anonymous internet attack on this little ma and pop shop? Point. Click. Boom. Level 4 Contributor makes a splash!
Maybe the One Experience Wonder strikes again? Maybe all of the folks recklessly tossing superlatives around below are wrong? Your call Interneters. Is this scribe Anthony Bourdain or Carmelo Anthony?
PS We humbly suggest the Bull Market next time you’re in town. That place will grab ya by the soul.
Then, we read this one from the condiment conscious magic25ap from Regina, Canada, who gave a 3-dot review with the oh-so creative headline, “Standard.”
Steve was driving through the scenic Nebraska Sandhills when I read Robert’s response out loud and I kid you not, he nearly drove off the road:
1) We specialize in the American beef steak which is decidedly gluten free.
2) The gluten-free thing does get a little “frusting” because it has come to mean many different things to many different people with a total disregard to those will actual celiac disease.
3) Go to hell.
You can see where this was going. After scanning a few more of these, we completely abandoned our plan to research all the best restaurants in Valentine and settled into reading aloud the abruptly honest, tongue-in-cheek manager responses from Robert J. at Peppermill.
Almost all of the 200+ reviews of Peppermill were “Excellent” or “Very Good” so I was especially interested in the lone 1-green-dot review. It came from skeet034 who obviously knew nothing about the croutons next door. And, he can’t spell.
This response is one of our favorites:
Well, I should probably warn ya, I’ll be just fine. Yeah!
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
1) Two reviews lifetime and the other is a 5 star of our largest competitor. Seems legit.
2) Dollar General is next door and I hear their croutons are a calamity.
3) Come back and get your hundred dollars. This small town, family-owned business absolutely doesn’t need it. Take it down to your local Applebee’s and be miserable there.
Because I’m ‘gappy’,
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.
Because I’m ‘gappy’,
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.
Ring me up anytime. Maybe the sound of your voice will get Pharrell out of my head.
Tears were rolling down my face after reading this out loud, as we arrived in Valentine and Steve found his way to the now-intriguing Peppermill on East Highway 20. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to venture inside and take a chance on getting a poorly-cooked steak and a sans-crouton salad or sit in the parking lot and read more reviews.
We decided to go inside and had a fantastic Nebraska beef dinner, which made it even more hilarious when we read this review from an apparent southerner named Mary R.
Ah, she asked for gravy on the side and misspelled “cheery” tomatoes. I thought to myself, ‘Robert is going to destroy this one-review wonder.’ I couldn’t wait to read his response.
Sounds like your interpersonal skills and the server’s execution were a match made in heaven…
1) RE Sweet Tea: You are north of Kansas
2) Mashed potatoes are really just baked potatoes with a different upbringing.
3) The gravy thing was really dumb on our part. We thought the contents of your plate were headed to the same spot and so the gravy often hitches a ride with the steak.
4) At least the tomatoes were “cheery!”
Try the Bull Market next time you are in town. Their tomatoes are melancholy but the servers are trained to give grumpy gravy guy a beer and there are really no losers in that situation.
Like I mentioned, most of the ratings and reviews were excellent, so I had to search for negative reviews to find similar responses to these, but it was worth it. Despite a complaint here or there, the Peppermill Restaurant and EKV Lounge is still the #1-rated restaurant in Valentine on TripAdvisor, and when I talked to Robert this week, he told me how these witty responses all began.
You see, his father and grandfather had both owned successful restaurants in Valentine for decades before he opened Peppermill in December of 2009. Back then, online customer reviews were just beginning to show up on the Interwebs and when someone had a less-than-satisfactory experience at his place and wrote publicly about it, Robert took it personally.
Robert Joseph (in the middle) with his father and grandfather on opening night at Peppermill, Dec. 17, 2009. Photo courtesy of Peppermill Restaurant and EKV Lounge.
He said he tried sending private messages to complainers, joking around a bit and asking them to give his restaurant a second chance. He said people either didn’t receive his offer well or didn’t respond at all.
Finally, he made a decision to just have fun with it and it eventually became a good marketing tactic to get people in the door. A graduate of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln where he was a business marketing major, Robert decided if nothing else, the positive reaction from his staff (who appreciated his sticking up for them) was a good enough reason to continue his hilarious manager responses.
“Eventually, the negative reviews went from something that would ruin my day to me saying, ‘I can’t wait for the next bad one so I can respond,'” he said. All jokes aside, Robert runs a successful small business and works very hard to provide great food and service at a reasonable price in rural Nebraska.
Photo courtesy of Peppermill Restaurant & EKV Lounge
While we would have thoroughly enjoyed reading another owner response to a less-than-satisfactory critique, we couldn’t write one because had a delicious meal and exceptional service when we visited the Peppermill on our vacation across Nebraska this summer. Here’s what we wrote on TripAdvisor in our 5-green-dot review.
And here is Robert’s response.
Fear not. I’m willing to crush your haphazardly constructed, superlative heavy, heaping pile of keyboard strokes.
Most folks have the common courtesy to AT LEAST misspell “bagguette” (ain’t nuthin’ but a g than baaayby) or take a lightly veiled backhand at our village of carnivores. What kind of Advisor of Trip has the audacity to roll in unannounced and feed travelers all of this useful information?
Take our cheery tomatoes back to Iowa or your island of Crete and tell nobody of this wholesome dining experience. The internet is for anger, not information!
Best of luck out there heathens!
He called us heathens. Yes!
We hope people see the satire in our review and in Robert’s response. We love this place and sincerely wish everyone at Peppermill all our very best. We’ve noticed through our own travels that small-town mom and pop cafes are dying out, along with local newspapers, grocery stores with carryout service, and speciality clothing shops. That’s sad to us, and to Robert, as he so eloquently wrote back to Lenny R. of Omaha who said the restaurant had “lost its charm.”
Robert J, Owner at Peppermill Restaurant & Lounge, responded to this reviewResponded July 26, 2016
I can’t say I disagree. When my grandfather built the Peppermill in the once-condemned Fort Niobrara Hotel there were up to a dozen diners in our town and each had a unique charm to the building, staff and atmosphere. 30 years later there is us, a busy cafe at the truck stop and a couple of bar and grill concepts. In fact, the old Peppermill is now the 40 seat Bull Market that barely resembles the 2000 plates per weekend behemoth it used to be.
With the presence of the Amazon app, giant department stores a day’s drive away, Runza, Subway and the disastrous human resources situation brought about by government the small town diner is quickly becoming a thing of the past. We’ve had to move to a more open, efficient layout to accommodate an increasingly diverse clientele. The tucked away booth and candlelit corner have given way to wide open spaces where tables can be moved quickly for that group of 27 river enthusiasts.
We hope that someday folks will put down the smartphone, get out of the drive thru, shop locally and keep the small town cafe alive. However, it has become apparent that guests are more inclined to hit a few keys on the laptop to leave a mostly anonymous review on the grumpy traveler’s website than they are to seek out the omnipresent owner of these last few American diners. That personal interaction is what built these family-owned businesses and as it fades away, so goes the charm.
PS The Philly is made of prime rib and don’t let a local rancher hear you talk about how prime rib has too much fat!
Once again, Robert, well said. Especially that part about the prime rib having too much fat.
Peppermill Restaurant and EKV Lounge is located at 520 East Highway 50 in Valentine, Nebraska. For reservations, call 402.376.2800, and be sure to ask (nicely) for Robert. And don’t forget to order the garlic bread. You’re welcome.
There is nothing quite like getting off the interstate to help you get to know a place better, and nowhere is that more true than Nebraska. Our state has a reputation for being flat and boring because the interstate used by hundreds of thousands of people each year follows the Platte River valley. Head north off the interstate in western Nebraska, and you’ll find yourself in a geographical area unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere. Vast sand dunes left by an inland sea that disappeared millions of years ago stretch as far as the eye can see, blanketed by grass, speckled with colorful prairie flowers and other unique drought-resistant plants.
Some of the unique flora in the Nebraska Sandhills.
You can go miles and not come across anyone else on the highway, leaving you with a sense of freedom and possibility. It’s exhilarating.
Steve walks along a trail in the Nebraska Sandhills
When we planned our trip around Nebraska with my parents this summer, my dad was very specific that he really wanted to see the Sandhills. Like millions of others, he’d done the I-80 route but had heard all of his life about the beauty of western Nebraska and he wanted to see it for himself. It was easy to work this into our trip, as the Sandhills cover just over a quarter of the state.
The Dismal River winds through the scenic Nebraska Sandhills.
We headed north out of North Platte, and after just a few miles the highway began to meander up and down, gently winding across the face of hills. We took our time, stopping along the way to snap photos, and enjoy our trip.
Steve’s mom and dad take a minute to enjoy the view across the Dismal River valley in the Sandhills.
Smack dab in the middle of the sandhills, the vast prairie of Nebraska is interrupted by a forest. It turns out this national forest isn’t native to Nebraska, at all, but was planted as an experiment in the early 1900’s by a University of Nebraska botanist who thought the sandhills were ideal for trees. The 22,000 acre, hand-planted forest is dwindling, not sustaining itself as expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit today. In the forest, you’ll find the Scott Lookout Tower, used by rangers to watch for forest fires. It’s a tower, so of course I had to climb to the top. Ann has a lot of joint pain, but was also determined to get to the top and just took her time getting there, as the view promised to be spectacular.
The stairs of Scott Lookout Tower are in good repair and are solidly built.
As someone with a fear of heights, I climbed each open-backed, wooden step in sheer terror, knowing that somehow I would fall to my death.
You may not be able to tell, but I have a death grip on that railing.
I overcame my phobia by telling myself that the steps were well-constructed, there were railings, and my fear was irrational–all of which was true.
An amazing view across the forest and Sandhills awaits anyone who climbs the Scott Lookout Tower.
In the end, I arrived at the top of the tower and was so glad I’d made the trip up. The view over the forest and then the Sandhills was simply breathtaking. I even gathered enough courage to stay up there for a couple of minutes and we shot this video from the top of Scott Lookout Tower.
On returning to the ground (safely!) we made a quick pit stop at the visitors’ center–always take advantage of indoor plumbing when you can in western Nebraska — before setting off toward Valentine, enjoying more vistas of the Sandhills along the way. We loved that the only signs that humans occasionally pass this way were barbed-wire fences, cows and windmills pumping water for them.
A small town, Valentine offers big adventure to visitors.
We pulled into Valentine, and checked into our rooms at the Raine Motel. The Raine is one of our favorite motels because the rooms are exceptionally clean, you can park your car right outside your door, and owners Tim and Dana are such friendly people.
After settling in, we headed over to the Peppermill, a non-vegan friendly restaurant that locals love, where we had amazing garlic bread (that by itself makes me want to go back to Valentine) and a wonderful steak for dinner while we discussed all of the different things we might want to do the next day.
The garlic bread at the Peppermill comes au jus for dipping.
We returned to our hotel, tired from a day’s travel but also with the complete sense of satisfaction. Sure, we’d had a great meal, but more importantly, we’d had a great day sharing the experience of getting off the beaten path, exploring the Sandhills and making memories with family that we’ll treasure forever.
Have you ever driven across the Nebraska Sandhills? Tell us about it in the comment section below.
We’re Steve and Ann Teget. We spent more than two decades in corporate America and public education before Ann’s health and Steve’s aversion to middle school girl drama convinced us to try something new. Now we are making the most of midlife and telling authentic stories about extraordinary travel. And yes, we send ourselves postcards.