A southern Iowa sampler

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When you think of the top tourist destinations in Iowa – bridges of Madison County, Field of Dreams, the scenic northeast part of the state, and all that Des Moines has to offer – the southern tier of counties doesn’t immediately spring to mind.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth exploring. I love the Villages of Van Buren County, the Amish farms, the entire Hwy. 2 corridor, and the southwestern Loess Hills. I’ve visited these areas in the past, but my husband, Dave, had not. So, when I put together the itinerary for our Memorial Day weekend getaway, I included some of my favorite areas and added a few new places for us to explore.

Our first destination was the American Gothic House in Eldon. But first, we stopped in Pella for breakfast pastries at Jaarsma Bakery. I nearly always choose a Dutch letter, but I decided to branch out and opted this time for an almond caramel pastry (sticky and so delicious); Dave was boring and got a blueberry muffin.

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After our sugar fix, we continued on with our travels. I love all things Grant Wood; I did a 3-part blog about his life and art back in 2011-12. The American Gothic House in Eldon (above) is a must-see for Grant Wood fans and all Iowa tourists. There’s an American Gothic House Center that features Grant Wood art, tells the artist’s life story and the story of his most famous painting, and shows a gazillion parodies of American Gothic – from Ronald Reagan to Rosanne Barr. There are even costumes and a pitchfork with which you can recreate the scene. (Dave said no thanks.) The American Gothic House is located at 300 American Gothic Street (take Hwy. 16 to Eldon and follow the signs).

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From there, we headed south to Keosauqua and took an abbreviated tour of the Villages of Van Buren, visiting Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Cantril, and Milton.

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In Keosauqua, we enjoyed a quick stop to view the Hotel Manning (above), the historic inn on the banks of the Des Moines River. We drove through Lacey-Keosauqua State Park but didn’t stop for a walk (though there are 13 miles of wooded trails) because by now it was already 90 degrees and also terribly buggy.

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Continuing along scenic J40, we drove through Bentonsport without stopping and hurried to Bonaparte; we wanted to eat at the Bonaparte Retreat Restaurant, and it stops serving lunch at the early hour of 1 p.m.

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When we got there, it was a busy place. We waited patiently for other diners to finish their lunch before we snagged a table. The restaurant is housed in an old mill that’s now a National Historic Site. The décor is heavy on antiques and the menu is definitely old-school (the lunch special was creamed chicken on biscuits with a side of corn).

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There wasn’t much in the way of vegetarian options – not even my old standby: a grilled cheese sandwich – so I ordered a wedge of lettuce with blue cheese (Dave had a $3.55 cheeseburger with a $3.70 side of onion rings) followed by coconut pie for dessert. The setting and service definitely make this restaurant worth a visit.

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Bonaparte is a fun, historic town to explore, especially if you like antiques. There’s an interesting pottery workshop (below) that was established in 1865. We were given an impromptu tour by the owner’s sister, so we got to see some of the 1870s clay molds and learn about the history of the pottery operation located on the bank of the Des Moines River as well as visit the pottery-filled gift shop.

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We doubled back to Bentonsport (the two towns are only about four miles apart). I love walking across the old river bridge built in 1882 (below) and poking around in the shops, including the historic Greef General Store that’s filled with antiques.

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From there, we headed to Milton Creamery, located in a not-historic building right on Hwy. 2. Milton’s Prairie Breeze and Prairie Rose cheeses are well known in Iowa; you can purchase them at many grocery stores, and they appear on a number of good-quality restaurants’ cheese boards. It’s fun to visit the creamery because you can sample the not-so-famous cheeses, such as quark (a spreadable cheese that tastes like goat chevre but made from cow’s milk) and flavored cheese curds. We bought a tub of quark, some chive curds, and a chunk of Prairie Breeze, all delicious.

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Our final stop in Van Buren County may have been the highlight of the day. I wanted to visit Dutchman’s Store in Cantril. I love this place! It’s truly one-stop-shopping for just about anything you’d ever want, but unlike Wal-Mart, it’s an adorable, authentic Amish market. You can buy work boots and what appeared to be a frozen side of beef; bulk candies and bolts of cotton fabric; jars of pickles and bottles of old-fashioned soda pop. My favorite items are the Amish clothing: white shirts, black jackets, and black or straw hats for men; bonnets and aprons for women. We bought more cheese, some pumpkin butter, noodles, and pretzels — all for way less money than you’d spend in most grocery stores.

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And then, still in Cantril, we parked at the Waubonsie Park Trail and hiked the 1-mile loop. This place is such a great discovery! From the road, you’d think it was no more than an RV park, but once you get on the trail you’re rewarded with a picturesque pond (above), secluded woods, and THREE covered bridges (above and below). I loved this place!

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The afternoon heat nearly did us in – by now it was about 98 degrees and sunny – so we headed toward our evening destination: Honey Creek Resort. We stopped briefly in Centerville (below) to walk around the square (it’s the largest town square in Iowa, so, you know, you gotta stop there). Centerville also boasts 119 buildings on the National Historic Register.

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Traveling north on Highway 5 and then west on J18, we finally reached Honey Creek Resort and checked in. The place was hopping, with lots of golfers and an engagement party. Our well-appointed room was located on the third floor, with views of the lake. We were ready for a beer, so we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes and went down to the bar.

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The only other time I’d visited Honey Creek Resort was in February 2015, and I had such a good experience in the bar and restaurant. The service was really warm, friendly, and professional, and the food was great. This time, I have a lot of complaints. First of all, it seemed like much of the staff was brand new. Maybe they added a bunch of new staff on Memorial Day weekend, but these folks did not appear to be very well trained (or trained at all?). We sat at the bar and waited a very long time for a server to ask us what we’d like to drink – despite the fact that there were three people behind the bar and very few customers. After drinking a cold beer – which definitely hit the spot after our long, hot day – we moved to the dining room, where we had another terrible server. She was not knowledgeable about the menu and had absolutely no personality. I had to remind her that I’d ordered a glass of wine. Plates were cleared without comment. The check was dropped and away she ran. Was this her first day? I sure hope so, because if this is a seasoned employee, this restaurant is in trouble.

I will admit that both of our meals were quite tasty. But the vegetarian options on the menu were few and far between. I ordered a build-your-own pasta with pesto sauce and portobello mushrooms, which is kind of funny because when I was here three years ago I had a portobello mushroom with cheese and pesto sauce. The menu is good for meat-eaters but not at all creative for those of us who aren’t.

So, I was disappointed in our evening meal and disappointed that it was too blasted hot to sit outside to enjoy an after-dinner drink. (There were tables and chairs on the patio, but no umbrellas, and it was still mighty warm outside.)

The next morning, after a comfortable night’s sleep, we went back to the restaurant with high hopes for breakfast. Again, I was disappointed. When I was here before, a breakfast buffet was available but you could also order off the menu. This time, the buffet was the only option, and I really hate that. With a buffet, I end up spending more on my meal and getting less of what I really want – because I don’t eat the bacon and sausage or the biscuits and gravy. I really wanted pancakes or an omelet. At least the buffet price wasn’t too out of line at $11.95. I ate a scoop of so-so scrambled eggs, a scoop of good-tasting hash-brown potatoes, a tiny blueberry muffin, and some fruit. The server brought me a cup of coffee but never offered to refill my cup.

One last complaint about Honey Creek Resort: Our room cost $249 plus 12% tax and a conservation fee, and when we left they also added a $10 resort fee, which sort of irritated me. So, beware of hidden charges when you book a room here.

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Our plan on Sunday was to hike at Honey Creek State Park or nearby Lake Wapello State Park, but it was already so hot that we just headed home. Our last stop was at the delightful town of Albia (above and below). I adore this town square – it may be my favorite in all of Iowa. It has more than 90 buildings on the National Historic Register, and somebody’s definitely put a lot of love and money into this downtown.

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