So Winona had an exciting run in the spotlight for the last couple of months – its dazzling scenery splashed across six million television sets a couple of times a week while music played and its virtues were extolled in a voice over. From a camera perched high on the bluffs, viewers saw the Mississippi River Valley and the city of Winona, which rose up like a colorful, church-spired jewel in a sea of green and blue. It was beautiful — jaw-droppingly, mesmerizingly beautiful, and if it had been an advertising campaign, it would have cost millions (actually, $335,000 per 30 seconds. No really, I looked it up.)
Which, of course, Winona could never afford. Visit Winona would have to win the lottery for that kind of marketing campaign.
Well actually, it kind of did.
You see, it was Winonan Tim Olstad who had two spectacular months in the spotlight as a contestant on the X Factor,while us tourism-minded folks clung to his back like a wildly excited monkey along the the ride. As he was singing his way to the hearts of millions each week he did something else kind of spectacular — he put Winona on a main-stream, prime-time stage, and I have no doubt that there are a few hundred thousand 20-something women Google-mapping Winona right now.
At the beginning of most of his songs, clips would roll of our pretty bluffs and our charming downtown and Tim casting a line on the river and saying a few nice words about the city, and I believe that there has to be a viewing audience out there that fell in love with Winona. How could you not? It looked like a postcard, the kind of place people in big cities wistfully think about strolling down the streets of when they want to get away from the rat race. To have those images attached to one of the audience’s favorite singers – it was exposure that money can’t buy. I don’t know Tim, but when he gets back to Winona, I feel like I should at least buy the guy drinks. For the rest of his life.
So what’s the big deal, you say, about people with no connection to Winona seeing pictures of it and knowing where it is? Like, they’ll probably never come here anyway, right? Well, here’s a fun factoid: Research shows that most people make travel decisions using either recommendations from people they know or recollections of places they’re familiar with. So yeah, maybe folks in California and Texas aren’t planning to board a plane and land at Max Conrad Field (uh, that’s the name of the Winona airport in case you haven’t flown in lately), but maybe there are some folks sitting in Chicago or Milwaukee or Cottage Grove thinking, “Gosh, that sure was a pretty town.” And maybe the next time they’re drumming their fingers on a desk trying to decide what to do for the weekend, they’ll think of us and remember how we’re just down the road. We are within a four-hour drive of literally millions of people – quite a few more of whom know about Winona right now. If a tiny fraction of them decided to check us out, we’d be selling space to pitch tents in our front yards. As a matter of fact, I’m already planning to do this when those hoards of girls show up for Tim – I’ve got the plots taped off already.
The good news is that Winona is ready for them, even as we swing into winter. True, we are best known, especially in images, for the summer when our bluffs and trails and river are a recreation paradise, and we’ve got Shakespeare and Beethoven and gorgeous parks and, and, and… But I’m telling you, this place is smoking hot in the winter too. That’s a figure of speech, by the way. It’s not hot at all – it’s cold – so don’t send me letters if you get here and it’s 26 degrees. But it is the warmest place in Minnesota, I’ve heard, so we’ve got that going for us. Anywhoo…
We’ve also got music – lots of it – like the Celtic Christmas Concert this Friday by the touring Jennifer Licko Band in our gorgeous Masonic Theater, the Messiah Sing In at Winona State, the Winona Hims Christmas Concert, and the Winona Brass Band Concert, and that’s just what’s on in the next three weeks. We’ve also got a historic downtown that doesn’t get more picturesque than at Christmas time. Street lamps are strung with garland and store fronts are decorated, and it is like being thrown back a century when you stroll down the street – except there’s cooler stuff to buy now. And we have trolly tours of Christmas lights and an Old Time Christmas Radio Show play and a sweet new group of exhibits at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, and of course the Frozen River Film Festival coming up in January. And all those bluff trails turn into a haven for cross country skiers and snowshoers and even a few crazy bicyclists who love a challenge.
Fact is, in those idyllic images that splashed across the nation, Winona looks like a beautiful, sleepy river hamlet. And we are, if that’s what you’re looking for. But I’d like to tell all those viewers that while they can certainly come here to get away from it all, they can come here to find it all too, because we can keep them as busy as they want to be. I think we should call it the Winona Factor - a set of qualities that set us apart from the rest and most definitely work to our advantage, whether you live here or just come to play.
Want to know what’s going on? Check out the Visit Winona Event Calendar and see for yourself how Winona is heating itself up on these cold winter days.
Winona storefronts capture the spirit of the season
It’s pretty freaking glorious to be us in Winona right now. I mean, it usually is, but now especially.
If you’ve looked at a travel mag lately, heck, even a newspaper, they’re all effusing over the best fall drives, the best fall getaways, and the best trails for seeing autumn in all her brilliantly hued glory. If your desktop looks like mine, you probably feel like you’re being beat over the head with a fall-leaf-colored branch right now, with everything in your inbox taunting you about all those pretty places out there. Well I’m not going to do that.
OK, yes I am, but it comes with a funny story, so keep reading.
Invariably those fall color round-ups mention our little stretch of the Great River Road and how it’s one of the prettiest drives in the Midwest. It is – no question – but here around Winona we have something special, something worth getting out of the car for.
We have this:
Brilliant colors to hike through behind Holzinger Lodge
In fact, we have miles of that, snaking up the bluffs on hiking and biking trails carved through some of the most spectacular scenery in Minnesota. Some of the trails are easy strolls, some are for adrenalin junkies, but here’s the thing about our trails… we have so many of them that you’ll most likely have any particular stretch of it to yourself. Except, of course, for the wildlife.
Now when I say “wildlife,” I’m gratefully not talking about Kodiak bears or wild boars or anything else that could attack you and make a hike decidedly unpleasant. Unless you count squirrels…but I’ll get to that in a minute. On my blissfully peaceful hikes through our bluffs I have scared up plenty of deer, a few wild turkeys, some owls, and a pair of badgers once (OK, those are a little bit scary). Sunlight dapples through the trees, the wind rustles leaves blushed with crimson and gold, a deer hops across the path, and it becomes this earth-affirming moment when you wonder at God’s creatures and feel like you are in this magic, special place. I mean seriously, look at this:
A secretive owl watches passersby from his perch
But if you’re looking for a little excitement, well, we just might have that too. I was having one of those “magic moment” kind of hikes a few weeks ago along the forested ridge line of a bluff – smelling the fresh air and wondering at the beauty of it all, when I heard a branch crack high overhead. A couple seconds later, something hit me in the head, then my shoulder, then my leg as I was moving to get out of the way. I stood there stunned for a second, blinking, realizing I’d been hit by a small piece of a falling branch or a big piece of bark or something that was now sitting at my feet. Then the “bark” got up and ran away, off the path and right back up the tree it had come out of.
I blinked again and looked up at my hiking partner 10 feet behind me, whose look of complete and utter shock confirmed that what I thought had just happened had indeed just happened. A squirrel fell out of the tree from 20 feet in the air, hit me in the head, then fell all the way down my body, grabbing for traction as he went.
I just stood there with my mouth agape and eyes like saucers, trying to process. “There’s no way in hell that just happened,” I stammered to my friend. He was on his knees laughing so hard he couldn’t stand up. This went on for quite a while.
I laughed too, so hard I thought I might throw up – or maybe that was from the shock. Eventually we regained enough composure to keep walking, but every 20 feet or so we would stop and relive it again and laugh some more. I couldn’t help but ponder the odds of the squirrel falling just as I passed beneath, but I couldn’t bear to think that he had jumped out on me on purpose…like because he had rabies or something. ..
Blood beaded up out of the worst scratch on my calf. Another light scratch down the entire length of my thigh just welted up slightly – which probably means I’m allergic to squirrels, by the way. But who cares, because it’s not like I pet them often. Or ever. Anyway, we poured some water on the scratch, and I said a little prayer that squirrels don’t carry rabies, and we hiked our way back out of the bluffs.
The moral of the story is this: If you’re looking for a peaceful hike, we have that. If you’re looking for an action/adventure hike, we have that too. Just stand under a tree and shake it to see if a squirrel falls out. I’m just kidding – don’t do that. But you want a thrill, you can bring your bike and ride some trails that I think would be appropriately called “gnarly,” and you can take in some of the most spectacular scenery in Minnesota while you do it.
The leaves are turning and our bluffs are tipped in gold. It’s about to get insanely beautiful – you need to get out there and see it for yourself.
Got a favorite trail? Share it in the comments and let me know. If you need advice on trails, leave a comment and I’ll hook you up, or check out the hiking and biking trails page at www.visitwinona.com.
Oh, and squirrels don’t carry rabies. I checked. So no horrifically painful death for me – unless a turkey vulture gets me next time or something. I’m just kidding – they don’t do that. Come hike.
If you want to make the hike to the top, the view definitely rewards you
Single Speed USA attracted a host of unconventional athletes to Winona’s bluffs
You’d think after a couple of decades in a place I’d have seen it all. I mean really – how many hiking trails can you discover, how many bike races can you cheer on, how many river sunsets can make you misty, how many theater performances can you marvel at – before the amazing things happening around you become ho-hum ordinary? Well, after this summer in Winona, I’m here to tell you we’re not even close.
Take, for example, the Single Speed USA 2013 Bike Race crew that just left town. Bike races are nothing new here – we have gloriously challenging terrain and a core group of enthusiasts who have managed to attract the business of some awfully cool races. So when I’m asked to give up my Saturday morning to photograph the event, it’s with a tinge of whoop-de-doo-itis that I say yes. No offense, bike race lovers, but bicyclists in spandex and helmets are a little like kids in the pool — you all look the same, and every lap looks the same, and it’s hard to imagine how the photographs will look different than the last race. But I love Winona, even if I don’t exactly love bike racing, so I say yes.
It will be hard to find enough words to describe what lunacy this race entailed, but I’ll try: Costumes. Water stations that hand out beer. Biking trails that are treacherous to WALK up and down, much less tackle on a bike. And single-speed mountain bikes ridden by people with thighs so strong they could crush walnuts. This, my friends, is Single Speed USA, a group from all over the country that has redefined the “work hard, play hard” mantra by managing to do both at the same time.
Single Speed USA riders are an impossible group of athletes to stereotype
Now when I say single speed, I mean these bikes have one gear, and you’d better choose it carefully if you want to climb a hill with it. The 35-mile course laid out for the riders was so extreme that it involved trails most people don’t know exist, like yours truly, and that few would ever brave, or so I thought. This terrain sounded like awfully serious business to me, so imagine my surprise when I saw cowboys and cowgirls, several unidentified super heroes, a guy with a lucha libre mask, a frau with an Oktoberfest dress on, a fur-clad Viking, guys wearing wigs, guys wearing Daisy Dukes, guys wearing Fruit of the Loom, you name it, lounging on the grass by Holzinger Lodge. A few hundred people or so were milling about and having a cold one, and, oh yeah, it was 9 a.m. Now this is my kind of race.
Not your ordinary water stations
Not that I would ever do it. Over the hours that followed I hop-skipped around with my car to various vantage points where I could catch riders coming through, and these folks were either insanely brave or just insane. When I think of bike riding on trails, I think of nice, wide, smoothish surfaces that we have miles and miles of for your riding pleasure. But the trails on this race were in some places little more than deer paths strewn with rocks and tree roots and drop offs. And those were the easy trails. Towards the end of the race, riders had to ascend the Sugar Loaf bluff from the west, then take a teeth-gritting ride down the back side of the bluff on a path that looked more like a rock slide than a biking trail. But at least there was a beer and water station at the top.
Plenty of thrills and spills on the bluff trails behind Sugar Loaf
Yes, it was hours after I would have normally called a courtesy photo shoot quits, but I was hooked, so I hiked up the Sugar Loaf trail to capture the madness. Maybe “madness” is too tame a word. I watched so many people crash trying to navigate the rocks I stopped counting. I watched a guy do a somersault over his handlebars. I watched bikes break. I watched quite a few smart folks, or perhaps people who just liked having all their teeth, hop off their bikes and heft them down rather than attempt the worst parts. A few made it through the gauntlet on their rides – very few – and they were definitely the ones who were going to have bragging rights at the party later on.
Oh, and there was a party. Hard to imagine how these people had anything left in them after a day like that, but they were going strong when I poked my head into Market Street Tavern at 11 p.m. Listening to their war stories, I felt a surge of pride that Winona would go down in Single Speed USA lore as a place that had tested the best. I also felt a surge of respect, mostly that they were still standing.
From the outside, Winona may seem like another little city in a pretty little corner of the world, but you just never know what you’re going to find here. I didn’t even tell you about the Ragnar Relay that happened here the day before with 3,000 runners (also in costumes!), or about the massive classic car show going on at the same time, or about the new show at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, or about the pub crawl on bicycles, or about the squirrel that fell on my head. Seriously. (Another blog entirely) Heck, I could prattle on forever. For now, suffice it to say there’s more to do in a single day here than anyone could ever accomplish, and boredom is just not a word in the Winona vocabulary. And it’s not just because we got to see people mountain biking in their underwear, though that was definitely a first for Winona’s trails, at least as far as I know.
By the way, we have awesome trail maps for hiking, biking, and paddling here on our new website: http://www.visitwinona.com/itinerary/outdoor-recreation. Download them and map out your own bluff country adventure
The race featured a Le Mans-style start to get the blood flowing
If laughter is good for the soul, then after last night I’m pretty well cured of anything that ails me. I finally got my act together and got to the theater to see Twelfth Night done by the Great River Shakespeare Festival, and I don’t care who you are — that play was funny. Stick around – I’m going to give you a chance to see it for yourself.
And I really mean I don’t care who you are. I’ve heard loads of people over the years say, when asked if they’ve seen one of the GRSF plays, say, “Uh no thanks. Not into that theater thing.” And well guess what? You’re wrong. I can pretty well imagine what people who say that envision when they hear “Shakespeare play” – a bunch of high-falutin people nodding appreciatively to the iambic pentameter verse blibbed out indecipherably from a stage full of serious thespians, while they sit there with a dumb stare on their face wondering what the hell is going on.
I may or may not have thought that at one point myself. And I’m not going to lie – for each play I’ve gone to see, it takes me about 20 minutes to sink into the unusual word use and cadence of speech, and to get my arms around the story. But the great minds at GRSF know this is generally true about everyone in their audience, and they do a pretty good job grabbing you by the hand and pulling you into the production.
And if you only see one production this year, or in your life, you should probably make it Twelfth Night. I haven’t seen King Henry V, also being performed by GRSF this year, though I heard it was very good. But Twelfth Night was like a joy ride – so funny that at points the audience actually could not stop laughing, and actors had to hold their line for an extra beat or two because the uproar would have drowned them out. I’m not talking about chuckle-funny; I’m talking about throw your head back and laugh out loud funny. And whether you like flannel or silk, or Courvoisier or Bud Lite, who doesn’t love to laugh like that? In fact, when William Shakespeare wrote his plays, he designed them for ordinary folks, not dignitaries and heads of state, and he had a pretty irreverent sense of humor. GRSF’s rendition of Twelfth Night would have made Will proud.
This is, of course, because of the actors who have affectionately made this festival their summer home. There is genius among us, folks, and I’m not kidding. Now it’s no secret that I’m a bit of a groupie who is rumored to be stalking Christopher Gerson, one of the festival’s cornerstone actors, but that’s not why I’m saying this. And for the record, I’d just like to say that it was NOT me sitting outside your apartment with binoculars Thursday, Chris, and I did not send you all those cookies, even though they look suspiciously like my grandmother’s recipe. I hope you liked them though – I mean if someone did send you cookies.
Anyway – after Twelfth Night, I’ve moved on. Chris was fabulous. Better than fabulous – and I cherished the droplets of his sweat and spit that flew on me as I gazed up from the second row. In fact, I’m probably not going to wash my clothes. But my new love after the play is Tarah Flanagan, who happens to be Chris Gerson’s wife. Holy cats, man, I can see why you married her. She’s adorable. But her portrayal of Viola was just plain brilliant. She was funny and moving and engaging and her timing was impeccable…sigh. Just – wow. What must it be like to be married to that kind of greatness? (I’m pretty sure I just started a fight in their house. LOL)
In all seriousness, there was a lot of genius on that stage and I’m madly in love with all of them. Chris Mixon, Michael Fitzpatrick, Brian White, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Stephanie Lambourn, Doug Scholz-Carlson, and my good friend Corey Allen, the designers and directors and on and on – for a few weeks each summer, they splash our town with the kind of talent that could work anywhere, yet they come here. We are so, so lucky, Winona – and if you check out publications in Milwaukee or Minneapolis or Madison you’ll see: The world is jealous of us and our festival.
So go. You’ll thank me. But you better do it now because you only have a week left. I’ve got two tickets to give away – I’m going to draw a name from the comments at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning – you will need to leave your name and tell me: IF you were going to be a GRSF actor groupie, which one would you follow around and why? Don’t know any of the actors? No problem, here is the playbill: http://grsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Playbill-2013-web.pdf
You can only enter once, but do us all a favor and share this blog with your friends – maybe one will take you if they win. But even if they don’t win (or take you), if they go, they’ll thank you for the best laugh they’ve had in a long time.
After many, many months of copy writing and photo collecting and page organizing and teeth gnashing, Visit Winona has launched its new website in all its glory, and man, is it a beauty.
Now I tell you this for two reasons. One is I want you to go look at it, poke around, and tell me what you think. It is chalk full of everything you ever wanted to know about Winona, from our birth as a river town to the cool things you can do to fill up every day of your life. Literally. As I worked on the project with Visit Winona, even *I* was bowled over by the breadth and depth of the ways we have to entertain ourselves here – and I am the town’s No. 1 fan. OK – maybe I’m not; I mean maybe there is someone out there who actually loves Winona more than I do – it’s not like there’s been a contest or anything. But if there was, I’d be in the running. I realize I’d probably get beat in the Why I Love Winona contest by an old fourth-generation Polish woman who still fries up paczkis (those are Polish donuts, for you non-Poles), has nine children and 37 grandchildren who all live in Winona, and remembers when every Mass was in Polish… but I wouldn’t be bitter. As long as she shared some of those paczkis with me.
The other reason I’d like for you to look at it and comment back here is that, as the blog made its trek from the old hosting to the new site, I’m not entirely convinced you all went with it. I fear my RSS feed – that little bit of magic that sends you a blog when I write one because you subscribed – may have gone the way of the camelops (that’s an extinct camel-looking creature that used to live in North America, by the way. Bet you didn’t know that. Uh, unless you are a paleontologist). What I’m saying is that you may need to sign up again for the RSS subscription, but how will you even know this if you aren’t getting the blog? The whole concept is terrifying.
The only thing a writer fears more than writer’s block or the failure of spell-check is writing words that drift off into vast nothingness. So do me a favor and help me sleep at night by pinging me back in the comments if you actually got this in your email inbox. I’ll take anything – a smiley face, an X, a sentence fragment… or you could tell me what you think of the website too. First impression? Anything missing? Easy to find what you’re looking for? Anyone who’s ever worked on websites knows I’m kidding when I say it’s finished. Sisyfus has got nothing on web developers. But now that it’s up, we will tweak and nudge and juggle until you all think it’s just right.
I’m ready to start giving stuff away again (!) — on deck: Two tickets to the Great River Shakespeare Festival, which I’ll put up for grabs later this week. But first… can I get a “Hey”?
You may have heard a little something about this already, but Winona is about to be bursting with music, and I want to give you a pass to check it out for yourself. If you’ve already been to it, then you know it’s pretty awesome. If you haven’t been, hear me out, because there are free wristbands at the end, and by the time you get there, you’ll want one.
The Mid West Music Fest will spring to life in our beautiful river town starting Thursday, April 18, and for three days, every nook and cranny in Winona will be filled with the strains of music. All kinds of music – from indie bands to folk musicians to coffeehouse-style singer-songwriters to gospel. Some of them are well known regional names, some tour nationally, some are voices you’ve never heard from far away, but all of them have been selected because they bring something special to our music scene and make this town a little bit cooler place to live.
If you think this festival isn’t for you, I’m here to tell you that the only way it’s not for you is if you just don’t like music. And that would be, well, kind of weird. But if you think it’s not for you because you aren’t 22 and into indie rock, then you’d better head over to www.midwestmusicfest.org and take a look at the lineup. How does the Saint Mary’s Jazztennial grab you? How about the Zinghoppers – big sock-puppet people that make kids bounce around? Like acappella? Check. Blues? Check. Banjos, classic rock, and reggea? Check, check, check. Bands from across the country will be converging on Winona this weekend, bringing with them all manner of music that you can roam between 14 different venues to hear.
That’s right. One wristband for $49 = three days of music and more than 100 bands. A one-day pass to all that music glory is $20. Find me that deal anywhere… because yeah, you won’t. In fact, it’s such a bargain for this collection of music that last year about 3,000 people turned out to hear it, and some came from pretty far away. Can I just say how cool it is to live in a town that people flood into because it has something they’re dying to see? Heck, I think us Winonans should swagger around all weekend puffed up with pride that our town did this. Well actually, Sam Brown and his very dedicated committee did this, but Winona is mighty happy to have some ownership of it too.
Come on. You know you have cabin fever. It’s time to get out, and I’m here to help. I have two $49 wristbands – one will get you into the whole festival – and I’m going to give them to two winners. Want one? Here is what you have to do: Leave a comment below and tell me which band you’d like to see this weekend. You can see the full lineup at www.midwestmusicfest.org, and I’m telling you, you’re going to be surprised. This will be a SHORT contest – I’m going to draw winners Thursday at noon. You can leave one comment per day, and I’ll take all the comments at the end, cut them up, and randomly draw from them.
I will post the winners on Visit Winona’s Facebook page as well as here on the blog shortly thereafter, and you can head over to the ticket office at Sum Sum Studios at 168 East Third Street Thursday afternoon to pick up your pass. And trust me, you will have a blast.
So let’s get started… I’ll go first. I am dying to see Apollo Cobra. I’d like to see Wildflower with Patti Darbo too. And those sock-puppet people do sound kind of fun…
April 14. It’s time, people, and God knows we’ve been waiting. In case you haven’t heard, clear your calendar for Sunday afternoon and head over to the Winona County History Center to get your Shakespeare on for 2013, because that’s where it’s all starting at the Season Preview.
Well, not really starting. It started 10 years ago with a little kernel of an idea and the sheer optimism of a few believers who said Winona had the right kind of hunger for the arts to fall in love with a Shakespeare festival, and the right mix of coolness and charm for people to come here to see Shakespeare and fall in love with Winona.
A decade later, it turns out they were right. The Great River Shakespeare Festival started out like the little festival that could – putting out productions far more impressive than a little start-up theater company had any right to, operating on a sliver of a budget where every dollar spent was a precise decision, and defying incalculable odds by gaining ground each year even as the economy around it was in a free-fall. But it was just so good. Word spread, and patrons came. And then they came back again and again, and they told their neighbors and they brought their friends. Actors from across the country came too, and like the patrons, they fell in love with Winona and then they came back year after year as well. Each summer Winona hosts a reunion of sorts, of visitors who have put Winona on their can’t-miss list, and actors who have in many cases become Winona’s sweethearts and very nearly locals in their own right.
Ahhhhh. The actors. We have had some favorites over the seasons, and every year at this time festival fans hold their collective breath waiting for the announcement on who will be coming back. I actually haven’t breathed for a couple of days now, and Sunday had better come quick because the darkness is closing in. Yes – Sunday is the season preview for GRSF 2013, and it’s a funky little soiree that is 1) Free, 2) Fun, and 3) The time when we all sit wringing our hands at the cast announcement waiting for the directors to say the words Chrisssss Gersonnnnn…at which point I will stand up and do the wave. Probably alone. Just kidding about that – everyone knows Chris married that perky, adorable Tarah Flanagan, and so I turned in my stalker card. And put the wedding dress in plastic. But that’s fine.
On Sunday, the good people of the Great River Shakespeare Festival will celebrate with Winona the start of another illustrious season, they’ll talk about the plays to come and the people who will make it happen. It will be festive, with a cash bar, free hors d’oeuvres, and preseason ticket deals, and the room will be filled with laughter and more than a few hugs for people we have truly missed (especially if CG is there ) (I’m just kidding Chris. Please don’t get a restraining order against me).
Even if you’ve never been to a play, or especially if you’ve never been to a play, you should come Sunday. See what it’s all about. Hug somebody (haha, OK, don’t do that). Soak in a little Great River Shakespeare Festival vibe and try it on for size, and I’ll bet you’ll get a little bit of an idea what all the hoopla is about. It’s about theater, but only kind of. More so its about a group of people who made something really cool happen here, who turned an idea into a legacy, and who love Winona just as much as we do.
Know what makes Winona great? Well, a lot of things, but man do we ever have some good donuts. Not just good donuts, but the kind of good that people will write home about, that they will make a special trip for, that they will line up down the sidewalk for. Don’t believe me? Drive down Broadway some Saturday morning at about 8 a.m. and check out the line outside of Bloedow Bakery.
Saveur Magazine, an epicurean authority of global stature, just confirmed what we here in Winona have known for almost 90 years: Bloedow Bakery makes some killer donuts. As in to die for. And they just told the world about it in their March issue, which features a roundup of the 50 best donut shops in the country. And of course Bloedow is in there, because when you’re talking about that kind of lip-smacking heaven, word gets out.
No one really knows how Saveur heard about Winona’s little bakery, though it might have something to do with the fact that Bloedow’s was dubbed the best donut shop in Minnesota last year by CBS affiliate WCCO. In fact, when WCCO polled its followers asking what the best donut shop in the state was, Bloedow’s pummeled the competition with more than twice as many votes as the next runner up. I’d call that a trouncing.
So what IS it about those donuts that makes them so dang good? I just don’t know. I mean, donuts are donuts, right? They have some yeast and some sugar and some frosting and, and… But there is some kind of magic that happens when you bite into one of those things from Bloedow’s. You get teleported to a happy place where the sign posts and flowers and sidewalks are made of sugar and everyone is smiling and little birds made out of sugar are singing and you just lay on the sugar grass and savor every delicious bite… I know. Snap out of it. But goll darn it if I wouldn’t love one of those sugar comas right now.
To be fair, it’s not all sugar. There is some donut in there too, and I don’t know what they cook those things in (in fact, I think it’s a secret) but sweet lord – the whole thing just melts in your mouth. My personal favorite – the maple long johns, of course. A-mazing. I think I can actually hear myself getting fatter when I eat them, but let’s face it, you shouldn’t go to a donut shop if you’re on a diet.
On Visit Winona’s Facebook page, the question was posed a little while ago – asking people what their favorite Bloedow donut was. Holy smokes. The answers were all over the place, and I found out about varieties I didn’t even know existed. Now, of course, I’m going to have to try them, and pretty soon we’ll need a wheelbarrow to get me around. But I’ll be smiling.
So I put the question to you — why are those donuts so good, and which one is your favorite? Share this blog with your friends, and let’s get a good old fashioned unscientific poll of our own going. In one week I’ll randomly draw from the comments and I’ll pony up for a donut gift certificate – 1 dozen of whatever you want. Let’s talk about donuts…
It’s cold. I know – the kind of cold that makes you want to hunker down under a blanket to watch a good movie. Well, here in Winona, we like to hunker down too, but we do it together at the Frozen River Film Festival, and we don’t just watch one movie – we watch about 40 of them. We celebrate our coldness. Heck, we named a festival after it. Stay tuned, and you can come celebrate too, because I’m going to give away tickets.
Oh, “films” you say? *yawn* That’s just for intellectuals and students.
Well not so fast, Danielson (that’s a Karate Kid reference for all you movie buffs). If you had never been to this film festival then you might think that. You’d be wrong, but I understand the stereotype.
Yes, these are mostly documentaries, but definitely not the kind of stuff you fell asleep to in 10th grade social studies. (Social studies teachers, don’t call me. Some of those films are really boring.) These are films about action and adventure and life and the world, and they make you happy and sad and inspired and smarter. I wish I could say richer and more successful too, but that might be taking it too far.
Like action flicks? Then you’ll love Wild Bill’s Run, a real life Arctic adventure movie about group of guys who tried to snowmobile over the top of the world in the early ’70s. There is crime. There is suspense. There is danger. Move over, Tom Cruise. Or if you’re an adrenalin junkie, Wednesday and Thursday nights’ film set has extreme skiing, highlining, backpacking, and even the guy who slacklined in on Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show.
There are films about all kinds of things that people are doing all over the world – like the girl who spent a year adventure volunteering, environmentalists who are crawling across glaciers, and traumatized soldiers who find healing on fly fishing streams in Montana. Education, health care, why the lady at McDonalds sued over hot coffee… it’s all there.
Frozen River Film Festival brings in some of the very same films that PACKED the house at the Telluride and Sundance film festivals – you know, where people like Penélope Cruz and Mickey Rooney hang out – though probably not together. And some of the films being shown this week are narrated by some of those famous people, and some have even been nominated for Academy Awards. We’re not kidding around here, folks.
And you can get a free massage or some acupuncture this weekend, take in a yoga class, or just decompress in the Rejuvenation Station. Oh yeah, and you can keep your kids busy just about all day for free with the kids film set, craft center, and outdoor obstacle course. This festival is seriously the coolest thing that will happen for 100 miles this winter, and you should be here. Quit hunkering down at home alone and come watch movies with us. You can even bring your blanket. Everything you need to know is here: www.frff.org
If I seem a little fired up, it’s because I just came home from a volunteer meeting for the festival – you’ll find me at the door ushering this weekend and introducing a film or two. And in exchange, they gave me a fist full of tickets, and I’m going to share them with you, because that’s how I am.
This will be a short contest because the time is near for the festival, so I will draw two (count them, TWO!) winners at 5 p.m. Tuesday, January 22, who will each get four tickets that can be used for any film sets, presentations, or workshops you want to attend. Use them all at once and bring friends, or keep them to yourself and attend four different things – it doesn’t matter. To enter the drawing, you have to leave a comment and tell me what film you’d like to see at the Frozen River Film Festival (hint, the schedule is on their website). You can only enter once, and the drawing will be via my very official method of cutting up the entries and putting them in a hat. I will announce your name here and on Visit Winona’s Facebook page Tuesday evening by 6 p.m., and you can swing by the Visit Winona office to pick them up starting Wednesday.
See you at the festival!
It may be frozen, but it’s still beautiful down here in our scenic corner of the state.
It occurred to me recently that if suddenly every road and airstrip leading to Winona was shut down, we would still be eating pretty well here. Strange thought, I know, but stay with me. No, I wasn’t watching Doomsday Preppers, that bizarre show where paranoid people prepare for Apocalypse by building bunkers and canning potatoes (listen, do not send me letters if you love this show. It’s weird.) I was actually stuffing my face full of the most delicious grass-fed lamb you’ve ever had – raised on the hills right outside Winona. As I sat there with my eyes shut blissfully chewing, I realized that the food available here in this Mississippi River hamlet is perhaps the most under-appreciated attraction we have.
At the top of that list is Signatures Restaurant and The Grill – its newly spawned casual eatery in the bar area. The lamb I was drooling over was off of the new Signatures menu, and it was sourced from the O’Neil Family Farms just outside of town. And let me tell you this – I know lamb – my family raised sheep for decades, and I grew up eating it like other people eat beef. So it is with a certain amount of authority that I say this was completely fabulous and I promise you, I didn’t even have better lamb at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco – an impossibly swanky restaurant with a celebrity chef and everything. Seriously. If you put my two meals side-by-side, that guy doesn’t have a thing on Jeremy, Rico, and Joe back in the Signatures trenches. OK – I’ll stop fawning – in a minute. The lamb shank was accompanied by other deliciousness – port-poached pear, roasted vegetables, horseradish-havarti potatoes… mmmmmmm. This was sexy, delightful food, and anyone who thinks they need to drive to a bigger city to find gourmet fare is craaaazy.
But what is especially awesome to me about a meal at Signatures is that the chef can tell you where everything on the menu came from, and much of it comes from right here. That’s cool.
Even cooler – if you want to make the food for yourself, you just need to go to the Winona Farmers Market for a dazzling array of locally grown goodness, from vegetables to the O’Neil Farm’s incredible lamb. Oh yeah, and honey, local jams, herbs – you can feed yourself awfully well after a trip there, even in the winter. What’s that you say? A Farmers Market in the winter? Well yes, twice a month even, except it’s inside the Winona Mall for your shopping comfort. Check it out: www.winonafarmersmarket.com/
You can also find a whole lot of local products at Bluff Country Co-op – which has a mission to buy the “least traveled” products available. It’s a double-win: you get the freshest stuff out there because it came from 12 miles away instead of 2,500, and you help a local grower, which gives you good karma. And who doesn’t need a little more of that?
And you don’t even have to go shopping if you don’t want to – you can have someone just put fresh produce in a box for you to pick up. No, seriously. You can buy into Herbal Turtle Farms, and then every week for 20 weeks of the growing season the farmers will box up a collection of the freshest produce off the farm and bring it into town for you to pick up. Wow. Eating delicious local food couldn’t possibly require less effort than that – unless maybe they’ll bring the box to your house. And cook it for you. Just kidding – I don’t think they do that, but hey, you can ask. http://herbalturtlefarms.blogspot.com/
Oh yeah, and we’ve got a bison ranch on top of the bluffs too, and even local school kids are eating burgers from Rockie Hill Bison Farm. And apples from the area’s orchards. And vegetables from local farms. If buying local creates good karma, then the food service director for the public schools here is going to heaven for sure.
In town we’ve also got Bay State Milling grinding up local grains for flour products and mixes, as well as a whole bunch of home-grown restaurants that get some of their menu items from right here in our beautiful little corner of Southeastern Minnesota. So go ahead and shut off the roads – we’ve got fresh food down here to last us for a millennium, and the people who know to cook it. I’m just kidding – about the roads I mean. Please don’t shut them down. We have places we need to be, and we want people to come visit. And for those of you who do, come hungry for a taste of Winona – we’ll have it ready for you.