Travelling Wisconsin – We started the day atop Grandad Bluff, which rises 600 feet above the land that surrounds it (reminiscent of the lookout at Mount Royal), but also gives a spectacular view not only of the city of La Crosse, but also the Mississippi River Valley, as well as the three states that surround it (Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa).
Waiting atop the bluff was our host for the morning, Kelly, who was dressed in an early 1900s costume to give us a brief, yet fascinating history of the area, and how the Mississippi River dominated its history. La Crosse was founded in 1848, and the city got its name when voyageurs saw the native people who inhabited the area playing the game of lacrosse. She also told about how the Hixon family – who made their fortune as lumber barons – helped to develop the city and the three main industries that built the city, which were natural resources, railroads and manufacturing; these days, La Crosse is the home of two Fortune 500 companies (Trane and the G. Heidelmann Brewery), is one of top producers of cranberries, and at one time used to sell seeds to the state of Hawaii so they can grow grass to manufacture their trademark hula skirts.
Kelly, who is involved with the La Crosse Public Library Archives, is also quite the avid storyteller, and told us about several curiosities about La Crosse. One involved the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, which built the city’s very first hospital. At their church in the heart of La Crosse, the sisters have a perpetual prayer chapel, where each of the 200 nuns who currently make up the Order are involved in a constant state of prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two nuns each do a continuous prayer shift, and are relieved every two hours; there are even “prayer partners” outside the Order who gladly fill in these prayer shifts if a sister is not available.
No matter what portion of the Mississippi River you are at, there is no better way to cruise along this majestic body of water than by paddlewheel river boat, the means of transportation that has always been associated with the Mississippi.
And we managed to do that thanks to the La Crosse Queen (www.lacrossequeen.com), one of the few authentic Mississippi River paddlewheel boats that are still in operation today in the U.S. The La Crosse Queen runs a variety of riverboat cruises on a daily basis from April to October, whether they be sightseeing cruises, lunch cruises, brunch cruises and even pizza cruises. No matter what cruise you choose, you get to experience the beauty of the Mississippi River just like the way Mark Twain portrayed it in his classic novels. And you can’t miss its launching point; just look for the giant statue of Hiawatha that overlooks it.
A visit to the Kinstone Megalithic Garden in Fountain City (www.kinstonecircle.com) is almost like a journey back in time to ancient Celtic culture when the Druids dominated. Built by Kristine Beck in 2011, Kinstone is made up of several gardens along a 30-acre tract of land that are constructed of granite and is derived from quarries in Minnesota and South Dakota. Whether they be labyrinths, stone circles, megaliths, permaculture gardens or even a thatched roof Celtic-style chapel, Kinstone certainly gives the visitor a sense of peace, serenity, not to mention awe and mystery.
Many major tourist destinations offer Trolley Tours, in which visitors ride in a recreated turn of the 20th century trolley car and with a the of a knowledgeable guide, embark on an all-encompassing tour that highlights many of the attractions and historic sites that are part of the make-up of the destination in question.
La Crosse’s version of the Trolley Tour (www.explorelacrosse.com/project/historic-trolley-tours) is no exception. With the La Crosse County Convention & Visitors Bureau building located on the banks of the Mississippi as its starting point, there are two different Trolley Tours that you can enjoy: the Historic La Crosse Tour (which I participated in) is a 90-minute tour that takes you to 22 points of interest across the city and gives you a quick, yet thoroughly informative look at its colourful past and present, including the City Brewery (home of the world’s largest six pack), the Dahl Auto Museum, a branch of the famed Mayo Clinic, and several historic homes of its famous citizens (including the birthplace of Nicholas Ray, who directed such classic movies as “Rebel Without A Cause”, “Johnny Guitar” and “In A Lonely Place”). Then there’s the Dark La Crosse Tour, a 60-minute, 11-site jaunt that will prove through its numerous crimes, scandals, corruption and macabre past that La Crosse was not such a peaceful, quaint town in the Midwest.
Sunday, August 12: The final full day of our northward trek along Wisconsin’s Great River Road was a whirlwind of four towns that were small in size, yet each of them brought their own distinct character and identity.
We started the day on the summit of the Buena Vista Overlook, which rises 500 feet above the town of Alma. The Overlook offers a wonderful vantage point for people who want to view the barges that travel along the Mississippi River and pass through one of the lock dams that were constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (although when we were there, a blanket of fog covered everything, except the smokestacks from the nearby coop utility that poked through the fog and made for an interesting sight to see on its own).
As we made our way to the main street in Alma, we stopped off for coffee at Fire and Ice, a coffee shop with a charming central European décor to it. Daniel, the shop’s owner and proprietor, was dressed in Tyrolian costume to reflect the town’s Swiss settlers. A virtual fountain knowledge about the town’s history, Daniel gave us a fascinating tour of Alma and its charming gardens that dot the main street. He also told us about how Alma is a major centre for birdwatchers in the region, especially eagles during the spring. He also related how he tried to get permission from the leader of the group The Trashmen to use a line from their hit 1963 song “Surfin’ Bird” (“the bird is the word”, in particular) as a slogan for a future tourism advertising campaign.
From there we proceeded north to Pepin, where we spent our lunch time at the Villa Bellezza Winery (www.villabellezza.com). Built in 2012, the winery facility was originally a bank that was part of an industrial park complex. These days, the winery, which resembles an Italian villa, houses a restaurant, banquet and reception facilities, and 20 vineyards that supplies up to 35% of the grapes that are used for their own brand of wines.
Before lunch, we experienced an authentic wine tasting with resident wine expert Jill, as she guided us through six of Villa Bellezza’s unique brand of wines, and how to enjoy them (my favorite was the Cinque Figlie ’15, a spice/mocha flavoured wine that can be enjoyed with chocolate). After a sumptuous Italian buffet, we went on a guided tour of the winery, and learned the step by step process of how their wines are created, made and fermented (we even got an introduced to “Giancarlo”, the gigantic harvester machine that extracts the grapes from all of their vineyards).
For dessert, we headed to the village of Stockholm, where the nucleus of its main street is the Stockholm Pie Company and General Store (www.stockholmpieandgeneralstore.com). The place resembles a classic general store plus a 1950s ice cream parlor under one roof; however, its claim to fame is its large menu of pies that are made fresh on the premises every day and are available by the slice or in two sizes of complete pies. I tried its chocolate cream pie, and believe me, its look and taste fondly reminded me of the chocolate cream pies that once made the sorely missed Laurier BBQ a popular spot for Montreal diners.
Our final stop was Maiden Rock, a small river and railroad village that is quietly tucked away within the foothills and bluffs of the area. According to legend, the village got its name from a maiden of the Dakota tribe, who chose to leap to her death from the top of a bluff, rather than agree to an arranged marriage she didn’t want. There are a good deal of craft boutiques in Maiden Rock, but the one that caught my eye was Limbo, a downstairs store that sold plenty of rare and hard to find pop culture collectibles and knick knacks, where I bought a rare Harpo Marx EP record from the 1950s, which cost me a princely $11.
Our trip along Wisconsin’s Great River Road ended on a community note with a down home style potluck dinner called a Farm-To-Table Dinner, which took place at the Maiden Rock Winery and Cidery in Lake Pepin. This was an event where the spirit of community went hand in hand with good farm fresh foods that are exclusive to that region. Nearby farmers and merchants brought homemade dishes to the dinner that were made from ingredients that were grown on their farms. Add to that a number of local organizations present to promote themselves and their respective upcoming events, and plenty of live music, it made for an enjoyable, relaxing way to conclude an unforgettable four days goin’ down the Great River Road.
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For more information about visiting Wisconsin’s Great River Road region and what it has to offer tourists — check out the Travel Wisconsin website at www.travelwisconsin.com, or call 1-800-432-8747, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part one of this article can be located at this link.
Feature image: La Crosse Queen