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Hidden gems can come in the most unexpected of places. If you think Kansas City is just a flyover connection stop, think again.
While it may seem like I’m flying through my bucket list at rapid-fire pace, I have a special place in my heart for destinations that show me something new. I like places that teach me or show me something unexpected.
My trip to the Midwest was a weekend of firsts. I went to my first MLS game and got to go on the field for the first time at a professional sporting event. It was my first time having real KC barbecue. It was my first (but certainly not last) Renaissance Fair. It was my first trip to the moon. Okay, not really, but Moon Marble Co. Making marbles was definitely not something I’d even dream of doing but was truly an intricate art form.
Kansas City, Kansas is fairly spread out, and lesser known than it’s Missouri counterpart, but if you know where to go, it’s a wonderful getaway that just may surprise you.
Simply Marble-ous, Darling
Prior to visiting Kansas City, I had no clue how to play marbles. When I saw a marble-making demo on my itinerary; my first thought was, “That’s one of their star attractions?” When we pulled up to the rickety building on the side of the highway, I was even more skeptical. Lesson learned: don’t judge a book by its cover. Inside was a magical treasure trove of nostalgic games and vintage toys. Everything you could possibly remember, and then some.
The marble making demos were way cooler than I could’ve ever imagined. Essentially a glassblowing seminar, these pieces are so delicate and miniature and I don’t know how anyone has the patience or detail-orientedness to make them into art in every design, pattern, and color imaginable. They make each marble they sell one by one by hand and they retail anywhere from $12-1200 dollars. It kinda made my brain explode thinking about how many hours go into such a tiny trinket that you could essentially lose if you actually play the game. And if you’re wondering how to play marbles, it’s like cards; there are a bunch of different variations and games so there’s really no wrong way.
Kansas-style barbecue is sweet and smoky and they’re known for their sauces, which are actually thick and more like a glaze. It’s both a delicacy and a delight for meat lovers. But asking a Kansan what their favorite barbecue joint is like asking a Chicagoan what their favorite pizza place is. Everyone has a different answer. The right answer is there’s the best spot for ribs, there’s the best spot for pulled pork, and they each specialize in a different thing. Since burnt ends originated in Kansas City, that was the local delicacy we were seeking out.
The new kid on the block, SLAP’s (Squeal Like A Pig) isn’t a household name yet, but it’s already garnering an impressive resume of accolades, evident by the line out the door in the middle of the afternoon. I’d never had burnt ends before, but I figured when in Rome. Served in cubes cut off the sides of brisket, due to their fat content, they are cooked longer than most other smoked meats. Despite being perfectly prepared, the cut itself was a little well done for my liking (I generally eat meat as rare as it can be without bleeding). That’s not to say I didn’t fall head over heels with the ribs, which greedily fell off the bone and the cheesy potato casserole, which I probably could’ve downed three containers of. Mark my words, within a few years, SLAP’s will be as synonymous with KC BBQ as OK Joe’s, Fiorella’s Jack Stack, and Gates is.
Here’s another confession: Besides baseball, soccer is the sport I like the least. I don’t know any of the rules and find it rather boring to watch on TV. That said, I’ll go to any professional sporting event for the atmosphere. And after my first professional MLS game, I just might be hooked.
Even with no idea what was happening, having just won the Open Cup, the energy at Sporting KC was infectious. You can’t help but smile at the raucous cheers and the bright lights. It’s not like baseball where you go for the food and drink and there just happens to be a game going on in the background. No, here your eyes are glued to the action as the ball bounces and flies higher than I ever could’ve imagined (seriously, all the way into the stands at times). Even if you have no clue what the penalties or positions are (colored cards?), the game is as captivating as the fans are rowdy. While there’s no bad seat in the house, the suites are all you can eat and drink, and you really can’t go wrong with that.
Don’t Look Down
I’ve been zip lining a handful of times and while it’s always fun, if you’ve done it once, it feels somewhat the same no matter where you go. Zip KC stood out though. Not only do they offer hike and zip tours and night flights under the inky moonlight via glow stick, the last line is a 12-foot free fall. Without any platform to catch you, it feels like a terrifying combo of skydiving and bungee jumping and definitely gets the adrenaline pumping.
But the experience is really a hoot because the staff and the setting are so great. Everyone gives each other secret nicknames (often highly inappropriate) so it’s impossible not to giggle like a schoolgirl when Mr. Worldwide or G.I. Jane is coming down the line. They also run special events like obstacle course 5Ks and haunted houses in the forest below so you never know exactly what you may see hiding in the spooky woods (spoiler: yes, there are clowns).
Don’t Ask Wine, Ask Wine Not
Did you know Kansas had a wine region? Me either, but in fact, Kansas was the second largest wine producer in the U.S. before prohibition. The state is called the breadbasket for it’s fertile, crop-producing soil, but it’s really more a cornucopia with a plethora of farm fresh foods and beverages to sample. There’s a full wine trail to sip, swirl and indulge.
We got our taste on at one homegrown vineyard, Rowe Ridge. Everything is produced right outside their front door from the dry reds to the sweet whites, but the standouts for me were the fruit wines made with locally grown apples, pears, and blackberries. There was also a peach slushy that was perfect for fall season.
Unicorns, Fairies, and Mermaids, Oh My
When you think Renaissance Fair, you probably imagine where every nerdy kid in high school goes to hang out on the weekend. Or at least I did, having gone to the high school Mean Girls was based on (I’m still trying to shed my inner angsty teen queen decades later). Lord of the Rings and those types of fantasy trilogies are simply not my thing (I even wrote about going to Hobbiton having seen none of the movies). I will be the first to admit I horribly prejudged the Ren Fair. It doesn’t matter if you’re into that genre or not, there’s something for everyone at the festival.
One of the most fun experiences maybe anywhere, you could spend days exploring the elaborately designed sets and incredible costumes and still not experience it all. The amount of time that goes into building this intricate fantasy world is completely incredible. You’re participating in a live reenactment, with a huge cast that’s always in character regardless of who you interact with. You can dress up to your heart’s extent (the ex-sorority girl in me will never turn down a costume party) and not look weird or out of place.
When you arrive, you’re given a treasure map of worlds that cover an enormous stretch of land to hop between the mermaid’s cave, enchanted forest, pirates lair, and king’s court, whatever tickles your fancy. Stop to see the unicorns (my spirit animal), camels, dragons, and fire breathers along the way. There’s spontaneous singing, dancing, and booze-fueled R-rated comedy to entertain both the big and the little kids. You can stuff your face with giant turkey legs, fried goodness, and more pickles on a stick than I’ve ever seen in my life (served on chopsticks which made me LOL). It’s a place to eat, drink and be merry to your heart’s content. Basically a festival for the ages, you could say my time in Kansas City, Kansas was magical.
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