If you’ve driven on Hwy. 61 into Hastings, chances are you’ve heard the Tale of Two Bridges (not to be confused with Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”). A new, four-lane bridge — which was built off-site and floated into place — will replace the old two-lane bridge by the end of the year, and two lanes on the new structure are already open. Don’t let orange cones deter you from visiting this river town, with a downtown lined with historic buildings, river views and a roaring waterfall.
If there ever were a true river town, it’s Hastings. Set along the Mississippi, St. Croix and Vermillion rivers, it’s one of Minnesota’s oldest communities, established in 1857. And while this area has had its share of progress, the scenery still remains steeped in its history.
Why go now
The Afton Apple Orchard, just outside of town, does double duty. In addition to apples, you can pick your own pumpkins beginning this weekend (651-436-8385; www.afton apple.com).
WHAT TO DO
Downtown Hastings has 35 buildings built between 1860 and 1900 that make up a historic district along the banks of the Mississippi. Shops include Mississippi Clayworks, which sells locally made pots and Pueblo pottery (651-437-5901; www.mississippiclayworks.com); Second Childhood, a toy store with a resident cat named Slinky (651-438-7949; www.secondchildhoodtoys.com) and Reissner’s Meats & Grocery, a classic third-generation butcher shop (651-437-4189). Locals claim that items in Hastings antique stores cost as much as 15 percent less than in other river towns. More information at www.hastings downtown-mn.com and www.hastingsmn.org.
Spring Lake Park Reserve, also known as Schaar’s Bluff, is a hidden gem in this Upper Mississippi River Valley area. Don’t let the cornfields fool you as you drive to this Dakota County park. The landscape changes quickly from farmland to bluff country. And once you hit the trails, the views are spectacular. This part overlooks the Mississippi. Its trails include the Schaar’s Bluff Trailhead, where views stretch to the Twin Cities. Locals say it’s the premier place to catch a sunset.
Trails at the park pass over rocky hills and through woods, grasslands and fields of wildflowers. Paved paths overlook the water. Once the snow flies, trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. The park includes Schaar’s Bluff Gathering Center, an airfield for model planes and picnic shelters (952-891-7000; www.co.dakota.mn.us/parks/parksTrails/SpringLake).
The Alexis Bailly Vineyard has been growing grapes since 1973, when the family planted the first vineyard in Minnesota. Today, second-generation owner Nan Bailly continues the family heritage of producing wines in a difficult climate.
First-class wine connoisseurs stand behind the sampling counter, ready to pour. The building, with oak barrels lining the walls, is inviting. Outside, visitors can play bocce ball or stroll through the sculpture park.
Guest favorites include the Country White, a full-bodied table wine made from University of Minnesota grapes La Crescent and Frontenac Gris, and the Voyageur 2010, a red that ages in oak barrels for 12 months. The vineyard is just a mile from Hastings, off Hwy. 61 (651-437-1413; www.abvwines.com).
WHERE TO STAY
The Classic Rosewood Inn and Spa is a piece of Hastings history, and it looks the part. The B&B’s building is an 1880 Queen Anne landmark, and it’s just four blocks from downtown.
Owners Dick and Pam Thorsen stress, “slow the pace and snuggle in.”
The atmosphere is easy, even allowing guests to set the schedule for breakfast, which they can have at a private table in the dining room or in their room. Never a small affair, the breakfast during my stay was a three-course feast that included an egg and hash-brown bake, fresh fruit and a baked apple pastry. The Rosewood also offers massages in a room on the main floor. There’s another bonus: a charming “help yourself” pantry for midnight snack attacks.
Rooms include “Spring Lake,” which has two levels with marble steps leading up to the whirlpool and bathroom; and the “Solarium,” with 15-foot walls of glass that overlook the town (651-437-3297; www.classicrosewood.com).
WHERE TO EAT
Locals and tourists alike line up outside the Onion Grill, where great onion-inspired dishes are only part of the draw. Owners Mike and Wendy Agen have created a fun atmosphere, with a model train circling the restaurant’s interior and big picture windows that look out at the river’s edge downtown (651-437-7577; www.theoniongrille.com).
Looking for the best steak sandwich around? Head to the Bierstube for fabulous German food. The wiener schnitzel, bratwurst platter and sauerbraten (marinated roast beef) are highlights of the menu. It’s a big local hangout, and the “Larry’s Special Steak,” named after the restaurant’s founder, Lawrence William Yanz, is a favorite (651-437-8259; www.thebierstube.com).
At the Busted Nut, peanut shells cover the floor like carpet. The restaurant serves casual fare like “big kids” mac and cheese and homemade pizza and has live music year-round (651-438 -6887; www.thebustednut.com).
IF YOU GO
Kelly Jo McDonnell is a freelance writer based in Lino Lakes.