Hosted by an eclectically elegant collection of inns and museums peppered throughout the St. Croix River Valley, the 2011 Chocolate March launches guests on self-guided, cocoa-centric excursions. Guests munch on chocolate delicacies and take in architectural desserts with chocolate-dipped innkeepers at five separate stops, one of which will feature a wine pairing, on the Sunday jaunts (different destinations are featured each weekend). Depending on their chosen date, chocolate hunters can relax under the mannered, leaf-shaded porticos of Rosewood's Queen Anne mansion, take in the brick-draped Gilded Age grandeur of the Water Street Inn, or plot a sweet rustic retreat or candy-coated coup d'état by Wissahickon Farms' general store façade and peppermint-stick split-rail fence.
The youngest of nine children, Luna Rossa’s owner and chef, Raffaele Virgillo, grew up at his mother’s side, studying her every move as she cooked in the kitchen of their small cottage in southern Italy. Emigrating to the United States in the 1970s, Virgillo put the culinary skills and magical Italian incantations he learned from his mother to use here in the States. He settled in the Twin Cities, where he cooked his way through four restaurants before opening the original Buona Sera, and eventually, Luna Rossa. There, he works alongside his daughter, Anna, son-in-law, Jesse, and grandson, Vinny, serving a menu of Italian-inspired cuisine within a rustic eatery near Stillwater’s historic limestone caves.
Northern Vineyards is a shared winery owned by the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative, a group of winemakers who own 1- to 15-acre vineyards across Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Members grow Frontenac, Prairie Star, and other grape varieties that perform well in the region; since the region has a cold climate and short growing season, grapes grown here must tolerate lower temperatures, ripen early, and be able to knit their own woolen mittens. In the fall, growers lug their mature grapes to the main winery in Stillwater, where award-winning winemaker Robin Partch transforms them into 30 kinds of wine.
The winery’s barrel room hosts wine tastings seven days a week at a glossy, wooden tasting bar. There’s also an outdoor deck that overlooks a historic lift bridge along the St. Croix River. In nice weather, visitors can bring a picnic lunch to enjoy with a glass of wine on the deck.
Ever since the Fawn-Doe-Rosa Wildlife Educational Park's opening in 1963, the deer inside have had terrible manners—no matter how many times they've eaten out of a visitor's hand, they refuse to say "thank you." Most people don't hold it against them, though. They're too busy wandering the woodland yard, petting its free-roaming occupants and keeping an eye out for other species. Aside from deer, the park houses elk, ducks, farmyard animals, and even predators in separate enclosures, including a grizzly bear and a mountain lion.
Many of these animals were hand-raised by the park's owners, who work with conservation organizations, rehabilitation experts, and the USDA to ensure the critters' comfort. By allowing visitors to get up close to their friendly, four-legged residents, they hope to make each trip a learning experience, one that connects humans with nature and sparks an interest in its preservation. They also host group tours that touch on wildlife facts, as well as pony rides for children training for a 21st-century revival of the Pony Express mail service.
Approximately 6,000 years ago, when Sumerian scholars were devising some of mankind's first mathematic systems, a mile-thick sheet of ice began to melt half a world away in the region known today as Minnesota. Slowly, the glacier shrank and poured gallons of water into the land around it, leaving behind gorgeous rock formations dotted with artistic ridges and eye-catching striations. Perhaps most notable of these formations is a structure that resembles a cross, which inspired settlers to name its surrounding river St. Croix, or "holy cross."
Today, modern humans can catch a glimpse of these awesome sights thanks to Taylors Falls Scenic Boat Tours. The company's two paddlewheel boats—the 250-seater Princess and the 149-seater The Queen —feature enclosed lower levels and open-air upper decks, allowing for an unobstructed view of not only the stone cross, but also the formations known as Lion's Head, Turk's Head, and The Old Man of the Dalles, so named for its resemblance to a man's weathered face and its likelihood to repeat old stories about the Cretaceous Period. A licensed boat pilot acts as tour guide, directing guests' attention to each instance of natural beauty on a variety of tours, which range from 80-minute daytime excursions to two-hour dinner cruises replete with a gourmet meal and live entertainment.
Scenically located on the banks of Saint Croix River, Nova boasts more than a century of history, dating back to pre-Prohibition years, as well as a selection of scrumptious, seasonal cuisine and more than 200 bottles of wine. For dinner, after an appetizer of andouille quesadillas ($9), traditional tastes can try hand-tossed pizzas ($12–$14), pastas, or burgers, and adventurous eaters can brawl with the Fighting Bison, a 12-ounce bison rib eye rubbed with blackened seasoning and gorgonzola to hide its battle scars ($21). Become fast friends with Johnny Boy, a pan-fried and almond-crusted walleye swimming in blueberry tarragon sauce ($18), or Georgie Porgie, a soy-braised, all-natural pork tenderloin paired with vegetables and rice ($20).
At Wild Mountain Winery, everything is local, right down to the grapes and the process in which they're grown. Surrounded by the green hillsides of the St. Croix River Valley, Wild Mountain utilizes the methods of Elmer Swenson—a pioneering breeder who revolutionized grape growing in regions plagued by cold, short seasons, and undomesticated snowplows. Having been perfected over the years, those time-tested processes now result in hardy varietals that represent the local climate, soils, and vines. Travelers along the Upper St. Croix Wine Trail can explore Wild Mountain's territorial flavors in a number of ways, including during weekend tastings that come with a souvenir glass.