Anniversary weekend getaway to eastern Iowa
I had this brilliant idea a couple of weeks ago to combine a blog outing in eastern Iowa with an anniversary getaway with my husband, Dave. The itinerary I put together included a couple of places I’ve never been (but have had on my list to write about ever since I started this blog), unique lodging that was recommended to me by two friends, a few places I’ve been before but wanted to revisit, and a couple of random summer attractions. So it was an interesting hodge-podge of things for us to do.
We left after work on Friday and headed east across Hwy. 20. I wanted to stop in Cedar Falls for dinner because I really love downtown Cedar Falls and knew there would be great places to dine. My friend Mary, who lives in town, recommended a restaurant called Montage, so I made reservations for Friday night. Turns out we didn’t need the reservation because A) the place is huge and B) it wasn’t busy at all.
Montage was a great recommendation for us. The menu had many adventuresome vegetarian options (not just “I’ll have a salad, hold the chicken”) as well as yummy-sounding gluten-free items (not just “here’s a plain chicken breast for you”) and plenty of meaty dishes for Dave. We ordered beers (because I was too cheap to pay $9 for a glass of red wine, though they did have a robust wine list) and started out with a goat cheese torta with garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil pesto served with skinny toasted slices of baguette ($8). I have to admit I didn’t know what a torta was, but the ingredients sounded delicious. Turns out that the torta was a little molded serving of goat cheese layered with the other ingredients (see below). It was a terrific spread for the toasts.
For my entrée, I paired an Asian slaw salad ($6) with a side of goat cheese risotto ($6), both really good choices and so filling that I didn’t even finish the risotto. The “sides” section of the menu actually appealed the most to me – I think I could go back half a dozen more times and find something new to eat each time. Dave ordered beef kabobs that also included veggie kabobs, all over a brown rice with Asian marinade ($18).
We really liked this restaurant. It has a great interior with several rooms, plus a rooftop bar/dining area. The menu includes lots of pasta, chicken, seafood, and unique single-serving pizzas. The dessert menu sounded great, too. Gosh, when can I go back?
In fact, when can I go back to downtown Cedar Falls, period? I love this town and would love to explore the shops, bars, and restaurants at a leisurely pace someday.
But we had to move on. We had a two-hour drive ahead of us.
Our destination was the Moon River Cabins in Bellevue. South of Dubuque and right on the Mississippi River, these cute little cabins were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s WPA program in the 1930s. The cabins were built to house the workers who were building the Lock and Dam No. 12 on the Mississippi, over which the cabins look. Over the years they were used as fishing cabins, fell into disrepair, and were renovated in 2004.
We arrived around 9 o’clock in the evening, so it was pretty dark, and we missed the cabins on our first attempt at finding them. We turned around and tried again, and this time we spotted them easily just south of downtown Bellevue right along the main highway.
There are four cabins: The Paddle Wheel, Riverstone, Mill Creek, and the Twain. Our second challenge (after finding the cabins in the first place) was figuring out which one was the Riverstone, our cabin for the next two nights. It was dark and I didn’t see a name on any of the cabins. When I made the reservation, I was told the keys would be in the door. So I went to a cabin with keys in the door, but the key chain said “Twain.” I tried again, and found keys for the Riverstone as promised. (The next morning, in the light of day, I easily found the cabin names. They were etched into large rocks in front of each cabin, below.)
The Riverstone was comfortable and quaint. It came equipped with a small kitchen, two beds (one queen and one double), ceiling fans, flat-screen television, free-standing “fireplace,” window AC unit, and a teeny bathroom with a shower. The bed was very comfortable. Dishes and linens are provided. My favorite part of the cabin experience was actually the two-person wooden rocker outside (below), where we sat and watched the river flow.
Our breakfast destination Saturday morning was Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, about an hour’s drive from Bellevue. This is clearly a destination restaurant, given that it is Iowa’s oldest restaurant, originating in 1852 by the great-great grandfather of the current owner, Mike Breitbach. Sadly, the restaurant burned down and was rebuilt not once but twice in this century – in 2007 and 2008. Both times the community rallied to help rebuild. This historic restaurant has been on my list of places to visit for years.
The drive to Balltown, northwest of Dubuque, is quite scenic, and we were hungry when we arrived. We were met at the door by Mike himself, one of six generations of Breitbachs to run the restaurant. He introduced himself as “owner/custodian,” as he was working on some maintenance issues at the moment.
The restaurant is lovely and rambling, with many dining rooms, a bar, a lower-level bar/event space, and outdoor dining/event spaces. From what I observed, it’s THE hopping place in Balltown.
We ordered breakfast. I had two eggs, hash browns, and toast for $4.50, plus a cup of coffee. The food was decent, but nothing special, and the coffee was fairly awful. But I very much enjoyed the visit anyway.
The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday, serving breakfast until 11 a.m., lunch, and dinner, with lunch buffets and weekend dinner buffets Friday through Sunday. You can find steak, prime rib, chicken, homemade soups, and pies. I say it’s worth the drive.
Our next destination has also been on my list of places to visit since I launched this blog in 2010. In fact, I’m sort of embarrassed to say that I’m an Iowa travel writer and I’ve lived in Iowa for nearly 20 years and I’ve never visited the Field of Dreams movie site. Honestly, it always struck me as a tourist trap and someplace I wouldn’t enjoy. But dammit, I’m an Iowan, so I went.
Field of Dreams, the sappy baseball movie starring Kevin Costner, was released in 1989, so this is the 25th anniversary of the rural Iowa movie site. It’s located between Dyersville and Bankston. We found it easily (Dave had visited before) and there were a couple of cars in the parking lot. It’s not a particularly interesting place, especially if you’re like me and didn’t love the movie. There’s a baseball diamond, of course, with a backstop and a couple of small sets of bleachers. The white house surrounded by a white picket fence is very pretty. Nearby is a small gift shop, which I didn’t go in, but I could see that they were selling T-shirts.
I think this place would be worth visiting if the corn in the surrounding fields had grown a few feet tall and if a baseball game was actually being played. This summer, the Field of Dreams Movie Site Ghost Players will perform in uniformed baseball games on five Sunday afternoons: July 3, July 17, July 31, Aug. 14, and Aug. 28.
Well, meanwhile, it’s free to visit, so you get what you pay for. The movie site is open April 1 through Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., plus weekends in November. You’re encouraged to bring a ball and glove and play catch.
OK, so now we’re off to our next stop: Park Farm Winery. Located outside Bankston (and not really all that far from Dubuque), this may be the prettiest location for a winery in all of Iowa.
I had visited this place once before for a story I did on Iowa State University connections to the Iowa grape and wine industry several years ago, and I just fell in love with the setting. The main building sits atop these lovely rolling vineyards that bring to mind the landforms in Tuscany.
Inside the tasting room, we were invited to taste five varietals for $3, plus we got a small bonus taste of dessert wine for free. So nice! I mainly tried the driest wines, with names like House Series Brianna, Sunday Afternoon La Crosse, Vintner’s Reserve Marechal Foch, and Mississippi River Red. I also tried a limited-edition Nouveau 2015 red, and that was my favorite. I bought a bottle.
Park Farm is a great destination for a summer or fall afternoon. Hours are noon to 5 or 6 p.m. on Monday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The tasting room and a deck overlooking the vineyard are open to the public during these hours, and private events are held in the event room or south deck. The winery even serves wood-fired, artisan pizza.
When we left the winery, the day was still young. We headed toward Dubuque and found a place to park in the downtown area near the site of an already-in-progress fine arts festival. We strolled by the vendor tents, food trucks, and musicians and then stopped at the welcome center on Main St. to pick up some local-travel brochures (and a few more for future adventures). It was a warm day, so we headed to the Riverboat Lounge in the Hotel Julien, where we got a couple of good, cold beers and sat outside on the patio overlooking the nearby National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. (This museum is a great place to visit, but I’ve already been there a couple of times, so we didn’t stop by.)
With the sun and the wine and the beer, I was sort of ready for a nap at this point, but we decided to do something more active: take a hike at Bellevue State Park. This very nice park, right along the Mississippi and very close to our cabin, features a butterfly garden, restored prairie, view of a former limestone quarry, and a fair number of hiking trails from which to choose. We opted for a walk through the prairie but were inundated by bugs and heat, so it didn’t last long. A better option was the river overlook (above), which was spectacular.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the back porch of our cabin until it was time to get dressed for dinner. We’d considered going back into Dubuque for our evening meal but then we realized that we had a unique restaurant right across the highway from our cabin in Bellevue: Potter’s Mill. The historic grist mill built in 1843 is home to Flatted Fifth Blues & BBQ; it’s also an inn with three B&B rooms. Back when it was a flour mill, the operation turned out 200 barrels of flour each day before closing in 1969 after 126 years of service.
Not unlike Montage and Breitbach’s, this place had a rambling choice of dining rooms. We were seated in what felt like a cellar, with stone walls and chilled floors. The menu was fun, with starters like fried pickles, pork belly cracklins, and fried green tomatoes. Southern specialties included red beans and rice, jambalaya, chicken pot pie, corn bread, cheese grits, southern greens, shrimp po’boy, catfish, and a muffaletta sandwich. I felt like I was in New Orleans! (Sadly, the dessert menu did not include beignets.)
I did my usual weird vegetarian order, choosing the fried green tomatoes appetizer (pictured above) for my entrée ($9.99) and adding $2 sides of grilled pineapple cole slaw and corn muffins. Dave had the smoked chicken dinner ($13.99) with a corn muffin, baked beans, and a corn dish called maque choux. We both ordered a local beer. And ate dessert.
Live music began at 8 p.m., but we didn’t stay.
We said goodbye to our sweet little cabin and the town of Bellevue (above) and drove southwest to start our day’s adventures.
We didn’t really have a plan for breakfast, but I figured there would be a family-owned restaurant in downtown Maquoketa, and I was not disappointed.
Known for its unique Maquoketa Caves State Park, which I featured in this blog last September, Maquoketa also has a thriving business district. We found the Main Street Café to be pretty much what you’d expect: mostly local diners, a menu featuring liver & onions and homemade pie, friendly service, basic breakfast items – and coffee that tasted only slightly better than Breitbach’s.
I enjoy visiting mom-and-pop-style diners in small towns – you can’t compare them to the ubiquitous Subway sandwich shops and Pizza Ranches – and I especially like eating breakfast there. Everything is predictable and usually very tasty. I ordered two eggs and two pancakes. They came out hot and fast, and for $4.95 I’d have to say they were darn good.
Our bellies full, we continued on through Anamosa toward our Sunday destination: Cedar Rapids. I’ve visited Cedar Rapids so many times now that I’ve lost count, and I’ve blogged about attractions in this city many times. But I had three good reasons to make this our day’s adventure: An Andy Warhol exhibition at the National Czech & Slovak Museum, the NewBo City Market (which always seems to be closed when I’m in town – but it’s open on Sundays), and most of all, the Overalls All Over Grant Wood Experience.
I love Grant Wood – I did a three-part feature on the Iowa artist between August 2011 and June 2012 on this blog – and I really love this project. “Overalls All Over” features 25 life-sized fiberglass statues depicting the farmer and daughter from Wood’s American Gothic painting. Each is unique.
For me, finding the statues is at least half the fun. I printed a map from this website (go to “overalls” on the top navigation bar for thumbnail photos, links to details, and that all-important map); we parked the car on First Ave. and Fifth St. and started walking. From that parking space, we walked easily to 10 of the statues. It was so much fun! I really loved the “American Hipster” sculpture at McGrath Amphitheater (directly above) and “American Artist” located right in front of the historic Grant Wood studio at 800 Second Ave. SE (below). But, really, all of them were cool.
From that parking place we drove just a few blocks to see “Couple Beers?” at the Iowa Brewing Company (708 Third St. SE). The next two statues we viewed were at the National Czech & Slovak Museum and at NewBo City Market, our next two destinations. Win-win!
Our journey now took us to the National Czech & Slovak Museum, which I visited in June 2013 and wrote about here. I remember at the time being really impressed with the building (and the fact that they had moved it from its formerly flooded site) but disappointed that the main exhibit, “Faces of Freedom: The Czech and Slovak Journey,” was a mere two days away from opening.
So I was excited to go back to the museum to see that exhibit, plus I wanted to see the new exhibit by pop icon Andy Warhol that just opened on May 14.
Both exhibits were terrific. The “Immortal: Warhol’s Last Works” exhibition features images of John Wayne, the Wicked Witch of the West, Mick Jagger, and more. (Sorry, I can’t show you these…they don’t allow photography in that part of the museum.) A short film chronicles his last days.
Coming up soon is the Warholmania! costume party, June 10 from 6-9 p.m. The Warhol exhibit runs through Oct. 2.
The 7,000-sqare-foot Faces of Freedom exhibit gives an extensive look at the Czech and Slovak immigration story. It traces the experience of traveling by steamer ship to America and shows a world at war during World War II, the Velvet Revolution, native costumes (above), artifacts, and more. Parts of this exhibit would be appropriate for older children as well as adults. I took the selfie in a mirror, below, in the steamer ship exhibit. A close-up of the display follows.
Another current exhibit is “Bohemian Boudoir” (above), a display of Czech vanity glass. It’s cooler than it sounds.
All in all, I really loved my repeat visit to this museum. And I got to check off another of the “Overalls”: “Andy and Edie” by artist Julius Cavira portrays Andy Warhol as the pitchfork-wielding farmer. It’s awesome.
We were lucky and visited the museum during Houby Days, so our admission cost was just $5. Normal admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for veterans and active military, $5 for students, $3 for youth aged 6-13, and free for kids 5 and under. (I always think parents who bring really little kids to adult museums should have to pay a premium instead of getting the little rugrats in for free, but that’s just me.) Located at 1400 Inspiration Place SW in Cedar Rapids, the museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you go, be sure to catch the short film about the monumental task of moving and expanding the museum after the flood of 2008.
The last of the American Gothic statues we saw was at NewBo City Market. It’s called “Advance to Go-Go,” and the best way I can describe it is he’s the Monopoly man and she’s a ’60s girl. I don’t quite understand that, but it’s very cute.
This year-round indoor market, located at 1100 Third St. SE, has been around since 2012. Its roots began in 2008 when the industrial area in which the market now sits flooded horribly. Many blocks of land found themselves empty or neglected. The market was formed in 2010 as a nonprofit corporation and raised $6 million from the city, state, county, and other sources. Today the market takes up an entire square block in the heart of New Bohemia, not far from the Czech Village and just over the river from the Czech and Slovak Museum.
This is definitely a fun place for lunch, and that was our goal: to find something interesting to eat before ending our weekend adventure and heading back to Ames. Merchants line the edges of the cavernous space, with more vendors in a row down the middle and a space at one end to sit and dine. There are a lot of choices: gourmet grilled cheese, a Czech deli/bakery, freshly baked bread, ice cream, cupcakes, coffee, Mediterranean, Mexican, and more. There are also a few non-food vendors.
I initially gravitated to the Mediterranean vendor but wasn’t crazy about the vegetarian options available, even though there were several. I ended up getting a salad at City Melt, the grilled cheese vendor, and added an almond scone from the Rustic Hearth Bakery, which turned out to be a bit TOO rustic (read: hard, dry) for my taste. Should have held out for ice cream.
NewBo Market hours are Thursday-Friday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Thus ended our anniversary/blogging adventure. We headed home to tackle laundry and yard work. Why can’t vacations last forever?