- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It makes sense their football team would be the Vikings. Scandinavian immigrants poured into the Minneapolis/St. Paul area in the 19th century to work the area’s mills — once the Twin Cities’ industrial lifeblood — as did German, French, Polish and other European settlers. But as the mills closed and this once-sleepy city cited near the source of the Mississippi River changed with the times, Minneapolis too has undergone a cultural and industrial renaissance, melding technological capital, higher education, tourism and, yes, sports teams — one of which harks back to the ancestral homelands of many of its residents.

The Washington Times recently spent a lovely, warm fall weekend in the Twin Cities to take in culture, cuisine, outdoor activities as well as cheering on a baseball team that had a rather, uh, difficult season.

 

Day 1:

Getting to Minneapolis from the capital area by air is fairly easy given the bounty of our three airports and the number of carriers that fly there. From either BWI of Reagan is a straight shot, or Dulles will also do the trick if you live out in the western suburbs.

Deplaning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is a rather odyssean affair. The airport, to put it bluntly, is enormous. There are over 120 gates, and landing at Terminal 1, it seemed that I was far away from absolutely everything — getting in my daily exercise just from walking from the jetway to the public transit stop.

The Twin Cities’ Metro Transit department opened up the Blue Line in 2004, adding the Green Line in 2014, and it’s a jewel to help move around the city.

From MSP I get on the Blue Line heading north toward downtown Minneapolis. Compared to D.C.’s notorious Metro rail, Minneapolis’ system is clean, efficient and timely. (My lone complaint is one of that, in downtown, it is simply labeled as “Minneapolis” and “Mall of America,” which doesn’t help the out-of-towner know which way is the airport — south toward the Mall.)

Disembarking at Nicollet Mall stop, I walk a few blocks to the Radisson Blu Minneapolis Downtown (35 S 7th St., Minneapolis, MN 55402, 612/339-4900. Despite its still being early in the day, the incredibly friendly desk clerk assures me my room is ready to be occupied, and upon being informed this is my first time in town, she offers an unbidden, but certainly appreciated, primer on the downtown area, and even produces a paper map for me to study at my leisure.

My Radisson room is spacious, welcoming and large. The bed is a thing of pure comfort and beauty, and the towels themselves are good enough to sleep on.

After a brisk nap, I walk into the famous Minneapolis Skyway, a feat of modern civil engineering featuring 9 miles over 83 blocks of covered walkways in between 69 of downtown’s buildings, which is especially helpful in the winter months, when Minnesota winters have been known to dip down into the single digits — or worse with a wind chill.

I head off in no direction in particular. My plan now is to make a circle on the Skyway and return back to the Radisson in time for lunch. It really is amazing to essential walk above the city streets, and I almost feel badly for the motorists stuck at stoplights and the pedestrians facing rainfall this day. The Skyway is a genuinely cool way to explore a new town from a bird’s-eye perspective. Each “section” leads directly into another building, where, as often as not, shops, businesses and even apartment buildings are there to greet the sojourner.

My hostess and the godmother of my trip here, Kristen Montag of the Convention & Visitors Association, picks me up for lunch at The Freehouse (701 N. Washington Ave., Ste 101 Minneapolis, MN 55401, 612/339-7011) in Minneapolis’ happening North Loop area.

This is a combination gastropub and brewery, with an ample lunch menu. As a cerevisaphile, I’m always on the lookout for new brews, so I opt for a sampler of the witbier, the brown and, because it’s that time of year, the Oktoberfest lager. The wit and the brown are drinkable, but the Oktoberfest was a true winner, with a smooth taste and appealing color to match.

For appetizers I go for some oysters. The ones on offer are large and a feast in and of themselves. I order a half-dozen, which is a good thing as 12 would have left no room at all for the seafood mac n’ cheese, a delectable affair feted with lobster, shrimp, mussels, salmon, parmesan, gruyere, breadcrumbs, cavatappi and grilled ciabatta. It’s delicious to the tastebuds, if a bit overwhelming as a meal. If I had it to do over again, I would have forgone the oysters entirely.

Next stop is a visit with my newsies colleagues at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. My colleague Sue Campbell, who runs the really happening Variety section, greets me warmly, and invites me to the page 1 editorial meeting for tomorrow’s paper. (Having sat through hundreds of such meetings at The Times, it’s always cool to see how my co-news professionals do it.) The Star Tribune offices are spacious, well appointed and the staff friendly after that Midwestern fashion. It’s great to see — as I did in the U.K. — that somewhere newspapers are doing well and have the personnel and the can-do attitude they need to continue thriving.

I head back into the Skyway, intent on walking back to the Radisson, but I keep making wrong turns, and it’s a bit hard to gauge where I will wind up back on the street. I take a turn and wind up exiting the Skyway at St. Olaf Catholic Churc (215 South 8th Street Minneapolis MN 55402, 612/332-7471). I was raised Catholic, and just the other day I learned that a dear friend from college had passed. She nudged me to attend Good Friday mass with her in 2000, and I take it as providential this day that I find myself here. I sit and meditate, sending a silent prayer for my friend Emma and her family and her children left behind.

After this spiritual respite, I head back to the Radisson. On the VIP floor where I am staying, the staff offers up a refreshment platter selection of cheeses, snacks and beers and sodas served up by an attentive staff. The lounge offers a fine view of downtown Minneapolis over such nosh.

It’s time for some music — and there’s only one place in town I could even think of going. First Avenue (701 N 1st Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55403, 612/338-8388) is where Prince and the Revolution recorded the live performances that went into the film “Purple Rain.” The Revolution recently performed a requiem for their former bandleader, a local son who tragically passed away in April of an opioid overdose.

The bill for tonight is LA Dispute, Nothing, Nowhere and Thrice as the headliner. The venue thrums with the energy of Friday night, as locals and tourists mingle at various bars both downstairs and upstairs in this iconic concert hall. It’s a spacious affair, well apportioned and simultaneously warm.

Prince memorabilia is everywhere, as are posters from such other famous artists who have played this stage as Joe Cocker, Iggy and the Stooges, B.B. King and so many others. It’s a holy place, a shrine to the road that rock ‘n’ roll has trekked across the American consciousness at so many singular venues.

And so it is here at First Avenue.

After several Minnesota microbrews and a thoroughly rocking show, I’m ready to call it a night. It’s been a fine first day in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and I know there’s more tomorrow.

 

Day 2:

I embark on a mile-long walk to the Mill City Museum (704 S 2nd St, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 612/341-7555. It is here that my true education about the history of the Twin Cities begins to take proper form.

At Mill City I learn that Minneapolis and St. Paul were once the milling capital of the world, thanks to an ample supply of gravity-obeying water flowing down the Mississippi to turn the gears of industry, where thousands of native-born and immigrant laborers — most of them of hardy Scandinavian stock — churned the native grains of America into flour at giants like Pillsbury and Gold Medal Flour.

Mill City bills itself as “the most explosive museum in the world,” and for good reason. Part of the facility is warehoused in the former Washburn “A” Mill, which went up in a terrific conflagration on May 2, 1878, killing 18 workers instantly as a spark ignited airborne flour dust — and thus showcasing the need for an air filtration system. A museum staffer shows how just a tiny bit of flour dust can go up in flames, so it’s almost unthinkable to imagine the destruction of an entire mill, filled with remnants, as the perfect dynamite keg.

I head up into the Flour Tower experience, an old grain elevator that runs the visitor through multiple floors of the museum’s exhibits. At the top floor a guide shows us through gristmills and other 19th century equipment long since disused. From a outdoor catwalk you can see St. Anthony Falls, whose power helped turn the grinders of yore.

There’s an Oktoberfest celebration in the courtyard. I grab a brat for a quick lunch and then take a stroll next door to the Mill City Farmers Market, open May through October for entrepreneurial growers and small business owners to hawk their wares. And it’s also a great place to meet and pet friendly dogs, if you’re into that sort of thing. (I’m into that sort of thing.)

It’s a beautiful fall day, and the Ole Miss is calling my name. I take another mile-long walk from the Radisson to Above the Falls Sports (120 N. 3rd Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55401, 612/825-8983). I opt for the “Working the Lower Channel” tour, an “urban kayaking experience” of the Mississippi above St. Anthony Falls that gives the sojourner a taste of the industrial heart of the city as well as offers prime riverside vistas for the paddler.

With a small group in tow, our guide has us tow our kayaks on dollies from the office a few blocks through the industrial district to a launch. As the company has furnished me a solo craft, the guide asks if I’ve “done this before,” to which I respond in the affirmative. For ever since my grandfather taught me how to use a rowboat as a kid growing up in New Jersey, this writer and water have never been strangers.

We paddle first into an estuary, where an opening of the Hennepin Island tunnel remains from the 19th century. This 2,500-foot passageway runs beneath downtown Minneapolis, but time and tide — and entropy — have had their way with the tube, making it passable only for a few hundred feet.

Our guide then takes us into the main river highway. We paddle upriver, taking in views — and getting primers on — Nicollet Island and Boom Island. Heading downstream toward the extraction point, our guide points out the historic Grain Belt Brewery, whose signage near St. Anthony falls is quintessential to the identity of this burg.

For dinner I have a particular cuisine in mind. When “Captain Phillips” came out in theaters in 2013, I learned that co-star Barkhad Abdi was a Somali immigrant who came to Minneapolis, which has a thriving Somalian community. Having no acting experience, Mr. Abdi, who worked as a limo driver at the time, was cast as the leader of Somali pirates who take over the Maersk Alabama from Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks). Mr. Abdi was nominated for an Oscar for his chilling performance, one of the only actors to ever do so on their first try.

Mr. Abdi’s story is inspiring and yet another manner in which the American dream can be realized. Recalling the interviews where he spoke glowingly of his adopted city, I hop an Uber across town to

Hamdi Restaurant (818 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55407, 612/823-9660), a highly rated Somali dining establishment amid this ethnic enclave. It’s a pleasant, easy atmosphere, with smiles from a gracious staff as, in the adjoining room, a group of hijab-wearing women converse over a bounteous meal.

They’re out of lamb today, unfortunately, so I opt for a chicken and rice combo plate, served with onions and lettuce and a hot green sauce on the side that should be apportioned out conservatively — even for spice lover like myself.

Fully sated, I head back to downtown to Target Field (1 Twins Way, Minneapolis, MN 55403), home of the Minnesota Twins. It’s my 22nd MLB baseball park, and it’s a fine, clean, spacious facility on this perfect autumnal evening. Alas, the Twins had a rather, uh, “underwhelming” year, but even though it’s the end of the season, the home team faithful are here to cheer on the team that was once the home of Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew — the latter whose name enshrines a street in the stadium area.

Even here, the Purple One’s influence is felt, as during an inning break, “Little Red Corvette” is played over the loudspeakers. I was told by Kristen yesterday that long after he was famous, Prince maintained his home at Paisley Park and returned as often as possible — and was a silent donor to many Minneapolis arts organizations.

My late karate sensei always used to say “remember where you came from,” and it seems the late local son and hero made good on just that.

After a quick slice of pizza at Sal’s on Fifth (10 N 5th St, Minneapolis, MN 55403, 612/333-1144), I turn in.

 

Day 3:

Since yesterday I made a journey on the river, today I opt to see water power from the safety of dry land. At Minnehaha Regional Park (4801 S Minnehaha Drive, Minneapolis, MN 55417, 612/230-6400), I take in the glorious Minnehaha Falls, a 53-foot drop of Minnehaha Creek as it makes its way just downstream to join up with the Mississippi.

The park is a verdant, open, pleasing outdoor venue, but be forewarned that parking is scarce.

And so on to the crown jewel of Minneapolis capitalism — the Mall of America (60 E Broadway, Bloomington, MN 55425). Its sizes is thoroughly befitting of the title, what with its 5.6 million square feet of gross area — in which could fit nine Yankee Stadiums — and 12,750 parking spaces. There’s also 27 rides and attractions at Nickelodeon Universe, plus the FlyOver America simulation ride.

It’s not just a mall, it’s an amusement park, a high-end dining mecca and a place providing many ways to spend your cash. Oh, and if you’re a fan of bad movies — and who isn’t? — you might recognize this as the setting for the awful, awful Schwarzenegger flick “Jingle All the Way.” (I’ve watched it so you don’t have to, trust me.)

Because I have an inner 12-year-old lurking within my 38-year-old frame, and because I love the cartoon, I immediately make for the

SpongeBob Squarepants Rock Bottom Plunge inside Nickelodeon Universe. Yes, this might be the only place in the world to go on a roller coaster indoors! SpongeBob’s ride takes you straight up a tower then plunges you at basically a 90-degree angle for a rather big thrill at the outset, however, the rest of the ride is rather shaky and threw me about. Sadly, in my older age, I much prefer a smoother ride.

So on to FlyOver America, a rather ingeniously designed simulator thrill ride that takes guests on an “aerial tour” over some of America’s most famous landmarks and natural wonders. The immersive experience includes wind, mists, scents, and I swear I even felt cold while passing over some of the highest Rocky Mountain peaks.

If this ride doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, nothing will.

For dinner at the Mall, I take a booth at CRAVE (Mall of America, 368 South Avenue, Bloomington, MN 55425, 952/854-5000), a highly recommended eatery that offers locally sourced ingredients for its rather fashionable dinner menu.

CRAVE offers a pleasant, open atmosphere and a thoroughly professional, attentive staff. There are still more beers for me to try, so I get a sampler or local Minnesota brews including the Fulton Lonely Blonde, offering a crisp, refreshing taste; Schell’s Oktoberfest, which left me a tad underwhelmed; Summit Brewing Company’s EPA, which was nicely hopped (I’m not typically an IPA guy, but I finished it); and a Surly Brewing Furious, a nice malty/hop mix.

For my entree I got for the Mexican poke (pronounced “poe-kay”) bowl, a sort of gourmet dish mixing raw tuna with spices and jalapenos in a melding of traditional Japanese and south-of-the-border cuisine. It’s both filling and tasty, and satisfied the craving I was feeling for sushi earlier — as well as my desire for something different.

For dessert the waitress recommends the “tres leches,” a sponge cake soaked in various kinds of milk. Again, it’s against my typical proclivities, which veer more toward chocolate choices. All the same, it’s a fine way to cap this meal.

Alas, the weekend has run away from me. I did and saw so much, but I didn’t get a chance to visit Prince’s recently opened Paisley Park estate, get a photo with the Mary Tyler Moore statue (located at the Minneapolis Visitor Information Center at Nicollet and 5th), nor did I even get over to the “forgotten” twin of St. Paul. But what Minneapolis has taught me, more than anything, is that no matter how much you may read about a place, one must spend dedicated time there to get to know it.

For more information, visit Minneapolis.org.

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