Blond-haired Big Ole stands 28 feet tall with a bold claim on his Viking shield: “Alexandria: Birthplace of America.”
The colorful, slightly campy mascot of this city of 11,000 draws a steady flow of visitors as one of Minnesota’s goofiest selfie spots. It reminds folks that the Minnesota Vikings are more than an NFL team. History Channel’s television series “Vikings” stirs additional interest in the epic explorations of seafaring Scandinavians.
Travelers study ancient letters carved into the Kensington Runestone, which was allegedly discovered tangled up in aspen roots in 1898. A translation claims Vikings were here in 1362 — before Christopher Columbus but after Leif Erickson landed in Canada. Its authenticity remains a mystery, but the region’s blond hair, blue eyes and last names leave no doubt that Scandinavian heritage has long been a part of Minnesota’s Glacial Lakes area.
Amid rolling hills, plentiful lakes, scenic drives, bike trails and parks galore, “Alex” (pronounced “Alec” by locals) hits a sweet spot as a picturesque and easy getaway. With a wealth of shopping, eateries, arts organizations and museums, it guarantees things to do rain or shine.
The Runestone Museum stays open year-round, but outdoor buildings on the site of former Fort Alexandria are open spring through fall only. Visitors can duck into late 1800s buildings that depict a general store, a pioneer log cabin, post office and a country store, and see a 40-foot Viking ship built by the Smithsonian. During History Live, a special event June 23-24, visitors can play Viking games, ride in voyageur canoes and watch costumed interpreters blacksmithing and soap-making (1-320-763-3160; runestonemuseum.org).
Carlos Creek Winery, one of the state’s oldest, has a Siberian elm maze, 8,000 apple trees and tastings of Celebrate (a sparkler with tart Honeycrisp apples), Hot Dish Red, Wobegon White, You Betcha Blush and more. Visit on Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoons in the summer for live music. The winery’s Grape Stomp Sept. 15-17 brings together a dozen bands, a man cave with Schell’s Brewery, 150 food and craft vendors and 300 teams stomping more than 10,000 pounds of grapes (1-320-846-5443; carloscreekwinery.com).
The paved Central Lakes Trail runs 55 miles along a former Burlington Northern railroad route between Fergus Falls to the northwest and Osakis to the southeast, where it links to the Lake Wobegon Trail that runs to St. Cloud (1-320-763-3161; dnr.state.mn.us).
Lake Carlos State Park lets campers get close to the northern shore of Lake Carlos at many of its 121 campsites. The 1,230-acre state park is also popular for its shallow swimming area and crystal-clear water, ideal for kids and toddlers. Camper cabins are available (1-320-852-7200; dnr.state.mn.us).
Legacy of the Lakes Museum (formerly Minnesota Maritime Museum) invites seasonal visitors to admire beautifully built wooden boats, historic displays on resorts and fishing, and the evolution of boats through Minnesota manufacturers such as Alexandria Boat Works, Larson Boat Works and Chris-Craft. This summer’s art exhibit features Jim Brandenburg’s prairie photographs (1-320-759-1114; legacyofthelakes.org).
Theatre L’Homme Dieu has been entertaining audiences since 1961. This summer’s lineup brings in touring shows such as the History Theater’s “Sweet Land, the Musical,” Children’s Theatre Company’s “Seed Folks” and Old Log’s “Million Dollar Quartet” (1-320-846-3150; tlhd.org).
Skål Crawl is a self-guided tour that loops together Carlos Creek Vineyard with two other producers: the state’s first craft distillery, Panther Distillery in Osakis, and Copper Trail Brewing in Alexandria. Packages include T-shirts and a souvenir glass (skalcrawl.com).
Shopping could fill an entire day with Past & Present Home Gallery, Now and Then Antiques, Dawn’s Quilt Shop, Ravnik & Co., Scandinavian Gift Shop, Potomac Bead Co., Cherry Street Books, Sugar Shack and more lining Broadway and filling its historic buildings (downtownalexandria.com).
Where to eat
Northwoods Cafe is just what you’d expect from a popular small-town cafe: hearty breakfasts of waffles, eggs, chocolate chip pancakes and other homey fare. Bring cash (1-320-763-3700).
Roers Family Bakery lures customers with fresh breakfast rolls, doughnuts and its signature cream horns, then tempts them with desserts such as mini beehives, Boston cream pies, peaches-and-cream cobblers and custard white chocolate pies (1-320-763-4741).
La Ferme specializes in seasonal local fare with global influences, such as a Korean steak sandwich, a Greek medley of grains including wild rice, arepas and desserts such as molten chocolate cake with beer ice cream (1-320-846-0777; lafermemn.com).
Pike and Pint Grill lives up to its name with craft beers and pike corn dogs, along with lobster nachos using wonton chips, a roasted pear flatbread, pork ribs and a strawberry rhubarb Cosmopolitan (1-320-763-7468; pikeandpint.com).
Where to sleep
Arrowwood Resort & Conference ranks among Minnesota’s largest resorts, with more than 400 acres along Lake Darling. Guests can choose hotel-style rooms, suites and apartments in the main lodge, or modern townhouses and cottages. Non-guests buy day passes for its Big Splash indoor water park or reserve activities such as trail rides and the 18-hole Atikwa Championship Golf Course (1-320-762-1124; arrowwoodresort.com).
Geneva Beach Resort is one of the state’s oldest resorts, opened in 1883 as the Hotel Alexandria. The Victorian hotel is long gone, but families keep coming for the cabins and townhouses ranging from studios to an eight-bedroom vacation home. The resort sits along the Central Lakes Trail and is about 3 miles from downtown Alex (1-320-763-3200; genevabeachresort.com).
Peters Sunset Beach Resort in Glenwood (20 miles south of Alexandria) has welcomed guests since 1915. They stay in lodge rooms and suites, luxury townhouses and cottages on the shores of Lake Minnewaska, the state’s 13th largest lake. Amenities include a beach packed with water toys, basketball and tennis courts, a playground, saunas and golf packages. Meal packages are also available for the historic dining room (1-320-634-4501; petersresort.com).
Alexandria is 135 miles northwest of the Twin Cities on Interstate 94. It takes about two hours and 15 minutes to get there — more with Friday cabin traffic.
Alexandria Tourism: 1-320-763-0102; explorealex.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the ninth edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path,” published this month.