German heritage strong in New Ulm, Minn.

Forces of nature brought me to New Ulm, Minn., for an overnight that I didn’t expect to be pretty. Tornado-level winds and blinding rain had uprooted trees, flooded and closed streets upon my arrival around 8 p.m.

I had no lodging reservation and no clue about the tidy image or pride of German heritage that this city of 13,500 hones. Most motels already were at capacity, and I hedged when hearing the price of the rare room remaining.

A bed and breakfast often is my preference when traveling solo, if it fits my budget. At least five B&Bs do business in New Ulm, and one innkeeper not only made room for me but kindly offered a discount on her last accommodation – a suite – if I agreed to not use its hot tub room (a private and romantic roost, with fireplace and hand-painted wall murals).

We had a deal, so the Deutsche Strasse became my home for a night. Owner Ramona Sonnenberg had snacks and a glass of red wine waiting for me. The next morning, her three-course breakfast began with berries, custard and granola. After quiche and biscuits came warm chocolate cake with whipped cream, so the day was brighter in more than one way.

The inn, built in 1884, was the home of a railroad and flour mill executive, then priests for a nearby Catholic church, and the third floor was a sewing center for the Red Cross during World War I. It also had been a popular place for choirs to rehearse and civic groups to congregate.

Four blocks away is downtown New Ulm and its German-themed restaurants, taverns and shops. A 45-foot-tall glockenspiel plays a series of songs three times daily. Other historic structures and monuments would easily fill a day of sightseeing.

Veigel’s Kaiserhoff serves kraut balls, schnitzels, landjaeger and other German specialties. Domeier’s German Store and GutenTag Haus stock steins, cuckoo clocks, and other Old World imports, including music and food.

Antique instruments and tributes to state celebrities fill the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, which acknowledges all music genres, big band to blues, right up to native sons Bob Dylan and Prince.

On the outskirts of New Ulm is the family-owned August Schell Brewing Co., the second-oldest family-owned brewer in the nation, celebrating its 150th birthday this month. The beer maker’s namesake is a Black Forest native who began the business because a good German beer was hard to find in this rural area.

Many of the original red brick Schell buildings – such as the founder’s mansion, with gardens – remain and peacocks strut the grounds, uncaged. So the hilltop property, which was added to the National Register for Historic Places in 1974, feels more like a homey estate than an industry.

Products include Grain Belt, a Minnesota label acquired in 2002, and beer quality is award-winning. Schell placed seventh overall during 2010 U.S. Open Beer Championships, an international competition with 50-plus categories and more than 700 entries.

This year’s release of Schell Hopfenmalz and Grain Belt Nordeast celebrate the brewer’s sesquicentennial. A Sept. 17-18 birthday bash involves concerts at nearby South Park (admission charged), plus free tours, tastings and music at the brewery Sept. 18.

New Ulm’s most unique attraction is Putting Green Environmental Adventure Park, a mini-golf course that also educates its customers about ecology and conservation.

Look for signage with clever wording – like “Fields of Drains” and “Wetland Washing Machines” – and little lessons about how the world works.

For example:

“If all the world’s water were compacted into a one-gallon jug, the fresh water would equal one tablespoon.”

“One gallon of oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate one million gallons of water.”

I also learned how to make ethanol from corn, how my world would change if water were scarce and the consequences of too much untreated sewage.

High school students did the research and writing along this nine-hole course, which opened in 2005 on nine acres in the Minnesota River Valley.

The project was the idea of physician Laurel Gamm, who also is a mom. She thought the design and development of a mini-golf course would be a great way for students to learn business, art, math and physics concepts. High school students staff the park, which is open May to October, and they also are the “EcoPreneurs” who make business operation decisions.

For more about New Ulm: www.newulm.com, 888-463-9856. Gnomes, polkas, schnitzel and lager add authenticity to Oktoberfest, Oct. 1-2 and 8-9, but this is not the city’s only annual celebration of German culture.

For more about the Deutsche Strasse Bed and Breakfast, 404 S. German St.: www.deutschestrasse.com, 866-226-9856. Rates are $109 to $169.

For more about the August Schell Brewing Co.: www.schellsbrewery.com, 800-770-5020. A one-hour tour costs $3, but admission to the Museum of Brewing is free.

For more about Putting Green Environmental Adventure Park, at the corner of Valley Street and 20th Street South: www.puttinggreen.org, 507-354-7888.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.