For years, St. Cloud was a place I drove through on my way to somewhere else: a girls’ weekend in the Brainerd Lakes area, a Winnipeg getaway, a work trip to Fargo. It was where I stopped to buy gas, if I even bothered pausing at all.

That was a mistake. I first checked out St. Cloud’s downtown when I met a friend for lunch and discovered several blocks of local shops and restaurants. On a subsequent visit, I admired the Mississippi River from a bench in a tranquil botanical garden. Once I learned that nearby Waite Park is home to a swimming quarry, I decided that my husband, Mike, and I should head to St. Cloud for our first day trip of the summer.

We started out at the Munsinger Gardens and Clemens Gardens (1-320-257-5959; munsingerclemens.com). Laid out along the Mississippi River, the Munsinger Gardens have an informal, relaxed feel. Built as a WPA project in the 1930s, the gardens feature towering pines, meandering paths and swings with river views.

The adjacent Clemens Gardens are decades younger but take a more traditional approach, with elaborate sculpted fountains and precise flower beds. The six formal gardens include an all-white plot with only snow-hued blooms, a rose garden and a perennial garden with cold-hardy plants.

Downtown shops

Our next stop was W. St. Germain Street in downtown St. Cloud, home to several local retailers. Street parking is available for 50 cents per hour with a two-hour limit, but it’s cash only — remember to dig through your change jar and bring along some quarters.

I could’ve spent hours browsing the shelves at Books Revisited (1-320-259-7959; booksrevisited.com), a bright, well-organized used bookstore that boasts everything from genre paperbacks to collectible tomes. At Bumbledee’s Arts and Antiques (1-320-257-3387; bumbledees.com), the selection is a jumble of old and new items from over 30 dealers. If your tastes skew toward the modern, Copper Pony (1-320-774-3210; copperpony.com) stocks an eclectic range of casually elegant home decor, artisan gifts and specialty food products. Some items are by local makers, and others have a Minnesota theme.

Rush Boutique (1-320-281-5277; rush-boutique.com) offers the best of both worlds: gently worn designer and name-brand clothing and accessories in a chic setting. The selection of tastefully curated merchandise led me to try on items I wouldn’t usually consider, like a bright purple pencil skirt and a leopard-print sundress. While those items looked better on the hangers, I did find the saucy black lace dress I never knew I needed.

Meanwhile, Mike opted out of shopping in favor of an iced mocha at Spice of Life Tea Shop (1-320-240-2050; spiceoflife­teashop.com). In addition to a menu of tea and coffee drinks, there are shelves of loose leaf teas, colorful teapots, and infusers available for purchase.

We reconvened at Jules’ Bistro (1-320-252-7125 julesbistrostcloud.com), where the lunch and dinner menu features flatbread pizzas, panini, salads and giant slices of housemade cake for dessert. There are plenty of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, as well as daily specials (vegan stew, turkey chili and a barbecue tofu wrap on the day we visited).

At the suggestion of our waitress, we each opted for a flatbread pizza: portobello and spinach for me, and the black and blue for Mike, loaded with beef brisket, blue cheese and wine-sauteed mushrooms. “This is amazing,” he mumbled through his first bite. “I really wish we had a fridge in the car so that we could order another one to take home.”

Summer swim

By the time we finished our meal, the temperature had hit the mid-80s and we were ready to cool off. Our destination: the swimming quarries at Quarry Park and Nature Preserve (co.stearns.mn.us). Once a granite mine that provided stones for St. Paul’s James J. Hill House and Landmark Center, the land eventually reverted to a more natural state after mining ended in the 1950s. In addition to swimming, the 683-acre park offers trails, rock climbing and picnic areas. A daily parking permit is $5 — bring exact change for the self-service gatehouse dropbox.

We opted for a dip in Quarry Two, which is surrounded by rock formations blasted with geometric precision. Groups of teenagers camped out on piles of squared-off rocks with snacks and portable speakers, while others floated in the blue-green water on inflatable doughnuts, unicorns and pizza slices. Thanks to the quarry’s 116-foot depth, the water was brisk — I was happy to sit on a ledge and dangle my feet in the water. Mike, who is made of tougher stuff, plunged right in and declared the water refreshing.

Final stops

Since a summer day trip would be incomplete without ice cream, we headed to Mr. Twisty (1-320-774-3044; mrtwistymn.com) post-swim. The seasonal stand has a nostalgic vibe and scoops up soft-serve treats like the Twister, a customizable blend of ice cream and mix-ins.

Our final stop was the Grande Depot (1-320-257-5500; thegrandedepot.com), perched southwest of town along Interstate 94. The building was originally constructed in 1912 as a train depot in Eden Valley, Minn. Today, the relocated, expanded and refurbished structure is home to Accentric & European, with two levels of specialty foods, kitchenware, women’s clothing, toys and decor; and Cork & Cask, a liquor store with wines from over 20 Minnesota vineyards.

As we drove back to the Twin Cities, refreshed by a day away from home, I reflected that travel is usually straightforward. We typically focus on the headliner attractions, the bucket-list destinations, the places that everyone agrees are worth the trip. But sometimes, travel is like an unexpectedly perfect thrift-store dress; it’s about spending the day in a city you usually just drive through, and jumping into a quarry on a hot summer day.

 

Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who focuses on food and travel. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.