MINNEAPOLIS — London, Paris, Savannah and other cities noted for their beauty owe much of their fame to lovely parks. This town is a park, acre after endless acre as green and glorious as a swath of Irish landscape planted and preened lovingly.
After the parks come the lakes and rivers, 22 of them sparkling within city limits, another 1,000 within an hour's drive.
It's difficult to see how Minneapolis could come in anywhere but first in a quality-of-life poll. Name another place with 57 miles of trails right in the city for hiking or cross-country skiing; 48 free beaches around lakes or along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers; 105 golf courses, and downhill skiing in town.
And culture is a civic mania, with a dozen or so theaters topped by the Guthrie and Children's Theater, the latter acclaimed the nation's best; superb Minneapolis Symphony; University of Minnesota; world-renowned Walker Center and Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, both loaded with masterworks.
Sure, there are a few minuses, like South Pole winters carrying frostbite in every snowy blast. And the geese. These Canadian honkers love the town's lakes, and they drive motorists berserk with their noise, so city fathers packed 14,000 of them off to Oklahoma City, hoping they'd stay there.
Here to there: Republic Airlines and Northwest will get you there non-stop, Continental with one. A limo takes you into town for $4.50, taxi about $18.
How long/how much? Two days, unless you're really into culture or paddling around one or more of those 1,000 lakes. The Land of the Sky Blue Waters doesn't come cheap. Moderate accommodations take a bit of doing. Dining is high moderate.
Moderate-cost hotels: Weekends almost get accommodations into this category, otherwise they tend to be expensive. Charmer of the lot is Nicollet Island Inn (95 Merriam; $88 double, $59 weekends), a former sash-and-door company recently restored into 24 guest rooms with heavy tones of Victorian in its armoires, writing desks, wing chairs and old-fashioned comforters. It's in the middle of a lake with views of the Mississippi, great wild-rice soup from the kitchen.
Downtown you'll find the Normandy Inn (4th Avenue South at 8th Street; $56-$59, plus weekend packages with perks), another old one given new life recently to include an indoor pool surrounded by old Norman facades. Leathery lobby, free parking always something special downtown, a restaurant that brings in locals for the legendary popovers.
Three Thrifty Scot motels give you lots for the money: free continental breakfasts, color TV, kids free. All are in the $30-$40 range, fairly good locations, phone (800) 228-3222.
Regional food and drink: We would dine on wild rice five times a week if it weren't for the price, but here this delicacy is in many of the best places at moderate cost. Fresh-picked morel mushrooms are the State Fungus, an unappetizing title for something so delicious. And all those lakes and rivers are brimming with walleye pike, sunfish and bass, sure to please fish fanciers.
Scandinavians and Germans made up most of the 19th-Century population, so you'll find Swedish pancakes, Norsk waffles, \o7 krumkake\f7 and \o7 fyste kake\f7 , plus lots of German dishes.
Moderate-cost dining: Lorelei (Riverplace, 25 Main S.E.) has pre-World War I German decor, understated but lovely, overlooking the Mississippi. We had the \o7 leberkase\f7 and \o7 maultaschen\f7 , the latter noodles stuffed with bratwurst, onion and bread crumbs, and there's a sauerbraten with \o7 spaezel\f7 platter and enough other authentic Teutonic specialties to keep anyone happy.
Formerly a downtown art gallery that still retains the feel, Nigel's (12th and Harmon), has a clutch of colorful graphics on stark white walls, exposed red heating pipes and the best seafood in town. We had the special baby coho salmon simply sauced; there's also sauteed scallops Szechuan and seafood fettuccine.
Mrs. Scandia Kaffestube (Nicollet Mall) upholds the Nordic tradition with \o7 smorbrot\f7 at lunch, Swedish meatballs at $6.95 for dinner. Boston Brownies (Riverplace) offers 18 models from Kahlua, Amaretto, to M&Ms and another anointed with chocolate butter cream frosting and chocolate sauce.
Going first-class: Amfac Hotel (30 S. 7th; $113 double, more weekend packages) is new and gorgeous, built around an atrium. Upon our arrival a group of hotel employees sang beautifully in flawless Italian at the sixth-level balcony. Great rooms in the town's most luxurious hotel, waiters and waitresses hired for Gustino's restaurant for their voices, later taught to wait tables. Laura Nichols, a charming mezzo, can deal drinks and the habanera \o7 "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" \f7 as mockingly as Carmen, never mixing an order or clunking a note. Fine Italian food, smiling faces all around.
The Willows restaurant in Hyatt Regency (1300 Nicollet Mall) is justly famous for its duck straight from the rotisserie, wild rice and lingonberry sauce adding to the festivities.