I am always learning something new about roads that I’ve already traveled. Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing a little homework or sharing the miles with curious friends who are on the lookout for something new.
Here are favorite discoveries from a recent road trip that looped the Upper Mississippi River for at least 100 miles, in Wisconsin and Minnesota. That’s just a sliver of the Great River Road, a national scenic byway stretching 3,000 miles from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico (experiencemississippiriver.com, 866-763-8310).
Bob Hoffmaster of Fond du Lac’s KFIZ-AM and I chatted recently about how the Upper Mississippi shoreline is a popular playground for residents of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Bob correctly observed that this adds creative dining (and other nifty businesses) to areas where they might not otherwise be expected.
Nesbitt’s Nursery and Orchard, Pierce County: Bedding plants, apples by the bushel and way more come from this rural, 220-acre haven that is 10 miles south of Prescott. Think gingerbread French toast with lemon curd ice cream, or braised pork with ginger-carrot marmalade. Add jars of apple-maple syrup, hand-dipped candy and squares of flourless chocolate cake.
So there are many good reasons to stop, especially for breakfast or lunch at Nesbitt’s tidy Oasis Eatery. From June to mid September, it’s Pie Night from 4:30-8 p.m. on Wednesdays. That means slices of quiche, pizzas and a la mode desserts. Gluten-free options are available. Fridays are reserved for food theater: fish boils, a la Door County; diners are seated at 6 p.m. nesbittsnursery.com, 715-792-2676
Flat Pennies Ice Cream, Bay City: Next to vintage Soo Line Caboose No. 27, Jim Ross operates an endearing cafe whose slogan is “So good we can stop a train.”
Hot beef sandwiches and peanut butter sandwiches are on the menu, but cones and sundaes are the sweetest draw. For ambitious eaters: Jungle Love, three waffle bowls of ice cream with multiple toppings for $40. Serves 10. flatpennies.com, 715-594-3555
Pier 4 Café and Smokehouse, Alma: Smokey, a smiling pig with wings, is the business mascot that hints at the good humor inside this unpretentious, waterfront, breakfast-lunch joint. Slogan? “Best breakfast and barbecue by a dam site,” a reference to Lock and Dam No. 4, visible from screened patio seats.
When visiting on a busy Saturday morning, co-owner Marietta Malrick was seating customers while wearing pajamas, a bathrobe and earrings that looked like little platters of bacon and eggs. Hardest menu choice: 4-inch-square cinnamon rolls vs. potato pancakes with applesauce.
The Danimal, for the hungriest souls, is three pounds of pancakes. Eat them within 30 minutes, and they’re free. Finish in less than 14 and the meal is renamed after you. pier4cafe.com, 608-685-4964
Suncrest Gardens Farm, Cochrane: A few twisty miles inland from the riverfront, between Alma and Fountain City, is a 16-acre veggie and berry farm that sells wood-fired pizzas from 4:30-9 p.m. on Fridays, through September, plus Thursdays during June through August.
Expect a short menu of classic and unusual (as in teriyaki pizza, and spinach alfredo pizza) choices. Expect to linger and watch a few critters, which include pygmy goats, steers, ducks, dogs and Dalai Llama. Expect the show to go on, regardless of weather. suncrestgardensfarm.com, 608-626-2122
Seven Hawks Vineyards, Fountain City: Tucked into the lively little downtown, one-half block from the main drag, is the decade-old winery’s tasting room. The bestseller is a semi-dry red mix called Hunter’s Blend. If the weather’s good, buy a glass and head to the rooftop patio of this renovated 1870s building. A sample is free. For sale, besides wine, are jars of Sweet Lightning, a horseradish-wine jelly. sevenhawksvineyards.com, 866-946-3741
Not open to the public are the bluffside vineyards, unless you count the vintner’s secluded and classy Hawks View Cottages and Lodges. Overnight rates start at $155 and include a bottle of wine. (Two suites, above the tasting room, start at $125.) hawksview.net, 866-293-0803
Seven Hawks is part of the Great River Road Wine Trail; the 11 participating businesses present June Bloom – wine and food pairings – from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 7-8. Pay $30 for a ticket to nibble and sip something at each location. For designated drivers, the cost is $10. greatriverroadwinetrail.org
Villa Maria, Frontenac, Minn.: If peace and quiet matters more than frills and frivolity, consider this interfaith retreat center that opened in 1891 and overlooks Lake Pepin. The main building’s stone exterior looks a bit like a castle.
Available are simple rooms (no TVs, shared baths), cottages and cabins big enough for bunking up to 40 people. Rates depend upon the season, duration of stay, type of accommodation and whether buffet meals are added.
Indoor and outdoor labyrinths, a meditation garden, grotto, chapel and walking trails are on these 70 acres, which are next to Frontenac State Park and its 13 miles of hiking trails. villamariaretreats.org, 651-345-4582
Four Wisconsin riverfront towns – Bay City, Maiden Rock, Stockholm and Pepin – are within 15 miles of each other and market themselves as the scenic and interesting West Coast of Wisconsin. Learn more about reasons to visit at westcoastofwisconsin.com and 510-454-9269.