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.
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."
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.
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.