Backpack Mister and I recently took a leisure trip aboard Amtrak from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Red Wing, Minnesota. Although there is only one Amtrak train per day going each direction, the timetable works for a weekend getaway to beautiful Red Wing.
The train tracks curl lazily along the Mississippi River most of the trip, but in autumn, the westward-bound train travels to Red Wing after nightfall, so bring a deck of cards and a bottle of wine to pass the time with your travel companion.
Knowing it was peak color in mid-to-late October, when leisure travelers are likely to flock to the scenic town of Red Wing to soak in nature’s display, I booked our stay at the historic St. James Hotel well in advance.
The Amtrak train station in Red Wing is conveniently located about a block from the St. James Hotel. So after a relaxing two-hour ride, a passenger can simply grab her rollerbag, trek up the hill and check into her room, within minutes of arrival.
I’d made special arrangements to surprise Backpack Mister.
The Mister and I were focused on relaxing, so I didn’t take a lot of pictures during our stay. But I can tell you the St. James is perfectly located in downtown Red Wing, which is adorable. Quaint shops line the streets and there are several delicious restaurants within walking distance.
After our arrival, we were famished, but wanted to stay in the cozy hotel, rather than wandering about in the damp cold. So we escaped to one of several dining options inside the hotel: Jimmy’s Pub. The room was packed and a live band kept things lively. The food was delicious too. I had the chocolate martini and the beef tips with seared tenderloin, onion, shiitake mushroom, blue cheese and a grilled crouton. Although listed as an appetizer, it was a perfect portion for a light meal. I can’t remember what the Mister ate, I was too enamored with my choice. I still dream about it.
When we’d had our fill of all good things at Jimmy’s, we retired to our historic room. Our enormous whirlpool bath was calling.
We spent the weekend walking the spooky halls of the hotel and exploring Red Wing, strolling her charming streets, stopping to shop and eat whenever necessary. Besides the wonderful options at the St. James, there were several highlights downtown which I’d recommend.
We tucked in to The Staghead restaurant for lunch – it was the perfect antidote to the fall chill. Mister ordered the brandade, which was unbelievably delicious and unexpected: salt cod, potatoes, parmesan cheese and white truffle oil. It was an entirely new dish to us, and totally blew our minds.
I ordered the mussels with saffron broth and couscous. The flavor was great, but I hit on some grit, which I know can be challenging to remove. I didn’t complain, but unprompted, staff mentioned they’d recently sourced their mussels from a new provider and the mussels were smaller in size, so perhaps the new supply was trickier to clean than usual.
As we enjoyed our meals a woman next to us asked us how we liked it. “Isn’t it amazing?!” she gushed. We agreed. “The chef is my son.” Sitting beside a proud mother as we ate warmed us even more, and made the experience unforgettable.
Red Wing Brewery
Had the weather not been unseasonably brisk and damp, the walk to Red Wing Brewery from the St. James Hotel would have been easy, albeit a bit odd strolling past the grain elevator and dodging semi-truck traffic. Surely there must be another way. If there is, we couldn’t find it.
We misjudged the Red Wing Brewery, assuming it was only a spot for a pint, based on the name. If we hadn’t been full, I would have happily dug into one of the luscious-looking pizzas – so save room, you’ll be glad you did. There wasn’t an open seat in the house.
Located in the stone-walled lower-level of the St. James, The Port feels like you’re dining in a castle basement, a nice one at that. The food is beautifully prepared and presented and the service is wonderful. It was an elegant fine dining experience, although the presence of children at a nearby table was incongruous and a distraction from our otherwise peaceful meal.
I ordered the enormous, tender lamb shank and the Mister got the tenderloin. There was so much food, and it was so delicious, we were relieved to roll ourselves upstairs to our bedroom and collapse into a blissful food coma.
The next morning, we called ahead and found out our train was delayed. Good news! It allowed us sufficient time to breakfast at The Veranda, which overlooks the Mississippi River and has outdoor patio seating. The weather was too chilly for us to take in the colors of fall from an outdoor seat, but the large windows in the restaurant were more than sufficient for us to enjoy the season’s last gasp.
Infused with coffee and eggs benedict, we tugged our rollerbags down the hill, strolled the park and took in a display of carved pumpkins.
Then fully sated, rested and excited for the scenic ride home, we boarded Amtrak. With the whistle of the train and the ring of the conductor’s voice, “All Aboard!” we traveled alongside Old Man River on the winding tracks toward home.
Red Wing: Getting There
Amtrak departs from the La Crosse train station for Red Wing at about 7:12 p.m. Our round-trip tickets cost only $30 each. The journey takes about two hours each way, and the return trip happens in the morning. Grab a seat in the observation car on the way home and enjoy the views of the Mississippi River Valley. It’s a magical experience, no matter what the season.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.wordpress.com.