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Hiking, Books and Brunch in Red Wing

You can have all kinds of strange adventures if you just say yes. And once you say yes, you never know what you’ll find…or what you’ll find fascinating.

That’s what my day trip to Red Wing, Minnesota taught me last weekend. I was in the area for TBEX North America, a travel blogger’s conference and Explore Minnesota sponsored this and a number of other press trips to help us get to know the state.

I’d never been to Red Wing (it’s a little embarrassing to realize how many places in my home state I’ve never seen), so I signed up. And, in a totally out of character move, I didn’t do any more research about it. I just showed up to meet the van and let fate have its way with me.

It turns out fate is a lot of fun, with a great sense of humor, just like every single one of the ladies I was traveling with. Erica Wacker, Explore Minnesota’s communications director, was our fearless leader. Sara BroersSheila Scarborough and Jill Friedman and myself rounded out our tiny traveling crew.

Left to right: Jill, Sheila, me and our long-armed selfie photographer, Sara.

Red Wing turned out to be a charming little river town along the banks of the Mississippi. It’s about an hour south of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro and located along The Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi from Minnesota down to the Gulf of Mexico.

We started our tour atop a scenic overlook in Memorial Park, looking down at the city spread out below us, nestled between dramatic bluffs. We’d planned to hike Barn Bluff, the city’s most famous landmark, but a cool, rainy morning and heavy rains the day before made hiking Memorial Park a safer bet.

We spent an enjoyable hour or so strolling around the park and taking notes and photos. The best thing about traveling with other writers and photographers (and PR people who are used to our odd ways) is that nobody thinks it’s weird when someone zones out with a notebook, jumps up in the middle of a conversation to get the perfect shot or wanders away for half an hour without saying a word to anyone.

These are my people. It’s kind of fabulous to spend 15 minutes shooting trees and not have to feel like you’re holding up the group.

After our hike (and I use the word hike lightly here, because I logged a couple of miles, but wasn’t really working too hard) we headed to Red Wing’s cute little downtown to do a little shopping.

I’ve never met an indie bookstore I didn’t like, so of course I loved Fair Trade Books. In addition to having the requisite house animal (this sweet and friendly pup) and passionate owners, this little gem also offers a free book to all first time visitors.

The only catch is that you can tell the staff what you love, but they pick it out. And you have to say “Books make great gifts” before you can take it home.

I scored a copy of Lisa Genova’s “Still Alice”, a novel I’ve been meaning to read since the Julianne Moore movie based on it came out, so I was happy. (If you’re curious, I told the sales guy I wanted fiction by a female author.)

After that we went to see the giant boot at Red Wing Shoes (because that’s one of those touristy things you do in Red Wing) and to look through the store and the small museum upstairs.

The crowd was a mixture of families with kids and blue collar dudes, which makes sense since Red Wing Shoes are made by and for working class folks. My dad would like this place.

We took a half block detour to get around the road construction (Red Wing is in year two of three years of a pretty comprehensive overall of its downtown streets and bridges) on our way to lunch at St. James Hotel.

And I’m glad we did, because that particular detour led us by several really beautiful historic buildings (which we had fun photographing) and right up to this beauty.

I might have gasped. I’m a sucker for a cool fire escape and it turns out I’m not the only one. You never know what’s going to really make a group on a press trip gel, and for us, it was dorking out over random architectural details.

It also made me think about how many little details we miss when we’re busy running (or driving) from one place to the next. One of my favorite things about traveling and meeting new people is the way that both activities force you to get out of your comfort zone and really engage with the world around you.

Because we took the time to wander, we saw something unexpected and interesting. We were chatting before, but the conversations really took off after that. We even had fun hashtagging that sucker when we got back. (#FireEscapeCrew for life!)

I highly doubt that fire escape is what the Red Wing Tourism folks thought we’d write about and take photos of, but sometimes trips — and life — are like that.

Details like that fire escape and a small reading garden with a soothing fountain, benches and sculptures across from the hotel might seem inconsequential on their own. But when you add them up, they give Red Wing its distinct character.

Our leisurely lunch on the veranda at the historic St. James Hotel was soothing and restful. About half of us ordered from the lunch menu while the rest (myself included) opted for the impressive brunch spread.

I’m a sucker for a good brunch and this was a wonderful one, with lots of fresh fruit, crispy bacon, made-to-order omelettes and a carving station. And the people watching on the rooftop was great too.

After brunch we talked local Scandinavian history with the staff at The Uffda Shop and wandered over to Red Wing Confectionery, where we admired the chocolates and bought a few even though we’d just finished insisting we couldn’t even think about eating another thing. But we did, since chocolates melt and we had to do our research. (What a rough life we lead, huh?)

By the time we finished, we’d already been wandering around the city for longer than expected — and we hadn’t even made it to Red Wing Brewing, either winery or checked out nearly enough Red Wing Pottery. And I don’t think any of us minded a bit.

I guess that means I’ll have to come back. I have to hike Barn Bluff anyway. Red Wing isn’t done with me yet.

What about you? What’s your favorite thing to do in Red Wing? What would you like to see or try? What do you like to do on a day trip? Which small towns and cities should I visit next?

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