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Minnesota Travel Tips

We were surprised at the astounding landscape that spilled before us as we crossed the bridge to Minnesota and proceeded along Highway 61, a two-lane road that hugs the Mississippi River. This river drive rivals the mouth-gaping views of any Atlantic or Pacific coastal route. Each bend in the road presents a vista more spectacular than the one we previously oohed and ahhed at. Monstrous sandstone bluffs, impish little islands and hill-shadowed lakes characterize this river valley route that runs through charming, historic towns. The Mighty Mississippi, which originates in Minnesota, welcomed us with a flourish to the "North Star" state.

MINNESOTA TOURIST INFORMATION (800) 766-8687

TWIN CITIES

The older of the Twin Cities, St. Paul, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River retains the treasures of Minnesota's past while its twin sister on the west, Minneapolis, flirts with the future. Both offer the tourist sites to see, history to relive, and plenty of parks to pacify the peripatetic.

Statehouse St. Paul (612) 296-2881
Open Mon. - Fri. 9-5, Sat. 10-5, Sun. 1-4

The Minnesota Capitol provides endless entertainment for art, architecture and history lovers. It features the largest unsupported marble dome in the nation and the second largest in the world (after the Basilica in Rome). At the base of this magnificent dome, glistens a golden sculpture entitled, "The Progress of the State," which shows a man in a chariot, two women and four horses dashing to future glory. Commonly referred to as the quadriga, the sculpture is made of steel and copper and covered with gold leaf to catch the sun all day and cast a constant golden gleam like a guiding light. The four horses represent nature's elements: Earth, Fire, Water, and Air; the two women represent Industry and Agriculture, and the man in the chariot is Prosperity. The building's majestic exterior is matched by an exquisite interior.Its original, hand-stenciled ceilings are intriguing, as are the unsupported staircase and the governor's lavish reception room. Throughout the building are inspirational words inscribed in gold pertaining to the rooms in which they adorn the walls.

Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul (612) 228-1766
Open Mon.-Tues &Thurs.- Sat. 8 -6; Wed. 8-4; Sun. 1-6

The soul of St. Paul . . . built in 1915 in honor of the city's patron saint, the Cathedral of St. Paul was modeled after St. Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. Smaller than its Roman brother, yet bigger than any other building in the city (except perhaps the Capitol, one block away), this enormous palace of worship sits high upon a hill overlooking the city like a stalwart guardian angel.

Minnesota History Center, St. Paul (612) 296-6126
Open Tues.- Sat. 10 -5

Situated between the Capitol and the cathedral is a futuristic-looking building that, ironically, houses Minnesota's past. Begin your tour with "Minnesota A- Z," an easy-to-follow exhibit categorized alphabetically, from A- is for-Animal to Z-is for-Zero temperatures -- and mind your Ps (Prince's costume in the movie Purple Rain) & Q's (Quilts to the hilt, with stories about each one.) Other exhibits include "Minnesota Communities" which explores six different ethnic communities; "Minnesota Almanac," a timeline from glaciers to today, and "Our Gathering Places: African Americans in Minnesota" which seats you into a 1940's barbershop and a 1960s beauty parlor, allowing you to eavesdrop on the conversations of those times.

Tip: Lunch at the History Center's "Cafe Minnesota" and enjoy gourmet food, cafeteria style. Prices range from $2.15-$5.95 and the tastes range from unique soups and salads to sautes and roasts, such as the famous Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, Chicken Saltimbocca with Mushroom Rice, Panfried Catfish, and Slow Roasted Round of Beef. What a delicious deal!

The Alexander Ramsey House, St. Paul (612) 296-8760
Open May-November, Tues.- Sat. 10 -3

Built in 1872 as the home of Minnesota's first territorial governor, this Victorian house of native limestone has the good fortune of retaining approximately 80 percent of its original furnishings. We visited during it's special "Victorian House in Mourning," where the house projects the pall and customs of a bereaving family during the Victorian days. Costumed guides take on the roles of either a member of the family or of the staff. The kitchen and the cook were our favorites.

Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, Minneapolis (612) 379-4046
Open Tues.- Thurs. 5-9

Some people collect stamps, coins and crockery, but Bob McCoy collects quackery -- and generously shares it with the public -- at no charge -- in his Museum of Questionable Medical Devices. More than 200 exhibits of medical devices . . .some harmless, some deadly, are on display for you to figure out how they work, or better still, how they ever got sold in the first place. Like the cylindrical, MRI look-alike that was supposed to rejuvenate one's youth. Or the slenderizing creme that one slathers over their obesity followed by a body cast of plastic wrap. Some of the "inventors" were obvious charlatans out to cheat an unsuspecting or desperately hopeful public, but others seemed to truly believe in the cure they were selling. McCoy's enthusiasm for the subject turns inanimate metal and plastic objects into escapades of delight.

Tip: The museum is in an historic part of town, a red bricked area along the Mississippi River with outdoor cafes lined up and down the street. We had a great sunset dinner and a wonderful waitress at Sophie's, an elegant outdoor cafe just a few blocks from the museum. As you get closer to the museum, there are less expensive outdoor cafes, sans the decor, linen napkins, and snooty maitre d'. The entire riverfront is alive with people drinking, dining and walking in the park along the river.

Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis
Open daily, dusk to dawn

A sharp turn off Hiawatha Avenue leads to this huge, green oasis of gardens, walking trails, arbors and two stairways -- with lookout points -- that descend along Minnehaha Falls (laughing waters) to it's base, a huge limestone basin and pool. A statue of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, made famous by Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," stands among the trees along the river's shore.

Tip: Bring a picnic lunch or grab a bite to eat at the snack bar at the park's large pavilion and patio.

St. Anthony Falls & Stone Arch Bridge, Minneapolis

The Stone Arch Bridge is an old railroad bridge converted into a walking/jogging/biking path over the Mississippi River along St. Anthony's Falls. Historical markers along the way tell the story of old sawmills in the 18th century, replaced by flour mills in the 19th and early 20th century. The bridge slices through two competing flour companies: Gold Medal and Pillsbury. The Gold Medal Flour factory, now in ruins, is being converted into a living museum and an archeological "dig" that will soon be open to the public. In addition to the dig will be costumed guides and interactive exhibits.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis (612) 370-3996
Open daily, 6 a.m. - midnight

Amidst the peace and quiet of a formal garden with gravel walks and a topiary border are the blossoms of man's creativity . . .40 sculptures made of natural and manmade materials depicting the pains and pleasures of human life . . . the most famous, of course, is the Spoonbridge and Cherry, the centerpiece of the garden. One previous curator described the Sculpture Garden as "Louis XIV with a maraschino cherry." A lovely conservatory and memorial arbor are also on the grounds as well as a walking bridge that connects to the lakeside Loring Park.

RED WING

At the foot of the bluffs along the Mississippi River sits the town of Red Wing, which got its name from Chief Red Wing, a Mdewakanton, Dakota Sioux whose emblem was a swan's wing stained scarlet. The emblem of a red wing marks the area's world-famous pottery and footwear. There's lots to do in this sweet little river town with its parks, shops and historic buildings, including the elegant 1875 St. James Hotel, the Octagonal House, and the 1904 Sheldon Theatre. Across from the theatre is a very small common, but very inspiring with its delicate, fragrant, multicolored rose garden, some well-chosen annuals, a twinkling fountain and a lovely, shady arbor.

Check it out . . . Rollin' on the river. Red Wing is a regular stop for the old-fashioned riverboats: the Mississippi Queen, American Queen and Delta Queen.

Check it out . . . The Red Wing Pottery still sells its famous salt-glazed pottery at the original Pottery Salesroom. An observation window enables you to watch potters wheel-throw and hand-decorate the pieces.

Tip: Every Thursday night, the historic and elegant St. James Hotel welcomes people with puny purses by featuring 99-cent hamburgers in its Veranda Restaurant. The atmosphere is airy and garden like, the burgers are tasty and juicy, and the servers are pleasant and efficient even to us low-budget patrons.

Barn Bluff

In the middle of Red Wing is an elephantine chunk of land called Barn Bluff which overshadows the town like a gentle giant. It's bare, flat top begs to be climbed. Even Henry David Thoreau couldn't resist its alluring call. In 1861, a year before his death, the author of "A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," toured the Mississippi River on a riverboat. When the boat stopped in Red Wing, he climbed to the top of Barn Bluff, even though he was suffering from tuberculosis at the time. Writing to a friend, he raved about its "grandeur and beauty."

Mark Twain was also at Barn Bluff buff, writing:

"The majestic bluffs that overlook the river . . .charm one with the grace and variety of their forms . . .And then you have the shining river, winding here and there and yonder, its sweep interrupted at intervals by clusters of wooded islands threaded by silver channels . . ."

At one time the town built a grand 472-step staircase to the top of their beloved giant, installing a pagoda "resting place" at the halfway mark. The funding for this staircase arrived by selling steps to Red Wing residents. Most of the old staircase has been torn down, but you can still see a small portion here and there with the families' names proudly engraved on the deteriorating steps.

BLOOMINGTON

Bloomington is where you'll find the Mall of America. Sprawling across 4.2 million square feet. It's the largest indoor mall in the United States, maybe even the world. With more than 450 specialty shops, it's "the only place in the world where you'll find Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Sears under one roof." There are 60 bars and restaurants, 14 General Cinema theaters, Camp Snoopy, a 7-acre amusement park, Underwater World theme park, and Golf Mountain Adventure. When you "save for a rainy day" this is where you can spend it -- without feeling a drop of rain.

OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:

Treasure Island RV Park, Red Wing (800) 222-7077, ext. 2334

When we first pulled in here we thought, "Oh-oh another parking lot RV park." But we found a spot overlooking a field and a little pond with a tiny island in the middle of it. A paved road circles the pond for a perfect 1-mile loop walk which passes a fenced-in area of grazing buffalo. All this is just yards away from the hotel and casino. Staying here entitles RVers to use the hotel facilities of swimming pool, jacuzzi and weight room. The pool/jacuzzi is designed like a Polynesian village, with a waterfall spilling into the pool. The jacuzzi area feels like an underground grotto. For those who shun walking, a continuously running shuttle bus takes you back and forth to the hotel/casino complex. The RV/hotel/casino complex also has a marina on the Mississippi River that presents stunning views of the river and bluffs. Because the RV Park is linked to the hotel/casino, you also get the advantages of live entertainment. We saw a 3-day Powwow, fireworks, a boat show, and a rodeo -- just a stone's throw from our RV.

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