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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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Springtime in central Iowa

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Ahhhh, springtime in central Iowa. Winter lasts forever, and once spring finally arrives, it lasts for about 5 minutes before we are into full-blown summer.

We had snow up until April 18 this year ­– not an errant gasp of winter in mid-April, but serious, hard-core winter weather throughout March and well into April. Here’s an example from my own backyard, the first photo taken on April 15, the second on May 6:

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I’ve made it a practice for many years to travel to Pella the weekend before Tulip Time to see the flowers without the crowds. This year that plan backfired; one week before Tulip Time there were stubby green stems and leaves, but very few tulips nodding in the sunshine (see the one bed that was blooming, below). A week later, during the actual event, I’m told the flowers were in full bloom. What a difference a week makes!

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I visited Reiman Gardens in Ames last weekend, and the tulips there were magnificent, just a riot of color. I loved the multicolored beds this year.

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It was a warm, sunny, windy day – a perfect environment to view the Gardens’ Wind, Waves, and Light kinetic sculpture exhibition (below). The sculptures, created by George Sherwood, are made of highly reflective stainless steel, and they reflect the sunlight as well as moving in mesmerizing patterns in the wind. See it this summer or fall – it will be on display through Nov. 3.

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Then, these little sweeties popped up in my front yard a couple of days ago. I love their little faces.

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This week I visited McFarland Park (in Story County, just north of Ames) for the first time in more than a year. I used to hike there regularly; I’m not sure why I don’t drive up there more often. The park has some of the best spots for wildflower viewing in the area. This spring’s crop is the best I’ve ever seen. The bluebells are real little overachievers, blooming in incredible numbers all over the woodland floor. There are also wild violets and other yummy little flowers in a rainbow of colors.

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Go soon! Spring is over in the blink of an eye.

 

Snow! On the North Shore

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Ah, the lure of deep, fluffy snow on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. I’ve dreamed about seeing this for years, but I’ve always been too nervous to book a weekend getaway nine hours north when winter weather is so unpredictable.

Once, eight years ago, I decided to bite the bullet and go North in March. But I was disappointed that there was no snow on the lakeshore, and even though there was snow on the hiking trails it was already warmer up there than in Iowa, making it feel more like spring than winter. Plus, I saw about a hundred deer on the roads up there, which made me super fearful that I’d hit one with my tiny car.

But I took a chance a couple of weeks ago and booked a cabin at my favorite getaway, Cascade Lodge, for the weekend of March 10-12. The 10-day forecast was decent, and the Cascade Lodge folks were tempting me daily with beautiful snow photos on their Facebook page.

My drive north on Saturday was without incident, unless you count a very brief snowstorm near the Twin Cities and a scary wreck on the side of the road on Hwy. 61. Both made me slow the hell down and focus my eyes on the road in front of me.

I stopped twice in Two Harbors (about 20 miles or so north of Duluth), first to buy six-packs of my favorite new beer – Castle Danger Cream Ale – that you can’t buy in Iowa, and then to eat a late lunch (okay, pie and ice cream) at Betty’s Pies.

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I arrived at Cascade Lodge at around 4:30 in the afternoon and got settled into Cabin 11 – not my normal choice but it’s really the sweetest little cabin you ever saw (above). Cascade Lodge is under new ownership, and the best thing they’ve done is upgrade all the mattresses from rock-hard to pillowy softness, with new duvets and Faribault Woolen Mills blankets thrown in for good measure. Heavenly!

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The North Shore was, indeed, covered with white, fluffy snow, though not quite as deep as I was hoping. Some of the piles were taller than me, but the snow on the ground was more like 8 inches, even though they got three feet of snow in one 10-day period just a couple of weeks ago. Here’s my little car parked next to my cabin:

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I spent the first night eating a bowl of potato-leek soup and drinking a pint of Cream Ale (on tap!) at Cascade Restaurant, which is located right next to the lodge. It was Friday night, and they had a good band playing. Later I built a fire and started reading a new book in my cabin.

The next morning, after eating pancakes and drinking a whole lot of coffee, I bundled up and took off for a snowshoe hike. It was cold – my feet and fingers were absolutely frozen just walking over to the diner – so I brought a whole arsenal of outerwear with me: stocking cap, earmuffs, two pairs of gloves, scarf, coat, and down vest, in addition to the fleece-lined leggings, pants, hiking boots, two pairs of wool socks, and fleece and flannel shirts that I was already wearing. I drove the 12 miles south to my turn-off at Onion River Road and headed inland, where the snow was visibly deeper. I parked in the large parking lot near the Oberg Mountain Loop (and two other trailheads) and geared up. The parking lot was covered in thick ice, so I put ice cleats on my hiking boots, grabbed my snowshoes and poles, and headed for the trailhead (part of the Superior Hiking Trail).

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It didn’t take long before I realized that I was seriously overdressed. I knew this would happen – it always happens – so I brought a backpack in which to stuff the extra layers as I peeled them off. First came the heavy gloves, and then the coat. I ended up doing the hike in two shirts, a vest, earmuffs, scarf, and light gloves. I could have survived with less.

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I’ve hiked this trail many, many times. You basically take an easy switch-back trail up the “mountain” – really, more of a big hill – and then walk the loop trail that goes all around the top, with incredible views of Lake Superior and inland overlooks with trees and smaller lakes. It’s spectacular in the fall and very pretty in the spring. With about two feet of well-packed snow on the trail, it took a bit longer to hike and looked completely different than I’d ever seen it before. You could see THROUGH the trees for once; the valleys below looked like a black-and-white photo; and the lake and sky converged into one steel-gray vista. I loved it.

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I saw very few people at the top. I wanted someone to take my picture, so I asked a couple if they would mind, and that resulted in this photo:

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You will notice that I have snow on my legs; that’s because as I was changing directions on the trail to turn and face the camera, my snowshoes became entangled and I fell into a deep drift. Not my finest moment. Other than, that I had no other mishaps.

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The rest of the time I spent on the North Shore was either in my cabin or in Grand Marais (nine miles north of Cascade), above. I ate veggie chili at Gunflint Tavern and a wild rice pizza at Sven and Ole’s. Since I had a little extra time to kill, I also spent an hour or so reading and sipping a latte in Java Moose. The afternoon was cold, windy, and snowing, and it felt good to hunker down with a good book and warm coffee. The evening was perfect for a long bath, flannel jammies, and a fire in the fireplace. I headed home the next morning.

I’m already looking forward to my next (non-snowy) trip to the North Shore in June.

Anne Frank exhibit at the Pella Opera House

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I learned this past week that an Anne Frank exhibit was on display at the Pella Opera house, so I took a quick drive down there on Friday.

I’ve visited Pella many times, but I don’t remember ever being inside the Opera House, which was built in 1900. Back in the day, nearly every town in Iowa had an “opera house” – really, they were theatres and very rarely housed opera performances – but of the 1,500 or so built in Iowa, only about 300 remain.

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I’m sure you know the story of Anne Frank, the young Jewish German girl who moved with her family to Amsterdam during World War II to escape the tyranny of the Nazis. Anne’s story is famous because of the detailed diary she kept while her family – sister Margot and parents Otto and Edith – hid in a secret annex above her father’s former warehouse.

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The exhibit tells the story through a series of panels consisting of photos, quotes, and historical information, with the larger WWII story being told on the top of each panel and the story of the Frank family below, in a corresponding timeline. It’s an interesting and enlightening way to view the parallel stories. Although the display itself isn’t anything fancy, the photos and quotes were well curated – many of them were quite rare. A 30-minute video was also available for viewing.

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Before the family left Germany, Otto Frank said, “When many of my fellow countrymen changed into hordes of nationalistic, cruel, anti-Semitic criminals, I had to face the consequences, and though this hurt me deeply, I realized that Germany was not the world and I left my country forever.”

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Anne and her sister, Margot, went to school in Amsterdam, made friends, and lived a happy life, even for a time after the Germans invaded the country. And then, of course, Hitler made it impossible for Jewish families to stay in their homes and also impossible to safely leave the country. Rather than face certain death in the concentration camps, the family hid.

The display includes actual photos of the annex and this drawing of the interior:

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A revolving bookcase concealed the entrance to the annex. During the day, when staff members were at work at the office below, the Franks and the others who were in hiding in the annex, had to be completely quiet. Anne spent her time studying, playing quiet games, and writing in the diary that she was given on her 13th birthday. Anne hoped to grow up and become a writer and journalist.

In her diary, Anne wrote letters to an imaginary friend, Kitty. “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support,” Anne wrote on the first page of her diary in June 1942.

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The family was found by the Nazis, and both Margot and Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1945. Their mother died in Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived.

Anne’s diary has been translated into more than 60 languages.

The Anne Frank exhibit ran at the Pella Opera House Feb. 3 through March 3. Although the exhibit is gone, the building is still worth a visit. You can take a self-guided tour of the four-story structure, which reopened in 1990 after being closed for many years. The building was bought and sold many times (22 times between 1900 and 1918 alone!) and housed a variety of businesses, from a skating rink to a hardware store to a bowling alley. Today the great hall serves as a reception center and meeting hall, and it’s available for rental.

 

A winter escape to Florida

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When we planned this trip to Florida (Feb. 2-7) several months ago, we had no way of knowing how truly awful the weather was going to be here in Iowa while we were away. In south Florida, while we were basking in sunny, 75- to 80-degree days, all hell was breaking loose back home: below-zero temps, heavy snow, and a freakish 50-car pile-up on I-35 right outside of Ames.

We just sighed and put on more sunscreen. I mean, what can you do?

Our trip began on Friday. We flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport and drove to Miami. We had booked an Airbnb in Miami Beach for a little mid-winter getaway. Neither Dave nor I had ever spent much time in Miami, and we thought it would be fun to explore the area, go to a couple of national parks, and enjoy the warm weather.

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Our one-bedroom apartment was on the third floor of an older building (above, just behind the palm tree) on Collins Ave., a main road that runs the length of Miami Beach’s north and south beaches. I liked our location; we were surrounded by small restaurants, food markets, and drugstores, and the beach was just a block and a half away. Parking was free – if you were willing to park in the residential area a few blocks from the main streets. We found a Greek open-air patio, a Cuban restaurant, upscale Mexican food, and a great pizza dive all within about six blocks. We shopped for breakfast food and snacks in a small grocery store. Everything was really convenient.

Now, if I had to do it over again, I probably would have, instead, booked a small boutique hotel in South Beach, just a few miles down the road. (How much would that cost, I wonder? I didn’t even consider it.) South Beach (below) was a lot of fun.

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We walked past block after block of pastel Art Deco architecture, strolled on the public beach, and ate lunch outside at one of the many, many sidewalk cafes along the pedestrian Española Way, below. (We shared the most amazing porcini mushroom pappardelle pasta dish, with crusty Italian bread, a fresh mozzarella salad, and wine.)

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That afternoon, we ventured into Miami and took an art walk in the Wynwood Art District, below. As you can see, the area mostly features graffiti-based murals. I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been raining.

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We also drove through Little Havana, which was a really intriguing area, below. We parked our car and walked along one of the main streets, stopping for coffee in a cute Cuban coffee shop and enjoying the lively music that seemingly came from every shop, bar, and restaurant. We would have stayed longer, but it began to rain heavily, and the wind was fierce, so our umbrellas were no help at all. (But at least it was a warm rain!)

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On our second full day in south Florida, we drove to the visitor center at Biscayne National Park and boarded a boat that took us on a three-hour tour of the park.

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Biscayne is about 95% water, so a boat is definitely necessary if you want to see much of anything. We booked our $39-per-person tour on the Pelican Island Skipper through the Biscayne National Park Institute. There are mangroves and reefs and a series of small keys in the bay; we stopped at one of them – Boca Chita Key – and took a short hike, climbed to the top of a lighthouse, and enjoyed the beach and the yachts in the small harbor.

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The institute offers other experiences as well, including snorkeling and paddling. (A bonus surprise: A hazy view of the distant Miami skyline, below.)

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As we were fairly far south already, we decided to visit Key Largo, because that seemed like a cool thing to do. We did absolutely no research (except looking at the map), and we were disappointed when we got there. We didn’t find much to like, but we did find a small café with an outdoor patio, where we were entertained by tiny lizards. And, of course, I ordered key lime pie.

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This put us a little behind schedule, because we were hoping to drive through the southern part of Everglades National Park. I’ve wanted to see the Everglades forever; I wasn’t sure how much damage the park sustained during the recent hurricane season, so I was happy to see that most of it appeared to be pretty much unscathed.

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We took the park road near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Every few miles along this 38-mile drive, you can turn down a small road and end up at a trailhead that takes you on a short loop hike. It was already late afternoon, so we only made it about halfway down the main road. Some of the hikes are as short as .2 miles. The longest one we took was .8 miles. All are easily traversed; most are boardwalked.

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All of the walks were lovely, although the Anhinga Trail (all pics above) was by far our favorite. There we saw birds, alligators, and fish in the freshwater marsh, and, eventually, the soft colors of sunset. We would have stayed longer, but it got too dark.

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The next day we hit the northern part of the Everglades, driving along Hwy. 41 to the Shark Valley Visitor Center and walking the Tram Trail and Otter Valley Hammock Trail.

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Alligators greeted us with toothy smiles all along the Tram Trail, and we saw egrets, herons, ibis, and other awesome birds. We also heard the constant splash of the walking catfish, but we never actually saw one.

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I could have stayed all day. On our way out of south Florida we drove through Big Cypress, a designated national preserve, where we saw more gators, below.

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Later, we took a quick hike on a palmy, ferny trail through a Panther Preserve, below. It occurred to me, while we were hiking, that putting human trails inside a panther preserve might not be the best idea, but I assume it’s safe? We obviously didn’t get eaten.

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We didn’t have a lot of time to explore during this leg of the trip, because our destination was Orlando, and it’s a long drive to get there, no matter how you do it. I was the navigator, and I was trying to take the most direct route straight north, as opposed to going to the east or west side of Florida, where the interstates are very much out of the way. The road we were going north on most of the day (Hwy 29) was SLOW and went through a lot of little towns and through orange groves and I thought we’d never, ever get there.

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When we finally arrived at our destination – one of the many Hampton Inns in Orlando – we made a quick change and then hurried to Disney Springs for dinner and some shopping. Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) has changed a lot over the years, and it was barely recognizable to us with its new parking garages, high-end shopping, and new bars and restaurants.

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We snagged a table at House of Blues with no waiting, and then we dropped over a hundred dollars on a tiny bag of gifts at the huge Disney store.

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We had a little free time the next day, so we decided to visit Epcot, a Disney park we’ve grown to love. We got there so early that we didn’t even have to take the tram from the parking lot; we purchased tickets and were in the park before it actually opened. Once we were in, we headed directly to the Soarin’ ride. We knew it had recently been updated from a “flight” above the California coastline to a “flight” around the world. I always enjoyed it before, but now it’s a gazillion times more amazing. You dip and glide above Sydney Harbour, Iguazu Falls, and the Great Wall of China, soar above polar bears and whales, and swoop over the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower. We loved it.

After riding Soarin’, it was still a good hour before World Showcase would open, and we didn’t have anything else we wanted to do in Future World, so we decided to ride Test Track – in hindsight, a stupid mistake. There wasn’t a wait time listed at the standby entrance, and the line didn’t look very long, so we hopped in. We finally boarded the stupid car an HOUR after waiting in a ridiculously slow-moving queue. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded standing in line for an hour, but I didn’t even want to ride this damn thing. I kept looking for an exit, but once we were in, we were stuck. I became very grumpy. And very glad to finally get out. (Oh, by the way, the last 20 seconds of the ride is pretty fun. The rest is meh.)

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After that, I didn’t have the patience to stand in another line. The only other thing I really wanted to ride was “Frozen Ever After” in the Norway section, and the line was consistently running 45 minutes or more. I decided I could live without it.

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Instead, we ate pizza and drank wine in Italy, shopped in Germany and Mexico, ate ice cream in France, and drank a beer at the Rose & Crown in the UK. We watched little kids meet their favorite Disney characters. It was a gloriously warm, sunny day, and we spent much of the afternoon just strolling from country to country.

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And now we’re back in Iowa, where it snows every freaking day. I am ready for spring!

New York, January 2018

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Why in the world would anyone choose to travel to New York City in January? The holidays are over, the ball has dropped, and winter weather has set in. It’s not really the best time to visit my favorite city.

January and February are great months to snag (relatively) inexpensive hotel rooms, discounted theatre tickets, and encounter (relatively) small crowds. But my primary motivation to visit New York Jan. 12-15 was this: Miss Saigon was closing.

Miss Saigon is one of my all-time favorite Broadway shows. I saw the original cast back in June 1991, and saw it again (from the front row) in December 1992. Lea Salonga, the original Kim, left the show but eventually returned, and I saw her perform the role again in June 1999. The show finally closed, but it came back last year as a revival, with a new cast from the London revival. When I saw this cast perform at the Tony Awards last year, I knew I had to see it again.

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren became obsessed with this show. She saw it once on tour and has listened to the cast recording for years. She lives in Denver now, so the logistics of the two of us traveling together have become slightly more complicated, but I told her last fall we could go see it. But then my fall filled up with an unexpected trip to France and the usual magazine deadlines, and I pushed back on my promise: Maybe we’d go in the spring.

I hadn’t taken into account that the show would be closing on Jan. 14. So, right after Thanksgiving I did some research and found that tickets were still available, not only for Miss Saigon but also for Dear Evan Hansen, the other (mostly sold-out) show I had really wanted to see last fall (before the lead actor, Ben Platt, left the cast). I quickly snapped up tickets to both shows, scored a half-price hotel room on Cyber Monday, and booked non-stop flights from Denver and Des Moines.

The trip was last weekend, and I have to say that despite being in January, it was one of the best times I’ve ever had in New York. Here are some highlights:

THE SHOWS

Seeing Broadway shows is the number-one reason I go to New York. This was my 21st visit to the city, and I’ve seen shows all but a couple of times – 54 total performances. I am rarely disappointed.

When we arrived on Friday afternoon, we stood in the Times Square TKTS line and bought tickets for Anastasia, a relatively new musical. I’m sort of surprised it was even on the TKTS board, because there were not two remaining seats next to each other. We bought two single tickets, and they were both good seats, although they were only 20% off, so still expensive. Lauren had been a fan of the movie musical Anastasia, but I wasn’t really familiar with it. We saw a cast performance on TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it looked like something we’d both enjoy. It was a good show, with lavish sets and costumes, big dance numbers, and a large cast. We saw the understudy for the main Anastasia/Anya character (and several other understudies), but they were all really top-notch.

IMG_0630The two musicals for which we bought tickets in advance – Miss Saigon and Dear Evan Hansen – are definitely Top 10 shows for me. They’re very different, but both are tragic and powerful, with strong characters, casts, and storylines. Evan Hansen weaves in a fair amount of humor in an otherwise dark show about a teenage boy with crippling social anxiety. Miss Saigon is just a 2-hour-and-40-minute gut punch – dare I say that the gritty revival was even better than the original? – after which you’re so exhausted you can barely move. Both pack an emotional wallop and are worth every penny of their over-inflated ticket prices. We saw no understudies in either show, and the new Evan Hansen, Noah Galvin, was truly wonderful – his performance was aching, fragile, and heartbreaking, and he has a terrific voice. For both shows, we had seats that were at the edge of the main floor, but very close to the stage, so we saw every expression on every face. Amazing, amazing experiences, both. (We saw the next-to-last Broadway performance of Miss Saigon; it’s scheduled to begin touring this fall.)

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THE PEOPLE

I had a blast with my daughter. And we met up in Brooklyn with my nephew, Steve, and had lunch with him in Little Italy (above). More on that later.

FOOD AND DRINK

I’m disinclined to pay more for food than I absolutely have to, and I don’t find fancy restaurants worth what they cost, especially in New York City. Lauren and I found a counter-service deli near our hotel and went there often, for breakfast (bagels, egg sandwiches, pancakes), after-theatre desserts (cheesecake, naturally), and grab-and-go stuff to take back to our room (beer, black-and-white cookies).

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We found great coffee shops in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood (True North on Lorimore and Black Star Bakery on Metropolitan), where the three of us got out of the cold and enjoyed some good espresso drinks. I had an almond croissant that was Paris-worthy. Steve grabbed a sandwich at Bagelsmith, one of the best bagel shops in Brooklyn. We also enjoyed glasses of wine at the Pinkerton Wine Bar. (All of these places were within a few blocks of each other. Take the L Train from Manhattan and get off at Lorimore. Start at True North; it’s right across the street from the subway station.)

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Ray’s Pizza is ubiquitous in New York; it seems like it’s on every block in Midtown Manhattan. Lauren and I grabbed slices of pizza there twice for dinner after the theatre; it’s decidedly unfancy, with paper plates and red plastic trays – and you might have to clean off a table if you want to eat there. But you can’t beat the price, and the white and margherita slices are soooo good. (Slices are huge, so one is enough.)

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I’ve always loved eating lunch in Little Italy, and it’s so affordable. We met Steve there on Sunday. This was the only time we ate at a real restaurant with an actual waiter, and still, my cheese manicotti was just $12.95. The bread is free, and wine by the glass is extremely reasonable. Little Italy is more fun in the warmer months, when you can sit outside, but our restaurant, Lunella, was warm and cozy. (Find restaurants up and down Mulberry Street; they’re all very similar. To get there, take the green train to Spring Street.)

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Finally: Zabar’s. I try to get to Zabar’s — a grocery store/deli that has a small, attached coffee shop with a limited menu, located at 80th and Broadway – every time I go to the city. The sad thing about going there is I can’t buy much. Sometimes I get food for a picnic in Central Park, but usually I just drool over the cheese counter, the bakery, and all the rest because I’m staying in a hotel and have no way to preserve or prepare the food. On this trip, after I put Lauren in a taxi for the airport early Monday morning and after I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I walked to Zabar’s for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese, coffee, and a cinnamon-raisin rugelach for a late lunch. Even crammed into the too-small counter-seating, it was still a highlight of the trip.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS AND LOGISTICS

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Vintage clothing in Brooklyn: We stumbled on a vintage clothing store called 10 ft Single by Stella Dallas, and it was delightful – just packed to the rafters with true vintage clothing, much of it from the 1950s — beautiful wool and silk and fur and flannel, and lots of other stuff, too. I tried on a plaid coat; Lauren tried on hats. I could have spent hours there. It was pricey for used clothing, and we bought nothing, but it was just so fun.

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The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: I’d visited this museum two years ago with Dave, and had seen the memorial a couple of times, but Lauren hadn’t seen either one, so we went first thing Sunday morning. It was just as powerful, tragic, and emotion-laden as the first time. I highly recommend it. Note that much of the museum is off limits to photography.  (Museum admission is $24; the outdoor memorial is free.)

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Met is right up there with the Louvre in Paris, as far as I’m concerned. I loved it the first time I saw it in 1988, and I’ve loved it each time I visited. This time, hoards of people were there to see the Michelangelo exhibit. The best thing about this was that, since I was there when the doors opened, I got to view the incredible European painting galleries (from 1250 to early 20th century) basically by myself (see above); nearly everyone else had rushed to see Michelangelo. It was heaven!

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Eventually I walked away from this area – my favorite – and visited the Michelangelo exhibit myself, and it was incredible, even with the crowd. The other special exhibit was contemporary artist David Hockney (see his exhibit catalog below), and while his art at first seemed like kindergarten finger painting compared to Michelangelo’s delicate sketches, it grew on me. I love his use of bold color and his photo collages.

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Shopping: It’s always fun to shop in New York. Lauren wanted to go to the MoMa Design Store on 6th Ave. – always delightful – and the NYX makeup store at Union Square. When she said she wanted to go to this store, I thought, oh, no problem, we’ll find this one small store in all of New York. But it was actually easy; we got off the L train coming back from Brooklyn and had no trouble finding it. And here’s a bonus: I actually enjoyed it. It was a fun, affordable shop. We poked around in a few Times Square souvenir shops and a thrift shop in Brooklyn (above); I bought a few things at Forever 21 (I know, I know: We have this chain in Iowa, but the NYC store is awesome, and much more fashion-forward) and at a Loft near Lincoln Center that was having a blow-out sale.

The New York Subway: I know the New York Subway system is in terrible shape and needs a multi-billion-dollar upgrade, but it’s still a great way to get around New York. It’s fast, and it’s easy to figure out. From our location (The Park Central Hotel on 7th Ave. at 56th Street) we were just a block from a station that would take us all over the city, with easy transfers at Union Square, 42nd Street, etc.) We found our way to Brooklyn on the L Train, to lower Manhattan, Little Italy, and the NYX store with absolutely no problem.

A holiday weekend

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Last weekend, my daughter Katie and I kicked off the holiday season with three events: The Holly & Ivy holiday home tour and Christkindlmarket in Des Moines, and the Beautiful Land Holiday Market north of Ames.

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We started at the historic Salisbury House, a 42-room manor estate lovingly decorated with period antiques and artwork year-round but especially gorgeous at this time of year, with each room decked out by local designers. The annual Holly & Ivy tour is a fundraiser for the Salisbury House Foundation ($20 admission), and this year it also included a holiday market at the Central Presbyterian Church, two private homes, and West End Architectural Salvage.

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Salisbury House kept us busy snapping photos and oohing and aahing over each room – including the bathrooms – filled with holiday themed decorations, ranging from the feminine Victorian dressing room of the home’s original matriarch to a modern take on a small dining area. There was a masculine hunting-themed room, a large dining table fully covered with fancy dishes and holiday greenery, and Christmas trees in pretty much every room.

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After visiting Salisbury House (4025 Tonawanda Drive), we ate lunch just down the street at La Mie (841 42nd St.), one of my favorite bakeries/cafes in Des Moines. Any excuse will do to stop for a to-die-for raisin-pecan scone or almond croissant – or one of their very nice sandwiches or salads, both of which we enjoyed for lunch. It doesn’t get any better than this.

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With our tummies happily filled, we headed for the historic Owl’s Head neighborhood. I was even more excited to see these private homes decorated for Christmas than I was to see Salisbury House, because my friend Kate’s home (above) was on the tour and I knew it would be incredible.

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It was! Kate and her mother both have impeccable taste in interior design – and a large collection of Christmas decorations – and her house was just filled to the brim with Christmas trees, poinsettias, holiday dishes, greenery, and family heirlooms. I love Kate’s house any time of year, but especially at the holidays. We lingered there for a long time, talking to Kate and her parents and soaking in the history of the house. (It was built in 1905 and was once featured on the cover of Midwest Living magazine.) The whole first floor was beautifully adorned, but I especially loved the dining room (pictured above) and the porch.

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We finally tore ourselves away from Kate’s home and walked down the street to another home on the tour (above), this one built in 1907. The exterior of this house is a bit fancier, with a large front porch and high gables, and the holiday decorations inside were very nice.

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From there, we drove downtown and walked through the Christkindlmarket. This European-styled Christmas market featured hand-crafted toys and ornaments, European foods, German beer, and Glühwein, a type of warm, mulled wine. I have to say I was disappointed in everything but the mulled wine, which was pretty tasty. Otherwise, I didn’t think there was much to see or do there, and for the most part it didn’t seem very European.

We also visited the Beautiful Land Holiday Market held at Prairie Moon Winery/Alluvial Brewery just north of Ames. This event is a “sister market” of the more well-known Lucky Star Market that’s been happening a couple times a year for the past several years in Ames, sometimes at Prairie Moon and other times at Research Park in south Ames.

I thought this particular market was especially nice, with a lot of hand-crafted items – jewelry, paper products, hand-knitted scarves and hats – but also plants, food items, and antiques. I always want to buy things for myself at these markets, and I struggle to remind myself that I’m there to shop for others. I did buy a few small gifts, but I succumbed to my love of all things holiday and bought a couple of wooden snowmen and an antique Santa mug.

Thanksgiving in the mountains

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It seems like every time I turn around this year, I’m in Colorado. It’s no coincidence that my daughter, Lauren, moved to Denver in January. Since helping her move, I’ve visited three more times, most recently over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I traveled this time with my husband, Dave, and our other daughter, Katie. We actually didn’t spend much time in Denver, because I booked us a cabin in Estes Park where we could relax, spread out, cook meals, and enjoy the holiday together.

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It was awesome. We visited Rocky Mountain National Park, where there was snow at Bear Lake (above and top) but easy walking everywhere else we went. We took a nice walk around Lily Lake (below) the day we arrived. The weather was wonderful for late November.

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We saw a few elk in the national park, but many more in the town of Estes Park. They were everywhere we looked – a huge herd of 30 or more traveling together through town. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to take pictures.

Once we got settled into our cabin, which was located just a block and a half north of the main street through downtown, we braved the Safeway to buy some provisions (not a smart thing to do the night before Thanksgiving, but we needed milk and beer and stuff) and then ordered pizza. I made myself familiar with the kitchen and made some food for the next day.

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On Thanksgiving, I baked a pumpkin pecan bread pudding for breakfast while we watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – one of my favorite things all year. We had a lazy day, just playing games, eating snacks, watching TV, and taking a walk through town. Oh, and we had the traditional playing of Adam Sandler’s Thanksgiving Song and the reading of Katie’s friend Emma’s Thanksgiving homework from third grade. (Emma is a vegan, and she did NOT like the idea that we celebrate Thanksgiving by eating turkey, even in third grade. It’s the funniest thing ever.)

We had Thanksgiving dinner reservations at The Stanley Hotel, for which we got all spiffed up (unnecessarily, based on what other people were wearing, but still nice). The Stanley is all old and fancy and haunted, and we all think it’s pretty cool, mainly because Stephen King got the idea to write The Shining when he was staying there back in the 1970s, and The Shining is one of our favorite books/movies.

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After dinner (nothing special, but overpriced – that’s my two-second review), we took a ghost tour of the hotel. It was a hoot. We had a hilarious tour guide named Voo-Drew (he used to do ghost tours in New Orleans) who showed us some of the “most haunted” parts of the hotel and its outbuildings. I’m still cynical about the ghost thing, but I didn’t expect to have so much fun. He told some great stories — like the things the spirits do to unmarried but nevertheless cohabitating guests.

So that was Thanksgiving. The next morning, we went back to Rocky Mountain – it was a gorgeous day – and then back to The Stanley for some daytime photos. Here’s the whole gang:

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The hotel had added more holiday decorations overnight (above). We ate lunch in downtown Estes Park, did some shopping, and found a nice little coffee shop. Back at the cabin, we killed some time playing games (I actually beat my family at Monopoly – this may be a first), watching Christmas movies, and drinking boozy cider.

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The highlight of the day actually came tonight, with Estes Park’s annual Catch the Glow parade. We got to the parade route early, and lots of people had already staked out their spot. This is apparently a very big deal for Estes. By the time the parade started at 5:30 p.m. there were tons of people there.

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The event was great – definitely a small-town parade, but with a lot of holiday flair. We loved the lights throughout the downtown area. The weather was still very mild, and everyone was in a festive mood.

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What a fun thing to do the day after Thanksgiving! Much better than Black Friday shopping!

 

The farmers’ market moves inside for the holidays

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The Downtown Winter Farmers’ Market in Des Moines has become something of a love-hate tradition in my family. These market events happen every year just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I love them because you can pick up yummy stuff and fun gifts for the holidays – but I hate them because they are so crowded you can barely move.

Unlike the normal Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market that’s held in the Court Avenue District from May through October, the winter market is located inside Capital Square and Kaleidoscope at the Hub. The indoor location prevents the dog jams of the outdoor market, but is extra congested because of the narrow hallways.

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I went to the Thanksgiving market yesterday and managed to survive. Farmers, bakers, and crafters were out in force, offering jams and jellies, root vegetables, honey, bread, pastries, meat, eggs, birdhouses, hand-knitted caps and scarves, greenery, wine, carved wooden Santas, jewelry, cheese, salsa, soap, popcorn, granola, nut butters, teas, cookies, pies, and a ton of other stuff.

I bought bags of popcorn, an acorn squash, an almond croissant, a jar of jelly, a chunk of artisanal cheese, and a few packets of those handy mixes to make dips and cheese balls.

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If you missed this market, you still have another chance: The next one will be held Dec. 15-16 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the same location. I’ll probably be there.

 

One last fall weekend

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Fall is my favorite season, and I like to milk it for all it’s worth. I love the cool temperatures and fall colors and talking long walks without getting all sweaty.

This has been a really busy fall for me, with September trips to France and Colorado, and lots of projects going on at work. I didn’t get to do my usual trip to northern Minnesota, which pretty much breaks my heart (I literally had to block my Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group because it made me too sad to see what a spectacular fall they were having on the North Shore).

The last week of October was Homecoming at Iowa State, and it was going to be crazy-busy in my office. So, I decided the week BEFORE Homecoming that I would take a day off and go hiking in northeast Iowa.

I took off Friday morning for Decorah, to walk the Trout Run Trail. I’ve written about Decorah many times. It’s one of my favorite places in Iowa, but it takes a long time to get up there from Ames. I left early and got there just after 10 a.m., parked my car in the lot behind Water Street, the main commercial area, and took off walking.

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What a beautiful day for a long walk! I’ve walked at least part of this trail three times before, and I did the whole 11 miles once, in June 2016. I was there this past July and was disappointed that I didn’t have time to walk the complete trail, because it’s so much fun.

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Today’s walk was pretty wonderful, with subtle fall color, very little bike traffic, and temperatures in the mid-70s. Very warm for late October! I started at the beginning of the trail (near downtown) and worked my way around, stopping only a couple of times to eat a snack. My favorite section is from about mile markers 6 to 8, with beautiful scenery and challenging switch-backs (below).

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By the end of the walk, I was tired and wanted something more substantial to eat, so I walked through downtown and grabbed some food before heading to my next destination: Marquette.

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I had booked a room at the Cobblestone Inn & Suites in tiny Marquette (population 375). The town is situated right on the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, across the bridge from Prairie du Chien, Wisc. I chose Marquette because it’s close to Effigy Mounds, and I wanted to hike there on Saturday.

I actually regret not staying in McGregor, the town less than a mile south of Marquette. There’s much more to do there – shops, antiques, restaurants – and there are a few small B&Bs and inns I probably could have stayed in. Marquette has the one hotel, a casino/riverboat (below), one restaurant, the Eagle’s Landing Winery, and a couple of antiques shops.

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I walked around the town and went to bed early. My room was comfortable and quiet – except when the huge, noisy train came by at all hours of the night. Turns out the railroad tracks are about 10 yards from the hotel. Yikes!

I survived the night, ate a quick breakfast at the hotel the next morning, and headed to Effigy Mounds. The National Park site officially opens at 8:30, and that’s when I pulled into the parking lot. Mine was one of three cars, and I think the other two may have been park service vehicles.

It was a chilly morning, and the forecast called for a chance of rain, but it turned out to be a glorious fall day. I’d been here a couple of times before but never hiked the full area (I limited myself to the north unit that’s accessible from the visitor center parking lot; there’s also a south unit with another 4+ miles of hiking trails).

Effigy Mounds is, of course, best known for its Native American mounds, created during the Late Woodland period about 1,400 years ago. The national monument features 206 mounds, 31 of which are in the form of animal effigies, mostly bears and birds. A typical mound is 2-4 feet high, 40 feet wide, and 80 feet long, but some are larger — the Great Bear Mound measures 137 feet long and 70 feet wide.

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It’s tough to get a feel for the shape of the mounds when you’re standing next to them – they really should be viewed from above. It’s harder still to get a decent picture of them, because in two dimensions they don’t look like much (see above).

But it’s very cool to walk among the mounds and imagine this area when the Woodland Indians were living here. It’s also just a gorgeous area, with towering trees and fabulous views of the Mississippi River. The fall color was at its peak when I was there.

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I started my hike early and had the whole place to myself – up, up the steep climb to Eagle Rock and Fire Point views, on to the Great Bear Mound Group, to “Twin Views” (of the river), the “Third Scenic View,” and up and around to Hanging Rock – a spectacular vantage point. The hike is challenging the further you go toward Hanging Rock (about three and a half miles from the visitor center), but the payoff is worth it.

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When I turned around and started back, I began to encounter other hikers, and by the time I got to the Little Bear Mound Group, there were dozens of visitors enjoying the site. When I got back to my car, the parking lot was completely full.

I ate lunch at Café McGregor and poked around the shops on Main Street, then headed home, my need for a fall color outing fully satisfied.