Why Everybody Loves Winona

An insider travel blog about the best of Winona, Minnesota

The Local Connection

First of all, WELCOME to my new little corner on Visit Winona’s new digs. I hope you take a look around, because there are some cool updates, and Visit Winona is rocking a pretty sweet website right now. Also, if you are one of my old-school followers who are subscribed to the blog from before this moment, do me a favor and re-enter your email address in the subscription spot underneath the archives column. The reason is that you are currently shadow people, and that’s creepy. Ha. Just kidding; it’s not creepy, but I can no longer see any of you, and I have NO control over the emails you are getting. Like, for example, if one of those old subscription services starts spraying old  blogs at you in the middle of the night, I can’t protect you. Not that it would hurt you – you could just read them again or delete them or something, but you get my drift.

Another reason you want to be on my new subscription list is that I have every intention  of randomly giving away goodies to followers drawn from that subscription list – starting with today – and trust me when I say you want this stuff. On Sunday night (July 12), I’m going to access the subscription list for this blog and let a randomizer pick somebody to win two ticket vouchers to the Great River Shakespeare Festival. But if you are on the old blog email list, then you are invisible – like ghosts who can see me and everything I write even though I can’t see you – which sounds like a good start for a horror movie…but I digress. Plus, we are waaaaaaay off the actual topic of this post which is, cleverly, why Winona is so freaking awesome.

So I had an interesting exchange with a young lady recently, and it got me to thinking. She had posted a comment in a social media forum saying that she had moved away from Winona as a teen and, after 13 years in California, was thinking about moving back. She addressed it to no one specifically, though she did post it on a Visit Winona channel which is manned (uh, womanned) by yours truly. But she penned that she had heard from her friends who still live here that Winona had gone down hill from the old days and changed for the worse, and that she was thinking about moving to Minneapolis instead.

That comment, of course, produced a dumb stare from me because I think it is the opposite – like the complete, polar opposite.

Funny story:  I have been here for 20 years, and I will never forget my very first drive down Huff Street. It happened during an event that I think they called “Springfest,” and people were celebrating by building beer-can pyramids in their front yards. Big ones. Oh yeah, and the other thing is that all those beer cans were empty, having been drained into the bellies of rowdy young people. You can probably imagine the rest.

Fast forward 20 years and Springfest has long-since gone the way of the dinosaur. Our universities worked hard to make Winona the best place to study, not the best place to party, and the city put some ordinances in place to corral the madness. Before too long, it was pretty hard to find a place to do a keg stand in Winona. If that is what the poster’s friends meant by “changed for the worse,” well then yeah, for sure it was a huge change.

But along with it came a new mindset that took root, one that decided Winona, with its perfect location and its pristine scenery and its deep reservoir of arts lovers, could reinvent itself as an arts and recreation mecca in the Midwest. Piece by piece some movers and shakers laid the groundwork for this, courting the brain-trust behind the Great River Shakespeare Festival and creating the foundation for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Both events were so ambitious that it hardly seemed at the time that they had any business in a community of 27,000 people, but the creators were undaunted. Using every bit of an “if we build it, they will come” mentality, the festivals started, and then so did the Frozen River Film Festival, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, the Dakota Gathering, Mid West Music Fest, and Boats and Bluegrass… and before long, Winona was the coolest town for 100 miles.

These attractions draw many thousands of visitors to Winona, but sometimes local folks don’t realize how outsiders view this city, or how outrageous it is that one little place can be blooming with amenities that make our metropolitan neighbors jealous. Heck, in the last year we were named the #2 small city in the country by Nerdwallet, a finance think-tank, plus we were named one of Minnesota’s most beautiful towns by Culture Trip and a bunch of other publications, and we have been dubbed home of  the best doughnut in the world by pretty much everybody. Food critics love our new restaurant, the Boat House, bicycling magazines love our trails, and everyone loves the drive through Winona on Highway 61.  In fact, in 2014, Winona had something like 123 press mentions (yeah, I counted) in everything from national magazines to regional newspapers. If I could be so bold, we are the sweetheart of the Midwest, and a whole lot of people are having a love affair with Winona.

Every now and then, however, I talk to a local person who is relatively oblivious to both Winona’s impressive offerings and its stardom among Midwestern cities. I figure it’s because sometimes it’s hard to have fresh eyes when you live in a place for a long time, work at a job for a long time, or are married to the same person for a long time (haha – I’m just KIDDING – don’t send me letters). But seriously, if locals could see Winona through the eyes of tourists, I think they’d be pretty dazzled.

Like…is there anyone who isn’t slack-jawed the first time they see this?

Winona skyline




Come on. It’s insanely beautiful. But I bet it’s been a while since most local folks walked out to the look-out on Garvin Heights. What we need is one of those body-switch days like Jamie Lee Curtis and some girl who played her daughter had in Freaky Friday (OK, kind of a terrible movie, but you see where I’m going here…) when all the locals wake up and are tourists here for one day. And maybe the tourists could wake up as locals and know where the most beautiful buildings and the best breakfasts are. Actually, there is no need for that, because this new Visit Winona website gives visitors everything they need to know, and even gives them an option to “Ask a Local” if there’s something the site doesn’t cover. Ask away, and we’ll get the answer from a local expert and email it to you. But if you are wondering where you can get in on a keg stand, we’re probably not going to be able to help you because, for one, they are few and far between these days, and two, because we’re old and not exactly sure what a keg stand even is.

Don’t forget to sign up for the blog over there on the right. Maybe I’ll be emailing you with some goodies!

Dressed for Company

If you’ve ever been within 50 miles of Winona in the fall, than you know this city absolutely could not look more sensational than it does right now. Turn-of-the-century streets are lined with the brilliant hues of autumn, and a riot of color 500 feet high has swept across the bluffs. The parks, the trails – everything is under a canopy of crimson and gold, and it makes you wish you could stop time, if only for a moment, just to make sure you can take it all in. If you haven’t seen it, trust me. It is spectacular.

So I was practically giddy when I heard that Winona would be getting a visitor this week. Well – we will have lots of visitors this week because we’re a little bit of a tourism destination right now, but there is one in particular I’m talking about. He’s something of a celebrity – at least in the hyperspace of Instagram – because he has 150,000 followers who explore the world with him through his photos and missives. The fella’s name is Zach Glassman, or @zachspassport, he’s enormously InstaFamous, and he’s coming to Winona. It makes me feel lightheaded.

Here’s the deal: Explore Minnesota Tourism invited Zach to be a Minnesotan for 10 days and tour around the southern part of the state seeing what Minnesotans see and doing what Minnesotans do. (EMT brought in other social media celebrities to canvass the north and central parts of Minnesota, just so you know they aren’t playing favorites – even though they should because we’re awesome :-) ) (I’m just kidding, North and Central people. Don’t send me letters.) Someone sketched out a loose 10-Day Minnesotan itinerary for Zach that loops him down the Mississippi, through Winona, and across to St. Peter before routing him back to St. Paul. I happen to have seen that itinerary, so I know that he should be rolling into Winona on October 17 – right about the time our fall colors are at their crescendo. If we were going to get dressed for company folks, this is it.

But here’s the thing – and it’s like whenever you have company coming over for the first time – I’m a little bit nervous. I want to make SURE he discovers the very best Winona has to offer, but I think 24 hours isn’t much time for stumbling across our local legends, our best-kept secrets, and our uniquely Winona spots. I want him to know that hiding under our historic architecture, our steeple-lined streets, and our pretty, pretty scenery is a place that can be a lot of things to a lot of different people. How will he know that a town of 30,000 can support Shakespeare, Beethoven, film, and indie music festivals, an art gallery with Monet and Picasso, every kind of outdoor recreation the Midwest has to offer, gourmet dining, and a bar with insanely big-name performers and more craft brews than you’ve ever heard of? Right. For a visitor who has 24 hours, it can be a bit overwhelming. I want him to flit effortlessly from one fantastic thing to the next and leave 24 hours later as madly in love with Winona as you are, and as I am. This is, of course, entirely unreasonable, because people say all the time that they have to come back again and again to get it all in. Still, I have to try, right?

So I may or may not have been sending @zachspassport little tidbits about Winona for the last few weeks. It’s just little things like: When I post a photo of an eagle on Instagram, I tag him, because I want him to know we have eagles here. Hey – maybe he thinks they’re cool. When I posted a photo from Winona State’s Outdoor Rec program of someone climbing Sugar Loaf, I tagged him, and challenged him to come do it. When he asked his followers to suggest things in Southern Minnesota he should do (because yes, I am one of his followers now), I told him to come try extreme mountain biking, and Ed’s (no name) Bar, and so on. Now I should mention that Zach Glassman has absolutely no idea who I am, and he’ll probably already have a restraining order against me by the time he gets to Winona. BUT – he’ll know there is a band at Ed’s Thursday night~

I want Winona to be InstaFamous too, and I think you can help. First, join us on Instagram and follow Visit Winona. We just started out there, but I’m posting my favorite shots of Winona, and it’s going swimmingly. Also, leave a comment here for Zach telling him something that should be a MUST on his Winona itinerary. I think it would be great for you all to share your votes for Winona’s best so that I can stop messaging him and looking like a stalker. Ha.


My favorite hiking trail on the bluff


Just a glimpse of fall from Lake Park.



The bike path around Lake Park makes for a pretty run.

A River Worthy of a Bow Tie

You know, living here right next to the Mississippi River, it’s pretty easy to begin to take for granted just how freaking fantastic it is. I mean seriously, it’s the fourth longest river in the world, and a U.S. geologic survey says it is the main conduit of the chief drainage system in North America – which is a very unsexy way to say fabulous. France, Britain, and Spain all wanted it – fought over it even – and here in Winona, we can see why.

Just look at this:

River sunset












Who wouldn’t want a little piece of that? Seriously, if Wisconsin wanted to take rights to the Mississippi away from Winona, we’d go to war too. OK listen, that’s just an illustration, because we don’t want to go to war with Wisconsin, and they couldn’t take our access away anyway, but you get what I’m saying. So don’t send me letters about why we’re threatening Wisconsin. I’m not. I love Wisconsin…but I digress.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the stretch of Mississippi River that passes Winona is the most beautiful, the most pristine, and the most useable of all its 2,348 miles. Yeah, I would say that, because, well, I’m writing a blog about how amazing Winona is. But seriously…

Consider this: The river here is wide enough to have a deep main channel for barges, but gentle enough to have miles of backwater slews where migratory birds and kayakers and such can find peaceful repose. Ever seen this?

winona birdwatching











Well we do. All the time. The reason, perhaps, is that our piece of river here is blissfully undeveloped. Save for a few boathouses and the small towns that dot the shores, the Mississippi River in Southern Minnesota is a wilderness of islands and backwaters that you could spend days, or even years, exploring. One guy in particular did just that, and he made sure that everyone else for generations to come could do the same thing.

Nice, huh? His name was John Latsch, and he was a grocer in Winona around the turn of the century. Known for his ever-present bow tie and his deep love for the Mississippi, Latsch acquired some 18,000 acres of river wilderness and donated it to governments in Minnesota and Wisconsin with the provision that it be open for public use. Forever.

This is what some of that land looks like:

Winona Mississippi River backwaters











The reason he did this is because Latsch loved to take a stack of newspapers and a jug of buttermilk in his tiny boat and find lonely spots along the river to stretch his legs and ponder the universe. One time, as the story goes, he pulled up on shore a few miles north of Winona as a storm set in, taking shelter under his canoe while he waited for it to pass. An angry farmer came along and told him he was trespassing, forcing him back onto the river for a soggy paddle home. So Latsch called a land broker and bought that farmer’s piece of the river. And then he bought more, and more, and more so that no one would ever be kicked off of private river land again.

It’s a cool story, and Winona owe’s a huge chunk of its Mississippi River greatness to John Latsch, so much so that we’ve dedicated a week to him. July 21-26 is John Lastch Week, and we are doing it up big with all manner of festivities surrounding the river. You can read all about it on the Winona County Historical Society’s website, but I want to tell you about something special, because we need your help.

On Saturday, July 26, at 1 p.m., Winona will try to set a world record for the number of people wearing bow ties in one place at one time. It’s a big number – at least 826 people if we are going to break the standing record. But we’ve got this, right? You can bring your own bow tie, or you can buy one from the Winona County History folks at Levee Park for a pittance of $5. But at 1 p.m., there needs to be 826 people there to put us in the history books. The folks at Visit Winona have been getting ready (and we wrangled Mayor Mark Peterson into our photo!):

John Latsch Week Winona











We need you. Let’s do this. If you’ve ever appreciated this:

winona jet skiing












Or this:

Winona River sunset 1












Or this:

Winona blue heron























…then you probably owe it to John Latsch. Let’s whip out those bow ties and say thanks by putting Winona’s progenitor of public access in the history books – I mean a different history book than the one he wrote here with his incredible donation that gives every water lover a reason to love Winona.

Hope to see you Saturday, and until next time, see you on the river :-)

Putting the Epic in Epicenter

Let’s face it, Winona is kind of the epicenter of everything that’s good about the Midwest. Sound like puffery? Not a bit. And let me tell you why…

I had this epiphany during a conversation with a smart guy I know named Andy, who also happens to be the executive director at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.We were talking about how Winona is close enough to Rochester and La Crosse to be considered sort of an added attraction for those places – how all our arts and scenery and recreation and innovation might be touted by those places as a handy nearby feature and how we could incorporate that in the marketing of Winona. Andy slapped me alongside the head and said perhaps the smartest thing I’ve ever heard another human being say: “It’s the other way around, stupid. Those places are an added feature for us.” OK – he didn’t really slap me in the head, and he didn’t call me stupid – but he turn my thinking upside down with an entirely different take on the identity of Winona.

He’s right. Winona has, for at least the last five decades or so, considered itself to be the cute little sister for bigger population centers around us, and we’re going to stop that madness right now. The premise is completely flawed, because it assumes volume of people alone make one place more substantial, more complete, more attractive than another. This is, of course, rubbish if you think about it in terms of the age-old quantity versus quality debate. Would you rather have five doughnut shops or one delicious morsel from Bloedow Bakery? Exactly.

We don’t have a million people, but Winona is the epicenter of goodness because of:

An astonishingly good arts scene

We are rocking the socks off of the Midwest with our national-caliber Great River Shakespeare Festival, the internationally acclaimed Minnesota Beethoven Festival, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum filled with works from greats like Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh — are you kidding me? Plus we have the Mid West Music Fest and the Frozen River Film Festival and Boats and Bluegrass – there is not another place in the Midwest where the arts have exploded like they have in Winona.

Jaw-droppingly beautiful (and recreatable) scenery

Yes, I made the word “recreatable” up I think, but it works. We have a big, gorgeous river capable of handling any kind of water pastime you want to throw at it, plus a couple sweet lakes, oodles of trout streams, and forest-studded bluffs that make getting outdoors – or even looking out the window – a joy. Enough said.

Innovation – as in: We make stuff

That’s right – Winona’s not just another pretty face. We might not talk about it much because we’re too busy gushing about ways to have fun, but this place is a hotbed of industry and innovation and has spawned some of the most influential companies in the country. What’s more, a staggering number of international players continue to be headquartered right here in little ol’ Winona, like Wenonah Canoe, Fastenal, J.R. Watkins, Peerless Chain, WinCraft, RTP, Ferrara Candy, National Chemicals, Thern… This list goes on for like 25 more companies, so I won’t list them all, but you get the idea. Cool stuff – stuff that’s changing the world a little – is coming out of Winona in droves.

Smarts: We teach people how to make stuff

There’s a whole lot of people getting their smart on here. We have two universities and a technical college preparing thousands and thousands of people to go out and create all that innovation and do all that other stuff that makes the world go round. Our abundance of higher education gives us a youthful vibe and an impressive think tank, and few cities our size have won the education lottery like we have.

On top of all that awesomeness, we have the perks of world-class medical care, shopping malls, and lots of diverse resources within 45 minutes of the center of our downtown. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it… kind of makes you want to cuddle up to Winona, right? Well you can – we’d love to have you, for a day, or for all your days. If you come, I’ll promise you this much: You absolutely won’t find any other place like it.

All roads lead to Winona...

All roads lead to Winona…

Spring Salvation

Spring has sprung, and if you are at all familiar with Winona’s annual event calendar, you know that means it is the start of a delightful whirlwind of events that most of us sit huddled over a fire and dream about all winter long.

OK, that’s a lie. Spring has NOT sprung quite yet – actually it’s kind of limping forward like it just lost a brawl with a mind-blowingly brutal winter and is still trying to stand upright. Winter was a mean foe this year, and though this cage match might not be over quite yet, we know eventually our flowers will bloom, our birds will sing, and our migrating blue herons, who didn’t get the memo, won’t be floating down the river on chunks of ice. (Yeah, it’s true – somebody sent me a picture last week.)

But back to the calendar. Turning the page on the month of April is the thing that warms our hearts better than a 60-degree day because it means the Mid West Music Fest is just a few weeks away (April 24-26), and our summer lineup of festivals is right around the bend. It practically makes me giddy: Tickets for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival have been flying out of the box office, and the Great River Shakespeare Festival just introduced another amazing season; Steamboat Days is lining up marching bands, and the Mid West Music Fest is about to fill venues all over town with more than a hundred performers and thousands of people. Cold schmold. We don’t care – people are skipping around the streets in their shirt sleeves because they’re so freaking excited about all the stuff that’s about to happen. OK, that’s a lie too – I haven’t actually seen anyone doing that.

What I love the most about all these things is that they are so huge and important on the entertainment landscape that they get the attention of media far, far from our sweet river town, and yet they are each unique to Winona – spawned from a conversation or two over a cup of coffee or a beer and germinated to the point that they bring nationally and internationally known performers here and thousands of patrons from far and wide. Just like the blue herons migrate here, so too do the people who hear a little something about this crazy, rocking entertainment town, and it’s awfully cool to be sitting on the inside watching it happen.

So what is it about Winona that makes interesting little seeds of ideas grow into gigantic oaks of events? I don’t know. Maybe it’s that we are a stone’s throw from so many major metro areas that a jaunt to Winona for the weekend is easy. It’s possible that people from all over appreciate the fact, however surprising, that Winona is rolling out entertainment that you’d never find outside of a metro area, and some that you can’t even find IN the Midwest’s metros. Perhaps it’s that Winona continues to be filled with the same kind of entrepreneurial movers and shakers who stepped off of river boats 150 years ago and made this town real. Maybe it’s something in the water – we are rimmed by the Mighty Mississippi after all.  All I know is that I sincerely spend the winter dreaming about the things about to happen, and if this all has something to do with the water, then I definitely drank the Kool-Aid. You should try it – it’s delicious, especially cold. Find your own cup of it here and get planning:

Mid West Music Fest, from April 24-26, fills Winona with music from all genres thanks to 100 different performances.

Mid West Music Fest, from April 24-26, fills Winona with thousands of visitors who come for music from all genres in 100 different performances.

For My Foodies~

Let’s face it: We all like food. We eat it all the time, and we prefer for it to be good. But when traveling, eating used to mean driving around a town until you saw a place that seemed to be a restaurant, and trying to judge from the style of the sign and how many cars were outside whether it would be a place that would meet your culinary expectations, or at least not poison you. It was like food roulette – sometimes you discovered greatness, and sometimes you wished afterwards you’d just thrown your money down the sewer drain.

Well God bless the Internet. And God bless Foodies. Here in Winona, we love you both.

Define Foodies, you say? OK. The tourism industry likes to call them “culinary travelers”, a rather aristocratic-sounding title that conjures images of pâté-spreading, wine-swishing food critics searching the land for the perfect bonne bouche. But you know who you really are… You are the folks who, when visiting a town, will drive past the chain restaurants in search of the Holy Grail: something uniquely local with a quirky burger, an interesting beer lineup, a famously delicious piece of chocolate cake, or maybe even pâté, as long as it was masterminded by the guy cooking on the other side of the wall and not some test kitchen.

Not only have Foodies created some Ah-Mazing eateries tucked into unexpected nooks and crannies all over the place, but when other Foodies find those spots, they write all over the Internet about it. Driven by an insatiable craving for something authentic, Foodies will drive farther and spend more for a great meal, and they will talk about their discovery down to the smallest detail so the next poor soul looking for good eats need only check review sites on the Web to pull back the curtain on a restaurant and see what they will find inside.

Foodies, or, ahem, culinary travelers, don’t necessarily choose a destination based on what restaurants are there, but they definitely are scouring the web for local gems wherever they go.

Here in Winona, we say scour away. This town is chock full of deliciousness – things you will absolutely never eat anywhere else – and you’d have to come back over and over again to taste it all.  Or you could eat straight from the time you arrive to the time you leave, but I don’t recommend it because, well, it will make you sick.

By no means an exhaustive list, and in no particular order, here are some of the places you must add to your bucket list of culinary adventures:

Signatures/The Grill: On one side it’s a stylish grill serving up gourmet comfort food (lobster mac and cheese – crazy good), and on the other side it’s a swanky restaurant serving an epicurean delight of gourmet fare (mostly sourced locally) that has left those pâté-nibbling, wine-swirling food critics swooning. And the wine list will knock your socks off.

The Boat House: This, my friends, is a Foodie adventure. Chef Doug dreams up food like Whitman dreamed up poetry, and the changing menu, cool vibe, and hot toddies will keep you coming back again and again. The beautifully decadent breakfast poutine (house cut fries topped with homemade sausage gravy, thick cut bacon, cheese curds, sour cream, scallions and two fried eggs) will make you weep.

Lakeview Drive Inn: Since 1938, these folks have been serving us homemade root beer that is to die for. Even better, a carhop will bring it to your car window in one of those huge, frosted mugs that weighs about as much as a dying sun. Trust me – if you even hold a tiny place in your heart for root beer, you want a glass of this.

Rubios Food Truck: I know what you’re thinking – a food truck? But I’m telling you, if you are in the vicinity of downtown on any given night and see one of these big beasts out, treat yourself to some of the most delicious walking Mexican food you’ll ever have. Beef and rice burrito – killer.

Blue Heron Coffee House: A bright, beautiful little spot with unique breakfast and lunch items, organic ingredients, and a chill vibe. Everyone raves about the breakfast frittatas (with olives – yum), but I’ve seriously even heard people rave about the oatmeal. If you forgot something to read, no problem – there is a bookstore attached that’s fun to browse.

Bloedow Bakery: The best bakery in Minnesota, and we’re not just saying that. Saveur Magazine said it. So did Twin Cities CBS-affiliate WCCO. And Country Living. And every person who’s ever put one of their donuts in their mouth. I don’t know what kind of magic they put in these things, but a maple long john is a transformative experience.

Poot’s Sports Palace: It is the smallest bar you’ve ever been in, and it’s hidden on a side street that you will have to use GPS to find – but this place makes a Pootza (like a pizza, only better) unlike anything you’ve ever had. Done from scratch right in front of you, these little delights come in all kinds of varieties (love, love love the buffalo chicken), or they’ll let you invent one on the spot from whatever ingredients they have. This is without a doubt one of Winona’s best kept secrets.

Oh – there’s more… hometown brewpubs and seriously good Thai, Chinese, and Mexican, charming little coffee shops and interesting sandwich places – you can browse them all on the


You could while away a whole day in the Blue Heron Coffee Shop.

You could while away a whole day in the Blue Heron Coffee Shop.

Some like it frozen

You have to admit – it’s kind of amusing that the thing making Winona (and the rest of Minnesota) famous right now is the fact that we can survive. In case you haven’t heard, it’s been a little cool in these parts lately. OK, that’s kind of a lie. Saying it’s been “a little cool” is like saying a Bengal tiger is a little kitty, or Charles Manson is a little crazy. It’s been freakishly cold – the kind of frigidity that makes your lungs to collapse when you breathe in and makes you cry bitter tears, which promptly freeze your eyes shut.

Yeah, I know, great sell job. But hear me out~

First, I’d just like to point out that Winona is like the Miami of Minnesota – down here in the Southeastern corner we have the undisputed warmest climate in the state. On especially cold winter days, that fact warms our hearts just a little.

And the reality is that, with the exception of the occasional hellish polar vortex, winters in Winona are mild (when compared to the rest of Minnesota, not, say, Tampa). We have rocking trails and a big, frozen river to play on, and though I know it sounds incomprehensible to people from warmer climates, people here actually enjoy being outdoors in the winter. As my Swedish grandmother born and raised in Minnesota would say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Ha.

But let’s face it – 15 degrees below zero isn’t ideal for outdoor fun. However, if you only know one thing about Winona, know this: We are exceptionally good at finding ways to entertain ourselves. Winter is no exception. Cold? So what. Throw up a big tent on the levee, fill it with some heaters, music all day, food and a little beer and a lot of hot chocolate – and let ‘er rip. Here’s what the one in December looked like, complete with Santa and some caroling:


We laugh in the face of cold weather and turn it into awesomeness.You have a chance to get in on some of that coming up very soon…

Of course, I am talking about the Frozen River Film Festival from January 22nd to the 26th. If you think you’re not a “film festival type,” I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. The festival does feature a lineup of some 40 documentaries – some so big they’ve been to gigantic film festivals around the world. The films span every genre, from animated shorts for children to current event topics for big people. Films that are touching, funny, provocative, and just plain entertaining roll for four glorious days here, but that’s not all. Music, food, and people selling their wares, workshops, stuff for kids – it all creates such a rich experience at an event that embraces winter in Winona, celebrates it. Come embrace it with us — I’m going to help you do it for free.

That’s right folks – it’s a blog contest! I’m going to give away two bundles of tickets – each with six tickets in it – that can be used for any of the films (or film sets if the films are shorts), presentations or workshops at the Frozen River Film Festival. Each bundle is a $48 value – and they are so, so easy to win.

Here’s how you enter: Look at the list of 2014 films at, and post in the comments section on this blog any one film you’d like to see. I will draw two winners on Friday, January 17, at noon, and I’ll announce them through this blog and Facebook. You can enter once a day. You can even enter the same film once a day, but I promise, there is more than one film you’ll want to see.

I’ll go first – I want to see The Fabulous Ice Age, because it’s a story about Minnesota and the polar vortex. I’m kidding – it’s about ice skaters, but it sounds interesting. Your turn – go!

Frozen, but oh so pretty...

Frozen, but oh so pretty…







The Winona Factor

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

Winona storefronts capture the spirit of the season




A fall walk on the wild side

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

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

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

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.

Winona from bluffs

If you want to make the hike to the top, the view definitely rewards you

Wacky, wild, wonderous Winona

Single Speed USA attracted a host of unconventional athletes to Winona's bluffs

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

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 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

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: Download them and map out your own bluff country adventure :-)

The race featured a Le Mans-style start to get the blood flowing

The race featured a Le Mans-style start to get the blood flowing



Cynthya Porter

Cynthya Porter

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