Al Fresco, Refreshed
Several years ago, at the invitation of a friend who lived in a once-swank sky rise, I set out for a picnic in Loring Park. It was late spring and we set up our impromptu lunch near that strange fountain on the east side of the park that looks like a giant dandelion. I went to be sociable; I must admit, picnic fare has sometimes turned me off. Too often it entails prepackaged lunchmeat and vinyl American cheese, or PB&Js with grape jelly bleeding through bruised Wonder Bread like a rejected transplant organ. And there's always the sad parade of mayonnaise-coated deli items. At its best, it's boring and redundant.
Thankfully, my creative friend had stopped by an Indian restaurant in a first-ring suburb and picked up some treats. As we sat eating our samosas and poppadums with mint chutney, a man perhaps best described as mildly crazy but very friendly popped out of some neighboring bushes, where he was presumably living, and asked where we'd ordered from. Apparently, from where he had been spying on us, our meal looked really good.
Encounters with the homeless notwithstanding, the outing was one of several that began to reshape my general attitude toward picnics. There is life beyond the pedestrian--potato salad swimming in questionable pools, hot dogs that have exploded on the grill, "red"-flavored Kool-Aid, and the pretentious--a precious $200 wicker basket laden with expensive wine and cheeses that walk a fine line between dairy and mold.
Depending on what kind of stickler for the calendar you are, there are six or eight weeks left of summer. That means your own opportunities for reinventing the picnic are beginning to wane. No one wants to find herself looking out the window at the frozen tundra come January, asking "what if?" In that spirit, here are several suggestions for more inventive picnic trips, as well as creative places to stock up before you go. Mix and match locations for convenience or adventure, or check out other parks at any of the following websites provided. The bottom line: Go out there and eat!
Minnehaha Park and Falls
4801 Minnehaha Ave. S.; Minneapolis; 612.230.6400
303 E. Hennepin Ave.; Minneapolis; 612.379.3232
For people in Minneapolis looking to commune with nature without venturing outside of the city, Minnehaha Park and Falls is ideal. Located at the intersection of Minnehaha and Hiawatha, it's also more or less a straight shot south from downtown via the lovely road that follows the western bank of the Mississippi. Start with a visit to Surdyk's on East Hennepin, where staffers will not only help you pair your wines with your repast, but will even pack a meal for curbside pickup if you call ahead. This liquor store and gourmet shop is most famous for its cheeses, but other picnic-friendly items include grilled veggies, corn on the cob, and a dozen or more daily salads such as kung pao tofu and basil-parmesan chicken salad. There are also complete dinners, such as salmon skewers, barbecue chicken, and risotto crab cakes. Be sure to check online or call for a complete menu, which is remarkably varied from day to day.
Then cruise south to Minnehaha Park, once a train stop. There are many grassy knolls that are picnic-blanket-friendly, as well as four areas dotted with tables in different sections of the park. After-meal activities include strolls on the path through the thick woods to a 53-foot waterfall (although many of the smaller falls throughout the park offer even prettier waterworks) and two sculptures--one the mask of Chief Little Crow by the major falls, and a bronze sculpture located on an island within the creek depicting characters from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem "Song of Hiawatha."
Families looking to cool down in the heat will be happy to know that there are several spots throughout the creek that are shallow but play-friendly; it's not uncommon to finds hordes of kids splashing about and making friends as if it were a public pool. Parents can watch from a patch of grass while sunning, or stand in the knee-deep water with the rest of the group. Also, for pet owners, there's the off-leash dog park on the south end, but be sure to apply for a permit before visiting (check online or call for more info).
Other activities include the Pergola gardens--a perennial garden loaded with native wildflowers, grasses, and butterflies--and live music performances at the band shell many evenings during the summer months. As for parking, there are several pay lots or metered areas, but it's usually not too difficult to find spaces in the free lots (there's one by the recreation center) or along the parkway. Just be sure to read the signs to avoid a ticket.
1300 42nd St. W.; Minneapolis; 612.230.6475
4351 France Ave. S.; Minneapolis; 612.925.3252
For those picnicking in the lakes district, France 44 offers gourmet box lunches ($9.95) that are far more sophisticated than what you used to tote to school. Made from scratch with fresh and specialty ingredients, sandwiches include gourmet hoagies, BLTs made with peppered bacon and Roma tomatoes, the Minneapolis "T" (mesquite-smoked turkey, spinach, and lemon cream cheese butter), and the Bella Napoli (roasted and grilled veggies with an orange-sage vinaigrette). As is the golden rule with deli sandwiches, lunches come with a pickle spear and potato chips, but the deli salad and dessert (usually a cookie) are bonuses in the deal.
Once you've got the goods, Lake Harriet is just a skip away and is loaded with things to do: bike and walking paths, beaches, tennis courts, and a bandstand that hosts performers of every type, including classical, bluegrass, and local rock acts (check online for their complete summer schedule). There's a Peace Rock Garden, which includes stones from Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the second-oldest public rose garden in the U.S., as well as a playground. Parking is pretty much the same deal as at Minnehaha Park and Falls: Free spots aren't too hard to find if you're willing to do some walking between activities.
Midway Parkway and Lexington Parkway, St. Paul; 651.632.5111
30 S. Fairview; St. Paul; 651.690.0197
For this trip you'll want to swing by Whole Foods on Grand Avenue, where you'll find loads of quality cheeses, artisan bread, organic fruit, and vegan and vegetarian deli items like fried tofu and tabouli salad. The staff here will make sandwiches at the deli and wrap them up to go. Plus, they're generally very knowledgeable about ingredients, so if you have any unique dietary issues they can help you out.
Head east on Grand and then hang a left onto Lexington for the pleasant drive to Como Park. There's tons of free parking, including a giant lot by the conservatory and plenty of street parking. More to the point, there are many picnic-friendly spots throughout, some shaded by large trees, others open, grassy patches by streams. After eating, you can work off a meal with a stroll inside the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, which has four rooms filled with flowers, ferns, fruit, trees, fountains, sculptures, and benches for casual chatting or reflection (if you're looking for a quiet afternoon, check online first to avoid flower show weekends, when the conservatory is unusually packed). Outdoor gardens include the Enchanted Garden (loaded with flowers that attract butterflies) and the Japanese Garden.
Afton State Park
6959 S. Peller Ave.; Hastings; 651.436.5391
Kowalski's Woodbury Market
8505 Valley Creek Rd.; Woodbury; 651.578.8800
Unless you live on the eastern fringe of the metro area, this picnic trip involves a journey of 45 or so minutes east on Interstate 94. On your way to Afton State Park, make a pit stop in Woodbury, home to the ultimate Kowalski's, about the size of a department store, yet still primarily pushing fresh produce, local foodstuffs, and specialty items. It's conveniently easy to lose track of time--and your budget--in what must surely be acres of tasty items.
For picnicking purposes, there are hundreds of cheeses, including an impressive selection of local artisan rounds, fresh bread of the crunchy and chewy varieties, and an olive bar. The deli is loaded with picnic-friendly salads (including both the unusual, such as Thai-inspired selections, and classics such as potato salad and coleslaw), wraps, and dips (spinach and hummus are always good bets). If you're hankering for something on the unconventional side, bring a cooler stocked with ice and pick out some sushi and two bottles of all-natural iced green tea. When you're done, hop back onto I-94 and you're on your way.
The longest drive I'm suggesting, Afton State Park, is also probably the most versatile in what it has to offer nature-wise. There are woodlands, restored prairie fields and grassy patches, and bluffs with deep ravine drops (some of more than 300 feet) and amazing views of rocky terrain and the St. Croix River Valley. Wildlife can also be spontaneously viewed in this thriving ecosystem, including deer, fox, and badgers. Bird fanatics will want to keep their eyes out for hawks, waterfowl, bluebirds, meadowlarks, and various migratory birds cruising the skies. Those who just can't get enough squirrels in the city--I know you freaks are out there--will be glad to hear that there are several varieties out here as well, in all their jittery glory. Afton's wildflowers are particularly lovely, and different varieties bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall months.
There are swimming beaches, volleyball, and horseshoes (pick up equipment in the office), plus several different trails, including a 20-mile hiking trail, a four-mile paved bike trail, and, for the really ambitious, a five-mile horse trail. As for where to dine, many spots will probably suit your fancy, but actual picnic benches are located by the visitor center. Better yet, take the half-mile walk by the river to the more secluded picnic area. Remember to bring cash for parking: A vehicle permit for the day will set you back $7.
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