A DAY AWAY: Top discoveries of 2021


When we decided that enough events were happening to bring back the weekly Hoopla section, we also wanted to revamp the content and add something new.

The first covered bridge sign you’ll see as you approach Winterset from Interstate35 points to the Holliwell Bridge southeast of town. This structure, built in 1880, not only lets you step back in time, but offers beautiful views of the Middle River, as seen Sept. 21, 2021. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

So I proposed bringing back the A Day Away feature I had started when I was the Travel & Leisure editor in the late 1980s. I made lots of fun discoveries back then, from Kalona to Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien, and all the way to Milwaukee.

As soon as I got the green light this time around, I jotted down more than 50 places that would make fun getaways. More were added along the way, as opportunities arose.

Here are my five favorite finds, followed by five places I’m looking forward to visiting in 2022.

Join the fun

I’m also inviting you to get in on the act, by suggesting places you’ve enjoyed within a day’s jaunt of Eastern Iowa. Please send your suggestions, and if you have photos to share and would like to comment for a story, add that content to [email protected]

Top 5 discoveries

The Bridges of Madison County: I’m not a big fan of the book or movie that made these covered bridges famous, but I did love the musical version staged by Revival Theatre Company, so on a beautiful late September day, I headed 2.5 hours west and south to see the six sites for myself.

Armed with some literature and my map app, the adventure was more like a scavenger hunt, trying to race around the vicinity before the sun set.

And yes, the bridges pretty much look alike, but the hunt was so delightful and the payoff was like walking through pages of history.

Besides the bridges, the county seat of Winterset is the birthplace of actor John Wayne and University of Iowa graduate and art teacher George Stout, leader of the World War II “Monuments Men,” tasked with finding and recovering artwork stolen by the Nazis.

The John Wayne Museum is doubling in size, not far from his birthplace. Both sites are a must-see for fans, and the movie theater uptown also shows Wayne’s films.

Story link: thegazette.com/travel/a-day-away-visiting-the-bridges-of-madison-county-and-beyond/

Saugatuck, Mich.: I knew nothing about this gem until I was invited to a wedding there on Sept. 25. I was not prepared to fall in love with all that the Douglas/Saugatuck area has to offer, just 6.5 hours east/northeast of Cedar Rapids.

Separated by a bridge, Douglas is a leisurely arts enclave, while Saugatuck feels more like a resort town, with waterfront restaurants for pricey dining worth every penny, wild sand dune rides that cost half as much as my lunch, and best of all, amazing beaches along Lake Michigan that make you feel like you’re at an ocean.

When we weren’t indulging in wedding festivities, a friend and I spent an action-packed three-day weekend in this slice of heaven, jamming in as much sightseeing, exploring and photo snapping as possible. I can’t wait to go back for an even longer stay. And another dune schooner ride.

As one wedding guest said, it feels like you’re on another planet.

Story link: thegazette.com/travel/a-day-away-lots-to-tuck-into-a-saugatuck-mich-getaway/

American Gothic House, Eldon: The 1880s farmhouse in America’s most famous painting lures 15,000 global visitors each year to tiny Eldon, about 117 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids.

My brother and I had taken a detour there in 2020, but everything was closed because of the pandemic. So we headed back in July, and discovered the 2007 Visitors Center is equally alluring.

That’s where you can immerse yourself in the life of Grant Wood, the history of Eldon, and the story behind the Catherine and Charles Dibble house immortalized in “American Gothic,” a painting known around the world. It’s known so far and wide that over the past 14 years, people from across the United States and 80 other countries have converged upon this pastoral setting six miles south of Highway 34, between Fairfield and Ottumwa.

We ran out of time to go through the Rock Island Train Depot Museum, so we’ll catch that ride the next time we’re in town.

Story link: thegazette.com/life/a-day-away-gothic-twist-to-eldon-iowa/

Dutchman’s Store, Cantril: I had heard of this place, but you really have to see it to believe it. Walking into the store is like opening a portal to the past, with nods to the present sprinkled throughout.

Dutchman’s Store takes up the east side of Cantril’s main street, Division Street. On Nov. 3, both sides were lined with cars from Iowa counties Clinton, Davis, Des Moines, Henry, Jefferson, Keokuk, Lee, Linn, Mahaska, Marion, Mills, Van Buren and Wapello, as well as Georgia, Illinois and Missouri.

Dating back to 1985, Lancaster, Pa., native Clair Zimmerman, his wife and family have created a gigantic general store — and they’re building a new one twice its size on the edge of town, expected to open in 2023.

In the meantime, you’ll find just about anything in the current store, measuring about 23,000 square feet, with another 12,000 or 15,000 square feet in the warehouse out back. Just be sure to take a cooler to bring home some of the meat, cheese, fruit and produce, as well as spices, fabric, shoes, hats, books and just about anything imaginable.

Story link: thegazette.com/travel/a-day-away-one-stop-shopping-at-dutchmans-store-in-cantril-iowa/

Field of Dreams, Dyersville: I loved the movie, but I’m not very sporty, so I’ve never really had the urge to head to the movie site. That wrong has been righted.

“People will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past,” James Earl Jones said, wrapping his mellifluous voice around the dialogue in “Field of Dreams.”

The 1989 fantasy film that gave us the phrases “If you build it he will come” and “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa,” continues to capture the fancy of moviegoers, baseball fans and the kids they want to introduce to the site where Hollywood met Heaven.

On Oct. 27, they came from Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, leaving their signatures on the Field of Dreams guest book.

The site feels kind of sacred, and while I was there, families were having a catch, running the bases, sitting on the wooden bleachers on the movie’s ball field, and snapping selfies in front of the farmhouse.

But the Field of Dreams isn’t the only major-league attraction to this city of nearly 4,500 residents, lying 64 miles northeast of Cedar Rapids.

As you turn off Highway 20, you’ll see the twin spires of the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, soaring above the treetops at 212 feet each. Before you get there, you’ll pass the National Farm Toy Museum, a point of pride for the city known as “the farm toy capital of the world.”

Museums, cafes and shops in the historic downtown are calling my name for a return trip when the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.

Story link: thegazette.com/travel/a-day-away-in-dyersville-field-of-dreams-isnt-the-only-major-league-attraction/

Looking ahead

Here are five sites I can’t wait to explore and share.

The House on the Rock, Spring Green, Wis.: I was there about 25 or 30 years ago, and didn’t see it all in that visit. It’s closed from Jan. 4 to March 18, so my return trip will have to wait until the weather turns warm.

The website calls it a work in progress that began in 1945, when Alex Jordan decided to build a retreat as awe-inspiring as the view from the rock upon which the house would sit. More than just a house, it’s a museum filled with truly unusual collections, from doll houses and the world’s largest indoor carousel to the Infinity Room and a giant sea creature “as long as the Statue of Liberty is tall.“ Link: thehouseontherock.com/

Clear Lake: I’ve been to nearby Mason City (Meredith Willson’s River City of “The Music Man” fame), but I haven’t been to the lake in about 40 years. And I’ve never been to the Surf Ballroom, where rock ’n’ roll legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson played their final concert before being killed in a plane crash shortly after midnight Feb. 3, 1959, along with pilot Roger Peterson.

The ballroom, built in 1933, still is going strong, and holds an annual Winter Dance Party on Feb. 3, in the honor of the day the music died, immortalized by singer/songwriter Don McLean. This year’s party features McLean’s “American Pie” 50th anniversary tour. Links: clearlakeiowa.com/ and surfballroom.com/

Paisley Park: Lucky for me, Prince’s home and studio are basically around the corner from my cousin’s house in Chanhassen, Minn. I’ll be heading there in the spring.

According to the website, “the facility served as Prince’s home, creative sanctuary and production complex for nearly 30 years. Fulfilling Prince’s vision that Paisley Park would one day be open to the public, the venue today welcomes fans, musicians and audiophiles for tours, concerts, festivals and special events.” Link: paisleypark.com/

Okoboji: Another site I’ve never seen is billed as home to Iowa’s Great Lakes, with Spirit Lake and five interconnected lakes: West Okoboji, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar and Minnewashta. The area is supposed to be a playground in any season, but I’ll wait for summer. Link: vacationokoboji.com/

Bishop Hill, Ill.: This historic Swedish village in Henry County, Illinois, southeast of the Quad Cities, celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2021. I was there many years ago with my mom, who is 3/4 Swedish (I’m 1/2 Swedish). Visitors will find a historic district, restaurants and cafes offering a taste of the Old Country, as well as quaint shops, lodgings, music and events throughout the year. Link: visitbishophill.com/

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Sand meets surf at Saugatuck’s popular Oval Beach on a sunny early fall day, Sept. 26, 2021. Among its many accolades, Conde Nast Traveler rated it one of the Top 25 beaches in the world. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

The view from the pitcher’s mound on the “Field of Dreams” movie ball field, shows the wooden bleachers and farmhouse pictured in the film, as well as the new barn that houses the Baseballism gift store. Photographed Oct. 27, 2021. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Various types of flour and dry ingredients for baking line the shelves Nov. 3, 2021, at Dutchman’s Store in Cantril. Bulk items, including spices and seasonings, are among the most popular items at the store. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

Just as this Carpenter Gothic-style window caught Grant Wood’s eye while visiting Eldon in 1930, it continues to fascinate visitors to the site, who often grab a pitchfork from the Visitor Center to pose for a photo in front of the house. (Diana Nollen/The Gazette)

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