Friday, May 25, 2012

Strut under the St. Louis Gateway Arch

If you follow my blog, you already know that I visited St. Louis at the beginning of May for a conference, and that I had an exciting chance to take my first beer brewery tour. However, I also had the chance to check out the massive Gateway Arch on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi in downtown St. Louis, do a wee bit of gambling and some shopping, and stroll the quaint and colonial streets of Old St. Charles Town (next blog entry). For only having one day of free time in St. Louis, we sure packed in a lot!

Dipping my foot in the Mighty Mississippi

My quick visit to the Gateway Arch actually happened on a Friday night, after the Budweiser Brewery Tour. We were already in the downtown area of St. Louis due to the brewery tour, and so naturally wanted to see the historical monument. I say "historical" not because of its age - it has only been around since 1965, when it officially opened - but because of what it stands for. It is also called the Gateway to the West, due to the fact that it was constructed in commemoration of all those who promoted westward expansion in America: President Jefferson and the explorers Lewis and Clark to name a few. (Lewis and Clark, I found, were super popular in St. Louis - there are a lot of stores and pubs named after them...)

The Arch peeking from behind a tree

We arrived at the Arch just as the sun was setting. The dusky light glinted off the silver giant with brilliance, and you had to don your shades just to look at it. It seemed to go up and up forever (it is 630 feet up, and 630 feet across - thanks Wikipedia!). I took about 50 photographs trying to capture its size and beauty, but no picture seemed to do it justice. We wandered around, posing at the base in order to model its size, and then running across the road and into the plaza beyond to try and get a picture of the Arch in its entirety. Finally we gave up and just took "artsy" pictures with it.

Can you see me, tiny and white by the Arch base?

We really wanted to go up the Arch, for there is an observation deck at the very tippy-top, but were told that the elevators and observation area closed at 5 p.m. It was very disappointing, because we had been looking forward to seeing the amazing view of St. Louis in the evening, sprawling along the river below us. Note to self: check out the opening and closing times of special sites BEFORE spending $60.00 on a cab ride downtown. (Unlike the Budweiser Brewery, we did not get a special, private, after-hours tour of the Arch... there was no one there to bat our eyelashes at!)

A shot of the St Louise Gateway Arch in its entirety

Instead of going up to the top, we left to do some shopping, some gambling at a casino (well, I watched my friends gamble since I don't gamble myself - I'm too cheap to gamble!), and to eat a delicious tapas dinner. We didn't even get back to the Arch to see it lit up in the evening, which from what I have seen online, is beautiful even from the ground. If I ever find myself back in the St. Louis area, I have vowed to make sure I return to the Arch, take the elevator to the top, enjoy the view, and then stick around for the evening light show!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tour the Budweiser Beer Brewery in St. Louis

Recently I had the chance to do a quick jaunt to St. Louis, Missouri, for a convention / workshop on the "Pyramid Response to Intervention" with Mike Mattos. I went with my principal and two other ladies from my school division, and we all agreed the workshop with Mike was fantastic. To make matters even better, we'd left behind chilly Canada with its light dusting of snow and crispy ground frost for a sunny, muggy, and green St. Louis.

Outside our hotel in Westport, St. Louis

Due to the long hours of the PRI workshop, we didn't get a lot of sightseeing done in St. Louis. (However, we didn't mind, because as I said, the workshop was very useful!) But we intrepid ladies were determined to see a bit of St. Louis while we were there, and so on Friday night, called a cab and headed downtown to see the famous arch, and of course, the Budweiser Beer Brewery. This article will focus on the brewery tour.

Our workshop had gone until 4:00 p.m., and we didn't leave our hotel until 4:30 p.m. The cab ride from our hotel in Westport (near the airport) to downtown St. Louis was incredibly long - I don't even think Westport is technically IN St. Louis. Being the youngest in the group (and also the only non-administrator), I was always automatically delegated to the front seat of the cab, but I never mind that. When traveling, I'm "Chatty Cathy" and love to grill cab drivers about their knowledge of their fair cities, and pick up tips and tricks as I go. In this particular case, our cab driver was a virtual tour guide, noting every point of interest as we passed, and filling me in on the history of the area. He was fantastic! Sixty dollars later, we pulled up in front of the Budweiser Beer Brewery, and I was full of information about St. Louis. It was 4:55 p.m.

The main lobby of the Budweiser facility

We entered the brewery and headed straight for the info desk, knowing that we were cutting it really close to the 5:00 p.m. deadline for the last tour (according to the website). Four hopeful, bright-eyed women leaned over the desk and inquired about the tour. The two men at the desk looked at us in dismay and informed us that the last tour left at 4:30 p.m. We had missed it by a mile. The 5:00 p.m. tours didn't start until the summer.

We were crushed. We'd raced from the hotel to the brewery, spent $60.00 in doing so, and wouldn't have another chance during our stay in St. Louis to come back to the brewery. Touring a brewery was on my bucket list! I know my face fell, and my three companions looked just as upset as I. Luckily, my boss can be very charming and convincing when she wants to be. She relayed our adventure in getting to the brewery, stating we were from Canada and had come ALL the way here, spending a ton of money in the process, just to tour the facility. The guards felt for us, they really did, but there was no one left to tour us around. Instead, they offered to let us have some free beer in the Budweiser Hospitality Room. We thanked them for their generosity, although we were still quite sad about missing the tour, and allowed them to lead us to the Hospitality Room.

All the different Budweiser products

As we found our seats, the last tour bus pulled up at the door and people began filing out. We watched them stroll in, our jealousy bubbling under the surface. We were still grateful that the kind people at Budweiser had let us have some free beer, but man! That tour would have been nice.

Suddenly, the guard Corby from the front desk walked in. He and the tour manager had felt so bad for us, that they'd arranged for the guide from the last tour, Nate, to take us on a quick and abbreviated tour of the place. Corby worried that the stables would be closed already, but he said Nate would do his best to show us some highlights. I think we squealed like teenagers with pure excitement. What nice people!

Nate was a young college kid, so it makes sense that he knew a lot about beer! He was very knowledgeable, and put up with our excited antics: we took pictures of everything, asked about a million questions, and even had him take our photographs (everywhere). The first place Nate took us to was the stables, as he was hoping they hadn't quite shut down yet. We were in luck! The stables were still open, and the groomsman was still around, brushing down one of the giant, famous Budweiser Clydesdales. He took the 8-year-old horse, Charlie, out for us to pet and pose with. We weren't sure if everyone on the normal tour got to do this, but I liked to think that we were getting special treatment on our "private" tour.

Up close and personal with Charlie

Since we didn't get to ride the little trolley bus, we walked from building to building on our tour, something I preferred to do. The Budweiser Brewery is huge, covering about three blocks, and all with elegant, old, brick buildings that are decorated with unique and clever gargoyles and stained glass windows. It is a really quaint place to stroll around in. Our next stop was the distillery, where Nate gave us a quick tour of the massive vats, the mash tanks, and the brew kettles. We didn't stay long, because the place was super hot and muggy, and Nate was afraid we'd pass out on him, and he'd have no one to help him out! (Literally, everyone was gone and it was just us five trucking around the joint!)

Checking out the distillery

The giant vats

Finally, Nate wanted to take us down to the packing facility, to see the crazy fast automated packing machines in action. As we walked, Nate pointed out the long, cooled pipes that led from the distillery to the packing plant - pipes full of cold, crisp beer! Mm, mm!

Cold beer being piped to the packing plant

Once in the packing area, we marveled over the speed and efficiency of the packing line. We watched thousands and thousands of bottles of beer fly past us, from the sterilizing machine that looked like a spinning fairway ride designed for bottles, to the boxing machine that filled orders faster than your eye could actually discern. It was amazing the amount of beer that flew past us in the 10 minutes we stood there. Nate informed us that in a day, on one packing line, over 1.6 million servings of beer are produced - and there are 10 packing lines in the St. Louis Brewery! (This also does not count the breweries that Budweiser owns across the U.S.) That's a lot of beer, my friends!

The packing plant, with its thousands of bottles.

Dreaming of cold, cold beer! Ha ha

Outside the packing facility, Nate flagged down George, a trolley bus driver, who good-naturedly took our photo, then drove us back up to the Hospitality Room. This time we ordered our beers, and toasted to the true hospitality of the Budweiser Beer Brewery. Everyone had bent over backwards to ensure we had a good time at their place of business, and we sure appreciated it! We took a picture with Corby, who had advocated for us to his tour manager and made the private tour possible. Thanks to all of you at the Brewery who made it possible for this Canadian girl to check off yet another item from her bucket list!