We'll Always Have White Bear Lake

Who needs Paris when there's haunted mini-golf, moonlight bowling, and a wild, wild river right in your back yard?

Moonlight bowling is like a cruise on balmy seas: dislocating, strangely romantic, weirdly false, and soothing the way bomb pops in summer are soothing. If you feel wound up about your performance with a cold beer in one hand and your pink ball gliding like a synthetic comet, like a Spice Girl's wayward wink--if you feel competitive or stressed here, abandon hope for your summer.

At Stardust Lanes, "cosmic bowling" goes on if customers demand it, which they do almost every night. Black lights cause the retro-spacey mural of rockets shaped like bowling pins and vaporous planets to glow like a giant oven's coils as the pop music of the past 40 years envelops the space. Plenty of blue and pink balls are available, and cops at the door keep the under-21 set out. It's an exceedingly unself-conscious and beautiful scene; to stand at one end and watch the balls flow through the dark is as satisfying as watching a meteor shower, and more aurally pleasant.

Up at the Falcon Bowl in Falcon Heights, the concept is taken one step further with full-fledged theme nights--country-western, Looney Tunes, and Back to the '50s--complete with appropriate music, decor, and, if you're cooperative, costumes. This is the spot to try if you actually know how to bowl; prizes are offered for certain combinations of pins, and a dollar of everyone's admission goes toward a prize for the high bowlers. Falcon Bowl is a 3.2 bar with a set-up policy--they sell pop and mixers if you want to bring your own bottle. This might be the place where I finally debut the shoebox-sized portable bar I got as a gift.

Craig Bares

Perhaps the best bargain in moonlight bowling is the White Bear Bowl, where $5 gets you through the night; the place is popular with the northeast-suburban high-school set, and what you lose in having to listen to KDWB blasting over the loudspeakers, you make up for in eavesdropping opportunities. Will Tina take Donny back? Will Theresa's mom ever get a clue? Is there anything on God's green earth that doesn't suck? Stay tuned for further updates. Richfield's Lariat Lanes is a sweet little operation in which man-made fog sometimes rolls over the black-lit lanes, and moonlight bowling has been known to run all the way to 2 a.m.

On the Waterfront

The birds flutter, the wind blows, and, up on the eastern river bluffs facing downtown St. Paul, six burial mounds arc like turtle shells up toward the sky as the constant wind drowns out street noise to make a sacred bubble around you and yours. There are things I could say about these ancient monuments that might sound a bit ripe, but they're all true: The mounds are haunting, awe-inspiring, resonant. In more practical terms, the grounds around them are the best place in town for a picnic--mosquitoes don't seem to make it up this high, the constant wind is cooling, and Indian Mounds Park is nearly always deserted. How many people will go to St. Paul for a day trip?

More than go to Lilydale Regional Park on the south bank of the Mississippi across from St. Paul, my nominee as the Twin Cities' most underutilized gem. Pull in through Harriet Island, drive through a soaring treescape that feels like some far-distant wilderness, stake out a cool patch of shaded ground, and watch the barges in the river stream past. The few manufacturing structures remaining in St. Paul emerge from the tree-filled shores to give the park a spooky postindustrial quality: Lilydale reminds me of the scene in Planet of the Apes when the space travelers realize they're on Earth. Lilydale's emptiness only proves how lucky we are--to ignore such a magical stretch of urban forest is the privilege of the spoiled.

Across the river, and more cheerful because of the plentiful sunshine, are the well-tended lawns and Caribbean-white beaches of Hidden Falls Park. Climb down the bank, bury your rear in the sand, and stick your feet in the cool water--but don't go too far, the current is strong and could pull you in. Take a book, dig in for the day, and pretend you're at the lake: In fact, some crowded northwoods lakes can't compare to Hidden Falls, where towering trees, deep undergrowth, and the curve of the shore create a new stretch of total privacy every 20 feet or so.

Further up the river are the very well-tended hiking and biking trails of Fort Snelling State Park, where the hopeful spans of the Mendota Bridge leap overhead and the roar of planes heading for the airport drives out the weak and sentimental. The newly updated park features some ultradeluxe swimming and picnic facilities--separate men's and women's showers, anyone? And in the heart of it all is Snelling Lake, where endangered American lotus flowers bloom and egrets wade elegantly in the shallows, oblivious to the fact that the minnows they stalk are local and unhip.

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