The skies are dark, the winds cold, the waves high. But I’m cozy under a blanket in my room at Bluefin Bay in Tofte, with a book in hand. The pages tell tales of Lake Superior shipwrecks—fishing vessels foundered, tourist steamers sunk, ore boats cracked in two. But it’s the stories of aspiring capitalists that truly capture my attention. What happened to their fob watches, diamond rings, and silver cigarette cases? How many steamer trunks lie locked and unopened at the bottom of the lake? That night I dreamt of Spanish doubloons.
Two days earlier, a friend and I loaded up the car and drove to Duluth, intending to catch the last of the fall colors along the North Shore. Eschewing progress, we took the slow road—scenic 61—up to Two Harbors, pausing for a civilized lunch of lamb meatloaf and lobster bisque at the New Scenic Café. We snapped pictures at Gooseberry Falls and pulled over at a secret spot just north of Tettegouche State Park to ogle the sea caves and search the beach for agates. We climbed the stairs of the Split Rock Lighthouse and then replaced the calories we’d burned with a tasty slice of coconut-cream pie at the Lemon Wolf Café in Beaver Bay, an unexpected find.
The next morning, we set off on one of my favorite hikes: Eagle Mountain. Not only is it the highest geographic point in the state, it also offers unrivaled views of the gold, red, and orange hues that come with autumn—all the more beautiful when set against the blue of Lake Superior. That afternoon, we drove to Grand Marais and spent the day walking the breakwater, nosing our way through the downtown shops, and finally supping on fish chowder at the Angry Trout Café. As we mopped up the last dribbles with thick slices of bread, my friend mused that, though he’s a native Minnesotan, he hadn’t visited the shore since childhood. All these years he’d been missing out on how scenic it is, how magnetic.
As we drove south the following day, headed back to the Cities, panoramas of the lake unfurled before us again and again. I couldn’t help but recall the shipwrecks I’d read about the previous night—and their long-lost loot. But taking in this view, I realized that no sunken treasure could ever match the dazzling beauty of Superior itself, a jewel hiding in plain sight.
Where to Stay
Luxury condos at the Lutsen-area Bluefin Bay (7192 State Hwy. 61, Tofte, 218-663-7296, bluefinbay.com) or Terrace Point Bay just a few miles outside of Grand Marais (11 Terrace Point Road, 218-387-2500, gmhotel.net).
Where to Eat
Find foodie fare at the New Scenic Café (5461 N. Shore Dr., Duluth, 218-525-6274, sceniccafe.com); casual eats at the Lemon Wolf Café (605 E. West Towne Rd., Beaver Bay, 218-226-7225, lemonwolfcafe.com); plus plenty of fish at the Angry Trout Café (408 State Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, 218-387-1265, angrytroutcafe.com). Then hit the Gunflint Tavern for live music and craft brews (111 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais, 218-387-1563, gmhotel.net).
What to Do
Hike Gooseberry Falls, tour the Split Rock Lighthouse, and explore Eagle Mountain.
Celebrating Oktoberfest in New Ulm
We didn’t know about the pool. We didn’t know that the rooms at the Holiday Inn–New Ulm form a faux-Bavarian courtyard around the pool, or that during Oktoberfest the pool is covered with a dance floor and, once the accordionist starts in, the glass doors of all the rooms slide open and stay open for a kind of family reunion that is at least as much about small-town America as Germany.
Instead, my wife and I make our first Oktoberfest-weekend stop at Schell’s Brewery on the edge of town, a two-hour drive from Minneapolis into the rolling corn country of the Minnesota River Valley. A grandmotherly chauffeur hauls us in a minivan from the parking lot to the antique red-brick buildings where a female tour guide in lederhosen shows us around. An enormous tent, as though for a revival, awaits merrymakers, including the couples from Nebraska and Ohio who had recently been to Brat Days in Sheboygan, Wisconsin—sausage groupies.
For dinner, we head downtown to Veigel’s Kaiserhoff, a circa-1938 throwback known, strangely enough, for its barbecue ribs, the entry lined with photos of Minnesota celebrities who have enjoyed them. Each booth has its own mini-jukebox, and at the bar sits the owner, an Ed McMahon type, fingers studded with rings, listening to Bing Crosby Christmas tunes. I order the German sampler: ribs, two sausages, warm German potato salad, and a brain-size platter of sauerkraut.
In other words, we blew it. The Holiday Inn, we soon discover, has a chalkboard menu listing seven or eight kinds of sausage, which, if I’d played my cards right, could have been the world’s greatest prix fixe. But all I have room for by then is the apple strudel.
The music had already started, cuing dancers in sweatshirts to hurtle over the pool to polka as teens in jeans hung back by the root beer. A second band was playing in a conference room with rows of long tables, an ad-hoc rathskeller. And around 10 p.m., the fools arrive: Die Narren, they’re called, über-Oktoberfesters in enormous exaggerated peasant masks who parade among the tables then chat with their friends about the kids, the crops, the weather.
It’s raining the next morning as we make our way downtown to the small bandstand sheltering Dain’s Dutchmen, a family polka outfit led by a 20-something concertina player in a seed cap and beard (not the ironic kind). We huddle together with dairy farmers watching as old men spin young women around the pavement in a pageant that could only unfold here, in Minnesota’s most German town.
Where to Stay
Holiday Inn New Ulm (2101 S. Broadway, New Ulm, ihg.com) is ground central. Don’t plan on going to sleep early. Deutsche Strasse Bed and Breakfast (404 S. German St., New Ulm, deutschestrasse.com) has all the gemütlichkeit you can handle.
Where to Eat
You can’t do better than the homemade grub at Otto’s Feierhaus and Bierstube at the Holiday Inn: spaetzle, brat, sauerkraut, and warm German potato salad. But don’t miss Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (221 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm, 507-359-2071, kaiserhoff.org) even if you only have room for the Weight Watcher’s Special: 1/3-pound broiled hamburger or chicken breast with cottage cheese, tomato, and egg slices.
What to Do
Polka, eat, buy a dirndl. The 32nd annual Oktoberfest is October 4–5, 11–12; newulmoktoberfest.com.
Road Trip Reverie
Along the Great River Road, the journey is the destination
I approach road trips with equal parts preparation (Twizzlers: check! iPod: check!) and happy anticipation of something I don’t often employ in my daily life: spontaneity. Usually, I’m heading out the door “packed heavy,” as my dad would say, with my family (including two dogs) in tow. This time, however, I packed up and hit the road, solo.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. No negotiating iPod playage? No one with whom to share an Icee, then argue over who got more? No one to quiz with trivia? I felt myself starting to hurry out of pure habit: making to-do lists, tapping on the steering wheel, hunching forward. Basically, acting like I was commuting.
But as I hit my stride on Wisconsin’s scenic Highway 35, between Maiden Rock and Trempealeau, it all started to fall into place: this is the vacation. This is the relaxing. You aren’t hurrying anywhere. You’re going for the sake of going; to see the trees, orange and red fireballs, cascading to Lake Pepin—to witness the fiery display before it’s lights out for the winter.
I pulled up to Pepin’s storied Harbor View Café just as it grew dark. The festive outdoor string lights, windows emitting a warm yellow glow, and laughing diners created a postcard-perfect picture. I sat down to my first nice solo dinner. Ever. Lingering over my fish and wine, eavesdropping on other diners’ conversations, I felt perfectly snug and contented.
As late got later, I headed back to Maiden Rock to Journey Inn to embark on a mini wellness eco-retreat. Co-owner Charlene Torchia met me at the door then led me to the spa for my massage, which was followed by a nice long herbal soak in a Japanese tub. Once again, I fought the urge to hurry, and reveled in the moment: I’m out in the country, under a million stars, breathing in the crisp air. This is what I’m here to do.
I slept better that night than I had in months.
The next morning, I ate breakfast at Journey Inn and left with Charlene’s granola recipe. On my way home, I stopped in Stockholm to peruse the shops. After I bonded with Juno the dog, the namesake for Juno & Me, owner Mike Jensen insisted on buying me a slice of coconut-cream pie from the famous Stockholm Pie Company. We three sat enjoying the late-fall afternoon before it slid, irretrievably, into winter.
Where to Stay
The eco-retreat Journey Inn, where, in addition to relaxing in the complete silence of western Wisconsin, you can take part in life coaching, meditation or couple’s retreats, or spa treatments (W3671 200th Ave., Maiden Rock, WI, 715-448-2424, journeyinn.net).
Where to Eat
Don’t miss the from-scratch, home-cooked meals at the Harbor View Café (314 First St., Pepin, WI, 715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com). A slice of pie from the Stockholm Pie Company is the best way to end any meal, any time of day (N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, WI, 715-442-5505, thestockholmpiecompany.com).
What to Do
Drive! But be sure to stop in all the small towns along the way—especially Alma, the entirety of which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Watch boats go through the locks at the Buena Vista Park overlook, stop to pick apples, and buy cheese at Nelson’s (nelsoncheese.com).
For apple lovers, this Winsted orchard is Honeycrisp heaven
At the restaurant at Carlson’s Orchard, an hour west of the Twin Cities in Winsted, there’s no mistaking the star ingredient. Stenciled apples dance along the ceiling’s border, paintings and posters of apples cover the walls, and apple products—everything from jams to ciders—fill the floor displays. The menu tempts diners to “add apple pie and ice cream to any meal for $0.99.” If ever there were a shrine to fall’s favorite fruit, this is it.
But despite the restaurant’s tasty food—get the ham sandwich on fresh focaccia and, of course, the apple pie—Carlson’s acres of you-pick apple trees are the main attraction. Apples are Minnesota’s largest fruit crop, and the University of Minnesota’s fruit-breeding program is famous for developing the homecoming queen of apple varieties, Honeycrisp. (How many other apples do you know that have been profiled by Esquire?)
Carlson’s wisely devotes much of its acreage to the sweet-tart, super-crunchy Honeycrisp, and I’m more than ready to fill my bag with the juicy gems. On the afternoon of my visit, the endless rows of green treetops are dappled in warm sunshine, a slight hay-scented breeze rustling the leaves.
This is my first you-pick mission, and it takes me a few fails—stretching rather, well, fruitlessly for a grapefruit-sized beauty just out of reach, thinking any windfall apple is edible (can you say maggots?)—before achieving a major win: a row of Honeycrisp trees so heavy with fruit that I think they might topple over. The plucking and plopping of the red-and-green speckled beauties becomes like a dance; it’s a far more engaging experience than grabbing a few of the fruits from a uniformly stacked supermarket display.
I get a little nervous as my waitress-turned-cashier weighs my bounty. After all, Honeycrisps are notorious for their diva-like price. Instead, my total is less than half of the going grocery-store rate. I consider pocketing the savings and heading home, but the lure of another slice of that $0.99 pie proves too strong to resist.
Where to Stay
Nature’s Nest Organic Farm and B&B for a rustic retreat (5412 Brighton Ave. SE, Montrose, 763-972-6891, naturesnestfarm.com). Dutch Lake Farm Guest House for a contemporary take on country living (6624 Hoyt Ave. SW, Howard Lake, 320-543-2944, dutchlakeguesthouse.com).
Where to Eat
Enjoy a hearty breakfast at the B&B. Add a slice of apple pie to your lunch at Carlson’s Orchard (11893 Montgomery Ave. SW, Winsted, 320-485-3704, carlsonsorchardbaker.com). Snack on handpicked apples.
What to Do
Pick your fill of apples at Carlson’s, then head 30 minutes west to LuceLine Orchard (2755 Rose Ave., Watertown, lucelineorchard.com) to explore their 155 acres of creek-side trails, corn maze, pumpkin patch, and vineyard. Be sure to say hi to the über-friendly sheep.
Biking among the soaring bluffs of the Root River Trail
The corn waves at me as I pedal through the random swatch of farmland tucked into the bluffs and valleys of southeastern Minnesota. I think about waving back—acknowledging my sole companions on the Root River Trail this crisp, bright morning—but practicality overrules whimsy, and instead I pedal on toward Preston, leaning into the curves, powering up the hills, and coasting across the bridges.
The Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley trails sit deep in the heart of the Driftless Area: the steep valleys and limestone bluffs bordering the Mississippi River in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa that escaped the wrath of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago. The paved 60-mile system snakes its way through this rolling, craggy landscape and links the towns of Houston, Fountain, and Harmony. For hard-core bikers, it’s an obstacle-free path on which to crank out the miles. For everyone else, it’s the ticket to a peaceful afternoon filled with beauty.
The trail’s most popular entry point is picturesque Lanesboro, where the main street ends at the river and a good chunk of the population shares a narrative of having come for vacation and stayed for good. Besides Lanesboro’s abundance of bed-and-breakfasts (it’s been dubbed the B&B Capital of Minnesota), the main tourist draw here is biking, hence the little town’s two rental-shop options: Little River General Store and Root River Outfitters.
Rides ranging from 4.6 to 40 miles branch out from Lanesboro. I’ve chosen the trail ending in Preston: a 10.2-mile trek that’s doable yet respectable for me, an admittedly inexperienced biker with a competitive streak. It takes me a while to get into a rhythm, but eventually I settle into eavesdropping on the conversation between the wind and my pedals, their whooshing and shushing mingling with the gurgles of the river.
As the miles tick by, my thoughts become less and less structured until they are no more than a collage of observations. Here, in the toe of Minnesota, the Driftless Area’s rocks create towering bluffs, its trees thick forests, and bright blossoms a blooming prairie. These represent a geology lesson, to be sure, but also, perhaps, the embodiment of each wandering soul that has ever passed through, drifting along toward whatever the future may hold.
Where to Stay
The Scandinavian Inn is a favorite among Lanesboro’s many B&Bs for its focus on eco-friendliness, lovely rooftop gazebo, and generous from-scratch breakfasts (701 Kenilworth Ave. S., 507-467-4500, scandinavianinn.com).
Where to Eat
Pedal Pushers Café pairs retro décor with locally sourced, house-made eats (121 Parkway Ave. N., pedalpusherscafe.com). Get cozy in a booth or on one of the stools at the Spud Boy Lunch diner (105 3/4 Parkway Ave. N., spud.nydiners.com). Sip a cocktail to the sounds of the river at Riverside on the Root (109 Parkway Ave. S., riversideontheroot.com).
What to Do
Rent a bike at either Little River General Store (105 Coffee St. E., lrgeneralstore.net) or Root River Outfitters (109 Parkway Ave. S., rootriveroutfitters.com), and take in the beauty that is the Driftless Area.