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America: The Best of the Midwest

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Gazing across the skyline of Chicago from the 360 Chicago Observation Deck, 1,000 feet above the famed Magnificent Mile, I can’t believe my meandering road trip across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois is drawing to an end. The sun is being swallowed by the horizon, its orange glow now a thin line as the lights of the city twinkle on. It’s with a reluctant sigh I return to ground level.

Nearly two weeks ago, I landed in Minneapolis, home of the Walker Art Center and the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture. I browsed the city like a book, making the most of the spring-like days, exploring Mill Ruins Park and roaming the skybridges that connect the buildings. All too soon, it was time for me to check out of my atmospheric abode at the Hewing Hotel and move on, but not before filling the gaps in my oversized suitcase with tax-free, quality clothing and shoes from the plethora of shops at Mall of America, my favourite places to shop.

The port-city of Duluth, Minnesota’s third-largest metropolis after the Twin Cities, is made for drinking, whether it’s coffee at the Duluth Coffee Company, where each coffee is roasted to order, or a brew from Fitgers Brewery, one of the six brewers that call this city home. If whiskey, vodka or gin is your tipple, Vikre Distillery obliges. I tried all of the above, but it was the boutique distillery's use of local grains, foraged wild botanicals, handcrafted Minnesota oak barrels, and the clean, cold water of Lake Superior that captured my interest. Sampling the potent flavours in the Distillery Cocktail Room was a highlight equalled only by roasting marshmallows for smores, a peculiar concoction of sweet crackers, sandwiched around melted marshmallows and chocolate. I stayed at Pier B hotel on the waterfront, collected my smore kit from the front desk, and headed to the firepit, with views of the Aerial Lift Bridge, revelling in a unique Duluth experience.

I left Duluth at sunrise, watching pink and orange hues glow across the frozen water of Lake Superior. Driving through the Superior National Forest to the northern enclave of Ely, the trees sparkled with a dusting of snow, deer grazing in the undergrowth. Ely is the gateway for the Boundary Waters, a vast network of waterways within a glacially-carved landscape that stretches to the Canadian border. Crossing a small river, I spied fisherman tramping across the thick layer of ice, the lure of walleye and trout compensating for the frigid air. It’s not just fish that abound here – beavers, eagles, foxes, bears and moose can all be spotted, if you’re lucky. It’s also wolf country, with the International Wolf Centre giving visitors the opportunity to learn about these handsome, often misunderstood, creatures.

In summer, canoe enthusiasts flock to Ely. In winter, watersports give way to dog-sledding, the frozen water a perfect, white playground. Gliding across the ice with my own dog team in the wake of my Wintergreen guide, I was awed by the power and enthusiasm of the Canadian Inuit Dogs that were my engine. Come evening, I watched the sun set from the warmth of my spacious cabin at Timber Trail Lodge. The air was still and quiet, a moment of peace so perfect it left me breathless.

A new day brought a different state, as I drove to Canoe Bay, in the heart of Wisconsin. Set within 300 private acres of beautiful hardwood forest with three spring-fed, glacially carved lakes, the cottages at this Relais & Châteaux property are stunning, set discreetly apart, with decks looking out to a lake. This peaceful getaway is a place for strolling, relaxing in the library, and fine-dining in the lakeside dining room.

Wisconsin Dells, my next stop, was a stark contrast. The southern city on the Wisconsin River sports its fair share of beautiful, glacier-carved sandstone formations, but the “Waterpark Capital of the World’s” numerous theme parks and entertainment centres encourage unleashing your inner child. The largest waterpark, at Kalahari Resort, features a mammoth 125,000 square feet of wet and wild indoor fun.

All that water left me craving seafood, so I indulged at The Del Bar. The "Prairie style" ambiance of this popular restaurant was created by James Dresser, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright and the menu is a delight. I feasted on oysters in the half shell, seared sea scallops in a delectable Moscato reduction, and an organic apple salad, with mixed greens, dried cranberries, walnuts and blue cheese. A raspberry mango dreamsicle, composed of sorbet, ice-cream and heavy cream, was a fitting finale.

Returning to Sundara Inn and Spa, a relaxation haven in a 26-acre pine forest, I collected a small tub of Sundara Sandstone Body Polish and completed the Purifying Bath Ritual, a five-step self-guided treatment designed to cleanse the skin and clear the mind. Replete, I relaxed in my suite, anticipating the early morning massage I booked before departing.

My meandering path to Galena, over the Illinois border, took me by two of Wisconsin’s quirkiest attractions. Dr Evermor’s Sculpture Park is an extraordinary collection of artwork by Tom Every, created from industrial salvage. The centrepiece is the Forevertron, the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. It’s surrounded by an eclectic selection of beautifully crafted birds, space-age insects, and fantastical machines. I left overwhelmed by the sheer creative genius on display.

Tom Every also had a hand in the creation of the House on the Rock, providing salvage for Alex Jordan’s imagination-packed retreat. Wrapped around Deer Shelter Rock, House on the Rock defies description. The whimsical displays within include the world’s largest indoor carousel; a re-creation of an early twentieth-century American town; a 200-foot model of a whale; a collection of automatic music machines; and an Infinity Room that juts 218 feet over the forest, without supports. Several hours after entering, I stumbled into daylight in sensory overload. And I already want to go back.

Arriving in the historic town of Galena, I checked in to a Victorian-style room at the DeSoto House Hotel, the oldest operating hotel in Illinois. It’s a great base for exploring Galena’s Main Street, which boasts architectural styles ranging from French Colonial to Greek Revival. Across the river, the Italianate former home of General Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th US President, is open to the public and at the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum, a hologram of the man himself welcomes visitors. A short drive away, the Soaring Eagle Zip Line at Chestnut Mountain takes punters high above the mountain’s peak for an birds-eye perspective of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.

For a small town, Galena has an impressive array of dining options, too, from healthy home cooking at Otto’s Place to juicy steaks at the Log Cabin Steakhouse and modern American dining options at Fried Green Tomatoes. Dishes can be washed down with a pint of Guinness at The Irish Cottage, or one of the many root beer choices at Root Beer Revelry.

My penultimate destination was Starved Rock Lodge, in the State Park of the same name. This is one of those places that offers a bit of everything: hiking; relaxation in the cosy massage cabin; jaunts into nearby Ottawa, with a Himalayan Salt Cave at Salt Tree Yoga; and the fabulous August Hill Winery & Illinois Sparkling Co. Tasting Room in Utica, where you can sample varietals produced in the region. In the evening, I stepped outside to perch on the Stargazer, a statue of a figure observing the night sky, startling a racoon snuffling around the grounds. One night was simply not enough here.

Then it was time for Chicago. I fell in love with Chicago on my first visit, and despite a chill wind swirling through the city, that affection hasn’t waned. It’s arty vibe is a definite bonus, with the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the changing art programme within Millennium Park, not to mention Cloud Gate, more commonly known as The Bean, and scattered works by Miro, Picasso, Dubuffet and other well-known names.

Cuisine in the city is also superb, whether it’s GT Prime’s meat-centric menu, culinary invention at Cindy’s Rooftop Lounge crowning the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, or the all-local dining concept at the Revival Food Hall in the North Loop neighbourhood.

I’ve roamed the streets, looked up at the city from the streets and hovered above it in a glass box extending from the Skydeck. In the words of Depeche Mode, I just can’t get enough.

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