Rock on, Tourism

Sixty five million dollars. That, friends, is a big chunk of change.

It’s also how much tourists spent in Winona County in one year, and to those people I just want to say, on behalf of the 2,100 people you gave jobs to, you rock.

Actually, that figure is from 2008, because it takes a lot of time to add up those cheeseburgers, show tickets and postcards. But with the economy looking perky and Winona looking better than ever, I think 2010 is going to make $65 million look like chump change.

It’s National Tourism and Travel Week, and so in honor of celebrating all things tourism I’d like to submit my top ten reasons why Winona is the best place in the Midwest (and no, I’m not kidding) to spend a few days off in:

1. Small city, big drama. It’s the mantra of the Great River Shakespeare Festival and it’s right on the money. GRSF brings in some of the finest Shakespearean actors in the country for a summer festival that rivals theater in any metropolitan market. Bonus, the actors and producers and directors and crew live here all summer and infuse the town with their artsy coolness, and frankly, they are fun to have around.

2. Art, art and more art. The Blue Heron Gallery and a new gallery opened by Lyon Smith downtown serve up beautiful stuff from local artists, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum gives museums in Minneapolis and Chicago a run for their money. If you doubt me, go in there sometime and stand three feet from Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh – these people aren’t kidding around. Bonus, on Tuesdays you can sit out on the patio that looks over the Mississippi River with a glass of wine for Mississippi Sippin’ – the absolute coolest happy hour anywhere.

3. Bike, hike and wander. Winona is nestled right up to the bluffs – towering rock faces unlike anywhere else in Minnesota. Trails snake through the hardwood forests on them and you can serenely wander to your heart’s content. Adventurous souls bring their mountain bikes for even some of the really steep trails, and they say it’s a blast, but I’ve never tried it because frankly I’m fond of having all my front teeth and the thought of plummeting down a trail on a bike scares the heck out of me. But if you like that kind of thing, we’ve got it going on.

4. Water. We’ve got lots of it. The Mississippi River along this stretch is gentle and beautiful, perfect for pleasure boating and getting your feet wet on sandbars. Kayakers love our maze of backwaters with preening egrets and fields of waterlilies. If you prefer something smaller we have two lakes – well actually one lake with a road that divides it – called Lake Winona. It’s all a big walking trail with a huge park, appropriately called Lake Park, with a band shell and playgrounds and a rose garden and a veterans memorial and disc golf courses… you could spend all day here. In fact, I often do. Don’t tell my boss.

5. ICE CREAM. The historic Lakeview Drive In sits right next to Lake Park, with homemade root beer floats and car hops and everything. It’s awesome.

6. Cheap beer. Okay, this one isn’t really all about beer, but I had to get your attention. Seriously though, a big ol’ glass of micro-brewed beer is still about $3 in Winona. We have lots of casual eateries serving it up, along with fabulous burgers and pizzas and local specialties — and visitors always make me laugh because when they see the tab they think the server forgot to put something on it. No, it really is that inexpensive, but thanks for being so honest.

7. Chef Doug. When a burger won’t do it, we have Signatures, a gorgeous restaurant on The Bridges golf course. Chef Doug makes what I like to call “pretty food” — you know, the kind that’s fun to look at AND eat. It’s elegant. It’s genteel. It’s delish. It has a wine selection that will make wine lovers weep. And the view is killer.

8. Golf, of course. The Bridges is one of three publicly accessible courses around Winona, and I confess it’s the one I play the least because I get stage fright when I see the people looking out the windows of the restaurant at me pretending I know how to play. Kidding. Kind of. It’s a challenging course, one of the older ones in Minnesota. Westfield Golf Club sits right in town, and Westfield was there before most of Winona was there too. Cedar Valley has 27 scenic holes about six miles south of town, along with a nice restaurant that looks out over the island green of the 18th hole. If you’re coming to town, bring your clubs. I’ve played all over the state, and I’m not kidding when I say the golf here is as good as anywhere.

9. History. Winona is cool, but it’s cooler when you know about its past. Staggeringly rich lumber barons, bootlegging, an old red light district and an ornate downtown that has stayed surprisingly intact — Winona has a pretty interesting story that you can learn about from our friends at the Winona County Historical Society. There’s even a walking tour you can take, and a great museum you can while away hours in.

10. Location, location, location. Find me one other place that has everything Winona offers that you can be standing in the middle of two hours after you leave St. Paul, three and a half hours after you leave Des Moines,  four hours after you leave Milwaukee or five hours after you leave Chicago. This is it, folks. The best of everything a river town has to offer all in one place and less than $30 in gas to get here. Okay, well I don’t know what kind of car you drive, but you know what I mean. Look at it like this: You could visit four different towns and two metropolitan cities to find all of the things Winona has to offer, or you could just come here. I think we both know what the answer is 🙂

A lone fisherman on a dock on Lake Winona

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