Weekend getaway in Decorah

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From central Iowa, there’s really no easy way to get to Decorah. But you should go anyway, because it’s worth it.

Your choices, depending on how much time you prefer to spend off the beaten path, are to go north on I-35 and then across northern Iowa; go up I-35 for a bit, across Hwy. 20 and then zig-zag north; or some variation. I choose to get off the interstate at Mason City, following Highways 18 to 218 to 9. Like I said: No easy way to get there.

But heading east on Hwy. 9, after a couple of hours of driving through rather average Iowa farmland (and smelling the confinement animal facilities), just outside of Decorah, the landscape suddenly changes in a most remarkable way. The relatively flat farmland gives way to rolling hills worthy of a Grant Wood painting. And then you’re in Decorah.

Decorah is one of the very best small towns in Iowa. I only wish it were closer.

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I arrived Saturday afternoon at about 3 o’clock and went directly to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum (above) – just to double check that it truly would be open on Sunday morning at 9 a.m. (It was, but for some reason it seemed unlikely, so I wanted to check it out.) Confirming that fact, I spent the afternoon strolling through the downtown shops on Water Street, many of which were not going to be open the next day.

I quickly found myself in a dressing room at a store called Margaret’s – a much cooler shop than the name or the storefront would imply. The helpful salesperson and I chatted for quite awhile as she helped me find clothes to try on; we laughed like old friends, and the end result was that I bought a very cute little dress to wear with tights and boots this winter. The prices were amazing, and she even threw in free advice on where to eat dinner tonight.

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From there, I went to Milkhouse Candles & Gifts, where again I found myself in the checkout line — this time with a handful of gifts. I actually played with a porcupine finger puppet and briefly considered purchasing it before my sanity snapped back. So now I’m not just window shopping as I’d planned but BUYING STUFF…and I’m on a roll. I stopped in the Kitchen Place, Agora Arts (above), Dragonfly Books, Happiness Is, Marilyn’s Hallmark, Wendy’s on Water, and a few other shops. Everyone was delightfully helpful and friendly. I even joked with two women in an antiques shop about hair styles for “mature” women.

I bought several more things, and it became obvious that I needed to go back to my car before I started knocking over breakables with my many bags. By now it was 5 o’clock anyway, and the stores were beginning to close. I scoped out my dinner location and left downtown to go check into the Super 8.

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Yes, I stayed at the Super 8. Not my first choice, I will tell you. I wanted to stay at the Hotel Winneshiek (above), right downtown at 104 E. Water Street. But it was booked. And no wonder – it was recently restored to its turn-of-the-century charm, with a three-story atrium, marble fireplace, and crystal chandelier. I could have parked my car and never left downtown. But that was not to be.

The Decorah tourism site  lists just four other hotels/motels. I considered Country Inn & Suites, but a room there was going for $155, which seemed pretty steep to me. So I opted for Super 8 out on the highway (810 Hwy 9) just east of downtown – for $75 with my AAA card. It turned out to be just fine.

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By this time I was hungry, so as soon as I got settled in my room I headed back downtown for dinner. The dining options in Decorah seem boundless for a town of just 8,000 residents: Albert’s Restaurant at the Hotel Winneshiek, Ede’s and the Angry Pickle, McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita Italian restaurant, a sports bar, La Rana Bistro, pizza, barbecue, Mexican restaurants, plus several coffee shops and the Oneota Community Food Coop. I opted for a place called Rubaiyat, a charming bar and restaurant with exposed brick and a nice selection of art on the walls. I was there during happy hour, so I received $1 off my glass of red wine and a reduced price on my house-made chips and chipotle aioli appetizer. They also had a very good selection of beer on tap and a great-looking menu. But after the appetizer, I was pretty much full, so I went directly to dessert. The dessert tray looked yummy…I ordered a crème brulee (above) and was definitely not disappointed. I should mention that the service was excellent, and I never felt slighted for being a single diner who wasn’t ordering a full meal. I tipped my waitress well.

The next morning I went out to my car about 8 o’clock and discovered that it was 27 degrees and my car was covered with frost. (Hmmm…I wonder if that would happen at home if I left my car out of the garage? Probably. I am spoiled.) I was relieved to see that I had an ice scraper in the back seat.

I’ve stayed at way too many motels lately that offer “free” breakfast. Most of the time the food is truly awful. I checked out and walked right past the waffle-maker and bad coffee and went downtown to have a proper morning meal.

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I figured that Albert’s Restaurant at the Hotel Winneshiek would have a good breakfast, and I was not disappointed. I ordered cardamom swirl French toast with lingonberry butter and real maple syrup. Yum! They also had good coffee and great service – and a really nice atmosphere: rich cherry wood booths; modern gray tables, walls, and carpet; and black chairs. The breakfast menu also offered a prosciutto and oyster mushroom benedict, a smoked turkey breakfast burrito, caramel rolls, scones, house-made granola, and more.

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My tummy full, I headed down the street to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Mueseum (502 W. Water St.) . This museum was my main reason for visiting Decorah this weekend. I was drawn to two very different special exhibits currently on display: The Sami Reindeer People of Alaska (through Nov. 10) and The World of Jan Brett (through Jan. 5).

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The Sami reindeer exhibit was small, focusing on photographs (see one above) and a few items. But the story it told was remarkable — Sami families came from Norway in the 1890s to teach reindeer husbandry to native peoples in Alaska. But like so many other stories, this one had a sad ending. In 1937, the Sami reindeer people of Alaska were basically forced to give up their traditional way of life. They were paid $3 for each reindeer; many returned to Norway, while others who remained in Alaska were forced to take other jobs. It’s heartbreaking. I have a very soft spot in my heart for the Samis since I visited one of their reindeer farms in Norway many years ago.

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I also dearly love the children’s author and illustrator Jan Brett. When my daughters were young, we read and reread Brett’s Annie and the Wild Animals, The Wild Christmas Reindeer, and several other of her books, all set in cold, snowy Scandinavia.  Her illustrations are detailed and quite amazing, so I was thrilled to see some of her original book illustrations on display at the Vesterheim. It turns out that Brett has branched out a lot since my kids were little – she has at least a dozen more books, many of which are set in far-flung parts of the world, like China (above) and Africa. I wanted to buy ALL of the books at the museum shop, but as I don’t have little girls to read to any longer, I avoided the temptation. The Brett exhibit also includes her sketchbooks and a play area for children.

In addition to these special exhibits, there’s a display featuring four artists from Duluth, Minn., and a number of ongoing exhibits: a Norwegian home, the immigrant experience (“Crossing the Atlantic,” “Home in America”), beautifully painted wooden furniture and accessories (rosemaling), folk costumes, a real ship called TradeWind, lovely textiles, spinning and weaving, woolen garments, and more.

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My next stop on my Decorah adventure was the Trout Run Trail. I’ve been reading about this 11-mile loop bicycle trail since it first opened in September 2012. The trail includes “public art, bluff vistas, riverside views, and challenging switchbacks” according to an article in the Des Moines Register published when the trail was dedicated. I don’t bike, and I knew I didn’t have time to walk the entire 11 miles (OK, who am I kidding? It would have killed me, even if I did have time) so I walked what I thought might be a good couple of miles: the southeast section from Trout Run Park to the Decorah Fish Hatchery.

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On this section alone I saw two works of art – Bounnak Thammavong’s metal archway near the park (see top of blog post) and Dean Schwarz’s ceramic tile mosaic at the fish hatchery (above) – the famed Decorah eagles’ nest (six feet wide and 750 pounds, but, alas, no eagle sightings), farmland, wooded areas, bridges, prairie grass, and folks fishing in the river. It was really quite a wonderful trail – and a great day to be outside.

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IMG_9338I worked up a bit of an appetite, so I headed back downtown to Java John’s for a cup of coffee and a muffin, only to be disappointed to find it closed (what kind of a coffee shop closes at noon on Sunday?) I bought coffee instead at the very cool Oneota Co-op. This place rivals a small Whole Foods Market or the New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City. Again, this town only has a population of 8,000 – amazing. Anyway, the coffee was great; I was tempted by the wonderful produce, but instead I bought a couple of cookies for the road.

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Before I left town I drove north on Hwy. 52 to the visitor center at Seed Savers Heritage Farm. I’ve heard so much about this place – a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds – that I was really happy to see that it was open on a Sunday in late October. The Lillian Goldman Visitors Center includes a gift shop and garden center (open March through December). The adjacent Diane’s Display Garden was mostly kaput given the recent frost, but according to the website the garden is “an edible landscape, mixing flowers, herbs, prairie grass, and vegetables.” There’s also a children’s garden and some heritage farm animal breeds, including cattle and pigs. I only saw poultry, but the ducks were pretty awesome, and poultry is my favorite anyway.

It was time to go home, but I could have done so much more in Decorah: visited the Luther College campus, done a wine tasting at Winneshiek Wildberry Winery, or taken an historic architecture tour. I drove home a different way: south on Hwy 52 to Hwy. 24 (with an unscheduled detour on some roads I can’t remember) to Hwy. 63 to Hwy 20 and back to the interstate. Keeps it interesting.

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7 comments so far

  1. Scott Thornton on

    Very nice post, Carole. I plan to ride the Trout Run Trail next summer and check out that archway as it looks impressive.

  2. Judy Keyser on

    Planning a trip to Decorah next summer for the 2014 Nordic Fest. It is a beautiful town and thank you for highlighting all the wonderful places to go!!!!

  3. Barb F. on

    Loved reading about your Decorah adventure. As a resident of Northeast Iowa, I love hearing how other people are pleasantly surprised about our little piece of heaven in this corner of the state. I hope next time you can stay longer and in addition to our beautiful Decorah, drive through Yellow River Forest in Allamakee County, check out The Exchange in Cresco and stay in the B&B on Broadway in Decorah after a day of kayaking or canoeing on the Upper Iowa River. We are truly blessed to live in an area with so many opportunities to experience.

  4. Dan on

    Thank you for the great write up about Decorah. I hope next time you stop in you can stay with us. Dan@The Hotel Winneshiek

  5. Nina on

    Glad you enjoyed Decorah! Next time stay at the Dug Road Inn, you won’t be disappointed 🙂 http://www.dugroadinn.com/

  6. Sandi Wright on

    Delightful road trip ahead! Loved this article for sure 🙂

  7. Amy on

    I’m so glad you did this! Decorah keeps popping up in my pinterest Midwest/Iowa feed and other places, but I am never sure if the real thing will live up to the stuff the tourism sites tell you is there, you know? I am glad to know it really is a fine place for a little weekend trip!


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