Huddled between the Mississippi River and towering, tree-covered limestone bluffs, Winona is truly a pretty spot. But don't just take my word for it. Kevin Kling, the Minneapolis humorist and raconteur, proclaimed it the most scenic segment of the Mississippi during a recent performance at the historic Masonic Theatre. Maybe he was just trying to butter up the local audience, but he can speak with some authority, having once toured with a circus that performed in towns down the length of the river.
For a city of fewer than 30,000 people, Winona offers a surprising number of cultural and artistic draws, from the upcoming Great River Shakespeare Festival to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, which snagged Yo-Yo Ma this year. But perhaps this wealth is not too surprising, with Winona State University and St. Mary's University of Minnesota located here.
Founded in 1851 by a steamboat captain, the city soon became a center of commerce, fueled by timber processing. Tourist brochures brag that by 1900, there were more millionaires per capita in Winona than anywhere in the United States. A number of old mansions remain and the downtown boasts a number of fine examples of Victorian commercial architecture, not to mention some amazing stained glass windows. But the vibe is decidedly down-to-earth. There's a good independent bookstore, a handful of coffee houses, a food co-op, a thriving farmers' market, and a ton of bars (enter at your own risk).
Why go now?
Currently in its seventh season, the Great River Shakespeare Festival runs from June 23 to Aug. 1 (see grsf.org or call 1-507-474-7900 for a schedule of performances and other events). "Othello" and "The Comedy of Errors" are featured this year. On Fridays and Saturdays, enjoy a picnic dinner and music on the green outside the theater, on the WSU campus.
Another theatrical treat
Theatre du Mississippi (www.tdmwinona.org) presents its annual "Drops and Drama" for four Saturdays, starting July 3, at the Masonic Theatre. It almost doesn't matter who is performing -- the real stars are the dazzling 100-year-old scenic backdrops. There are 98 hand-painted drops in all, including one depicting hell, infested by creepy red-eyed demons.
I often head for the Watkins Museum gift shop (on East Third) and pick up a bottle of "double strength, double force" vanilla, or maybe some lemon-scented shea butter lotion for friends. Or I might buy a skating Santa sculpture by folk artists Leo and Marilyn Smith at the Marine Art Museum's gift shop (800 Riverview Drive). There are cool kitchen gadgets and scented candles at Heart's Desire (51 E. Third St.) and fun jewelry and accessories at Pretty Things on Third, across the street. The Book Shelf is located in the same space as the Blue Heron Coffee House (162 W. 2nd St.).
Hear the music
The Minnesota Beethoven Festival (www.mnbeethovenfestival.org or 1-507-457-1783), from June 27 to July 18, seems to draw bigger names each year. Don't bother with Yo-Yo Ma tickets (they sold out in hours), but the schedule is packed with world-class musicians, including violinist Midori. The Minnesota Orchestra will also give a free outdoor pops concert July 1 at 8 p.m. at the Lake Park Bandshell.
The Minnesota Marine Art Museum (www.minnesota marineart.org) has several special exhibits currently -- historical fishing lures, Norman Rockwell prints illustrating "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," and art and artifacts from the Titanic. But don't skip the permanent collection, which features works by Monet, Renoir, Winslow Homer and Hudson River School painters.
The Watkins Museum (see location above) tells the story of Watkins Inc., which began selling liniment in 1868, received gold medal honors for its vanilla at the Paris Exposition of 1928, and is still going strong.
If you want the white-table cloth experience, head to Signatures (22852 County Road 17). If you want to sink your teeth into an elk burger and slurp a home-made root-beer in your car, I can't praise Lakeview Drive-Inn highly enough (610 E. Sarnia St.). For lunch, try a hummus wrap or sub at Acoustic Café (77 Lafayette St.), a veggie panini at Blooming Grounds Coffee House (50 E. Third) or soup and sandwich at the Blue Heron. And if you need a doughnut, the choice is clear: the 80-year-old Bloedow Bakery (451 E. Broadway).
Among the plethora of bars, Ed's (no name) Bar (252 E. 3rd St.) stands out, with paintings on the walls, live music and an artsy crowd. Minneapolis guitarist and songwriter Chris Koza performs here regularly.
There are three charming B&Bs near downtown in historical homes: Windom Park Bed & Breakfast (1-507-457-9515, www.windompark.com), Carriage House (1-507-452-8256, www.chbb.com) and Alexander Mansion (1-507-474-4224, alexandermansionbb.com).
Once called the Stained Glass Capital of the United States because of all its manufacturers (to this day), Winona boasts many beautiful windows -- and not just in churches. The Winona County Courthouse, Winona National Bank, Watkins Inc. and Merchants National Bank are just a few of the places where you'll find stained glass, some made by Tiffany Studios. Contact the Winona Convention & Visitors' Bureau (67 Main St., visitwinona.com, 1-800-657-4972) for a map.
Best kept secret
The bluffs looming above the town are really no secret. But if you want to explore them on foot, head for the network of trails at Garvin Heights (accessible at Holzinger Lodge on West Lake Boulevard). Stroll through forests of fern and columbine, as sunlight filters through the red oak canopy. Chances are, you'll be alone up there, except for the occasional white-tailed deer.
A few months from now
When you've got cabin fever next January, come back for the Frozen River Film Festival (www.frozenriver.org). And if you get tired of watching movies, you can always ice skate on Lake Winona (and enjoy free hot chocolate at Lake Park Lodge) or sled down some seriously steep hills behind St. Mary's University.
Elizabeth Hayes is a freelance writer living in Winona.