Pleasant surprises. That's what you'll find around the Mississippi River town of Red Wing, Minn., on the Great River Road, and in nearby riverside villages in Wisconsin.
In the charming hamlet of Stockholm, Wis., population 97, there's Abode Stockholm on Spring Street, a handsome, sophisticated gallery, akin to places you would find in Chicago's River North or Lincoln Park. Abode carries the works of regional artists, plus custom-made private-label furniture, hand-painted tables, beautiful fabrics, decorator pillows, carpets, rugs and other treasures. In Abode, my wife found an exquisite slipcased letterpress edition of poems called "20 Ramages" by Minnesota poet laureate Robert Bly. Stockholm is 22 miles southeast of Red Wing. 715-442-2266, abodegallery.com
Wabasha, 31 miles southeast of Red Wing, is home to the National Eagle Center (651-565-4989, nationaleaglecenter.org) and showcases five bald eagles. The modern glass and steel center offers daily educational programs where you can see an eagle up close and an observation deck from which you can view eagle nests and eagles over the river. Admission: Adults $8, seniors $6 and students 4-17 $5.
Hungry? Don't miss the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis., 28 miles southeast of Red Wing. The homey restaurant makes everything from scratch, using locally grown ingredients. Specialties include roast pork loin, sauteed chicken breasts, spring lamb and a summer cassoulet. The cafe takes neither credit cards (bring cash) nor reservations, but if you have a wait, relax in an Adirondack chair out front and watch the Mississippi flow by. 715-442-3893, harborviewpepin.com
In Red Wing, the friendly Uffda Shop ("uffda" is a sympathetic "ouch" in Norwegian) at Bush and Main streets sells all things Scandinavian — Orrefors crystal, Royal pewter and stainless flatware, Ekelund linens, Norwegian pewter jewelry, Swedish Dala horses, dinnerware, porcelain figurines and myriad gift items. 800-488-3332, uffdashoponline.com
Truth be told, we just didn't stumble on this pretty area along the river, beneath high stone bluffs that extend north from La Crosse and Winona.
On our way to Minneapolis, about 60 miles northwest, my wife and I opted to spend a couple of nights in Red Wing to sample towns on both sides of the Mississippi, a relief from franchises.
Red Wing, population 16,000, is best known as the home of Red Wing Shoes and Red Wing Pottery.
Named after a Dakota Indian chief, Red Wing, 368 miles from Chicago, is a picturesque town, its downtown streets lined with two- and three-story red-brick buildings dating from 1858. One venerable landmark is the St. James Hotel, which opened its doors in 1875.
Though the recession has affected Red Wing, business reportedly is rebounding. Its economy gets a boost from people in Minneapolis and St. Paul who own second homes and from nearby Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic.
Twin Cities foodies head this way to frequent gourmet shops.
The Nelson Cheese Factory in Nelson (which no longer produces cheese), sells a huge array of imported gourmet foods, cheeses, smoked salmon, meats, wines, ice cream and sandwiches. Nelson is 10 minutes beyond Pepin. 715-673-4725, nelsoncheese.com
Stockholm General in Stockholm carries 65 Wisconsin wines, 30 state-brewed beers and 50 varieties of cheese, as well as other Wisconsin food products and gifts. 715-442-9077, stockholmgeneral.com
Relatively new to the food circuit is the Stockholm Pie Company, which tempts customers with its handmade pies — apple pie-in-bag, triple chocolate pecan, cherry, and cream pies such as chocolate toasted almond — plus cinnamon rolls and pie cookies. 715-442-5505, stockholmpiecompany.com
In Red Wing, start your visit at the depot, 420 Levee St., which houses the Red Wing Visitors Bureau (800-498-3444, redwing.org), where you can pick up tourist literature. The depot is a stop for Amtrak's Empire Builder, operating daily between Chicago and Seattle. The classical brick and stone building also houses the Red Wing Arts Association and three lovely galleries.
And you can finish your visit with a toast at the Falconer Vineyards, which teams with local hotels to offer "wine and stay" packages. tiny.cc/u12rw
If you go
What to see, do: In Red Wing, pop into the three-story Red Wing Shoe Museum and outlet store, 315 Main St., which features a 16-foot tall classic work boot. Red Wing has been making shoes since 1905. 651-388-6233, redwingshoes.com
Red Wing Pottery, another town staple, shows and sells its wares at Pottery Place Mall, 1920 Old W. Main St. It's a third-generation family business, begun 140 years ago. 800-228-0174, redwingpottery.com
Rusty's Red Wing River Rides takes passengers on 90-minute cruises beneath eagle nests to the mouth of Lake Pepin, a remarkable miles-wide section of the Mississippi about 26 miles long. Adults, $12; seniors, $10; and children 6-13, $6. 612-859-6655, rustyriverrides.com
Welch Mill Canoeing & Tubing offers a mild outdoor and fun adventure in the nearby tree-shaded Cannon River Valley. 800-657-6760, welchmillcanoeandtube.com
Treasure Island Resort & Casino fills the needs of gamers with bingo, slots, blackjack and entertainment. 800-222-7077, treasureislandcasino.com
To grasp the scope of the Mississippi and its surroundings, drive up to Memorial Park for a grand view.
Where to eat: In town, try the Staghead, 219 Bush St., an atmospheric, brick-walled place with a varied menu: salads, steaks, pasta, seafood and burgers, and specialties such as English cottage pie. It also has an extensive beer selection. (651-388-6581, thestaghead.com) Check redwing.org for other options.
Where to stay: Red Wing has a variety of lodging options, which you can find at redwing.org. We chose the Golden Lantern, a B&B near downtown. It's a restored English Tudor home built in 1932 by J.R. Sweasy, president of Red Wing Shoe Co. 888-288-3315, goldenlantern.com
Extending your getaway: The most obvious choice is Minneapolis, with its first-rate Walker Art Center and adjacent 11-acre Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Guthrie Theater, exciting architecture and great dining, and neighboring St. Paul, the state capital.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun