As wonderful as Minneapolis and St. Paul are, sometimes you just have to get out of town.
Luckily, you only have to drive an hour or so to find a world of fun.
Minneapolis and St. Paul grew around the confluence of two rivers, and their favorite day-trip destinations are on rivers, too.
In the heart of the Twin Cities, one of the most popular bicycling routes also is the most historic.
Below Fort Snelling, the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet. Everyone came here . . . in the days before trains and cars, everyone had to come here.
Today, one of the easiest ways to travel this route is by bicycle, and paved trails line both sides of the Mississippi from Minnehaha Park in south Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.
It used to be that rebellious young men started garage bands. Now, they start garage breweries.
Bud, Coors and Miller may rule the beer world, but craft brewers are its rock stars. At first, they made their own, getting supplies from St. Paul's Northern Brewer ("good beer is your right'').
Then, they started real breweries with names like Surly ("the anger fueled by the inability to find good beers'') and Flat Earth ("join the movement against the reign of watered-down domestics'').
On the western fringes of the Twin Cities, the wealthy have staked out Lake Minnetonka.
Nearly all of its 125 miles of shoreline are privately owned, and the summer cottages built by vacationing flour millers and businessmen Pillsbury,
Northrop, Bell, Loring, Peavey have morphed into mansions.
But on the southeast corner of the sprawling lake, one town retains vestiges of the Victorian age, when steamboats ferried vacationers around the lake and day-trippers arrived on electric streetcars.
Not all of the beach camping in the Upper Midwest is in a state park or even in the countryside.
In the suburbs around the Twin Cities, county park systems and park reserves offer wooded campsites and camper cabins. Many are near lakes or rivers, and others are close to bicycle trails or golf courses.
Theyre a great deal for visitors and also for locals who want to save gas money and travel time.
The Falls of St. Anthony wasn't a very tall waterfall.
But it was broad and thundering, and the only major drop on the Mississippi.
More importantly, it got good PR from two best-selling travel guides, Father Louis Hennepin's 1683 "Description de la Louisiane'' and Jonathan Carver's 1778 "Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America,'' both of which exaggerated its height.
For more than a century, people have marveled at the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis.
It's not so much the beauty of the lakes, though they're glorious. It's more the fact that ordinary folk can walk, bike, swim and play around them all of them.
It almost wasn't so. Back in 1882, landscape architect Horace Cleveland had to argue his case for putting aside land on the city's lakes, creeks and river.
It's ironic, considering its past, that St. Paul is such a wholesome destination.
Liquor brought the first white resident to Minnesota's capital; he was Pierre Parrant, a swinish, one-eyed former voyageur named Pig's Eye. He set up his first tavern near Fort Snelling, but was rousted in 1837 by officers who were tired of the trouble it caused.
The hovel he built in a cave down river was St. Paul's first building, and the area around the tavern he built later, in the future downtown, was known briefly as Pig's Eye.
During the holidays, there's no place like home. In fact, it's the perfect getaway.
Every year, I go to downtown for the festivities. I get tickets for Handel's "Messiah" at Orchestra Hall. I hunt for stocking stuffers on Nicollet Mall.
I don't stay overnight. I live here, after all.
Every big city has skyscrapers. Every big city has museums and monuments. But no other city has as many beautiful lakes and parks Minneapolis does.
Early in the city's history, when its lakes still were considered swampy boondocks, city fathers decided to make their shores public property.
Today, the most expensive homes in the city face the lakes, but the public in-line skaters, bicyclists, dog-walkers owns the shorelines.
It's easy to see why the Dakota Rail Trail is the most popular bicycle trail in Minnesota.
This 25½-mile trail between the Minneapolis suburb of Wayazata and rural Mayer winds through the labyrinthine bays and isthmuses of Lake Minnetonka better than any car can.
It's shady, scenic and paved, so it's beloved by in-line skaters as well as bicyclists.
For decades, the scenic bicycle trails around Minneapolis Chain of Lakes have drawn people from the suburbs into the city. Now, its the city folks turn to visit.
Hundreds of people daily ride the Dakota Rail Trail, which takes bicyclists past a chain of ponds, wetlands and bays on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka, through some of its toniest villages.
One of the newest trails connects the oldest trail. From the west border of Minneapolis, the Luce Line Regional Trail passes two swimming beaches and a sea of cattails on its way from Theodore Wirth Park to the Luce Line State Trail.
Minneapolis, having once been named Bicycling magazines No. 1 best city for bicycling, is better known for bicycling than St. Paul.
As usual, St. Paul is overshadowed by its larger twin. But youd never guess it from the throngs of bicyclists on the popular Gateway State Trail, on Summit Avenue through town and on the St. Paul Classic tour, started 12 years before the Minneapolis Bike Tour and the states largest bike tour.
Like Minneapolis, the capital city has paved trails around lakes, past historic landmarks and along the Mississippi.
Even tourists from the great European capitals are impressed by Summit Avenue.
It's not just one mansion, but one after another, all the way from the Mississippi River to the massive Cathedral of St. Paul, overlooking downtown and the state Capitol.
This five-mile stretch is one of the most splendid, best-preserved Victorian streets in the United States. The oldest are at the east end, on the lip of the bluff overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River.
When you're a tourist, you don't always want to get "off the beaten path.''
We visited Portland for the first time one Labor Day, and all we knew is that it's an outdoorsy town. So we were looking for a nice hike in Forest Park, one of the nation's largest municipal forests with 80 miles of hiking trails.
Wow! Except we only needed four or five of those miles. Surely, we thought, there's a "best hike'' that all the locals know about. Nope our guidebook, maps and the local hikers forum were useless.
Twin Citians can boast all they want about their quality of life, their lakes and their urban civility.
But the only thing most people in other states and countries really want to know about is the Mall of America, and the very interesting fact that there's no tax on clothing and shoes in Minnesota.
Opened in 1992, the megamall was an instant hit, attracting eager shoppers from all over the world, most arriving with empty suitcases they can stuff with deals.
If youre a paddler, youre done for the winter. But when one door closes, another opens.
Ive been meaning to paddle Minnehaha Creek through the heart of Minneapolis for years, but the water won't stand still sometimes it's too high, sometimes too low.
This 22-mile creek, named for a romantic character in an 1855 hit poem, connects everything that makes Minneapolis famous: the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Falls, the Chain of Lakes, Lake Minnetonka.
In winter, a spa getaway sounds like just the thing.
Relax, rejuvenate and renew. Cleanse the skin, clear the mind. Get rid of stress and enter a portal to tranquility.
Like a lot of women, I thought a spa vacation would make a good girlfriend getaway, a relaxing break in routine.