Getting away from it all is great in theory. There’s no traffic, no crowds, generally no work-related stress.
But as relaxing as that should be, the idea of being too far from civilization gives some people hives. A weekend without access to stores, coffee shops or — God forbid — cell phone service is cause for panic.
If you’re one of those folks (or if you live with one), this weekend getaway is for you. The route takes you east on U.S. Highway 24 through a string of towns that are small, but not too small, while keeping you close to Topeka in case you run out of things to do.
You probably won’t. You’ll be seduced by the bright, happy stores in Wamego, the sophistication of St. Marys and the charming town square in Holton. There’s enough to fill a weekend, though it would make a fun day trip, too.
Set out east of Manhattan on U.S. 24 toward Wamego. If you must, pull over to taste a few of the blends at Oz Winery. But try to save some of Wamego for Sunday.
Between Wamego and St. Marys, you’ll see a red barn labeled Red Barn, where a local farmer and his neighbors sell produce. Pull over to peruse the bounty of tomatoes, peppers, squash and watermelons. Make sure to bring small bills to pay. A pint of cherry tomatoes is just $1, and the Red Barn doesn’t take credit cards.
Continue on to St. Marys, a town of about 2,600 people that manages to have a chic clothing and home store and an excellent coffeehouse.
The former, Florence Adams, is named for the grandmother of the owners, and they honor the matriarch of the family with classic, feminine clothes and accessories and an upscale collection of kitchenware.
Down the street is MJ’s Coffee House. Inside the unassuming storefront is a cozy café that serves coffee from Topeka-based bean company PT’s Coffee. If you want more than drip coffee, try the affogato, which is a scoop of ice cream “drowned” in a shot of espresso. MJ’s also has an awesome Arnold Palmer.
As you continue on, you’ll hit Rossville and Silver Lake. At U.S. Highway 75, you’ll have to make a choice about how to spend your evening: small town or big city.
Go south to Topeka and have dinner at RowHouse Restaurant, where Chef Greg Fox prepares a different tasting menu based on fresh ingredients each week for $39 per person. Last week’s included lots of squash dishes, such as sliced beef steak with garden pesto and summer squash and zucchini ribbons. For dessert: butternut squash ice cream.
If you’re looking for something more casual, go 30 minutes north to Holton and try Boomers’ Grill, a sports-bar-type place with plenty of burgers, appetizers and beer to fill you up while you watch a game.
As you wind down, head to your hotel. In Holton, go to Hotel Josephine, an inn brimming with Victorian décor with rooms from $50 to $65 and a free continental breakfast.
Spend the morning at Holton’s lovely brick-paved town square. In the center is the Jackson County Courthouse, but on the perimeter are dozens of shops and businesses.
Go to Quilting on the Square or Sarah’s Enchanted Cottage if you’re into sewing or knitting. And make sure to visit Koger Variety, which is just packed with items for every holiday. For kids it has inexpensive toys and an old-fashioned soda fountain. There are also plenty of antiques stores in the area.
For lunch, grab a bite at the ‘50s-themed Big Mike’s Diner or Jhett’s Pizza.
In the afternoon, you can go out to Banner Creek Reservoir for some fishing or biking. Or go to Linscott Park, which has a nice playground plus tennis courts and horseshoe pits.
But if you like to live dangerously, get your gamble on at the nearby Prairie Band Casino and Resort. The facility also has a great golf course, called Firekeeper. It was designed by PGA Tour pro Notah Begay, a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford.
If you’re not spending your whole night at the roulette table, go for dinner at Trails Café, where fried chicken is their specialty. Settle in with a salad from the salad bar, because every plate ($9.49 for a two-piece meal) is pressure-cooked to order and takes 20-30 minutes. The result is tender, steaming-hot chicken with crackly skin, and it’s worth the wait.
For dessert, try a slice of the homemade pie, but don’t linger too long. Get to Banner Creek Observatory and Science Center, a few miles out of town, by 8 p.m. On most Saturday nights, it offers educational programs and star-gazing. Bring your own telescope and take advantage of the excellent “dark sky” conditions, or look through the observatory’s 20-inch telescope. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children, but it offers group rates for families.
Lots of things are closed on Sunday morning, so if you’re not interested in partaking of local religious services, it’s a good time to head back toward Wamego.
There you can spend a leisurely morning drinking fragrant coffee at Paramour Coffee, which roasts its own beans in-house. Or have a pecan sticky bun at the Friendship House.
The Oz Museum opens at noon, and the Wamego Historical Museum opens at 1 p.m. If you can hang around til then, you’ll get to see a ton of memorabilia from the famous Oz film and books. Admission for adults is $7. Children 4-12 are $4. Then catch the historical museum, including the Prairie Town Village, a stuffed buffalo and the famous Dutch Mill.
Before you leave town, do some shopping at Oz Winery, taking home a bottle of Drunken Munchkin red or Emerald City Lights white.
Other Oz-themed shops: Uncle Henry’s Hen House, The Wicked Stitch and Toto’s Tacoz. Hey, you can never have too much Oz, right?