You’ve probably driven the Great River Road (more mundanely known as Wisconsin Hwy. 35) to where the Mississippi River slows and widens into Lake Pepin. You’ve marveled at the limestone bluffs towering above the shimmering lake, the steep hills forested in firecracker red and sunburnt orange. Maybe you’ve stopped for a cookie at the bakery in Maiden Rock, even gone on to postcard-worthy Stockholm before turning back. This fall, keep going.
The next town downstream isn’t quite as picturesque, but it offers a day’s worth of adventure — from four-star food and wine to quaint museums and art-inspired stores. Though it’s less than 70 miles from the cities, the village of Pepin can seem a world away.
“It’s a really unique mix of sophistication and rural charm,” said David Sheridan, who operates a sailing business in town. “We have some of the prettiest country in the Midwest, with the beaches and the bluffs. There’s fishing and fine dining and an award-winning winery. … This is as good as it gets.”
The original destination
Queen was topping the pop charts and “The Dukes of Hazzard” was still hot when a single restaurant put this stretch of river on the map. Thirty-something years later, the Harbor View hasn’t lost its charm — or its draw. Most weekends, there’s a well-worth-it wait at what Star Tribune food critic Rick Nelson called the “granddaddy of all day-trip destinations.” Order a glass of wine, settle into one of the Adirondacks out front and watch the boats glide in and out of the marina. Before you know it, you’ll be studying the chalkboard menu and trying to choose between the Alaskan halibut with black butter caper sauce and the sautéed chicken breast with roasted garlic chipotle sauce. Open Thu.-Sun. until Nov. 23. (314 1st St., 1-715-442-3893, www.harborview pepin.com.)
The rail deal
“ … Burlington Northern was going to push this depot out — crush it! — so we got a bunch of people to save it,” explained Ruth Varnum Alvord Hartung Swanson. At 92, Ruth is the only survivor of that bunch and the remaining force behind the 120-year-old Depot Museum. From her perch on a rescued station bench, the historian points to each artifact and photo in the quirky collection and tells how trains delivered the mail without stopping, how ice was harvested from the lake, how she was injured by a cannonball. (All true.) Fans of “the early days,” railroading and old-fashioned storytelling will consider themselves lucky if they can catch her spiel. Weekends through Oct. 1. (806 3rd St., 1-715-442-6501)
Close your eyes and conjure up the quintessential country cafe: The eggs would be cooked in butter, the hashbrowns sliced right off the potato. The waitress would call you “sweetheart,” in the off chance she didn’t know your name. It would be the Homemade Cafe. Since it opened in 2007, the cafe has been a hit with locals and tourists alike. Breakfast is served all day (I recommend the Ultimate Hash), plus you can polish off your meal with a piece of pie, the “preferred dessert” of owner Julie Elwell. Good thing, seeing as how she bakes upward of 40 a week, including Mile High chocolate and sour cream rhubarb. 7 a.m.- 2 p.m. Thu.-Mon. Closes for the season on Oct. 19. (809 3rd St., 612-396-5804, www.thehomemade cafe.com)
Driving to Pepin is a joy ride. But if you really want to experience the drama of the Driftless Area (which escaped the flattening effects of glaciation), get on the water. Captain David Sheridan has two 31-foot yachts that ply the biggest lake on the Mississippi River. Sail Pepin offers instruction, team-building outings and, best of all, leisurely cruises. If you’re in need of refreshments (before, during or after you sail), the Breakwater Wine Bar, which doubles as sailing headquarters, serves wine, beer and small plates. Open through October. (400 1st St., 1-715-442-2250, www.visitlakepepin.com)
A brat named Paul
Most folks don’t stop at the grocery store for fun, but then most folks haven’t been to Paul and Fran’s. This old-fashioned storefront stocks a little bit of everything, but the lure is the meat counter. That’s where Paul Riesgraf cuts Angus beef steaks, weighs boneless pork roasts and sells his homemade turkey sausage that comes in citified combinations: sweet pepper and curry, cilantro and yam, basil and sun-dried tomatoes. He’s also got a line of eponymous brats. “When I bought the shop from Dan [the previous owner], he said ‘Now you gotta call them Paul’s brats.’ ” That’s exactly what he did. Open all year Mon.-Sat. Closed Sunday. (410 2nd St., 1-715-442-2441, www.paulandfransgrocery.com)
Tell Laura you love her
Because of Pa’s wandering ways, at least a dozen towns from Wisconsin to Kansas to South Dakota lay claim to author Laura Ingalls Wilder, but only Pepin can boast her birth site. In addition to a no-frills replica of the “Little House in the Big Woods” 7 miles north of Pepin, there also is a recently expanded museum in town. The homespun exhibits include “from-the-era” artifacts like a pig’s bladder balloon, a period room, exquisitely illustrated first-edition books and original items from the Ingalls family. Open daily through Oct 15. (306 3rd St., 1-715-513-6383, lauraingallspepin.com.)
Tuscany on the Mississippi
There are a dozen wineries along the Great River Road, but none as grand as Villa Bellezza. It looks as if an Italian piazza — complete with bell tower, chapel and fountain — had been snatched out of southern Europe and plunked down in rural Wisconsin. Sit on the patio surrounded by vines or in the sleek tasting room, take a sip of a Cotes du Pepin and you just might forget that you’re in the Midwest altogether. The vine-to-bottle winery sells pours of the 24 wines it produces, as well as small plates and pairings. It’s open all year for tastings and tours because, contends tasting room manager Tammy Shell, “Pepin is just as beautiful in January as it is in July.” Open daily. (1420 3rd St., 1-715-442-2424, villabellezza.com.)
Pepin isn’t a shop-till-you-drop town, but there are a few gems in the village.
As soon as you step into BNOX Jewelry Studio, you’re likely to hear “How does this look?” followed by “Oooh!” Over the past two decades, the tiny shop has become a must-stop for handcrafted and custom-designed jewelry. Be prepared to fall in love. Be prepared to lighten your wallet. And be sure to ask about the name. Open Thu.-Sun. through the end of the year. (404 1st. St., 1-715-442-2201, www.bnoxgold.com.)
In addition to home accessories and a small, but well-curated selection of clothing, Dockside Mercantile offers surprisingly sophisticated tourist wear. After visiting what’s been dubbed “the West Coast of Wisconsin,” you’re going to want a sweatshirt that boasts about it. Open Thu.-Sun. through October, weekends through December (304 1st St., 1-715-442-4009, www.docksidemercantile.com.)
If the forge is firing at T. & C. Latané, stop in. The museum-like blacksmith shop is where Tom shapes iron into intricate shapes (keys, chandeliers, ax handles) and his wife Catherine makes tin cookie cutters. (412 2nd St., 1-715-442-2419.)
Pencil it in
Pepin is a summer hot spot, but my favorite time to make the trek is fall. It’s cooler, less crowded, and the colors that cover the forested bluffs can’t be beat. If you need another reason — or two — to propel yourself off the sofa, consider the Fresh Art Tour Oct. 3-5. The self-guided tour features open houses at 15 galleries in the Lake Pepin area. (www.fresh art.org) There also is the Flyway Film Fest Oct. 23-26. The four-day film fete, which takes place in Pepin, Stockholm and Maiden Rock, features more than 50 independent films. (www.flywayfilmfestival.org)