Road Trip: Decorah, Iowa

Decorah, Iowa, is located in the northeast corner of the state, 15 miles south of the Minnesota boarder among bluffs. Best known for the eagles, liberal arts college Luther, Norwegian pride and Toppling Goliath Brewery, it’s an outdoor haven of small-town living. Having only passed through it once 18 years ago, I decided to head down Highway 52 and explore the big hiking and beer options in this small town.

Aaron and I visited over the long Memorial Day weekend, and be warned: The town shuts down on the holiday. There were only two places open downtown for breakfast, but more on that later.

Beer and Food Options in Decorah

Oneota Coop Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Oneota Community Co-Op

We arrived in Decorah around lunchtime, so we headed straight to the Oneota Co-Op, recommend by my dad. The shop itself isn’t large, but the cafe portion includes a salad and hot bar and pressed panini sandwiches. I was hard pressed (hilarious, right?!?!) to pick between the magic mushroom and chipotle tofu sandwiches, but ended up with tofu simply because I knew I would appreciate the protein from it and the two slices of cheese on it later when I was hiking and drinking. And the sandwich was amazing, featuring slices of tofu in an amazing sauce between two melty, flavorful slices of cheese. We ended up stopping at Toppling Goliath Brewery for lunch, eating on the patio and washing the food down with a hoppy beer.

Seed Saver Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Seed Saver’s with heritage seed area in the front

After lunch we made our way to Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm to view the gardens and hike the grounds. There is a lot of ground there, so it was fun to walk around past an orchard, through a prairie and in a pine forest. Beyond the hiking (of which there are many miles of trails with varying degrees of difficulty, pick up a map in the visitor center to find out trail features, length and difficulty) are the gardens. There is a great herb and decorative garden, but my favorite part is where Seed Savers is trying to identify possible duplicate types of produce to properly name and identify foods and to save the heritage seeds. The farm is free to visit and interesting, worth a few hours of time.

Pulpit Rock Brewing Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Pulpit Rock Brewing and chill patio

Next we stopped at Decorah’s other brewery, Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. It had a great, large patio with a great view of a city park. It was warm, so it was great to hang out outside. People kept filling in and out, ordering beers and enjoying themselves. We, however, weren’t that impressed with the beer. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t impress us, feeling like we could take it or leave it. So we left it, but like I said, many people were taking it.

We made out way to Hotel Winneshiek, the restored turn-of-the-century hotel, to drop off our things and freshen up, and walked around the cute downtown. The Decorah Hatchery clothing and outdoor store came recommended, but was already closed for the day when we made it there, as it had very limited hours on Sundays. We walked down Main Street, passing historic buildings and looking at some interesting houses featuring large gardens and solar panels.

Main Street ends at the Upper Iowa River and an entry point for the well-maintained paved 11-mile trail around Decorah, running alongside the well-known Fish Hatchery and Raptor Resource Project, home of the Decorah eagles. We plan to bring our bikes next time and explore the trail in full.

Toppling Goliath | Kale and Ale

Tons of small-brewery charm at Toppling Goliath

This time we didn’t have our bikes so we walked back to Toppling Goliath. I recommend walking because parking isn’t great (both in size of lot and that you have to go down a steep drive to exit) and the beers are so damn delicious you won’t want to limit yourself. Pro tip: Belly up to the bar and chat up the servers to find out what fun beers they have had recently (we scored samples that way) and to learn about what beers are in the works. See current beers on tap.

Mabe's Decorah Iowa Beer Gnome | Kale and Ale

Beer-drinking gnome at Mabe’s, the best kind

After trying enough beer, dinner was in order so we walked back downtown to Mabe’s, It was a good choice for after-drink dinner, with a homey feel and delicious food. And the casual family vibe and large dining room meant we felt we could linger. From there we went back to the hotel, tired from a long day, and needing to rest for more hiking the next day.

Lots of Hiking in Decorah

We ate breakfast at our hotel restaurant, Restauration. It was only one of two places open for the holiday, but by going there we weren’t settling; it was a fantastic meal. It focuses on homemade and local food, which is a warm welcome in a hotel restaurant. I got the blue plate special (served on a blue plate!): eggs, potatoes, fruit (instead of meat) and toast, and the potatoes where smashed and fried with the skins on, seasoned well, and the eggs were local. Very filling meal for around $6.50, great to keep me nourished while hiking, and good coffee, too.

Dunnings Springs Decorah, Iowa | Kale and Ale

Dunnings Springs is totally worth the stop

Right inside town are three parks next to each other, each worth exploring: Dunnings Springs, Ice Cave and Palisades. Each is worth a stop, even a quick one, on its own. The spring can be seen from parking and is very impressive, and there are benches to sit and view, so it’s a great spot to visit no matter your athletic ability. View hiking options in Decorah.

Decorah really has a little of everything I look for in a getaway, and I can’t wait to return.

Trip recap: Iowa

Edge of Cedar Rapids seen on a run.

Edge of Cedar Rapids seen on a run.

Last week I got back from a wonderfully relaxing eight-day trip to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was just what I needed to recharge, relax and see family before I start a new (exciting and challenging, hopefully) job at my current workplace. So I took this opportunity while the weather was (mostly) nice to catch up with friends, family, sleep and eating. (Wait, scratch eating, I”m always caught up on that!)

Having always loved the Fourth of July and having a job where I work most holidays, I decided to visit home over the Fourth and take a chance that the weather would be great. Clearly many other friends had this same hope or thought, as many hometown friends who also live far also came home. What a special treat to get to spend time with some of my favorite people I don’t often see. And I met some friends children for the first time. I felt loved and blessed to be surrounded by so many people. And because I was home for so long, as opposed to my usual long weekend trips, I got to see my grandparents more than usual as well.

I didn’t really have plans other than hanging out, catching up and relaxing. I did, however, run my hometown Fourth of July 8k, a big tradition. That was exciting as I have never done a race in the Midwest or an 8k. I’ve decided 8k to 10k is about the right distance to push me a little and keep me running more than just a couple of miles at a time. The weather was 66° and I started in a park I’m very familiar with, Green Square Park. This park is across from the church I grew up in and next to where I had my first job out of college. I was really happy with my time, as it was just slightly slower than my best 5k time, and was a longer run with slight hills. The run is from one park to another and back, through an older neighborhood with big homes and big shade trees. And I think this is so cool,  a video of everyone finishing. I’m on the left in light gray shorts and a teal tank top.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYZxX3yktO8&t=30m19s

And what have you learned about me comes after a run? Breakfast! I headed down to the pancake breakfast (a family tradition) full of Quaker Oats food (they are a big employer in Cedar Rapids) and had pancakes, cereal, granola bars and lots of coffee.

Happy after a nice 8k time, run and pancake breakfast.

Happy after a nice 8k time, run and pancake breakfast.

The running plan for the rest of the summer is pretty nonexistent. It’s crazy hot in South Florida so the goal is just to run as far and often as I can without making myself crazy, and then hope to pump up the distance and days in a few months when the heat and humidity drop.

When picking up my race packet at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (also next to the park), I noticed admission is free this summer. If you are in the area, I suggest a trip. It took my mom and me about 90 minutes to walk through, as neither of us had been there for 15 or 20 years. It was a great way to spend some time, and I was in love with the Grant Wood room right inside the first floor. Grant Wood grew up in Cedar Rapids and painted his largest murals at the Iowa State University Parks Library.

Grant Wood's Woman with Plants

Grant Wood’s Woman with Plants

Grant Wood's Corn Cob Chandelier

Grant Wood’s Corn Cob Chandelier

In addition to running, visiting people and relaxing, I ate and drank! I finally made it to NewBo City Market, where I looked at the vendors, buying fresh produce and getting a Wisconsin cheese I had never heard of, “bread cheese.” Bake it for a few minutes and the texture is like cheese bread. With the pizza flavor, it was a nice side to summer salads.

NewBo City Market scenes

NewBo City Market scenes

I also stopped at Benz Beverage Depot for some Midwest beer (my favorite was the Madhouse Belgian Golden Ale) and Red’s Ale House and Cobble Hill, both huge hits with everyone who went and highly recommended.

All in all it was a really great trip home.

Where are your summer plans taking you?

Iowa raised

This week I went home to Iowa to hang out and visit family. I didn’t have much planned, so it was a nice, relaxing time hanging out with friends and family in great weather. I came back refreshed; it was a really great trip.

While I was home some last-minute exciting things happened:

  • One night, the Northern Lights were supposed to be visible. So my mom and I jumped in the car and drove around away from city lights for a while looking for them. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot them. Viewing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list since learning about them, probably in middle school, so I was bummed I didn’t see them. If they were visible, I think we went to bed too early, as the best show was after midnight until 4 a.m.
  • I was leaving Iowa to come back to Florida the same time as President Obama. He made a quick trip to the University of Iowa during his two-day university tour to talk about student-loan rates, and flew out of the Eastern Iowa Airport the same time as me. Because of the timing, I saw the motorcade as I was on the road waiting to enter the airport and saw Air Force One take off once inside the terminal. It was a pretty cool site.

The motorcade entering the Eastern Iowa Airport

Air Force One takes off. I saw it a lot closer but due to excitement and poor window placement, I couldn't get a better picture.

Other than that, I hung out with my family and friends, enjoying the weather and activities of my hometown. And, if you know me or this blog, you know some of my favorite things to do when traveling is sample local food and beer.

I read in my hometown newspaper (and my first job) about a cute cheese shop, The Cheesehead Cheese Haus in Vinton, so I stopped by. It has more than 100 different cheeses, most from Wisconsin. Kris owns it with her husband, and she was very knowledgeable and helpful while we were shopping. She said she has tried all the cheeses (lucky lady!).

My mom, brother and I each picked a cheese: Buffalo wing cheddar (my brother), Farmers horseradish and chive (my mom) and cranberry white cheddar (me). They were a great variety, and all were really good, especially when sampled with our Midwest beers variety 6-pack I picked up.

Not a great picture, but great Midwest beer, cheese and crackers.

If you haven’t heard me say it before, I make a point when I travel somewhere to try to eat and drink as local as possible. And when I go home, it means sampling Midwest beers that are not available in Florida. Why travel to get something from the same chain restaurant you can find on every corner of the U.S. and wash it down with a basic anybeer? To me, a huge joy of travel is to experience new things and try something local not widely available.

This trip, my favorite beers sampled were Boulevard Single-Wide I.P.A., Potosi Steamboat Shandy and Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale.

My first Iowa State Fair trip

As a proud Iowan who had never been to the famed Iowa State Fair, I made a point to change that this year. I went home two weeks ago, with not many plans except for one: To check out my state’s annual fair. The fair is not only a big deal in Iowa, it’s a big deal as far as state fairs go. And I had no idea what to expect. So I went with Bill and my mom, also first-timers, to the first day of the fair. The weather was perfect, sunny and upper 70s with a slight breeze.

When I got back home in South Florida, my coworkers and friends had a lot of questions about the fair that had occupied the news while I was away. I will try and answer a few questions of my experiences and observations at my first Iowa State Fair.

Did you see Michele Bachmann?

No, she was supposed to be there that day, but changed to Friday, the day after the debate in Ames and the day before the Straw Poll. Instead, I saw Mitt Romney with Sen. Chuck Grassley. I first noticed a group of people around an American flag and, upon further review, saw Grassley and media, then Romney shaking everyone’s hand.

Oh, there is Mitt Romney shaking hands with people.

And a closer view with Sen. Grassley. They were looking at a baby.

Later in the day we saw the CNN election express bus, or whatever they call it.

Did you try fried butter on a stick?

No, that doesn’t even sound good! Pass! Although i try and eat healthy, I am at the fair after all. I saw a stand selling the Gigantor, a one-pound hamburger served between two grilled cheese sandwiches. Again, passed.

Gigantor? No thanks!

My lunch: Tofu corn dog and fried cheese curds. A fair basic.

I saw a salad on a stick (What won’t they put on a stick?) but felt I could go a little more unhealthy than that, so I ended up with a tofu corn dog and fried cheese curds. That is about my speed. Bill tried red velvet funnel cake and my mom had fried pickles. No complaints, no regrets.

Did you see the butter cow?

Butter cow!

Yes. You can’t go to the fair and not see it. If you aren’t familiar, the butter cow is exactly what it sounds like. And this is the 100th year of the butter cow. It was awesome and had such detail in its ribs and hair. Cool to have finally seen it!

What else is there?

Awwww, sheep

Clydesdales

So many kinds of produce, I was speechless!

A lot! We were there for six hours, and we didn’t see it all. We saw all kinds of animals big and small, in all stages of grooming. We saw two HUGE pigs and a massive sheep, but didn’t come across the big steer. We saw birds and rabbits, and horses of all different sizes. We saw lots of hot-tub vendors and more types of corn than I knew were available. The Clydesdales were there; it’s always a treat to see these large, beautiful horses. We saw some amazing art displays as well.

We went to the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. In its first year at the state fair, the Iowa Craft Beer Tent had 36 taps, with 30 devoted to Iowa beers and the other six for Midwest beers. We decided on a sampler and, in all, each tried a few ounces of six beers, which was just the right amount to get a taste on a hot day. Because I was busy sampling the great beers, I didn’t take any pictures, but luckily there are a lot on their facebook page, to get a sense of the fun at the beer tent.

Did you go on any rides?

No, I didn’t care to for time/money/dizziness reasons. But we did take a ride on the skyride, which gave us a nice view of the fair and downtown Des Moines, and gave our feet a rest.

Skyride with a few of the fair and downtown Des Moines

All in all, I’m very glad I went. I had a great time and am a proud Iowan.

Have you been to the Iowa State Fair? I would love to hear other people’s stories. People seem to either go every year, once when they were young, or never.