Best of 2017 [part 2]: Our pics for best food, museums, views, and experiences

Best of 2017 [part 2]: Our pics for best food, museums, views, and experiences

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.

Chicken fried steak at The Pioneer Woman Mercantile

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).

Sunday brunch, College of the Ozarks, Branson, Missouri

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.

Chocolate chip cookies, Vala's Pumpkin Patch, Gretna, Nebraska

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.

Clam chowder in Oregon

Ann and Carol tried the clam chowder everywhere we went in Oregon.

Salad Brothers wild rice soup, mixed greens, and ranch pasta salad, Rochester, Minnesota

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.

Peppermill garlic bread, Valentine, Nebraska

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).

Apollo Mission Control Space Center Houston

The Apollo Mission Control room at Space Center Houston helped make history again and again.

Centennial Hall, electric hair curler, Valentine, Nebraska

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

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.

Columbia River Maritime Museum US Coast Guard lifeboat, Astoria Oregon

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.

SAC Museum hangar, Ashland, Nebraska.

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.

Woolaroc Museum mosaic, Woolaroc, Oklahoma

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.

Wake of the Carnival Valor

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).

Oregon Coast, Depoe Bay, Oregon

We stood and watched whales in the Pacific Ocean in Depoe Bay, Oregon.

View from Scott Lookout Tower, Nebraska National Forest

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.

Florida Keys from the air, near Key West, Florida

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.

Pioneer Woman's lodge view

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.

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.

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).

Whale watching, Depoe Bay, Oregon

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.

Indian Taco fry bread being cooked in oil at the National Indian Taco Championships in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Rain Dance Vineyards, feeding a llama, Newberg, Oregon

Meghan sips Pinot Noir while feeding a llama at Rain Dance vineyards near Newberg, Oregon.

Smith Falls, Valentine, Nebraska

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 mom, Carol, on a trip to Oregon to see the coast and watch the Nebraska Cornhusker football team play the Oregon Ducks.

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.

Meghan and Steve swam in this cenote (can you find them) on our family vacation in Mexico this summer.

Tubing on Table Rock Lake, Branson, Missouri

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.

Actually, it is rocket science! Our visit to Space Center Houston

Actually, it is rocket science! Our visit to Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston is just what the child inside you wants it to be. As you drive up to the entrance, your view is dominated by a 747 with a space shuttle on its back. I mean, what could be cooler than that?

Earlier this summer, we took a week-long road trip south to Texas. We had taken tours of the Pioneer Woman Mercantile and Lodge in Oklahoma, as well as Magnolia Market and Harp Design Company in Waco, so I was ready for a change of pace away from cooking and home decor. Sure, we’d had great meals at the Merc and at Vitek’s BBQ, but I was ready to feed my brain and not just my face.

Trying out flight seats at Space Center Houston

Steve and Meghan try out a couple mock-up flight seats at Space Center Houston.

We arrived at Space Center Houston late in the afternoon, the drive from Waco having taken a bit longer than we’d planned due to toll roads and traffic around Houston. We arrived about two hours before closing, meaning that we got to park right up front in a spot vacated by someone who’d been there earlier in the day and had left; after a long drive, things were looking up!

We went inside and learned that the last tram to tour Mission Control would be leaving soon, so we quickly climbed aboard. (Quick travel tip here: when selecting a seat on the tram learn from our mistake and sit as far away as you can from the man who wants to talk loudly about alligators in the Louisiana swamp. This will give you a better chance at hearing the narration.)

The tram trundled across the grounds, stopping occasionally for gates to swing open. We went by large buildings with rockets painted on their sides and finally arrived outside a cement 1960’s-style office building labeled “Apollo Mission Control Center.”

Apollo Mission Control at Space Center Houston

Steve standing outside the doors of the Apollo Mission Control Center.

We were ushered inside the building, up about 12,000 steps (there was an elevator available for those who needed it) and through a door. And there it was. Mission Control. It looked just like you remember from every film about the Apollo program you’ve ever seen. The room was in pristine condition, a window to the finest technology available in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when moon landings were taking place. Everything was there, just as it was when the mission controllers left the room 40 years ago, looking like they might return from a lunch break at any time. You could even see a red rotary phone sitting high atop a console–the famous phone with the direct link to the Pentagon used so often in movies where humans have to coordinate Earth’s defenses against hostile aliens.

Apollo Mission Control Center Space Center Houston

Steve poses in front of the Apollo Mission control room at Space Center Houston.

The red phone in the Apollo Mission Control Center

The “red phone” was a direct line to the Pentagon during the Apollo missions to the moon.

We were allowed into the VIP observation room for a quick orientation as to what we were seeing. We sat down in the same comfortable theater seating (complete with ashtrays) that was used by generals, high-ranking government officials, and family members of astronauts as they nervously watched moon landings unfold live.

An ashtray on a chair in the VIP observation room of Apollo Mission Control

An ashtray is attached to a chair in the VIP observation room behind the Apollo Mission Control Center at Space Center Houston.

From Mission Control, we hopped back on the tram and set off for our next stop, pausing for a moment at a memorial for astronauts who have died while serving at NASA. We continued on our way and got to a large building that held a Saturn V rocket, the rocket that took the Apollo missions into space and then on to the moon. As you can see, it’s a pretty big rocket. Placed on its side, it would be longer than a football field. Note how I’m dwarfed by each of the five first-stage engines.

Saturn V rocket engine at the Space Center Houston

The engines on the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo Missions were pretty big.

A Saturn V rocket at Space Center Houston

Steve and Meghan walk (and walk) alongside a Saturn V rocket –the rocket used for the Apollo missions.

From the Saturn V rocket building, we went back to the museum. Now, about 45 minutes before closing, we had to hurry to the exhibits we wanted to see. But, about 45 minutes from closing, there really were very few people left in the museum so we were able to move pretty quickly. We first went outside to that 747/space shuttle combination we saw when we parked. We rode the elevator up to the top and stepped aboard the mock-up of the space shuttle. Immediately I stuck my head inside the cockpit to take a look around. It’s amazing that people can learn what all those switches and buttons do.

Space Center Houston space shuttle cockpit

The cockpit of the space shuttle.

In addition to the cockpit, we saw a space suit as well as astronaut sleeping “quarters” aboard the space shuttle. The “quarters” consisted of a sleeping bag tied to the wall that would just float in the weightless environs of space.

A space suit at Space Center Houston

A space suit like those worn by astronauts aboard the space shuttle when they took space walks.

Astronaut sleeping "quarters" on the space shuttle

Sleeping “quarters” aboard the space shuttle consisted of a sleeping bag attached to a wall so the astronaut doesn’t float away.

Finally, we also saw the, um, facilities that astronauts used to answer the call of nature. I’ll just let you use your imagination on this one as to how everything works in the weightlessness of space where you don’t want certain things floating around.

Space shuttle restroom

The restroom facilities look a little different on board a space shuttle.

Back inside the museum, we stopped at a number of other exhibits, including one on the Mercury missions. We saw the Faith 7 Mercury Spacecraft that actually carried Gordon Cooper on his 1963 mission.

Faith 7 Mercury Space Craft

The actual Mercury space capsule flown by astronaut Gordon Cooper on May 15-16, 1963.

Next we wandered over and looked at the Apollo 17 Command Module that flew the final mission to the moon in December, 1972. This mission brought back samples of rock from the moon’s surface including one we were able to touch!

The Apollo 17 Command Module

The Apollo 17 Command Module flew Dec 7-19, 1972. This last Apollo mission successfully traveled to moon and back. This capsule is named “America.”

You can touch a rock from the moon at Space Center Houston

Steve and Meghan touched the moon at Space Center Houston. It’s one of the only places you can touch a rock from the moon.

By now, it was nearing time for the museum to close. We regretted that we hadn’t gotten there a little earlier, but were also glad we’d avoided so many of the crowds that would have been there during the height of the day. We resolved that we’ll just have to go back someday. The child inside me will remember that promise hold us to it.


Have you ever toured Space Center Houston? Tell us about it in the comments section below.