I was eager to visit Decorah, Iowa, in part to see the famous bald eagles, which I've been following via "nest cam" for two seasons, along with thousands of other viewers around the world. But I hadn't yet realized how much more there is to Decorah than a nest of eaglets. It's home to a renowned heirloom plant farm and a Norwegian cultural center. Add to that a lovely and rolling stretch of the Iowa River, a couple of scenic bike trails and the DNR Trout Hatchery, and you've got a fine weekend trip. Decorah's vibe is a pleasant mix of college town and close-to-the-land, small-town Iowa, and definitely Norwegian.
WHAT TO DO
Buy heirloom plants and see heritage animals: The Seed Savers Exchange (3094 North Winn Road; 1-563-382-5990; www.seedsavers.org) has been preserving heirloom species since 1975.
Nestled in the hills 6 miles north of town, Heritage Farm, the headquarters, features thousands of varieties of fruits and veggies. Hundreds of apple and grape varieties grow at the Historic Orchard, with Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs cleaning up the windfall. Other heritage animals include poultry and a herd of Ancient White Park Cattle, a breed that roamed the British Isles thousands of years ago. Hiking trails and trout fishing are available on the property.
President Obama held a town hall meeting here in summer 2011. The Lillian Goldman Visitors Center is free and open to the public March through December, weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gift shop is well stocked with bedding plants, seeds and other goodies for land lovers old and young. Upcoming special events include a Harvest Festival on Oct. 13.
Explore Norwegian heritage and go shopping: At the west end of Decorah's pleasant downtown is Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum (502 W. Water St.; 1-563-382-9681; www.vesterheim.org). Vesterheim houses an extensive collection of fine and folk arts, textiles, woodcarvings and machinery and also serves as a cultural center.
As long as you're on Water Street, dip into some of the charming shops that line Decorah's main drag, such as Dragonfly Books, Ace Kitchen Place, Agora Arts and Decorah Chick Hatchery. A list of shops, with their addresses and Web links can be found at www.decoraharea.com/shop ping.html.
See eagles: A mile south of Decorah, Siewer Springs Road leads past the famed Decorah eagles' nest. The cottonwood tree in which the nest perches is on private property. But benches across the street at the DNR Trout Hatchery provide a comfortable spot for patient nest-watchers to wait for fly-bys. This year's nestlings have fledged, but they and the parents are still in the area.
Bike and hike: The 11-mile Trout Run loop, which leads to the nest site, has recently been completed (www.troutruntrail.com).
WHERE TO EAT
La Rana Bistro specializes in locally sourced food. My daughter and I started with the tapas plate, made up of local cheeses and sausage and homemade crusty bread. Our main courses were steelhead trout and linguine with English peas and tendrils. Everything was tasty and fresh, and the bistro serves a nice list of cocktails, wines and local beers. (120 Washington St.; 1-563-382-3067)
On Water Street, Mabe's Pizza is a longtime favorite, especially with Luther College students (110 E. Water St., 1-563-382-4297; www.mabespizza.com).
Rubaiyat features American seasonal food and a wine list that has received kudos from Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator (117 W. Water St.; 1-563-382-9463; www.rubaiyatres taurant.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The historic Hotel Winnishiek is beautifully restored and gets raves from travelers for its amenities and service. Famous guests have included President Obama and the king and queen of Norway (104 E. Water St.; 1-800-998-4164; www.hotelwinn.com).
The Dug Road Inn is a B&B in an Italianate villa on wooded grounds. It serves a multi-course breakfast of local and seasonal foods (601 W. Main St.; 1-563-382-9355; www.dugroadinn.com).
IF YOU GO
For more information about Decorah and the bluff country of northeastern Iowa, contact the Winnishiek County Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-463-4692 or www.decoraharea.com.
Barbara J. Tuttle is a freelance writer in St. Louis Park.