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Hip in the heartland

Minneapolis and St. Paul - the Cities, to those in the know - have moved Midwestern charm into the new millennium. Herring sushi, anyone?


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

Minneapolis and St. Paul -- the Cities, to those in the know -- have moved Midwestern charm into the new millennium. Herring sushi, anyone?

MINNEAPOLIS -- Just when you think you have Minnesota figured out, it slips away from you -- like a sunfish flipping out of your rowboat.

To people my age who grew up there, the state could be summarized as taciturn Lutheran elders and Spam casserole. To the nation at large, we were known mostly for cold weather. We were indistinguishable from Iowa and the Dakotas -- except that we had Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who, truth be told, embarrassed us because he was just so . . . chatty.

Then Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded a world-renowned theater there, Mary Tyler Moore set her TV program there (a bronze statue of the perky career girl is now planned), the Twins went to the World Series, and Garrison Keillor built a national radio program around us. National magazines talked up Minneapolis as a city that really worked.

In nearby Bloomington, a developer built the Mall of America, which inexplicably drew shoppers and gawkers from around the world. Formerly merely cold, now we were cool, sophisticated, enviable.

And then, Minnesota elected Jesse Ventura governor.

The one constant is the water. In Minnesota, when life seems too much to ponder you head for the lake. Actually, Minnesota has more than the 10,000 lakes the license plate claims, but we would not want people to think we had big heads.

Just as Texans buy ranches when they get a few dollars together, Minnesotans build lake cabins. We spend our summer Saturdays drowning worms, swatting deer flies and cannonballing off the pier, exclaiming when we return, sputtering, to the surface, "Uffdah! That's cold."

Uffdah is a multi-purpose regionalism connoting dismay, surprise or sensory overload. It is particularly useful in commenting on the weather, the Vikings or recent gubernatorial pronouncements. Or, in the case of my wife, Janice, and myself, in deciding which lakes to visit during our most recent trip.

But we did not even have to leave "the Cities" (the collective noun for Minneapolis and St. Paul) to enjoy a lake. We just went out Lake Street -- get it? -- to Lake Calhoun on a breezy Sunday morning. Sailboats slipped along against the downtown skyline, migrating birds lowered their flaps for landing, and now and then a show-off fish noisily broke the surface of the water.

And the stress washed right out of our bodies.

Joggers and cyclists circled the lake; the path around the lake not only is paved but is also divided into lanes like a miniature parkway and has roses growing in the median strip.

You can rent a canoe and navigate from Calhoun via a channel to Lake of the Isles (the one Mary Richards used to walk along in the TV-show credits), then to Cedar Lake.

Catch some rays back at Calhoun Beach (yes, a beach in Minnesota), or go to a concert at nearby Lake Harriet's band shell.

The big-time lake, though, is out in the southwest suburbs. Lake Minnetonka is full of picturesque coves and inlets and surrounded by expensive homes. It is a real, functioning lake from which anglers pull sunfish and bass, notwithstanding cabin cruiser traffic.

The attraction of fishing may be a generational thing, however: Last year the state felt compelled to create special "fish for free (no license) if you're with a kid" weekends, to encourage bonding over the bait bucket.

There probably was bonding going on during our visit to Minnetonka, but people were too intent on their fishing to mention it. These weren't fancy pants fly fishers looking for trophies; they were just folks thinking of supper -- which is what one calls the evening meal in Minnesota.

While they threw a lot of the catch back as undersized ("Aww, keep it, Donny: You can use it in the parking meter"), much of it likely made it to local tables that night.

Life in the Cities inevitably involves the Mississippi, as well. The river comes down from mallard and muskrat country, forms the eastern edge to downtown Minneapolis, then cuts east and becomes the boundary with St. Paul. Some students at the University of Minnesota have classes on either side of it and cross it through an enclosed walkway (much appreciated during winter semesters).

We found a good place from which to experience the river: in the middle of it.

The Nicollet Island Inn is a little too big to be a B&B (and beside, they serve supper), but a little too small to be a hotel. Long ago -- and before a thorough face-lift -- it was a Salvation Army shelter. Now it is a quiet shelter from busy, workaday Minneapolis.

Janice and I strolled under the trees around the small island and across the bridges that link it to downtown and the old St. Anthony area. You could ride a bike down the scenic boulevard on the east bank of the river, into St. Paul, past the University of St. Thomas, then cross over to Minnehaha Park and pedal back on West River Parkway.

Catch your breath at one of the overlooks and contemplate the occasional river traffic. (The river is navigable this far from New Orleans, courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers and a series of locks and dams.)

I recalled much of my ninth-grade Minnesota history during a pleasant afternoon at St. Anthony Falls. Young guides from the state historical society walked us out to the edge of the falls and helped us visualize what the area must have looked like when it first was settled.

The city of Minneapolis was born here -- as Minneapolis on the west side and St. Anthony on the east. The west siders were quicker to exploit the natural power of the falls for grain and lumber milling. The towering grain elevators were the city's first skyscrapers, and they remain, even though the milling now is done elsewhere.

Back on what once was Main Street of old St. Anthony, we enjoyed the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices -- machines that were supposed to enlarge whatever was too small, reduce whatever was too big, grow hair on whatever was too bald or otherwise cure whatever ailed you. But they didn't.

At Janice's urging, I sat under the spikey hood of the phrenology machine while it assessed my supposed mental strengths and failings based on the shape of my head. (According to its print-out, I am deficient in "acquisitiveness" and "should cultivate a desire for possessions and a sense of material values.")

Later, while I catnapped at the inn, Janice hiked back to the falls and across the Stone Arch Bridge, an old railroad span constructed in the style of a Roman aqueduct. The tracks are gone now, and it makes for a dramatic walk toward downtown.

She reports that there were performance artists doing a mime routine on a sandbar below the falls. Typical of the Minnesota I remember, no one was paying any attention.

Minneapolis has other, more traditional, cultural opportunities, although few have anything to compare with the phrenology machine.

Right by the river is the University's new Weisman Art Museum, a Frank Gehry creation in stainless steel that houses a contemporary art collection. On the other side of downtown is the Walker Art Center, another museum of contemporary art, with its famous giant spoon-and-cherry in the sculpture garden.

And the American Swedish Institute's South Minneapolis mansion reminds Minnesotans of their Scandinavian heritage. The Cities also have enough live theater to keep folks busy a long time, from the classics at the Guthrie, to experimental drama at the University of Minnesota, to Broadway and walleyed pike at the Old Log dinner theatre.

The Minneapolis music scene would astound any returning baby boomer who last saw the state in the late '50s. True, Bob Dylan lived there then, but he couldn't wait to get out. The biggest star was a polka band leader named, so help me, Whoopee John Wilfahrt.

Today Minneapolis is known as a proving ground for music trends, including the innovations of Prince -- the artist formerly known as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. (At least Whoopee John never labeled himself "the Artist Formerly Known as Wilfahrt.")

When the late Charles Kuralt used to do his CBS On the Road pieces, it seemed that every string collector and bee-beard wearer that he featured was a Minnesota resident.

Maybe Minnesotans can revel in their quirks because, not to be smug, they are confident deep down that they really do have it together on the things that matter. So when a movie such as Fargo comes out and makes fun of their milk-house accents, they can shrug and say, "Now, that was different."

Maybe that's why Aquavit, a nouvelle Swedish-American restaurant with a Michelin two-star Ethiopian chef, can celebrate "herring week" and feature delicate sushi and sashimi crafted from the fish that traditionally occupies the shelves next to the pickled pigs' feet.

The restaurant's namesake Swedish liquor is served in frozen glasses and offered in multi-colored flights spotlighting infusions of caraway or fennel or star anise and juniper berry. It's a long way from sharing swigs of peppermint schnapps at the side of the feed lot.

And maybe that's why they can afford to elect a pro wrestler to the highest office in the state. Minnesota gave the world Northwest Airlines and Target discount stores, Cheerios and Scotch tape, Gene McCarthy and Poppin' Fresh. So why not do something that the rest of the world thinks is a little nuts?

And when nobody is looking, you can laugh to yourself. And then go fishing.

* * *

Freelance writer Jerry Haines returned to his native state from his home in Arlington, Va.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Typical round-trip airfare from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area is about $310. Northwest is the carrier with the most service to Minneapolis.

GETTING AROUND: Although the Cities share an extensive bus system, the lakes and riverside spots are reached best by car. But interstate highways and the Mississippi (both obviously designed by non-Minnesotans) sometimes cut through in undisciplined ways, interrupting streets and frustrating travel.

The area has a number of poorly designed highway interchanges that place exiting traffic squarely in the path of cars trying to enter. Planners were more thoughtful of travelers on foot, as most of the buildings in downtown Minneapolis are linked by "skywalks," enclosed, second-floor walkways. You can walk for five miles without setting foot outside.

STAYING THERE: The area has dozens of major chain hotels, particularly downtown and near the Mall of America in Bloomington. Here are two slightly out of the ordinary lodgings:

Nicollet Island Inn, 95 Merriam St., Minneapolis; $130 to $170, call (612) 331-1800.

Hotel Sofitel, 5601 W 78th St., Bloomington, (952) 835-1900. French charm meets Midwestern practicality -- bon jour, ya betcha; $189 and up, but we caught a much lower weekend special.

EATING THERE: Aquavit, IDS Center, 80 S Eighth St., Minneapolis, (612) 343-3333. (Herring Week was June 11-16 this year.) Nouvelle American with Scandinavian influence; entrees $22 to $29; try the $68 tasting menu.

D'Amico Cucina, Butler Square, 100 N Sixth St., Minneapolis, (612) 338-2401. Contemporary Italian; entrees $23 to $32.

Goodfellow's, City Center, Nicollet Mall at S Seventh St., Minneapolis, (612) 332-4800. Regional, seasonal American; extensive wine cellar; entrees $25 to $35.

Nicollet Island Inn. More food from the heartland; entrees $20 to $30.

Al's Breakfast, 413 14th Ave. SE, Minneapolis. University of Minnesota-area diner serving only breakfast, to just 14 lucky customers at a time; typical breakfast $8.

WHAT TO DO: Minneapolis has 22 lakes within its boundaries. The most accessible -- Calhoun, Cedar, Harriet, Lake of the Isles -- are in the southwest corner of the city, near its increasingly hip "uptown" district.

Minnetonka is about a 15-minute drive further west.

The Mississippi is hard to miss, but it is most easily viewed along the old Main Street of what once was St. Anthony and, downstream, from the University of Minnesota along boulevards on either bank.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, toll-free at 1-888-676-6757; the Web site is

Whoopee John's recordings available through Really.

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