MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


Memorable McGregor

A picturesque river town in Iowa claims more than its share of characters.

Over the years, the byways around McGregor, Iowa, have seen an extraordinary procession of people.

Between 650 and 1300, Woodland Indians built animal-shaped burial mounds, 29 of which are preserved nearby at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived via the Wisconsin River, claiming the land for France and paving the way for the fur trade, whose center was just across the river in Prairie du Chien.

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A pocket of Norway

In northeast Iowa, Decorah still is Norwegian after all these years.

Of all the immigrant groups, Norwegians perhaps are most sentimental.

They settled in hills and valleys reminiscent of their homeland, bringing trunks full of handcrafted ale bowls and mangle boards.

Generations later, they’re still painting bowls and stitching costumes in the old style and celebrating holidays with foods poor Norwegians ate in the 19th century.

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Tulip Time in Pella

In central Iowa, the Dutch celebrate colorful origins.

Even in a region rich in ethnicity, the Dutch stand out.

In a town square in Iowa, lacy white hats shaped like pyramids, horns and half-moons bob high atop women's heads. Men wear black caps, breeches or baggy trousers and narrow bands cross at their throats. Their wooden shoes click and clack as they dance.

"These are the weirdest people I've ever seen!'' shrieked a little boy watching from the sidelines.

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Cheap summer getaways in Iowa and Illinois

From quiet lake parks to the big city, vacation for $100 or less.

In summer, you have to work the angles to vacation for $100 or less.

You've got a good shot in Iowa, which has a big selection of cabins in state parks and especially county parks.

It's a little harder in Illinois. But Chicago has one of the world's best hostels, and some state parks have lodges and camper cabins.

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Bicycling in Iowa

Quietly, this low-profile but ambitious state has piled on miles of trails.

For a long time, Iowa has been a great place to ride a bike.

It's not as flat as people think, and it has an excellent network of paved county roads.

RAGBRAI, a cross-state bike ride that spawned many imitators when it debuted in 1973, now is so popular that its 8,500 week-long riders, who come from 50 states and 50 countries, are chosen by lottery.

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Truly Amana

The busiest of Iowa's seven Amana Colonies is both a living historic monument and a shopping heaven.

It's obvious from one look at the shop-lined streets of Amana, the largest of the seven Amana Colonies, that modern commerce is in full flower there. Even so, the first question asked about the villages is: Are the Amana people Amish?

And no wonder — the people of the Amanas spoke German, lived simply and adhered faithfully to Scripture. Many still do. But no, they never were Amish.

The first people of the Amanas were German immigrants who came to Iowa in 1855.

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One fall swoop

The roller-coaster hills and riverside bluffs of northeast Iowa yield a photo album of panoramas.

Long before the second-growth forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s north woods became fall destinations, sightseers were flocking to northeast Iowa.

Flat? Hardly. In this part of Iowa, only the river is flat. Towering bluffs line the Mississippi, providing unparalleled views of the sprawling river plain.

For more than 150 years, people have gone to great lengths to see these views. In 1851, when the town of Lansing consisted of a few log cabins, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed a particularly steep bluff there.

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Wright in Mason City

An Iowa town that embraced the famous architect has reopened his last hotel.

Brilliant men have been very good to Mason City, Iowa.

Frank Lloyd Wright built a bank, hotel and house there in 1908-09, and the locals loved his Prairie style so much it commissioned houses from four of his associates. Today, it's one of the best collections in the nation.

Wright became persona non grata in Mason City after he abruptly left for Europe with his married lover. But a musical virtuoso was growing up nearby. Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,’’ inspired by Mason City and its band, became a Broadway smash in 1957.

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Lansing on the Mississippi

Blessed by topography, a quiet Iowa river town attracts attention.

Tucked into the tip of northeast Iowa, Lansing has been overlooked for a long time.

In 1851, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed its steep bluff and won a footrace to the top; the peak became Mount Hosmer.

Lansing was the county seat until 1867, when a posse from Waukon stole the county records. And it was a boom town in the 1870s and '80s, when farmers beat a path to its grain elevator and levee.

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Destination: Dubuque

A once-shabby Mississippi River port now is a tourists' playground.

For much of its existence, Dubuque, Iowa, has been a little short on charisma.

It started out well, with a lead-mining boom and eight breweries and Victorian mansions filled with millionaires.

But it faded into obscurity. For years, its last brewery sat empty next to the 1856 Shot Tower, where laborers once turned molten lead into bullets and cannonballs by dropping it through screens into cool river water.

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Clear Lake tranquility

In a laid-back Iowa beach town, the '50s never ended.

In Clear Lake, the spirit of the 1950s didn't die with Buddy Holly.

This northern Iowa lake town, midway between the Twin Cities and Des Moines, swells with vacationers in summer but retains the laid-back, carefree air of decades past.

On the shores of the lake, classic cars cruise around pocket-sized City Park, fuzzy pink dice dangling from mirrors. Every Saturday and Sunday, the municipal band plays in the bandshell. The Lions Club grills chicken and sweet corn, and a paddlewheeler takes tourists on cruises.

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Nordic nirvana

Every July, Decorah puts on one of the best fests in the Midwest.

First, an elf sashayed down the street.

Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.

Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.

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Kalona, naturally

In southeast Iowa, the Amish find common ground with those who value a grassroots lifestyle.

Around Kalona, Iowa, there's one group of people who always have understood sustainable agriculture and locally sourced food.

For the Amish, that's a lifestyle, not a movement.

Since 1846, Old Order Amish have lived and worked in this bucolic pocket of southeast Iowa, 20 minutes from Iowa City.

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Eating in the Amana Colonies

In eastern Iowa, a historic village has a long tradition of feeding people well.

Before 1932, the pious, hard-working people of the Amana Colonies were the only people in Iowa who got to eat out every night.

Members of the pacifist Community of True Inspiration, they emigrated from Germany and built seven villages on 25,000 acres of eastern Iowa farmland. For nearly 90 years, they lived communally, pooling resources and skills.

Butchers, brewers and winemakers turned out goods for everyone, and meals were served in 50 communal kitchens.

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Table-hopping in bluff country

On a culinary adventure to Decorah, we tighten our belts, then let them out.

Lately, we’ve been traveling like kings . . . and paupers, too.

I suspect a lot of other people are doing the same thing. To get what we want, we save on something else.

Our favorite splurge is eating out, but a meal for two in a really good restaurant costs $60-$100, same as a hotel room. Our solution? We pitch a tent.

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Perry's palace

In central Iowa, a gorgeous Arts & Crafts boutique hotel welcomes guests.

In 1997, a small-town damsel who married a prince — well, an heir — waved a silver wand over her hometown of Perry, Iowa, and unusual things began to happen.

She took the dowdy Hotel Pattee, built in 1913 and on the brink of demolition, and filled it with terra-cotta tile, Persian rugs and so much Honduran mahogany she cornered the market for it.

Artists moved in and painted murals and whimsical folk-art lamps, bedsteads and armoires.

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A cabin in Iowa

Spectacular scenery lies at guests’ feet in Backbone State Park.

What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.

“It’s like hiking on the North Shore,’’ my husband said.

But it wasn’t Lake Superior’s North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.

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Road trip: Northeast Iowa

In these scenic bluffs, extraordinary people lived and worked.

There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.

It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.

There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.

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A yurt on an Iowa lake

In Clear Lake, a weekend stay is so simple, it's hardly camping.

One June, I was a very lazy camper.

I threw a sleeping bag and pillow into the car and drove two hours down Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, Iowa. I didn’t bother to solicit company; in early June, most people where I live want to go north, not south.

It was their loss. McIntosh Woods State Park is on one of Iowa’s most popular lakes, a big expanse of sparkling water that was scoured out by glaciers and sits above the surrounding countryside, catching breezes on hot days.

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West Branch's 'wonder boy'

An Iowa village tells the story of Herbert Hoover, the international hero who became a scapegoat.

Poor Herbert Hoover.

Orphaned at age 9, he spent his childhood picking potato bugs, weeding onions and cleaning barns. His first job after graduation from Stanford was shoveling ore.

Then he grew a moustache, bought a tweed suit and passed himself off as an experienced mining engineer. Sent to Australia at age 23, he found a vein of gold that yielded his London employers $65 million.

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Feasting in Dubuque

Guests on a progressive dinner and mansion tour get a good look at what frontier fortunes could buy.

Walnut carpenter's lace. Fireplaces made of Italian mosaic tile. Yards of leaded glass and richly printed, century-old wallpaper.


That's what the two dozen people on a house tour and progressive dinner in Dubuque, Iowa, kept saying as the tour progressed from one Victorian mansion to another.

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