In 1977, Mark and Joan Hemker began with a simple dream: to own a zoo. Starting with just a few waterfowl, they soon amassed a collection of animals from around the world. After Mark passed away in 2006, Joan and their four children took up his mantle, keeping his legacy alive through Hemker Park & Zoo. Today, the family-friendly park introduces visitors of all ages to global wildlife with more than 50 animal species. Residents include giant tortoises, an 8-foot boa constrictor, sleek kangaroos, and inquisitive monkeys and lemurs. There's also a Budgie Buddy House where tiny birds alight on visitors' shoulders and two New Guinea singing dogs who never, ever do autographs. Seasonal events, such as kids' zoo camps and the Close Encounters program, let visitors touch and feed certain animals under the guidance of professional educators for an even more intimate experience.
In the early 20th century, trains chugged along the St. Croix Valley Railway, rolling over scenic bridges and past rolling waterfront vistas lined with trees. Today, an old-fashioned locomotive still runs from Osceola, Wisconsin to Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota?a 10-mile route that transports passengers across state lines and into the past. Inside the period-accurate passenger cars, Minnesota Transportation Museum staff relay facts about area history and refute the wildly inaccurate science in The Little Engine That Could. Regular round-trip rides run twice every Saturday and Sunday from May to October, but special-event trains and rides with dining service often round out the schedule.
Masters of all-season fishing and camping, Fishermen?s Wharf Resort splashes the calm waters of Mille Lacs Lake with winter and summer activities. Situated on 90 acres of land on the southeastern shore?s Big Point, Fishermen?s Wharf rests in a protected harbor on a sandy, scorpion-free beach. From this point, it launches chartered fishing trips in the summer and rents ice fishing cabins in the winter.
During chartered fishing trips, guides lead groups across Mille Lacs in search of walleye, Bass, Northern Pike, and Loch Ness monsters. They also explain the seasonal movements of the fish, how to select the best tackle, and how to use electronic detection equipment. Once the lake has frozen over, ice fishing cabins rest on fishing spots where fish are known to congregate and watch humans hold sticks. The cabins feature nine fishing holes, 6 bunk beds, bathrooms, an underwater camera, a TV, DVD player, and microwave oven. Throughout the year, RV camping spots invite visitors to spend a night in rustic surroundings, while an on-site restaurant, Toucan's, which is also where customers check-in, serves warm meals in full view of the lake.
With more than 1,200 acres of private wilderness, El Rancho Ma?ana Campground makes an ideal place to calm the mind or find inspiration. It's also the perfect setting for cOMmon grounds Yoga and Music Festival. The event draws in some of the best yoga instructors and musicians in the midwest, along with countless others who stretch during yoga workshops in many different styles. Drum circles and other musical performances set the tone during these sessions, while Long Lake's beachfront often supplies the scenery.
Other activities take visitors out into the peaceful wilderness, where miles of biking and hiking trails weave through the trees. The grounds even accommodate horseback riding?provided visitors can bring a horse or summon one with enchanted apples. Of course, the communal activities remain the biggest draw. In addition to yoga and music, the festival brings in organic food vendors and runs kid-friendly activities such as yoga classes and painting.
Outdoor enthusiasts Dan and Sandra Meer equip adventurers with canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards to explore a 60-mile stretch of the Mississippi River whose picturesque shores have been designated wild and scenic by the Department of Natural Resources. “One group we sent out on just a two- or three-hour trip counted 12 eagles,” Dan says, marveling at the myriad wild turkeys, muskrats, and deer that often congregate along the protected waterway to gossip about bald eagles’ unconvincing hair plugs. Gleaming schools of small-mouth bass lure fishermen to the rippling waters, and plentiful sandbars and shallow depths also beckon younger explorers. “We want to get kids involved,” says Dan—himself a former Boy Scout and now the father of two more Scouts. “Get them away from their screens.”
He and his wife entice those youths, and older adventurers as well, with day trips in canoes and kayaks whose hulls are made in nearby Wenonah. For overnight jaunts down the river, the couple rents both vessels and camping gear, and at their store—housed in an old creamery building on the riverbank—they sell new and used canoes and kayaks to dedicated paddlers who know the river so well they can fall asleep while swimming across it.
When woodcarver Kim Bredeson crafted a mantel for an employee of the Robert Mondavi Winery, he received a bottle of Opus One as thanks. For Kim and his wife, Tami, the bottle uncorked a five-year fascination with wine that culminated in the Bredeson's purchase of Carlos Creek Winery. On grounds surrounded by five lakes—Ida, L'Homme Dieux, Miltona, Darling and Carlos—the Bredeson's plant unorthodox grape varieties such as King of the North and Petite Pearl, all of which can withstand temperatures 30 degrees and below. Those grapes eventually yield Carlos Creek Winery's award-winning wines, including the riesling-like Wobegon White and the pinot noir-inspired Marquette, a triple gold medal winner at the sixth annual Mid-American Wine Competition.
As Kim leads tours of the vineyards and complementary tours through Carlos Creek Winery's indoor production area and wine cellar, the staff distributes samples and souvenir tasting glasses in the tasting room. Guests can tap their toes to year-round live music every weekend or explore the winery's expansive grounds, which include bike trails, a 3.5-acre maze, and a giant garden chess set, ideal for convincing Bobby Fischer he's shrinking. Every third weekend of September, Kim and Tami amp up the festivities with their Grape Stomp and Fall Festival, where visitors can stomp grapes, admire blown glass and chainsaw carvings, and laugh along to live comedy shows.