Rhinelander: Here’s why the Hodag city’s hip

The odometer of my new car all too quickly hit 10,000 miles this month, and only 2 percent was out-of-state driving. I rack up mileage while in search of the odd and interesting, but nobody knows the inside scoop about your hometown better than you.

I mention this routinely during talks about my travel books, and I’m nearly always pleasantly surprised by the ideas that my audience shares. “Five for the Road” was the title of a mini-feature that I peddled a few years ago, and its revival today is thanks to inspiration from Christine Honig of the Rhinelander Public Library, plus the library patrons who recently ignored the season’s first measurable snowfall to hear about “Hungry for Wisconsin” and “Sidetracked in Wisconsin.”

Think “Rhinelander,” and you likely envision hodags, the mythical beasts that resemble a funky reptile: spine of a dinosaur, face of a bulldog, horns of a devil. Mutations of that image have been around since the late 1800s.

Here’s what helps make the Hodag City hip.

Golden Harvest Market, 627 Coon St. – Fat and warm jalapeno cheddar sticks, 99 cents each, go fast at this busy natural foods store. So do the breads, pies and other bakery. Locally known fruits and veggies from small farms get star treatment in the produce section.

The sourdough French bread comes from a starter that has been kept alive six years, says Brandon Martin, bakery manager. Items with a hard crust are baked in a stone oven, and breads are a spin-off of his grandmother’s white bread recipe.

Brandon is especially proud of his whole-wheat sourdough bread because “we had to learn the idiosyncrasies of insoluble fiber,” which meant a lot of recipe trial and error. The product has just three ingredients (flour, salt and water) that ferment seven hours. “It can fill in for a lot of tough diets,” the baker says.

Products contain chemical-free, whole-wheat flour that is ground on the premises. Honey or agave nectar replace corn syrup.

For more: www.goldenharvestmarket.com, 715-369-5266.

Woodwind Health Spa and Wellness Center, 3033 Woodwind Way: The typical destination spa is fancy, expensive and maybe a little too pretentious for the average person. Marj Champney and her staff shatter these stereotypes and accommodate all income levels.

Lodging rates (which include breakfast) range from $35 for a single dorm bed to $110 for a private bedroom for two. The simple but pleasantly distinctive spa is next to woods, just outside of Rhinelander, and often incorporates a Native American approach in its services.

Drop in for yoga ($8) or meditation ($4) class; book spa services individually or as a package. Incredible and unusual: integrative flotation discovery, $70 for one hour of reiki and massage therapy – all while on your back in a warm-water pool.

For more: www.woodwindspa.com, 877-362-8902.

Joe’s Pasty Shop, 123 Randall Ave. – Grass-fed beef, buffalo and other local products find their way into tasty turnover pies that Larry and Jessica Lapachin sell for breakfast and lunch. Each pasty costs less than $5.

Who’s Joe? That’s Jessica’s great-uncle; he and her grandfather in 1946 began making and selling pasties in Ironwood, Mich. “The name stuck, so we kept it,” Jessica says. Variations of the meat pies – bacon cheeseburger, southwest chicken and reuben are examples – are made from scratch five days a week. A veggie version also is popular. What doesn’t sell on the day of preparation is sold frozen later.

Some customers appreciate the shop’s decision to use more locally produced ingredients. “Others are just happy to have a homemade meal at a reasonable price,” Jessica says.

For more: www.ilovepasties.com, 715-369-1224.

Artful Chocolatier, 25 S. Brown St. – Who would ignore hand-dipped decadence? Although this shop is new to downtown, open only since late September, co-owners Wendy Bath and Deanna Goeddaeus began their business before then, in nearby Wabeno.

Wendy is the chocolate maker, and Donna is a trained artist who loves horses. What do horses have to do with chocolate? They make a nifty springboard for unusual product packaging.

The duo’s Equus gift line includes chocolates, coffees, soaps and lotions. Picture chocolate bars wrapped with a full-color illustration of calf ropers, barrel racers, show jumpers or fox hunters. Topping a box of truffles is a sweet image of nuzzling quarter horses. Some treats are shaped like horse heads and horseshoes.

The fine-art paintings are Donna’s doing. If you are a horse lover, or know of one, these items are a perfect gift match.

For more: 715-362-4990. Online orders taken; consult www.equusfinegifts.com, 877-479-5495.

Dinky Diner, 1999 River St. – Attached to a Shell gas station is a nothing-fancy but all-is-good-in-the-world diner that rates high with me because of the little extras.

I’m not talking about the food, although I had no complaints. A cup of chili (made from a family recipe and obviously long-simmered), egg salad sandwich and chips cost less than $5. The cook and owner, Dave Morey, has been in the restaurant business since age 12.

Unexpected and appreciated were the brightly colored tabletops, the paper placemats with word games, the “free for the taking” sign next to newspapers and the take-a-book, bring-a-book attitude of the Dinky Book Club.

Borrow reading glasses from a plastic basket. Order the Dinky Stack, a half-portion of pancakes or French toast. Menu prices top out at $7.50, for the Not So Dinky Burger (two patties, each one-third pound).

Best: the kids’ coloring projects that fill a wall, and the sign that says “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

For more: 715-362-1981.

An extra: The Crimson Cup, 424 Lincoln St., rates high with locals but it was closed because of a work project during my visit. Panini sandwiches are a specialty.

For more: 715-362-8994.