The water may be still. The town is anything but.
A perennially popular tourist destination, Stillwater, tucked along the banks of the St. Croix River, has about 18,000 residents – which is also approximately the number of people waiting in line at Nelson’s Ice Cream.
The city’s most famous feature, the Stillwater Lift Bridge, opened in 1931, back when Hoover was president and a stamp cost 2 cents. Still used daily by commuters, the bridge will become part of a trail system when a new span, under construction, opens downriver around 2016.
If you’re on vacation, why not start with dessert first? The abovementioned Nelson’s Ice Cream serves outlandish portions, including the Lumberjack sundae (five softball-size scoops and toppings). Michelle Obama would certainly not approve. “If you want to order the smallest cone possible, get the ‘child size,’ but even that is ‘the size of a small child,’ according to my son, Rowan,” said Darcy Bell-Myers, a Stillwater resident and member of MPR’s Public Insight Network.
In the Stillwater version of a McDonald’s-versus-Burger King smackdown, head to the corner of Fourth and Churchill, where two dueling, adorable café/bike shops do business. Both highly recommended by local residents, the upscale Chilkoot Café & Cyclery is the sleeker of the pair, while the bohemian vibe at The Bikery makes it simply the “coolest coffee shop in town,” said resident Ted Malm, also a PIN source. Try the house-made Chilkoot granola or The Bikery’s chocolate croissant.
Fine dining options include the riverside Dock Café, where the patio view includes boaters, the bridge and perhaps blue heron; the trendy bistro Reve 324 on the main drag; and Phil’s Tara Hideaway, originally a chicken shack from the 1920s that’s located “just off Highway 36 before you make the curve into Stillwater,” said William Pappas, a resident and PIN source who enthusiastically recommends the Greek-Mediterranean menu. “Very old log cabin and great ambience inside. Always crowded. Love the building!”
Excellent food is also available without a reservation or a fat wallet. At Brine’s Market or the River Market Community Co-op, stock a picnic basket and relax in the dining room of the great outdoors at Lowell or Pioneer parks.
Up a lazy river, indeed: On the St. Croix, try canoeing or join a boat tour for a leisurely cruise and an up-close view of the lift bridge in action.
For landlubbers, take a guided ride. “When someone comes to town for the first time, we always take them on a trolley tour,” Bell-Myers said.
It’s also a great place to enjoy being outside. “Bring your bicycles to Stillwater,” Pappas said. “Head north and choose just about any combination of routes. Head into Wisconsin, create a loop through Osceola, or just a two-hour cruise to Marine and Square Lake and back. If you have any energy left, climb the stairs up the rocks at the south end of town. From the top is a superb view of the city and valley.”
Residents also recommend the nearby Gateway Trail (18 miles from St. Paul to Pine Point Park near Stillwater) for all kinds of non-motorized fun.
And don’t miss Teddy Bear Park. What kid, or kid-at-heart, could resist a stellar playground dotted with whimsical bear sculptures?
3) Soak up the arts and culture
“There is art everywhere in Stillwater,” Pappas said. “Galleries, antiques, specialties, sculpture, exquisite jewelry. You just have to walk from one end to the other and find it.”
Another highlight is Artreach St. Croix – its marquee event, the annual Take Me to the River festival, is set for Sept. 21-29. With 10 art fairs stretching from Hastings to St. Croix Falls, Artreach acts as the “concierge” for the event, said executive director Heather Rutledge.
Of course, art is not just for seeing and selling, it’s sourced here, too. The legendary potter Warren Mackenzie, 89, still throws at his Stillwater studio, although his pieces are sold at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. “The pottery scene here is really strong thanks to Warren Mackenzie and his peers,” Rutledge said.
She also singled out a newcomer, Tim Nyberg, an illustrator and painter who recently traded Door County, Wis., for Stillwater. “His stuff is really fresh and fun, and his studio is beautiful,” Rutledge said.
4) Step back in time
In a town famous for antiques, history spills into the aisles of shops like Midtown Antiques or Staples Mills Antiques. And for vintage clothing, said Gloria Sell, a PIN source, “prices are better than in the cities.”
At the public library, built in 1902, a magnificent terrace overlooks the town and river. “It is so pretty that people get married there – married at the library!” Bell-Myers said.
Next door, the Episcopal Church of the Ascension houses a set of gorgeous, priceless Tiffany stained glass windows (the three around the altar) – this, of course, is not a regular spot on the tourist circuit but worth a peek if you can manage it.
Near the bridge downtown, the Water Street Inn (aka “the lumber barons hotel”) was built around 1890 and renovated a century later. The Donald Trumps of days gone by have given way to bridal parties and weekenders.
Last but not least for the historically minded in Stillwater: the Victorians.
Fans of the epoch also treasure the Victorian Christmas at the Historic Courthouse (built in 1870), with arts and crafts, music and period attire.
5) Learn from the locals: 3 important tips
Try off-peak times. “Visit during the week to avoid the crowds,” said Sue Hibberd, a resident and PIN source.
Venture beyond the main drag. “The area downtown is beautiful and fun, but there is more to the town than downtown,” said Michelle Gerrard, a resident and PIN source. “People are very friendly in the neighborhoods. It is very ‘Mayberry-esque.’”
Slow down. Breathe. Repeat.
So many things to do, eat, drink, buy: It would be difficult to pack it all into one trip. But there is another way.
“I have come to appreciate that you actually don’t have to do anything when you come to town,” said Sell, a 25-year resident of Stillwater Township, just north of Stillwater. “Taking a walk along Lowell Park or walking to Wisconsin on the bridge is an enjoyable way to spend a few quiet hours.”