4700 miles, 97 restaurants and 400 meals later…

My Best of the Road journey has finally come to an end.  It was an unbelievable trip in so many ways. We traveled 4700 miles, went through 19 states, visited nearly 100 restaurants, tried over 400 meals, focused on six amazing towns, and consumed who knows how many calories. All in an effort to find the BEST FOOD in small town America.

The towns we visited were Charlottsville, VA, Lewiston, NY, Bloomington, IN, Bursville, MN, Santa Fe, NM and Walla Walla, WA. All worthy of the title “Best Food” in small town American…however it would it would be Santa Fe who would don the title of “2012 winner.”

We started the rally in Washington D.C., where we got prepped for the epic journey ahead.  We went through everything from the rules, media training to trip expectations. Before we knew it, we were filming the intro to the Travel Channel show that will air July 25th at 8pm EST.  The beginning of the show was filmed at the steps of the Air Force Memorial with the famous D.C. landmarks in the background. It was an amazingly awe-inspiring setting. At the end of  filming we were finally given our category, which as indicated, was “Best Food.” The other categories included “Most Beautiful,” “Most Patriotic,” “Most Fun, and “Friendliest.” As soon as we received our category information, the route and destination planning began.

Our first stop was Charlottseville, VA,  home to President Thomas Jefferson, and the founder of the University of Virgina. Thomas Jefferson is also credited for getting Americans to consume tomatoes…before he started eating them in public, folks thought the tasty fruit from the nightshade plant was poisonous.  Mr. Jefferson was a veracious traveler and met botany enthusiasts from around the world with whom he would trade seeds with…establishing a vibrate culinary scene that flourishes today.  Charlottesville has a wonderful concentration of restaurants in and around the downtown mall area, all fueled and supported by a strong farm-to-table movement.

After a few days of indulgence, we hit the road toward upstate New York with an overnight stop in Mars, PA.  The next day we arrived in Niagara Falls, NY, which was a bucket list location for me.  We stayed at the closest hotel to the falls, nearly a stone’s throw away. I had such a good time taking evening timelape photos of the Falls.  The next day we were invited to see Niagara by air in a helicopter.  Our flight took us over Niagara, Lake Ontario and Lewiston…our next feature town.

The quaint village of Lewiston sits just below Niagara and provides a lovely sanctuary away from the large crowds visiting the legendary Falls.  We weren’t sure what to expect from Lewiston, but it probably wasn’t much since it was the smallest of the six towns we’d visit.  We ended up being blown away—not only does Lewiston have a vibrant culinary scene, but the people are amazingly friendly.  Without question, Lewistion needs to be on the “Most Friendly” list of finalists in next year’s “Best of the Road.

We followed a police escort into town where hundreds of residence waited to greet us at the Silo Restaurant, which is located right on the shores of the Niagara River. As we exited our car, we were basically mobbed by kids and adults alike, all asking for our autographs. It was very surreal and humbling to be on stage like this. We did however have a lovely time…Lewiston left an indelible spot in our hearts.

We then made our way to Bloomington, IN, which is well-known for their college sports, but who knew that they had such a fantastic food scene.  Our first night in town we dined at “Scholars Inn” with community leaders…it was a terrific way to start our trip and was one of my favorite meals in Bloomington.

Our schedule had us off first thing in the morning.  After having breakfast at the Uptown Cafe, we walked outside to find a motley crew of a marching band waiting for us along with maybe fifty other folks.  As we stepped outside of the restaurant the band started playing and was indicating that we should follow them…so we did.  We marched through town, and as we did so, more people began following us.  We ended up at the “Taste of Bloomington,” which is kind of like the town square.  Unbeknownst to us, there were 100s of folks waiting to greet us, including the mayor and other dignitaries.  After the introductions, the mayor presented us with limestone “B’s,” their version of “keys to the city.”

We visited a number of outstanding restaurants over the next two days and even took a couple of side trips, one that really threw us for a loop—the Tibetan Mongolian Cultural Center.  You read that correctly…there is a Buddhist temple in the middle of Bloomington…one that the Dalai Lama himself has been to on several occasions.  It was a fascinating place…not only the temple itself, but we were also treated to an authentic Tibetan/Mongolian meal. At this stage of the trip, frustrations were running high, so this calming break to spin the meditation wheels was a much needed departure. If only we could have stayed a bit longer, I might have become…”enlightened.” 🙂

After leaving Bloomington, we stayed the next night in Madison, WI, where the weather was downright miserable.  It must have been 100 degrees with 80% humidity.  Thankfully we only stayed the night.

Our next destination was Burnsville, MN, a suburb of Minneapolis.  This was the second year in a row Burnsville was up for “Best Food.” The town was different from the other communities we visited, and didn’t really have that “small town” feel..  It also didn’t have a concentrated downtown area, so we were shuttled in comfort to/fro each place we visited.  We had quite the entourage with us, including the Mayor who was with us every step of the way. Our restaurants included Chianti Grill and Porter Creek Grill, both were fantastic.  To burn off a few calories, we went to a private home on Crystal Lake and had a blast water skiing and wake-boarding.  I could not get over how incredibly warm and comfortable the water was…this was Minnesooooota don’t ya kno. We finished our time in Burnsville around a large table at Porter Creek, where we feasted and said our goodbyes to new friends.

The next leg of our journey would be our longest to date, we needed to go from the near northern extreme of the country, all the way south to Santa Fe.  We had two days of driving with a stop in the small town of Pratt, Kansas.  Surprisingly Pratt has a lot of hotels, so we were able to get a room at the Comfort Suites, a Choice Hotels property and sponsor of Best of the Road. During the days of driving and evenings in between towns, Brian (The Travel Vlogger and Road Bros. teammate) and I would need to edit videos, write blog posts, communicate with upcoming towns, and go over schedules/details with Rand McNally and CBS Productions (the entity producing the Travel Channel show).  We would also have to film OTF’s (on the fly interviews) with our camerawoman Heidi.  It was a demanding schedule to say the least.

Once we arrived in Santa Fe, it felt a little bit like being home.  I’ve been to this historic town many times and think it’s one of the coolest places in the country.  I’ve also lived off/on most of my life in the southwest, and it doesn’t get anymore “southwestern” than Santa Fe. One thing that is really different about Santa Fe vs the other towns we visited, is the strong sense of identity… you see it everywhere, including their vibrant, colorful and amazing food.

We arrived into town on the 4th of July and were privileged to have a VIP section carved out for us at the highest point in Santa Fe, the 5th floor bell tower of La Fonda. Margaritas were flowing as we watched the distant sky light up with fireworks.

Our next day was packed full of restaurants to try, but this time it wasn’t just Brian and myself doing the eating.  We were joined by the “Best of the Road” RV crew who had been intersecting teams along the way as we all headed west toward Seattle.  One of the many highlights of the day included a judging contest of mixologists (aka bartenders).  Brian, Amanda (from the RV Crew) and I were the three judges who would rate four different cocktails by four different mixologists. The drinks were all very unique and creative and we had a blast sharing them with the bar full of adoring drinkers.

We stayed at a lot of wonderful properties along the way, but La Posada in Santa Fe was pretty special. Each room at the resort is unique with its own character—and the grounds beautifully landscaped, providing an almost zen-like feel. The location of the resort is also very convenient, within walking distance to just about anything in and near the historic town square.

As much as we hated to leave, we needed to get some serious miles behind us en route to our next destination of Walla Walla. Because we were always in need of making up as much time as possible, we were forced to take interstate routes pretty much the entire trip. We did however get a break from the mundane thoroughfare driving our first leg toward Walla Walla.  Our route from Santa Fe through Colorado and Utah was without a doubt the most scenic of our 4700 miles.  After more than twelve hours of driving, we stayed the night just north of Salt Lake City.

We woke early the next day and began our trek north to Walla Walla, a place I had been only once before, nearly a year to the date. I was impressed by Walla Walla last year, but after this visit, I was an outright fan. Last year the community took home the coveted prize of “Most Friendly” small town in American from Best of the Road…it was soon evident why they won.

As we entered town, we were ceremonially pulled over by a police officer who guided us to a wine tasting room where a gourmet food cart was waiting to feed, and welcome us to town.  After whetting our appetite, we headed to the Chocolate Shoppe, where a group of the local chef’s got together and prepared a huge welcome feast for us as well as many of the community stakeholders. Maybe it was all the wine that was flowing, but this was the first time on the trip that I felt like I could totally relax and just enjoy the experience.  We met some wonderful people, many of whom we’d see over the following few days.

The next day was one of our trademark restaurant crawls, where we sampled breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurants.  One of the many highlights included a trip out to a winery where again, several of the community chef’s got together to make an amazing meal that was served on a hill overlooking the vineyards and surrounding farmland. Walla Walla is well-known for their sweet onions, but over the past decade, their wine industry has flourished, so of course each meal we enjoyed was paired with the perfect local wines.

We had a good part of the next day to ourselves, but that “free time” was spent giving a T.V. interview, doing more OTF’s and VO’s (voice-overs) for the Travel Channel and walking around town collecting b-roll shots for our video.  Part of the Best of the Road contest requirements, in which we were vying for a $10,000 grand prize (which BTW we did not win), included the production of a video for each community we visited.  That evening we went to Olive Marketplace & Cafe where the local chef’s and community stakeholders gathered to give Brian and me a parting send-off.  It was a bit sad, we had really connected with many of the folks in this quaint community and the end of our epic month-long journey was fast approaching.

While all involved were getting antsy for the conclusion Best of the Road, Brian and I knew that we’d also be disappointed by the fact that we were no longer going to be treated like pseudo rock stars.  I have to admit, it was pretty fun and special to get VIP treatment from every single town we visited.

While the end of our journey was near, there was still quite a few loose ends to tie up.  The next day we headed to Seattle, our final leg that took us 4700 miles and originated on the other coast. We stayed at the swanky “W Hotel” right in the heart of downtown. There was a welcome reception and dinner where all the teams, as well as the folks from Rand McNally and USA Today gathered to embrace and swap stories.  It was great to be able to talk with the other teams to hear of their similar challenges and hurdles along the way. The organizers of Best of the Road have an idea of what the teams go through, and they are very sympathetic, but unless you’ve actually done the rally, it’s impossible to truly know how difficult it is.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the opportunity.  I wouldn’t trade it in for the world…we met amazingly wonderful people and had experiences that will be remembered for a lifetime—but truth be told…this was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, and I’m no slouch!

The following two days were non-stop.  Team Road Bros. went first to give our presentation to the judges who would make the decision as to who would win “Best of the Road.” We talked about all the wonderful experiences we had in each community, showed off our photos, videos and displayed items that we received, i.e. newspaper clippings, keys to the cities, etc. After all the teams presented their findings, the three teams that were part of the Travel Channel were provided with two finalist towns, one of whom would be crowned winner of the 2012 “Best of the Road.”

Our afternoon was spent in West Seattle with the downtown as a backdrop, filming some final segments for the Travel Channel. The next day we headed to the Seattle Convention Center where we finished filming.  The host, Bert Kreischer, a Travel Channel regular and host of “Trip Flip.” had us in stitches in-between takes. It was an amazing experience to be involved in the filming of a national program and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it’s all edited when it airs on July 25th, at 8pm EST.

After all our housekeeping items were finally finished, the Rand McNally crew had a surprise for us…they chartered a yacht that would take us from Lake Union, around Lake Washington.  Dinner and drinks were all supplied, making for a wonderful parting to our epic journey.

I will value, cherish and remember all the great people I met along the way, and all the wonderful experiences I had.  From the communities we visited, to all the folks behind the scenes at Rand McNally, USA Today, CBS Productions and the Travel Channel…Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hope our paths cross again soon.

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