Travel

You're Invited: The Swankiest Murder Mystery Dinners in the U.S.

Real Miss Scarlet, real candlestick, really real billiard room.

Image by Maitane Romagosa
Image by Maitane Romagosa
Image by Maitane Romagosa

I’m sitting with a group of strangers in an ornate, century-old bed & breakfast. The Victorian estate checks all the creepy boxes: creaky hardwood floors, flickering candles, unsettling taxidermy, and even a hatchet next to a black-and-white portrait of Lizzie Borden.

After some mingling in the foyer with my new acquaintances (and some shots of vodka to blur reality just a bit), everyone shuffles into the library. Our host pulls out her tarot cards for a reading. Normally, she goes by Becky Luker, the owner of the Stone Lion Inn in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. But tonight she is Madame Curare, a mysterious medium bedazzled in sequins. Spoiler alert: she predicts a murder.

“Socially, most of you are already dead,” she says, before pulling the card of karma. “And you’re all going to get what you deserve.”

We unnervingly proceed to dinner, but by the time the screams start reverberating through the dark, rickety halls, it’s clear the evening has taken a turn. “Something terrible has happened,” Madame Curare says, clearing our plates. Someone has been killed right here, in this hotel, on this very night. And we’re going to find out whodunnit.

Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac
Photo by Matt Kirouac

Murder is just a typical night at the Stone Lion Inn. Every weekend, upwards of 40 strangers don their best bowler hats and feathered headbands for a multi-course murder mystery dinner. The (allegedly haunted) hotel’s ambiance certainly aids in the suspension of disbelief-in fact, real-life Clue games are being staged in elegant settings all across the US, from creaky manors to old-timey trains and even literal castles.

While some dinners cater to private events, others are designed for strangers to come together and immerse themselves in a story with a transportive theme. Details about the premise and time period are usually sent out in advance (via email or even literal mail), so folks can prepare their costumes and characters. Once you arrive, you check “real life” at the door.

“I think murder mysteries have become so popular right now, because they’re an incredible way to escape,” says Krissy Garber, co-founder of New York City-based murder mystery company Even If It Kills Me. “Since the pandemic, everyone is craving human connection and laughter, and with murder mysteries, you get that in spades.”

Silver Fountain Inn & Tea Parlor
Silver Fountain Inn & Tea Parlor
Silver Fountain Inn & Tea Parlor

According to Garber, the first murder mystery game was called Jury Box, a ‘30s parlour game where players became jury characters to determine the guilt or innocence of a fictitious defendant. Boxed sets in the ‘80s and the evolution of the internet helped spur the trend. Many companies thrive on word of mouth and referrals, though you might be surprised by the abundance of options from a quick Google search.

“It’s really incredible how quickly people become comfortable with themselves, their parts, and the people around them,” says Garber. “Solving the mystery gives everyone in your party a common goal, which makes it easier to bond with people you don’t know.”Which is certainly the case during my event when, after a dinner of green chili bisque, roasted Cornish game hen, and cheesecake squares, more than half the party accuses me of homicide. (Apparently I had shady business dealings with the deceased victim’s Far Ukrainian Casket Company.)

If attending a full-blown dinner isn’t your jam, hosting one at home is totally doable. Services like Muder Mystery Games or Masters of Mystery provide at home kits containing plots, character roles, and instructions for the host.

“My main tip is to have fun with it!Get into your character, dress the part, and decorate your space to set the mood,” says Steve Wilder, CTO and co-executive producer with The Dinner Detective, a murder mystery dinner theater with locations nationwide.”People throw parties and tell stories to have fun and connect with each other, so if that happens at your murder mystery party, I think you’re doing it right.”

Still, there’s nothing quite like being thrown together with a group of conniving would-be murderers in a remote Victorian manor. Across the country, here are other places hosting next-level murder mystery dinner parties.

The Henderson Castle
The Henderson Castle
The Henderson Castle

Henderson Castle

Kalamazoo, Michigan
The Henderson Castle, situated on bucolic grounds that look straight out of a faraway fairy tale, is the dreamiest escape for a quasi-rural wine tasting or high tea. It’s also the dreamiest destination to get entangled in a murder whilst dressed like a reveler from The Great Gatsby. Murder mysteries are held monthly in the inn’s chandelier-clad special events venue, each with a ‘20s or ‘30s theme and a prix fixe menu that typically includes passed canapés, wedge salad, and chicken beurre blanc.

The Silver Fountain Inn

Dover, New Hampshire
This rustic-chic Victorian inn near the New Hampshire coast may look harmlessly elegant with its babbling stone fountains, hand-cut crystal doorknobs, and regal four-poster beds, but there be murder within these vintage walls. Built in 1871, this three-story B&B is an ideal setting to bring out your inner Sherlock Holmes. Packets of information are sent via email, with rotating themes like “Westerns,” “Pirate,” and “Medieval.” For full immersion, guests can stay the night, or just do dinner on Saturday.

Moss Mansion
Moss Mansion
Moss Mansion

Moss Mansion Museum

Billings, Montana
Built in 1903 by Preston Boyd Moss and Martha Ursula Woodson Moss, who lived there with their six children and three servants, Montana’s Moss Mansion sounds like something out of Shirley Jackson’s dreams-or nightmares. Nowadays, the three-story, 28-room house operates as a historic museum, open for tours, special events, seasonal festivals, and, most fitting, murder mysteries. Bookable for private events or public dinners, the mansion serves three-course meals in a majestic setting, with parts assigned to each attendee.

The Blennerhassett Hotel

Parkersburg, West Virginia
A crown jewel in the quiet town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, The Blennerhassett Hotel became a millionaire magnet when it opened in 1889. A beacon of opulence, the mammoth property now includes 89 guest rooms, a ridiculously cozy library, and a grand staircase that puts the Titanic to shame. Basically, it’s the perfect setting for spooky fun. The hotel hosts periodic murder mystery dinners (with impressive menu items like butternut squash orzo risotto or fig and almond phyllo tarts) and also works with touring companies like Murder and Merriment for themed events.

The Kentucky Castle
The Kentucky Castle
The Kentucky Castle

The Kentucky Castle

Versailles, Kentucky
Equipped with a formal dining room, billiard room, ballroom, a grand hall, a bourbon hall (how Kentucky!), and a library, this Medieval-style castle set on lush Kentucky farmland is basically “Clue” incarnate. Sure, you can come stay the night, treat yourself in the spa, and dine on oxtail medallions with foie gras Bordelaise-or you can partake in a murder mystery on the castle rooftop. Hosted by Murder and Merriment, the interactive outings feature some of the tastiest sounding food for such an event, with seasonal menu items like tagine-spiced elote corn and fruit cobbler.

Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa, California
If you’ve ever wanted to participate in your very own Murder on the Orient Express, the Napa Valley Wine Train is as close as you’ll come to full-blown Agatha Christie cosplay. A romp on this trek to St. Helena feels like traveling in time to a bygone era of luxurious train travel, aboard beautifully restored Pullman cars outfitted with plush seats, etched glass, and four kitchens. One of the voyage options, to the delight of any Christie stan, is a murder mystery ride. Organized by The Murder Mystery Company, events are two-hour voyages with three courses of food and themes like “Death of a Gangster” and “Wizards & Witches.”

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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