Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater
Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!

 

 

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Steph and I enjoyed our 2016 visit to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The weather was great, and since we had the daily use of a car, we could visit several places that are on our favourites list.

como-logoAmong these was Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, that lies a couple of miles north of I-94 on Lexington Parkway in St Paul. We’ve visited Como Park for many years, especially its beautiful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. In May 2006, our elder daughter Hannah married Michael in a lovely ceremony conducted in the Sunken Garden wing of the Conservatory where the most wonderful floral displays are planted throughout the year. We’ve visited in the Spring, mid-Summer, early Fall, and in the depths of Winter when we spent Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. I placed a few photos from these visits in a story I posted last November.

On our recent visit three weeks ago to Como we were pleased to see that several changes had been made to the Conservatory since our last visit.

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The planting was much more subtle this time, light pinks, blues and mauves in general. But always that sense that the gardeners had thought things through very carefully. And as you enter the Conservatory you are greeted by a heady atmosphere of the most beautifully scented blossoms.

Outside the Conservatory are the Ordway Gardens, a collection of bonsai specimens and a Japanese garden.

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The Conservatory was built in 1915, and to celebrate its centennial a water garden was constructed outside the entrance to the visitor center. What a beautiful addition to a special place!

Having taken in all that the Conservatory had to offer, we had a very welcome cup of coffee in the visitor center, then headed off into the zoo. Many of the animals were taking a midday nap, but we did get to see the orangutans, giraffes, and flamingos.

So, if you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities, and have a few hours free—whatever the Minnesota weather—do visit Como Park and breathe in the botanical displays of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. You won’t be disappointed.

Lakes and leaves – spending time in the Twin Cities

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting many of the ‘great’ cities in the USA: New York, Washington DC, St Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago (most recently). But the city (or should I say cities) I have visited most over the years are the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in the heart of Minnesota.

And for good reason. First, when I was traveling to the USA in the early 1990s, the international airport in the Twin Cities (MSP) was the hub for Northwest Airlines (now absorbed into Delta), and was the most convenient way for travel from Manila in the Philippines into the USA.

Since September 2008, however, St Paul has been home to our elder daughter Hannah. After completing two years of her 3-year psychology and anthropology degree at Swansea University in the UK, she asked us if she could transfer to Macalester College in St Paul, a highly-respected—but small (maybe 2000 undergraduates)—private liberal arts college that counts former US Vice President Walter Mondale and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan among its notable alumni. The most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize for an original novel in the English language is Macalester professor Marlon James.

So, over the years we have visited many times and come to know and appreciate the Twin Cities, although St Paul is the half of this metropolitan duo that we know much better. There’s a vibrant community, and the cities have something for everyone. It’s pretty laid back, but I guess you could say that about Minnesotans in general. Maybe that’s why I like Minnesota so much.

Among the things I like are the breakfast diners (I like the Grandview Grill on Grand Ave, just below Macalester), some of the best ice cream I’ve tasted anywhere at Izzy’s on Marshall Ave, and only St Paul can boast the Fitzgerald Theater, home of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

But what sets the Twin Cities apart, for me at least, are the numerous lakes dotted around the Minneapolis side, and the tree-lined avenues everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to imagine cities that are more leady. And taking into account that Minneapolis-St Paul was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River, and on the ‘edge of the prairie’, the amount of tree planting over a century or more is implrsssive. Certainly the avenues are lined with some of the most impressive specimens I’ve seen anywhere, often up to 100 feet tall.

In the (speeded) video clip below, our recent return flight to Amsterdam took off from Runway 30L to the northwest, climbing over the Tangletown and Linden Hills districts of Minneapolis, over Lakes Harriet and Calhoun, before turning right, and heading northeast over the Mississippi just north of downtown Minneapolis, and continuing over the norther suburbs of St Paul.

There are some pretty fancy properties around the two lakes, but you can’t see them for the trees. It would be the same if you landed from the west or took off to the east and had a view over St Paul, which lies on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Trees everywhere. And of course north of the Twin Cities, the landscape is dotted with lakes large and small. Not for nothing is Minnesota known as the state of the Thousand Lakes.

Hannah and her family live between the Macalester-Groveland and Highland districts of St Paul, just three blocks from the mighty Mississippi. Steph and I have mostly visited during the spring or summer months, so we get to see everywhere at its best in terms of flowering and in leaf. And this is what so impresses us as we take our daily constitutional down to the bank of the Mississippi and along boulevards lined with the most impressive trees. And of course there are some very fancy properties along there as well.

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The view from the Ford Parkway bridge crossing over the Mississippi River, and looking north towards the Marshall Avenue bridge. Hannah lives just three blocks east of the river.

But having so many tall trees so close to residences has its drawbacks as well, as we saw in June 2013 after a short-lived but rather violent storm passed through (tornadoes are not unknown, but infrequent). Just close to where Hannah lives several large trees had been brought down, and fortunately the damage to houses was much less than we first feared.

Now although we’ve visited mainly in the summer months as I mentioned, we did spend one Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. And what a baptism of cold it was. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such cold. And don’t forget we had left the tropical weather behind having just flown in from the Philippines! Nevertheless it was fun, and once suitable wrapped up against the cold we did get out and about on foot to savour the experience.

One interesting comparison we were able to make this September was when we walked from Hannah’s home to Minnehaha Park, just under two miles away. There is an impressive waterfall, which we have now seen in two contrasting seasons.

One of our favorite places to visit is Como Park, where there’s a small zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. The conservatory is most exquisitely planted all year round. On a cold day in December it was a wonderful place to get out of the cold, and escape from the grey-out of a cold Minnesota day. But the conservatory was the location where Hannah and Michael were married in May 2006. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it had recently been planted with summer bedding plants. What a delight!

There’s also one aspect of walking around the Mississippi River area that we appreciate. It’s both human and dog friendly, because there are strict ordinances restricting the length of dog leashes.

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