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Relax and Enjoy the Free Things To Do in Madison

Relax and Enjoy the Free Things To Do in Madison

View of Downtown Madison from Lake Monona

Whether you are enjoying a visit with us at the Speckled Hen Inn  and are here for a short while or live in Madison with unlimited time to seek out new adventures, the free and simple riches Madison holds can easily be forgotten. I fell in love with this great city and its people was by observing and absorbing the great sense of community that Madison is, all while relaxing in its midst.  So here are some suggestions that will encourage you to relax and enjoy the free things to do in Madison, WI.

 

On any sunny day the activities around the Capital Square make for great people watching. There have been many days that I’ve taken a blanket and and laid for hours on the capital lawn people watching or reading a treasured book. When the people watching gets slow and you need to be energized, I urge you to take a tour of the Capital Building itself. The ornate granite and marble architecture and the historic art throughout the building make the tour beautiful. The political climate of the city and the representatives and events that are housed within the building help connect Wisconsin’s citizens to their roots. Even if you skip the rest of the capital tour, a must see is the observation deck overlooking all of Madison in every direction. The deck is ideal for photography, architecture and personal reflection. If you make it on a Saturday morning, one more bucket-lister you can knock off while here is the Dane County Farmers Market. The summer session is starting up this Saturday and will continue throughout the summer months. If you haven’t had the experience, it is a must.

 

If the happenings of Capital Square are too hectic for you, relaxing on the grassy shores of Lake Monona or Lake Mendota is another option. Olin Park is just one of the many city and county parks that are open to the public and provide ideal scenery for all. The lawn leading down to the waters of Lake Monona at Olin is wide and long giving all of its patrons a feeling of privacy and seclusion. James Madison Park on Lake Mendota typically hosts a younger crowd because of its location near the university. Often times you will find a lot of group activities like volleyball, frisbee, and basketball next to others chatting, reading or just taking it easy.

 

If the skies aren’t in your favor, there are many indoor activities that you can embark on. But, our favorite place would be reading or relaxing under the shelter of the gazebo at the Speckled Hen Inn  overlooking the sheep, and the many young lambs romping and leaping about the pasture.

Planning the Garden

Planning the garden.

Flowers top the rock walls at The Speckled hen Inn

It is easy to find information on planting a garden but we think that planning the garden is just as important.  Only a good plan, well executed and blessed by Mother nature can assure the best results.

Days like today are perfect for working outdoors: when the sun is shining yet there is a good breeze to keep you cool. The April rains have been preparing the soil to be easily cultivated yet full of moisture to help the plants quickly adapt to their new environment. We’ve also been working hard cleaning up the property and preparing our flower and vegetable gardens for planting. Although most of your gardening choices will be determined by the space you have available through Pat’s passion for gardening and her time employed with Jung’s Garden Center, she’s created gardens worthy of being called art. There is no doubt it is one of her many gifts. After breakfast, many of the guests like to take a stroll around the bountiful gardens while taking notes to implement new ideas for planning the garden when they return home.

 

Over the past few years, there has been much discussion surrounding the topic of whether to till or not to till especially in urban areas where the introduction of invasive species has been difficult to get under control. The “tillers” argue that plowing up the soil, including the seeds and roots of last fall will kill them off and discourage them from propagating. However, most gardeners have moved towards leaving the foliage on the surface, undisturbed. “No-tillers” argue benefits such as reduced erosion and that preserving the roots of last year helps to create a healthy soil preserving soil biota, and conserves water. Whichever you choose, as long as you’ve taken time to work the soil to your liking, you can have a productive garden.

 

Many people don’t have the space to begin seedlings in a greenhouse at home, which isn’t a problem since many of the department stores and local greenhouses have made it unnecessary. Most provide a wide variety of young, healthy plants ready for their transition to the soil. The one thing to always keep in mind is that it is essential to purchase plants at the right time. Buying too early may mean that they won’t be resilient enough to withstand unpredictable spring weather. Buying too late can mean that the roots have become entangled and demand greater space and water than the tiny temporary pots allow. Choose a plant that has vibrant green, firm and healthy foliage. The soil should maintain its moisture and the roots haven’t begun dying.

 

Thanks to Pat’s green thumb and Bob’s hard work, many guests of the Speckled Hen Inn have commented on the extensive natural landscape on much of the property and the variety of greenery in our gardens. We have taken great care to plan flowerbeds that require little maintenance, range in height for prime aesthetic appeal and consistently have at least one variety blooming most times from spring through summer.  The birds and the butterflies enjoy the gardens so much and we’d be glad to show you a few tips if you are ready to grab your tools and dig in.

 

Making Homemade Maple Syrup

Making Homemade Maple Syrup

Sap collection buckets on the maple trees.

A specialty of the Speckled Hen Inn Bed and Breakfast is our breakfast feasts. We always provide our guests with fresh eggs from our chicken coop, seasonal fruits or vegetables from the property, homemade pastries and Bob’s specialty; thick-cut bacon fried and topped with our homemade maple syrup. Many locals will travel around the state to find excellent maple syrup but we are fortunate to have acreage populated with Silver Maple trees growing along the creek, the required equipment and the personal motivation spurred by a passion for quality. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, tis the season of maple syrup making in these parts.

 

Given the name, maple syrup, it is usually assumed that the product can only be made from sap of sugar maple trees but syrup can be made from other trees, including nut trees and other varieties of maples. Different trees provide diverse sap compositions resulting in wide ranging flavors. The Silver maple trees that we use create a distinctive creamy butterscotch flavor rather than the typical maple taste most are accustomed to.

 

Tree sap only flows while the daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures are below. Anticipating a warm week (thank you local weatherman) we tapped the trees on March 6th and collected sap through March 29th. Because of the quick onset of Spring-like temperatures, the season was shorter that usual. However, I don’t think we’ll hear any complaints about the move away from freezing temperatures, day or night. Not to worry, we collected plenty of sap to supply us with maple syrup throughout the next year.

 

Then begins the heat and steam of processing the sap. Because the sap is 99% water, you first have to boil off the excess water thus creating a thick, caramel colored syrup. As you can imagine, boiling off all of this water creates an abundance of steam not welcomed in most homes, including ours. Therefore, we do this on an antique wood and gas fired stove in the BBQ kitchen of our home. Once the syrup has been processed, we bottle it and store it for breakfast use at the inn.

 

This time of the year is precious. In addition to collecting and processing the syrup, the trees have begun budding, the birds are twitterpating and making their nests, and the rest of nature is waking from the deep winter slumber. Whether you stay at the Speckled Hen Inn for business or relaxation, we invite you to venture around the property to witness the splendor it has to offer. When you rise, we’ll have some luscious maple syrup to savor along with the rest of your homemade breakfast.

We Still Love our Madison Bookstores

We Still Love our Madison Bookstores

Reading in the Gazebo at The Speckled Hen

As technology becomes more ingrained in our daily life, there are other aspects that get shoved to the wayside. Once upon a time, seemingly forever ago, we had conversations with people verbally, our children were taught with the simple tools of a pen and pencil and we once read stories written in ink, on paper in a bound version of a book. And to get those books we frequented Madison bookstores and libraries. But, we don’t visit bookstores and libraries anymore because our iPhones and tablets have made it so much more convenient to get all of the books we love without ever having to leave the comfort of our couch and blanket. What a difference a decade has brought us.

These facts have got me thinking about the role Madison bookstores play. Have they gone to the wayside along with their counterparts? Or have they taken on a new role for the regular patron? To answer that question, yes…bookstores are definitely still around and the dedicated bibliophiles remain forever faithful.  One of the best Madison bookstores has maintained a resolute position in its dynamic community since its origins in 1975. A Room of Ones Own  hosts events, book clubs and provides a safe place. Its name is taken from an essay written in the early 1900’s by Virginia Woolf, an English woman who wrote in an unconventional, nonlinear structure, similar to the layout of the bookstore. As you walk through the aisles and from room to room checking out the wide selection of new and used books, each room seems to open to yet another, and another like a labyrinth. Literally, you could spend hours here.

After searching for the right book and eventually heading to the checkout with at least four in hand, finding a quiet and serene place to read is essential. The enclosed gazebo we have for guest use on our property at the Speckled Hen Inn is an ideal place. Equipped with a refrigerator to chill your favorite wine and a music system to set your mood, rain or shine you can relax on a cushioned bench fully surrounded by nature’s beauty. With little more than the sheep or llama’s to distract you, we can’t imagine a more serene setting for binge reading.

 

Favorite Ethnic Restaurants in Madison WI

 

Spring Rolls are a favorite of guests at The Speckled Hen InnWe want to share with you a bit of information about a couple of our favorite ethnic restaurants in Madison, WI. Many guests here at the Speckled Hen Inn ask for recommendations on local restaurants especially seeking those that are ambassadors for the unique flair of Madison.

I find it intriguing how much of our behavior depends on the weather and the timing of the rise and setting of the sun. Often we feel sluggish during the deepest days of winter and our spirits and activities liven with the first signs of spring. There is something about those spring signs that signal my brain to get off the couch and try something I’ve never tried before. Growing up in a traditional German family, our meals typically consisted of bland meats seasoned with salt and pepper. Bor-ing. As I grew older and developed traditions of my own, my palate also expanded to include ethnic foods from around the globe. I haven’t mastered cooking many exotic dishes, which is why I’ve become so dependent on local ethnic restaurants in Madison, WI.

When the weather is cooperative, we like to hop on the bikes and ride downtown. If biking isn’t an option you can drive downtown, park the car and stroll around with a new restaurant in mind as the final destination while stopping in different shops and meeting new people along the way. Walking from the capital down Willy Street (Williamson) toward Lao Laan-Xang,traditional Laotian restaurant, you will come across many little café’s and shops including a local favorite, Willy Street Co-op. The menu is very traditional and can seem a bit overwhelming especially if this is a new style of food for you. Don’t be afraid to ask your server for the most popular dish or for their recommendations. Since I have a bit of a sweet tooth and love curry, the Pineapple Curry dish has been a repeat dish for me.

If you’re a regular reader of our blogs, you’ll know that I am a fan of State Street and all that it embodies, food included. While checking out the many shops of State Street, you will come across several chain restaurants but I encourage you to resist the urge of familiarity and keep walking to Kabul , a quaint little restaurant serving Afghani and Mediterranean cuisine. The menu varies a little between lunch and dinner but most entrees remain the same. Bandinjan Chalow (seasoned and cooked eggplant with rice and yogurt dressing) fills my desire for new tastes and textures but is light enough to keep walking and window-shopping.

I will warn you, once you open up your palate to the possibilities, you’ll find that Madison has vast possibilities for trying new dishes.  Then, you too will have some favorite Ethnic restaurants in Madison WI to share with your friends.

 

Find what is real and important in life.

Promise of Spring

Promise of Spring

Every now and then I need to be grounded, to find what is real and important in life. In a time of controversy and divergence, it is easy to view the world as a conflicted web of despair especially if, like me, you view a daily news source. Being inundated with details of humanities worst offenders is taxing on us mentally, physically and emotionally. I want to be a positive influence in the world, but sometimes, it seems impossible. As an individual, I don’t know how to combat the root causes of poverty. I wish I had the answer to drug use and overdose. And I certainly can’t provide enough love for every child or animal in an abusive situation. How can I help? Where do I start?

 

How we respond to these negative stimuli truly defines our personal and professional character. Should we escape to social media to tune out reality only to become entangled in destructive online discussions? Do we internalize the information but fail to develop a constructive outlet for the burden it places on our heart? Clearly, these options tend to cause more stress in our lives and tension in our relationships.

 

I don’t have a degree in psychology and I’m by no means a therapist, but I would like to share where I have found success in these struggles. I know that I have to first recognize that my life is valuable and I am fortunate. I have a forgiving family that I love tenderly and that I can depend on – even if we don’t always agree. I have a warm home with a bed, a closet full of clothing and a refrigerator full of food that I can access at my leisure. I have a car that starts every morning and the financial stability to maintain it. I have a fulfilling career that I love and coworkers that are supportive. I am tremendously blessed!

 

I also know that I can make a difference. Gandhi said it best, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. I am far from perfect – my family can attest to that. But if I strive to lead by example I also have to maintain the highest standards for myself. I try to smile at everyone regardless of my experience in that moment. I can share with others what I have in excess. I can provide compassion for the pain I witness. I can educate myself and on multiculturalism to avoid becoming part of the larger problem. I can be a vigilant member of my global village.

 

To come to many of these personal realizations, it’s helpful to take time for reflection. Many couples have found the simplicity of the Speckled Hen Inn  and its natural landscape a welcomed retreat from urban life. The solace and awe of nature can be an essential component to restoring radiance back into our life. It reminds me of the blessings this world has afforded me. For that, I am thankful.

 

What to do on Sunday Afternoon in Madison WI

Inside the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Gardens

Inside the Bolz Conservatory at Olbrich Gardens

If you are wondering what to do on a Sunday afternoon in Madison WI while we wait for the rest of the snow and ice to disappear, Ellyssa, our blogger, suggests that you boogie on over to Olbrich Botanical gardens to enjoy a little Botanical Boogie.

I am so excited! Not only is spring around the corner, I feel like my community is waking along with the seasons and weather. A few of my favorite summer activities are enjoying the beauty of Wisconsin’s natural landscape and community social events, especially those that include live music. And that’s what brings me so much excitement! If you have never been, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a lovely winter destination. I know, it sounds a little ridiculous. The outdoors, winter, it’s chilly and weather dependent, right? Well, don’t forget about the Bolz Conservatory. It’s like a winter escape or a spring preview with the exotic botanicals, around 650 different varieties and the warmth (65°-80°) and luscious humidity the plants require and we all miss. What a great way to enjoy a Sunday afternoon and, I have to repeat, get a great preview of spring to come. (The Conservatory will reopen March 20 after annual maintenance is completed)

At the risk of sounding like a bad infomercial…but wait, it gets even better! Music has always been a welcomed social and educational component of Olbrich Botanical Gardens and they’ve not forsaken live music during the winter months.  Olbrichs Winter Concert Series and Botanical Boogie presents each Sunday 2-3 pm through the month of March. This weekend I’m looking forward to my first exposure to the big band swing music of Ladies Must Swing. As a child, my grandfather used to play trumpet with a Glen Miller style big band around my hometown area forever planting the deep seeded love of swing and jazz music – now taken up by my daughter as well. And what a big band these ladies can boast of. Their entire band consists of 19 women traveling around the Madison area. From all accounts I’ve heard, they are a fun, zesty band for all ages. I look forward to seeing them with my daughter.

 

If big band isn’t your style, there are a variety of other music genres that will be performing including TRISIS, a group of three Madison sisters that harmonize their voices in the style of “vintage” 1920-50’s America accompanied by their father. Later this month, VIVO self described as a lively and contemporary jazz-pop bossa-samba music ensemble will be lighting up the dance floor later this month. I have to admit, live music inspires me regardless of the genre – I love it all.

 

So, whether you visit for the warmth of the Bolz Conservatory dome, the music and dance or simply because you enjoy socializing and meeting new people, I hope I see you there. If you’d like to make a weekend of it and spend more time appreciating Madison, we’d love to have you stay in one of our luxury rooms at the Speckled Hen Inn. We’ve got the fireplace on, the Jacuzzi tub ready and the wine chilled. All that’s missing is you.

Winter is for the Birds

Coopers Hawk watching the Bird Feeders at The Speckled Hen Inn

Coopers Hawk watching the Bird Feeders at The Speckled Hen Inn

Are you so tired of winter’s snow and cold that you have decided that winter really is for the birds? Watching our feathered friends at the bird feeder is one way to make the short winter days seem even a bit shorter and there are a few ways that you can expand that joy of bird watching in the winter months.  Read on!

If cabin fever hasn’t set into your home, there are many Wisconsinites that would like to know your secret. It’s the time of year when many have stopped watching the weather forecast knowing that one thing is certain. It’s going to be cold. The excitement of freshly fallen snow has disappeared. Winter sports have become commonplace. So, here is the lull of February and March – the never-ending winter months after the holidays have passed. What can you do to reinvigorate the fires under your bums?

When I start feeling the glum of winter I entertain contradictory thoughts. Initially, that gives me visions of flowered meadows, trees in full foliage and lawns ready to be mowed. Quickly, reality bites me with a nip of winters chill. How can I fuse the ideas together?

The birds of the winter months bring different qualities than summer birding. While witnessing the fortitude of the birds of winter against the elements, one can seemingly escape from their own reality. Most can get views of common birds near their home while a few with natural landscape acreage are able to witness the activities of more unique birds.

To get access to unique and stunning birds in their natural environment, visiting a Madison Audubon Society Sanctuary is the best bet. Not only can you get some great bird watching in, you can support a great cause and benefit from their efforts. Faville Grove  and Goose Pond Sanctuary  are within short driving distances of the Speckled Hen Inn  and are worth getting off the couch for. The two sanctuaries, each with their distinctive environments, are home to common birds like the Black-Capped Chickadee, snow bunting and the Lapland Longspur. If the stars align during your visit, you’ll be lucky enough to see some of the more rare fowl like the Snowy Owl, Short Eared Owl or the Tundra Swan. Even if you don’t get to see some of the unusual birds, it’s one more adventure, another check off the bucket list, one that staves off the ever-looming cabin fever.

Thanks to the spring fed stream on the property here at the Speckled Hen Inn, we’ve seen some noteworthy birding activities as well. As usual, the Cardinals continuously grace the property contrasting their scarlet color against the monotonous brown and white winter landscape. The Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers flirt with urban life, flittering among the trees yet maintaining a safe distance. As the temperatures wane and spring peeks through, so will the beautiful colors and markings of creepers and waxwings that make our property a stopover on their way to their summer home. You too welcome to visit for a night or stay for a week to enjoy the simple pleasures nature offers. It’ll make winter more than bearable.

 

Chocolate for Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine's Day from The Speckled Hen Inn

Happy Valentine’s Day from The Speckled Hen Inn

Are you looking for the best chocolate in Madison, Wisconsin for your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day?

It is the week before Valentines Day…in case you missed the wide array of candy spread near every entrance and cashier of every store and gas station. Sure, initially my mind says, “Oh…Yum, you should buy that” but very quickly my brain translates the message to, “Wait…I don’t think that stuff is even made with chocolate, I’ll pass”.

 

Similar to the masses upset over Cadbury’s recent decision to change the recipe of their famous crème-filled eggs, I’m a fan of authentic, creamy chocolate. Recently, I made my way into a small café on Atwood called Chocolaterian.  As I walked up, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would walk in to see a mystic behind the counter similar to the role Juliette Binoche played in the romantic comedy, Chocolat. Well, Juliette wasn’t there, but I did walk in to the wonderful aroma of freshly baked goods and a comfortably busy café-like environment. It was a Saturday afternoon and, although I would say it was busy, we didn’t have any difficulty finding a table for four.

While waiting in line and surveying the sweets, the artistry of the chocolatiers became obvious. If I think about it too long, it could almost make me feel terribly inadequate in the kitchen. Eh, someone has to be a consumer, right? The menu goes from macaroons and fondue to their delicious Ugly cookies (far more delicious than their name suggests). On this visit, we settled on the lemon tart (the idea of it now is making my mouth water) and I chose a Parisian Hot Chocolate – a choice others at my table were wishing they had made instead of the American hot chocolate. As mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago, European chocolate is much thicker and not quite as sweet as American hot chocolate. They continued to dip their spoons into my chocolate until it was…all…gone. Delish!

Madison Sweets has become a favorite stop for my daughter and I, a quick indulgence while window-shopping down State Street. Even if we don’t make a purchase, we have to walk through and imagine how all the goodies would taste. It’s more of a traditionally styled candy shop and, like the Chocolaterian, they sell more than chocolate but Madison Sweets only has sweets. Hmmm, surprised? I didn’t think so. You will however be shocked as you browse through what seems like every variety of candy possibly known to mankind. In macaroons alone, they offer more than 35 flavors including elderflower, bourbon pecan and basil. Those might seem bizarre to some people but to the confectioners working there, that’s what keeps their creative juices flowing and the customer returning. Bingo!

Although it’s impossible for us to compete with the craftiness of professional chocolatiers and confectioners, we welcome our guests to the sweet treats in our galley kitchen at the Speckled Hen Inn.  We always have homemade goodies for our guests, even in the middle of the night. Don’t worry, we won’t tell.

Where to Go Snowshoeing in Madison WI

Snowshoeing at The Speckled Hen Inn

Snowshoeing at The Speckled Hen Inn

Have you ever wanted to try out the sport of snowshoeing and wondered where to go snowshoeing in Madison WI?  We have some suggestions for you and now that we finally have enough snow to make this possible, give it a try!

A few weeks ago I heard someone say, “Spring is here!” What? February is just beginning. Clearly this person was a little delusional, as the rest of us understood that the unusually warm weather we were experiencing was just a lull in the typical winter pattern. Well, surprise! Winter has returned, and doesn’t it look beautiful? There are many that appreciated the warmer temperatures however, I always look forward to being able to enjoy the snow and ice throughout the winter.

When I think of the cold, snow and wind…well, really just the snow, it makes me think of sledding, skiing, ice-skating and snowshoeing. I love being able to get outside and having the sun shine on my face and feeling active, almost in defiance of the cold weather. Since most of my favorite places for winter sports are in the woods or in remote rural areas, it becomes almost therapeutic to slow my spirit to the speed of nature and let my body follow through. If you allow it, time can seemingly stand still.

If you’ve never been snowshoeing, I encourage you to give it a try, at least once. People had suggested it to me for years and, for whatever reason, I hesitated. When I finally went out for my first time, I was surprised at how simple it is to use the equipment and how much easier it is to get to more pristine areas without the challenge of maneuvering through knee-high snow.

As a guest at the Speckled Hen Inn, we always welcome you to use the trails throughout the property.  You can even borrow our snowshoes to try out the sport! Our trails will take you on a peaceful journey through the pines, winding around the acreage and down to Starkweather Creek. If you are discreet, there is a good chance you can see the deer that roam about or observe a few of the beautiful cardinals nesting on the property.

If you are looking for longer trails, there are several places to snowshoe around Dane County. For the most part, as long as there is snow, snowshoeing can be done, but there are some places that are more worth the while than others. Cherokee Marsh – Northern Unit  is one of my favorites primarily because it is an extensive natural area with several miles of trails. This makes it less likely to be crowded when I, like the rest of the Madison, have the time to appreciate nature’s gifts. With over three miles of trails and several observation decks, I find it an ideal place for solitude, reflection and just enjoying the outdoors. If you are snowshoeing Cherokee Marsh for the first time or would like some company, there are several groups that organize weekend evening family and group, moonlight and candlelight snowshoeing, often times with a fire and warm beverages to end the night. It’s been a great opportunity to meet future friends with similar interests.