Even in the low season (the population explodes in the summer), there’s plenty to explore in downtown Minocqua, Wis., including antique shops, restaurants, clothing and gift stores, the Campanile Center for the Arts and the Minocqua Museum.
Thousands of acres of pine and hardwood forests blanketing a once-glacial landscape surround Minocqua, in the heart of northern Wisconsin’s lake country. The interplay of water and woods makes the town a busy tourist destination, especially in the summer. That’s when the population of 4,300 quadruples, as visitors pour in to boat, fish and swim in the waters of Lake Minocqua, among other lakes. But I like to go in winter, when the town quiets down and winter sports show off the landscape.
As the surrounding lakes freeze over, the town opens its arms wide to sports of all kinds: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing and ice fishing. If skiing is what you’re looking for, head to Minocqua Winter Park & Nordic Center, a nonprofit town park operated by the Lakeland Ski Touring Foundation. The park’s 6,500 acres feature almost 50 miles of groomed trails varying from flat to hilly, great for cross-country skiing. You can take a lesson at the ski school or try the park’s 600-foot tubing slope (Squirrel Hill) with handle-tow lift. Not done yet? There are also two dedicated snowshoe loop trails, the “Snowstomper” and “Breaking free,” with undulating terrain passing ponds, swamps, rivers and islands, as well as a warming “teahouse” along the way. And a newly improved ice skating pond will have you working the rink like an Olympian in no time. Get an update on the condition of the trails at minocquawinterpark.org. Rental skis, snowshoes and more are available. The park relies on a solid base of volunteers to maintain it, a foundation laid back in the 1950s by a circle of adventurous (and wise) friends.
Robust boutique scene
Surprising for this town of about 5,000 is its robust shopping scene, reminiscent of the boutique-lined streets of Minneapolis’ Linden Hills, St. Paul’s Grand Avenue or even Edina’s 50th and France. Stroll up an almost hidden sidewalk (presumably much easier to find without the snowbanks) and open the door to Ann Marie’s, a trove of lovely things. Have a cup of in-house roasted coffee and nose through the full yet artfully arranged shelves of pottery, gifts and home decor. Next, step into J. Christy’s on Oneida Street and find affordable women’s casualwear worthy of showing off at any high-end Minneapolis club.
Ready for some antiquing? Then hop across the street to the Gaslight Square Shoppes, all housed in a single building (nice for those cold winter days) with indoor gas lamps that lead the way from shop to shop. Retailers on the main level carry a variety of merchandise like Wm James Leather, with a nice selection of purses, jackets and small leather goods; and A La Carte, with plenty of home décor and entertaining items, plus “Made in Wisconsin” gift baskets, coffee and wine. Upstairs, find row upon row of antiques, well-cared-for and arranged, at Remember When.
Where to eat
Your stay isn’t complete unless you swing by Minocqua Brewing Co., housed in a historic building at the center of town. Built in 1927 as a Masonic temple, it was transformed into a microbrewery 70 years later. The brewery houses a 7½-barrel brewing system producing seven kinds of ales and lagers. Do not miss the chicken salad — in the deep cold of winter, the fresh and crunchy salad, festooned with pine nuts, was a taste of springtime. The brewing company also offers entertainment in the evenings, from team trivia nights to music and other events.
Hungry for more? Polecat & Lace is a family-owned restaurant and saloon serving up vittles (their word) for lunch and dinner, like its White House sandwich baked with a tasty mushroom sauce, as well as daily soup specials.
A couple of other entertainment options are the Campanile Center for the Arts (ticketed performances) and the Minocqua Museum, featuring displays of Minocqua’s early days and the people who formed the community. Entry at the museum is free.
Where to stay
The AmericInn, with a separate parking area for snowmobiles, is in the center of town, within an easy walk from many of the attractions mentioned here. For more picturesque lodging, try the Bay View Inn on Lake Minocqua, where all rooms have a view of the lake and its amazing sunsets.
If you go
Minocqua Brewing Co.: minocquabrewingcompany.com; 1-715-356-2600.
Bay View Inn: bayviewminocqua.com; 1-877-215-8051.
Campanile Center for the Arts: campilecenter.org; 1-715-356-9700
General info: www.travelwisconsin.com or minocqua.org; 1-800-446-6784.
Kathleen Schedin Stoehr is a professional writer and editor in Minneapolis.