I have seen the heart of America. It is a timeless place where little ever changes. It is a place of big lakes, where people boat and fish and swim and children run off docks at full speed.
It is a place where Cheez-Its and Coors Light make up the pre-dinner snack of choice (my hotel neighbors, who had just driven up from Sioux City) and powdered doughnuts and orange juice precede a breakfast of maple sausage and scrambled eggs topped with ham and shredded cheese (the same neighbors, on the grill outside their room, the next morning).
And it is, of course, a place of many U.S. flags — so many that when I strolled down to my hotel's white wood dock, one guy there wore a bathing suit in an American flag pattern while his friend wore a shirt that simply read, "USA." And affixed to that dock? Two American flags, flapping in the stiff, clean lake breeze.
"How's it going?" I asked the guy in the flag bathing suit.
"Just another day in paradise," he said, and cast his line into West Okoboji Lake.
At the very least, the Iowa Great Lakes are a Midwestern paradise. No one, it seems, has just started visiting. They've been going since they were kids. And now they bring their kids. Who will bring their kids. Its greatest attribute — and arguably biggest drawback — is that so little has changed.
"My family's been coming here for 30 or 40 years," said Jason Pratt, 43, the man from Sioux City. "We'd go the same week every year — the first week of August — and see the same people. You'd only see them one week a year, but it would be like a family reunion."
Tucked in the northwest corner of the state, just below the Minnesota border, Iowa's Great Lakes comprise a region of two small towns (Okoboji and Arnolds Park) built around a handful of deep, gorgeous, glacial lakes. To the north is Spirit Lake, which tends to be quieter, and more of a place for the locals to boat and fish. It is, however, the state's largest natural lake and known for some of the area's best fishing.
The heart of the tourist action is West Okoboji Lake, a nearly 4,000-acre body that hosts thousands of swimmers, boaters, water skiers, canoeists, paddle boarders and "boat-in worshipers" (7:30 a.m. Sundays) during the average summer weekend. At the lake's southeastern edge stands one of its most indelible sights: the 125-year-old Arnolds Park Amusement Park, with its blue-and-white Ferris wheel.
Much of the Okoboji area looks and feels as if it were assembled in the 1950s. That was especially true of my hotel, the Inn of Okoboji, which has, in fact, sat at the edge of West Okoboji Lake since the 1890s. Amid its tidy landscaping and low, white-paneled buildings trimmed with forest green, you half expect the cast of "Dirty Dancing" to emerge from one of those cabins at any moment.
That timelessness is what brings visitors back to Okoboji year after year after year. It also leads people from all over to build or buy lake houses ranging from modern ornate to old, rickety, peeling shacks. It breeds the kind of devotion that led Charlie and Jenny Wilson of Lincoln, Neb., to get a license plate that reads, "2 BOJI."
"I feel safe here," Charlie Wilson said. "It's almost like being in a college town — the action, the enthusiasm, the energy."
"A lot of it looks like it did 20 years ago, and I'm guessing it will still look the same in another 20 years," Jenny Wilson said.
As for the downside of being trapped in another era, well, not evolving means you're still largely eating the same food you did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, Okoboji is remarkable for just how unremarkable its food is.
There is no talk of farm-to-table, locally sourced ingredients. There are meat, fish and dairy in a series of restaurants that are mostly interchangeable. I asked one local for a breakfast recommendation, and he confided that they're basically all the same: bacon and eggs, pancakes and coffee. Go to one, or go to the other, he said. It didn't really make a difference.
So I went to O'Farrell Sisters, even though another local had lamented that the sisters sold the place a long time ago. That didn't stop the tourists from stepping back into the '50s — red booths, black-and-white tile floor and gold-flecked Formica tables — while waitresses hurried with omelets and pancakes and "That's Amore" played.
The next day I checked out Koffee Kup, and yes, it was mostly the same as the previous day's breakfast. The greatest attribute wasn't the food, but eating it amid a bunch of nice people in baseball caps and bathing suits while reading the grease-stained local newspaper.
Lunches and dinners fell somewhere between satisfyingly predictable and satisfyingly tasty — which left as Okoboji's most notable delicacy the Nutty Bar. The Nutty Bar is a hunk of Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream jabbed on a stick, dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts and sold beside the amusement park for $3. There are sweetness and innocence in the Nutty Bar and in the Nutty Bar being your town's signature menu item.
Where to stay
Two of the area's most popular hotels are modest and comfortable lakefront resorts: the Inn at Okoboji (1-712-332-2113, www.bojifun.com) and Fillenwarth Beach Resort (1-712-332-5646, www.fillenwarthbeach.com). For those wanting to be closer to nature, there are more than 100 camping sites at Gull Point State Park (www.tinyurl.com/gullpoint), and some short hiking trails.
Those who don't bring their own boats can rent or take a public cruise from Okoboji Boat Works (www.parksmarina.com). JTG Expeditions (www.fishokoboji.com) offers fishing charters. Terrace Park Beach in Milford is popular with families, as is Arnolds Park Amusement Park (www.arnoldspark.com).
Where to eat
Minerva's (1-712-332-5296, www.minervas.net), Maxwell's Beach Cafe (1-712-332-7578, www.lake-okoboji-restaurant.com) and Yesterdays (1-712-332-2353, www.yesterdaysokoboji.com) offer solid meals. The newly opened, lakefront Okoboji Store (1-712-332-8180, www.theokobojistore.com) has become a town favorite. For fine dining, most locals point to Rabab's in Arnolds Park and Spirit Lake (1-712-336-3400 or 1-712-332-8176, www.rababsbistro.com).