"Only remember west of the Mississippi, it's a little more look, see, act. A little less rationalize, comment, talk."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul in 1896, died in Hollywood in 1940
RED WING, Minn. -- It's when I saw the barges that I knew I wasn't in Canada anymore.
The long, elegant boats gracefully navigate the Mississippi River near poetically named Red Wing, Minn. alongside towering bluffs and eagles circling overhead.
This is the Minnesota I didn't know: beyond the familiar Prairie flats in the northern part of the state or the funky Minneapolis-St. Paul area where the Mall of America mixes with heritage skyscrapers that put Winnipeg to shame. But in Red Wing, about 800 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, this is where I knew I'd finally come a long way from home.
There's something sturdy about Red Wing, beyond the towering limestone that surrounds a city built on the wheat industry.
It makes sense when you know the city is the home of durable Red Wing shoes and the birthplace of salt-glazed stoneware pottery crafted by German immigrants who utilized clay the area boasted.
Rewind: the last time I was in the Minneapolis area was on a harried trip in August 2007 after a major bridge, the 35W, collapsed.
Given then that I tossed my passport into a dirty gym bag and high-tailed it to the Twin Cities for disaster coverage, there wasn't much siteseeing planned, and certainly none beyond the Twin Cities area.
A little less than three years later, the bridge is back up, a concrete marvel illuminated with royal-blue lights once darkness comes. Venturing past the Twin Cities area might seem unnecessary for Winnipeggers who might now roll over the 35W intending to spend a day at the Walker Art Centre, or a Minnesota Vikings game.
(Heck, sports fans might be a bit grateful about a familiar civic debate raging there over whether to construct a new nearly $1-billion stadium for the Vikings)
But there's the rub: those star attractions might crowd out some of Minnesota's smaller gems that lurk just beyond the Twin Cities, a spectacular drive down the Great River Road along the Mississippi.
Yes, this the backdrop for such down-home flicks like the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men, but it's also a draw for the authentic experience of a region sometimes foolishly written off as Middle America.
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Take Red Wing Pottery, and its glossy grey bowls still hand-made by workers recruited from the pages of Ceramics Monthly.
R. Scott Gillmer is the third generation of his family to run the Red Wing Pottery business, which launched in 1877.
It's survived a bitter labour strike, the closure of the company's big factory in 1967 and an offshore pottery boom.
Gillmer said he's chosen to feature the older, more painstaking salt-glazed pottery to sell alongside imports like neon orange kettles in the store's West Main Street headquarters.
"You can tell it's a good pottery piece by holding it in your hand," he tells me. "You can just feel it."
It's true: the poetry to the pottery is a round, balanced weight that shows it's been well-shaped by careful hands.
The craftmanship isn't lost on Gillmer, nor on residents of nearby Winona, a town of about 30,000 people about 100 km southeast of Red Wing.
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On the relaxed ride down the Great River Road to Winona, you can marvel at eagles soaring overhead near the National Eagle Centre in Wabasha, which lies roughly halfway.
Winona, which is nestled on a large Mississippi island across from neighbouring Wisconsin, has a solid arts scene, substantial local architecture and a laid-back university vibe thanks to local colleges.
Even though the town was founded on blue-collar lumber and steamboats that travelled the Mississippi, the swish Minnesota Marine Art Museum now features paintings by heavy-hitters like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, carefully watched by vigilant volunteers. Thanks to booming industry, by 1900 the town had more millionaires per capita than any other American places, point out fans, who say the town's downtown now has one of the best Victorian commercial architecture in the region.
One well-preserved Colonial Revival home is the Windom Park Bed and Breakfast, now run by former Chicago police officer Craig Groth and former 42-year Northwest Airlines veteran Karen Lee Groth.
The two have turned a Ionic-columned home with the beckoning front porch into an English-accented B&B where travellers can sleep in rooms lovingly named for the couple's relatives.
"There's almost nothing in this house that doesn't have a story," said Karen Lee Groth, an admitted anglophile who's picked up touches like nightly wine-and-cheeses on her extensive travels. The self-labelled Harry Potter "fanatic" has a giant Quidditch broom that hangs in a sunlight-dappled room where guests can lounge.
Across the street is the yawning park the B&B is named for, and a statue of We-no-nah, the Native American woman Winona takes its name from.
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With a good night's rest, veer away from the Great River Road into rolling country hills on your way to Lanesboro, where Amish farmers sell pickled beets and garlic dill pickles at the local farmer's market.
The tiny community with a population of less than 800 people is also home to the Commonweal Theatre Company, a 14-employee group that regularly mounts intellectually challenging works by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It hosts an annual festival dedicated to the late dramatist. The new $3.5-million theatre had more than 20,000 people watch its productions last year.
Next door is Kari's Restaurant (pronounced "Kah-ree"), which specializes in Scandinavian cuisine.
Each table is dotted with a small copy of the Norwegian table prayer, and a waitress wears a shirt emblazoned with the expression "Uffda," a Norwegian term roughly translated to mean "Oh my gosh." The restaurant proudly sources an estimated 80 to 90 per cent of its food products from local farms, like a root medley with carrot, parsnip and turnip.
"We're cutting the meat ourselves," Kari's co-owner Angie Taylor tells us, explaining the resto's named for her husband's grandmother, who suggested the couple open a restaurant in Lanesboro so she could have family nearby.
Taylor says using local farmers for meat and dairy isn't always the cheapest option, but she believes people have to "just start somewhere" when it comes to locally sourced meals.
We tuck in to melt-in-your-mouth Norwegian meatballs and lingonberries, and leave sated.
The drive back to the Twin Cities awaits.
This trip was sponsored by Minnesota Tourism and Explore Minnesota.
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IF YOU GO
The Twin Cities, your getaway from your getaway
OK, OK, so you'll end up hitting the Twin Cities eventually. Residents of the city like to crack similar jokes as Winnipeggers (State bird? The mosquito), but there's plenty of one-of-a-kind Minneapolis-St. Paul attractions that you can't find north of the 49th. Or, for that matter, in the state's smaller centres.
DRINK: That's right, zombie fans, you now have a place to call your own.
Local tattoo parlour owner Leslie Bock has a way of turning unusual concepts into lovable hits.
Hence Donny Dirk's Zombie Den, a drinking spot where deer racks grace the walls and bartenders wear bloody shirts. On a Saturday night this month, the place was packed and the door manned by a bouncer who seemed flummoxed by the new one-piece Manitoba driver's licence. I'm also a firm lover of Grumpy's Bar and Grill, which sounds like a down-and-out sub shop but has a way of attracting all the types that remind me of Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, who lived in this city before she became an alterna household name.
Donny Dirk's, 2027 North 2nd Street, Minneapolis, 612-588-9700.
Grumpy's Bar and Grill, 1111 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, 612-340-9738.
SHOP: She did it for Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, so can she stylize the same city where Mary Tyler Moore did her iconic twirl on Nicollet Mall?
Well, you can find out when you hit famed costumer Betsey Johnson's shop in the Mall of America, packed with colourful princess dresses and rhinestone jewelery.
The recently launched shop is part of a move to attract luxury stores to the mall, and a little NYC glamour dust can't hurt.
Better yet, it's steps away from H&M, a mecca for Canadian shoppers who just can't wait for the Polo Park H&M to open. Epic.
Betsey Johnson, Mall of America, 158 South Avenue, Bloomington, MN, 952-854-5355.
H&M, 60 East Broadway, Bloomington, MN, 952-858-8888.
STRETCH: Core Power Yoga might seem sort of like a yuppie haven, with it's piped-in studio music and oh-so-perfect apparel shop. That being said, the South Washington Avenue haunt is worth every cent of the $17 US drop-in fee.
Your back will thank you on the drive back to Winnipeg.
Plus, you can grab the most perfect cup of java downstairs at Caribou Coffee, another chain synonymous with Minnesota life.
501 S. Washington Avenue, Minneapolis, 612-375-9642.