Goin’ down the Great River Road

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Au­gust 11: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


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


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


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


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


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.


La Crosse Queen,

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