We rumbled along back roads, past brooks snaking through meadows and up and down southwest Wisconsin’s coulees before spotting Suncrest Gardens Farm nestled into a picturesque valley. The community-supported agriculture operation (CSA) invites guests once or twice a week, encouraging them to linger and relax with play structures for kids, a few farm animals to pet, places to sit and a thriving garden where the dropping sun illuminated hundreds of zinnias.
My husband, Bob, and I couldn’t imagine a better place than this “pizza farm” for a delicious date night about 10 miles east of Alma, Wis., on the Mississippi River.
As mellow music played in the background, we picked raspberries while owner Heather Secrist used pizza crust as a blank canvas for showcasing her just-picked summer harvest. We eagerly retrieved our pizza, sizzling with the heady fragrance of fresh basil blended with sweet corn, sausage and a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes on a crispy crust. We savored it while soaking up the serene setting, a mellow, upbeat finish to the day.
Hours earlier, we had marveled at the brute force of history through the vast collection of medieval weaponry at Castlerock Museum.
Museum founder Judge Gary Schlosstein got hooked on weapons after buying a $3 Civil War musket when he was 10. He has spent a lifetime acquiring a global collection that fills this two-story museum worthy of a big city. It opens on weekends and provides a visual wonderland for anyone hooked on “Game of Thrones” or fascinated by ancient battles.
Exhibits begin with blunt weapons such as pikes and swords used by Vikings and Romans, devolve to cruel tools and torture devices of the Dark Ages and expand toward ornate armor, chain mail, shields and increasingly sophisticated weapons of the Renaissance, until guns changed everything.
The farm and museum offer only two of the many ways residents’ passions have blossomed into destinations. From attractive lodging and cafes to a longtime fishing float, this historic village hums with character and culture in a scenic spot.
What to do
Go medieval: To visit Castlerock Museum, look for the castle-like building on 2nd Street with views of the river. (You can pretend it’s the Rhine.) It’s open 1 to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays ($4 children and students; $6 adults; 1-608-685-4231; castlerockmuseum.com).
Feast on the farm: Suncrest Gardens Farm bakes pizzas from 4:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday through the end of August and on Friday evenings in September (1-608-626-2122; suncrestgardensfarm.com).
Go fishing: The Great Alma Fishing Float wins plenty of fans with refreshing simplicity. You want a ride out to this man-made island to fish all day? Cross the railroad tracks in Alma and flip a dockside sign. Then you wait until someone putters across the water to pick you up. It’s $18 to fish from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., more if you want to spend the night in basic lodging. It’s a little like a houseboat or spacious fish house with room to roam and plenty of floating docks near Lock and Dam No. 4. Anglers reel in northern pike, sauger, walleye, catfish and more. You’ll likely find retirees, as well, who catch rough fish to give to the resident birds at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn. (1-651-380-7296; www.almafishingfloat. com).
Hike the bluff: Take a drive up County Hwy. E or challenge yourself to a steep switchback trail from 2nd Street in downtown Alma up to Buena Vista Park. The view from this 500-foot vantage point sweeps across the lock and dam and Mississippi River, looking especially brilliant as leaves turn in the fall.
Admire Mississippi pearls: Browse one of the largest collections of increasingly rare American freshwater pearls at Mississippi River Pearl Co., which has sold its pearls to the British royal family. Owner and artist Nadine Leo showcases vibrant paintings and a collection of earrings, rings and pendants that display the pearls’ varying shapes and hues of pink, cream, blue and purple (1-651-301-1204; mspearlco.com).
Stroll downtown: It’s an easy stroll through Alma’s downtown, with a few other artsy shops such as the Commercial Gallery, which features close to three dozen artists who work with paintings, textiles, pottery and glass. Owner Kristine Kjos also builds posh, dreamy palaces for pampered pets (1-608-418-0144).
Go birding: This section of river provides great viewing of bald eagles, and flocks of birds such as pelicans and tundra swans, as they gather to migrate in the fall. Check out the views from Wings Over Alma Nature Center in downtown Alma or the observation areas at Rieck’s Lake Park just north of town, which is especially popular with birds looking for a rest before the journey south. Anyone wanting to delve into the birding backwaters can check with Riverland Outfitters (1-608-385-4351; www.riverlandoutfitters.com) for kayak rentals.
Where to sleep