Locals Know Best: Fargo, North Dakota
If you’re a student of American trivia, you might know that Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous town, which sits on the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, is named for William Fargo, the founder of the Wells Fargo Express Company. Or you might know that it was referred to as the “Gateway to the West” once the Northern Pacific Railroad was up and running through the area. Or that it was essentially rebuilt after a massive fire decimated 31 downtown blocks in 1893. But chances are everything you know about Fargo you owe to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 kooky crime drama (and present FX series of the same name) gave the town pop culture street cred. Today, Fargo is an energetic hub of creativity with a youthful vibe. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked it number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the US. To get the lowdown the town, we checked in with Alicia Underlee Nelson, who curates Prairiestylefile.com, a site that focuses on what's unique and local in the upper Midwest and Canada's prairie provinces. She's also the author of “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History.” She grew up about 45 minutes away and just moved back after 12 years in Minneapolis. She’s seen the difference the relatively few years can make.
ARTS & CRAFTS
Fargo’s amazingly well-preserved downtown has undergone changes in the past few years, but none of them have impinged on its historic integrity. Where people once went there for basic shopping needs, it’s evolved into an arts and culture district. The Plains Museum is a major local art institution, what with its collection of 20th and 21st century works. But Alicia always tells people to hit the various galleries when they come to town. Gallery 4, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest coops in town, and the sweeping Ecce Gallery have great openings each month, Alicia notes. Translation? Free party. Both feature regional artists and bill themselves as springboards for new talent. But art here is not constrained to the confines of four walls. Or passive viewing, for that matter. Anyone who has chalk or pastels or spray paint can make his mark on the public art wall, a blast of color tucked away in an alley. “Basically, there are very few rules,” Alicia says about it.
There’s a longstanding local pride in time-honored crafts here, too.
“North Dakota is not pretentious at all. We’re super-open and welcoming and friendly. There’s a strong tradition of craftsmanship here. A lot of people quilt and paint and make their own furniture. There’s a real appreciation for people who make art,” she says. But if classics crafts aren’t your thing, she’ll point you to Unglued, a shop where you can pick up any and all kinds of modern indie crafts from region. Case in point: upcycled bowties by local artist Ashley N. Dedan, who makes accessories with clothing scraps under the label Aendee. Alicia also recommends downtown institution Zandbroz, a mashup of a bookstore, a variety shop, and jewelry purveyor. Browsing around here might seem akin to poking around a museum of curios. Or you could pick up some local goodies at Sweet Dreams Confections. Go for the homemade fudge, gelato, and sodas, stay for the from-scratch soup and salad at the shop's cozy, chill coffee bar.
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Maybe the Coen brothers, who are known for their wacky, if often dark, sense of humor, were drawn to Fargo for its quirk factor, and there are indeed a few unusual places to visit. Alicia calls out Scheels, an outpost of a national sporting goods chain, but this locale features an indoor ferris wheel, shooting games, and--wait for it….. statues of US presidents.
“You can go for a ferris wheel ride in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t think it if you were going in to buy basketball shorts, but you can. It’s a strange place,” she said, noting that you might spot a bride and groom getting their wedding photos taken there. It’s also the place to go for North Dakota State University gear. The team plays across the street in the Fargodome, but regardless of whether you’re a football fan, if you’re in town during a weekend game, make sure to hit the tailgate party. “It’s seriously one of the best parties in town. There’s a marching band and free games. Plenty of people don’t go to games, they just go to hang out.”
NOW THEY’RE COOKING
The creative vibe shines through in the restaurants here, too. Rhombus Guys Pizza might throw you for a loop if you go in expecting you basic average pie. Among their extensive veggie pie options is the tater tots hot dish pizza, which Alicia swears is better than a plate of perfectly fried tater tots. Its upstairs patio is another reason it’s worth visiting. Locals here are obsessed with their patios in the warmer months, which Alicia attributes to the winters being treacherous. Blackbird sits on the slightly less eccentric side, offering wood-fired pizzas that are locally minded down to the flour. (“The guy’s obsessed with dough,” Alicia says.)
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For something a bit more high-end, Mezzaluna comes highly recommended. But despite its fine dining appeal, the restaurant also offers excellent late-night happy hour regularly and a midnight brunch on occasion in the colder months. “They announce it online, and it’s worth stalking their website for when they announce it.”
Speaking of late-night, no matter how fun it is to get caught up in the hype of trendy restaurants, diners remain a beloved here. Krolls Diner, an outpost of a small chain, is a retro dining car where you can kick back in a sparkly booth and order classic diner grub or German staples, like the beloved knoefla soup. The fact that its website is www.sitdownandeat.com should cue you in to the light humored attitude of this joint and its heavy food. German food is also the star at Wurst Bier Hall, which has tons of beers on tap and communal tables.
When your sweet tooth gets the best of you, the best dessert in town are found at Sandy's Donuts, which has two locations in town.
“Everyone says their own donut place is the best, but this really is,” Alicia declares. “Just get there early,” she advises. The flavors rotate all the time and include special creations for game days and holidays. There’s also an impressive lunch menu of salads and hot and cold sandwiches at the downtown location. And best of all, each meal comes with a free donut.
In summer 2017, Alicia published her book "North Dakota Beer," so she is intimately acquainted with craft brewers in her hometown and beyond. For an understanding of what’s become a strong craft beer scene in North Dakota, you’ll want to pay a visit to Fargo Brewing Company, the first in town. Located about a 10 minute walk north of downtown, it remains a local favorite, drawing people not only for the excellent beer, but also for the food trucks, the chill industrial vibe, and frequent tasting events. Then later, in 2016, they opened Fargo Brewing Company Ale House in South Fargo where they serve food designed to pair with their brews as well as some quirky bites that only true suds lovers could dream up. Case in point: an ice cream sandwich with the cookie part made with spent grains from the brewery.
Drekker Brewing, located right downtown, has a more polished appearance. Alicia recommends taking their grain-to-glass tour, not least because all the proceeds go to charity. The brewers’ interest in artistry extends far beyond beer. Local art adorns the walls in the taproom as well as their packaging. (One of Alicia’s favorite local artists, Punchgut, created the dynamic graffiti-style cans for the brewers.) They also host live music each weekend, game nights, and late-night craft fairs. Needless to say, it’s a lively hangout. And although they only have a small snacks menu, you can plan to stay for a while since they encourage ordering from outside restaurants.
Kilstone Brewing is less flashy and more tucked away in a low-profile space in an industrial near the interstate highway. Once you’re inside, though, Alicia says it’s really accessible and, what’s more, "they rock bingo," she declares.
Speaking of tucked away, if cocktails are more your speed, The Boiler Room is a chill hotspot that draws revelers for its craft cocktails and creative American fare. The basement locale, which you enter through a back alley, also offers cocktail classes.
Get to Know: Indianola, MS, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Indianola, Mississippi, is no. 10 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Asbury Park, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen; Muscle Shoals, Alabama has Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Indianola, Mississippi has blues maestro B.B. King. It seems like the entire city, which is known as the Crown of the Delta and measures less than nine square miles, is a shrine to him. First and foremost, of course, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million institution that opened in 2008. In addition to being a tribute to an American legend, who’s buried in the museum’s memorial garden, the exhibits chronicle an entire history of the blues. If you’re not there during the museum’s B.B. King Homecoming Festival each May, there are plenty of clubs around the city, some of which are so old school they don’t even have websites, where you can see—rather, hear— King’s legacy in action. Even the streets here are named after him and Lucille, his guitar. But blues isn’t the only history to learn here. The town’s historic district, a showcase of Victorian era-style and Tudor Revival homes, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Like nearly every city in the South, Indianola delivers on meals to remember. The Blue Biscuit is easily one of the most visited joints, what with its high-profile location across from the museum, and Betty's Place is a classic, historic diner, but veer off the well-trod path and chances are high you’ll be richly rewarded.
Get to Know: Glens Falls, NY, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Glens Falls, NY, is no. 9 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. If you take the long view, the Adirondack region is essentially a mosaic of heart-stoppingly gorgeous small towns, but Glens Falls, situated at the southern edge of Adirondack Park in the Hudson River’s “Big Bend” and first settled in 1763, stands out for a few reasons. A magazine in 1944 christened it “Hometown, USA,” and the name has stuck ever since. Some of the area’s largest firms have their headquarters here, yet it’s just a quick trip to nearby caves and waterfalls, which novelist James Finimore Cooper extoled in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Today you can visit the cave, named for the writer, where Hawkeye and his cohorts tried to escape. Glens Falls, it seems, proves nature and commerce can coexist. It’s easy for music, art and theater lovers as well as history buffs to stay entertained here. The Adirondack Theatre Festival performers from Broadway and regional theater for six weeks each summer; the Crandall Public Library and Folklife Center features a chronicle of the region’s rich cultural heritage; the Glens Falls Symphony performs throughout the city; and the Hyde Collection Art Museum, set in an historic house, displays works by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, and other iconic virtuosos, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects. All that and it's close to all the offerings of the Catskills.
Get to Know: Milford, PA, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Milford, PA, is no. 8 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. A village since 1796, Milford is something of a time capsule today, not least because its streets are lined with Victorian homes and regal mansions designed by some of the best known 19th century architects. About $5.5 million has been invested to enhance and refurbish its heritage, so the streets, with their well-kept trees and restored streetlights and sidewalks, are almost an attraction unto themselves. Milford’s historic district includes 655 buildings. Four hundred are officially “historically significant.” And then there’s the Hotel Fauchere, a nearly 130-year-old institution that was rejuvenated in the mid aughts. Since Milford, which is part of the Poconos, is only 85 miles east of New York City, it became a posh summer resort town for the cultural and political illuminati in the early to mid 1900s, so the Fauchere’s guestbook includes Mae West, JFK, and Andrew Carnegie, to name a few. Things quieted down after WWII, but got lively again after 9/11 when urbanites sought quiet respite, but despite this influx of cityfolk, the dining scene retains its old-school charm. The Hotel Fauchere’s Delmonico Room, named for the legendary Manhattan restaurant where the hotel’s founder worked as a master chef before arriving here, upholds its tradition of classy American fare, but the chefs here jazz up the dishes with modern creativity. The Jive Bar and Lounge, which is so old school it doesn’t even have a website, has music on the weekends and the iconic Milford Diner, set in a charming colonial building, is everything you’d expect of a classic breakfast grub go-to. The Waterwheel Cafe Bakery & Bar, a local favorite since 1989, offers wholesome dishes with international twists. The nature is something to behold, too, what with its setting 100 feet above the Delaware River, which is ideal for kayaking as well as hiking along its shores. The Knob, a noted natural attraction, is a 400-foot bluff at the end of the town’s main boulevard, affords views of the warren of streams flowing in and around the town, forming a web of waterfalls as they go. The town is actually billed as the birthplace of the American Conservation Movement, as Theodore Roosevelt appointed its founder’s son as the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. The way the natural beauty here is woven into a cityscape makes for a solid microcosm of America itself.
Three-Day Weekend: Monterey, CA
Approaching Monterey from the north remains one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. My wife, Michele, and I spent part of our road trip honeymoon in Monterey years ago, and the trip down from San Francisco still gives me a thrill: I love everything about the drive - from the top of Monterey Bay near the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, southward through the agricultural vistas of the Salinas Valley, and into the bustling coastal city that inspired literary heroes of mine, including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck. We visited Monterey this past July, and it was all the more special because we’d been away for more than a decade and were essentially introducing both of our daughters, now 10 and 14, to this special community, bursting with local history, incredible seafood, local wines, and the opportunity to drink in the gorgeous Monterey Bay (mysteriously misty in the morning, shining bright turquoise at midday, achingly beautiful at sundown) at every turn. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING We were among the first guests to stay at the just-opened Wave Street Inn, conveniently located (as the name “Wave Street” might suggest) near the water. We loved waking up to views of Monterey Bay, the songs of seagulls, and the friendly, attentive hotel staff. The design of the hotel was so eye-popping, a playful homage to the industrial and maritime spaces in downtown Monterey, that my daughters, who don’t normally notice such details, were tossing around phrases like “exceptional interior design” and “imaginative architecture.” WHAT TO DO Our comfy, design-forward room was also just a few minutes’ walk from Cannery Row. In the first half of the 20th century, “Cannery Row” was a nickname for the hub of the sardine fishing and processing industries that made Monterey the busy, culturally diverse city that it remains to this day. Cannery Row is also the title of a hilarious, touching John Steinbeck novel, which famously opens, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…”. A far cry from those noisy, smelly cannery days, the street is now the epicenter of incredible fresh-from-the-bay seafood, local wine-tasting, unique shops, family-friendly activities, and exhibits devoted to the history of the region’s Native peoples, Spanish colonists, and 19th- and 20th-century settlers. Start with a walking tour along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, with stops along the water to savor what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The trail is easily walkable from Cannery Town down toward Fisherman’s Wharf or up toward neighboring Pacific Grove, offering frequent overlooks, unbeatable photo opps, and (often) sightings of sea lions, sea otters, and even porpoises and dolphins. If you find yourself staring a bit too long at the water, don’t worry - it really is that beautiful and, no, it can’t really be captured in photographs. You’ll carry the memory home with you, I promise. Of course, if you’re visiting with kids, they’re eventually going to ask you to stop staring at the bay and “do something.” Cannery Row obliges with a seemingly endless array of unique shopping - way beyond the customary T-shirts and sweatshirts you’ve come to expect in other destinations, Monterey’s shops offers quality arts and crafts, jewelry, and a great selection of literature and local history books too. For a deeper dive into local history, book a visit to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum. My younger daughter and I also enjoyed the Monterey Mirror Maze - we “escaped” the maze in minutes on our first try, then got more and more (pleasantly) lost in the maze on each subsequent visit. My only advice to newbies is to hold hands, but that’s (almost) always good advice, right? Getting out on the bay is more ambitious, and very rewarding. Adventures by the Sea offers the chance to explore the water and waterfront. Founded by local Frank Knight, the company has several locations around town where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, and surreys. I recommend that you book a kayak tour, in which a knowledgeable guide will take you out on the bay and talk about the wildlife and history, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting up-close-and-personal (safely) with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. You may find the sea lions lounging on the decks of fishing boats, as my wife and daughter did, while the seals love to hide in the seaweed and slyly peek out at visitors. Sea otters, on the other hand, may swim right toward your kayak or even swim under you. Of course you’ll want to take pictures: Adventures by the Sea supplies you with a “dry bag” to keep valuables like cameras and smartphones safe. You’ll also get a waterproof jacket and pants to wear over your clothes, but do consider kayaking barefoot or in water-safe shoes because your lower legs and feet will almost certainly get wet out there. Our visit to Monterey was very much centered around Cannery Row and the outdoor activities nearby, but if you’re in town long enough, you ought to consider a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former cannery and hosting sea life from the bay plus a variety of changing exhibits, presentations, and events. Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks north of Cannery Row, boasts some fine restaurants and a fun party scene in the evenings. And the entire Monterey Peninsula, including the quiet Victorian beauty of Pacific Grove, the drop-dead-gorgeous Carmel Valley, the town of Carmel, and the Pacific coastline to the south of Lovers’ Point, is the kind of place you may never want to leave. WHAT TO EAT Sipping from a flight of local Pinot Noirs while looking out at the impossible turquoise of the Monterey Bay in the late afternoon is just one reason to stop by A Taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro, on Cannery Row. In addition to the awesome wine tasting for grownups, the whole family loved passing small plates like crab dip, local artichokes, and hummus, and entrees like flatbread pizzas, New England clam chowder, and panini. Lunch at Lalla Oceanside Grill, including incredible calamari (“Wow! It’s bigger than back in New York!”) and fish tacos, was a pleasure not only for the food but also for the sleek mid-century modern decor inside and the bayside views out the window. When visiting Monterey, resistance to Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is futile. By all means go, sit down, and indulge in one of the shop’s yes-it’s-too-big-and-yes-you’re-going-to-finish-it-anyway treats, towering ice cream concoctions named for Cali landmarks like the Golden Gate banana split and the Muir Woods black cherry vanilla sundae. (Experienced travelers, including yours truly, also note that the lines at the Monterey shop are much shorter than those at the Ghirardelli’s at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.) We celebrated our final evening in Monterey at The Fish Hopper, also on Cannery Row. The appetizers are incredibly satisfying, offering a medley of prawns, calamari, and crab in a variety of imaginative relishes like mango and papaya, plus awesome (and massive) local artichokes. Entrees like a bread bowl New England clam chowder, steaks, and sustainably sourced fish make this a nice place to end your day. We loved watching sea otters eating their own dinner right outside the window - floating on their backs and cracking clam shells on rocks on their chests. It crossed our minds that, this evening before we had to pack up and leave Monterey, the sea otters might have been putting on a little show for us, perhaps their way of saying, “Goodbye.” We decided that it’s much more likely they were saying, “Until we meet again...”