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Falling for Apples During the Annual Harvest in Minnesota : It's a true slice of Americana as festivals and fairs celebrate the fruit in small towns along the Mississippi River.

September 12, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

RED WING, Minn. — "Subtle bouquet, full-bodied, rich in color, truly noble and with a very pleasing aftertaste" are words one would expect to hear from a dedicated oenophile as he or she slowly savored the virtues of a fine bottle of wine. But apples?

Here every fall, along the Upper Mississippi in southeast Minnesota, from the town of Red Wing south to La Crescent, apples take on all the importance of a grape harvest in Bordeaux, Tuscany or the Rhine-Moselle valleys. There are apple festivals, apple queens, fairs and other activities sponsored by the likes of Apple Country Antiques, Apple Village Liquors, Apple Blossom Laundromat and other civic-minded types.

Fall weather and spirits hereabouts are the kind many Americans associate with Thanksgiving in our grade-school history books: crisp air with a tinge of wood smoke, a light dusting of snow one day and sparkling sunshine the next, thankfulness for a bountiful harvest mingled with the reality of a long winter ahead. It's a great time to be here, a real "Over the hill to Grandmother's house" feeling of nostalgia.

Gathering the apples takes on an interesting pattern. First come the local pickers, always doing their job proudly by hand. Then the "gleaners" move in to gather the residue for church and charity sales. Last come the deer, and the woods are full of them, to feast on the leavings.

As for the tastings at stands and orchards, we had a go at a dozen different types of apples, of the 27 varieties grown throughout the season. Given a sharp knife and cutting board, it didn't take long for us to decide that our favorite was the Haralson, a luscious, tart-sweet winner that is only sold to stores in Minnesota and surrounding states yet may be shipped to individuals nationwide.

Apart from all the hoopla about apples, a fall visit to the Bluff Country of the Mississippi Valley is made even more satisfying by its deserved reputation for being one of the most beautiful river drives in the United States.

Mark Twain, no stranger to the Mississippi, once wrote: "This amazing region, bristling with great towns . . . majestic bluffs charm one with the grace and variety of their forms. And then you have the shining river, white steamboats vanishing around remote points."

To Twain's dead-on description, we might add that a drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul down the Mississippi 134 miles to La Crescent is a delightful dose of Americana, with every little town (Hastings, Red Wing, Lake City, Winona, La Crescent, plus a short jaunt inland to the historic and charming Lanesboro) another nostalgic example of 19th-Century Main Street America.

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How long/how much? At least two days will probably do it for the valley, but another will be very rewarding for anyone who likes to meander. Lodging and dining costs seem almost on hold around here, compared to big-city prices.

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Getting settled in: Hastings' Rosewood Inn, an 1880 Queen Anne mansion listed in the National Register of Historic Sites, has eight B&B rooms, six with wood-burning fireplaces, plus old-fashioned claw-foot tubs in baths and sheet-size towels. The owners take great pride in the fact that 10% of their guests are locals just looking for an evening in the relaxed ambience of Rosewood. Sumptuous breakfasts may include ample servings of fresh fruit, a wonderful wild-rice omelet and date muffins.

The venerable St. James Hotel in Red Wing dates to the 1870s. Downstairs there's a cozy library with stained-glass windows, fireplace and lots of books to peruse until bedtime. Bedrooms are absolutely huge, with antiques, marble-top chests, handmade quilts and some rooms with great views of the river.

Winona's Holiday Inn has 112 spacious bedrooms, the town's largest indoor pool, recreation center and whirlpool. There's a full-service restaurant decorated with drawings of historic Winona.

Reservations are almost always necessary for a room at Mrs. B's Lanesboro Inn and Restaurant, another late-19th-Century home on the little town's main street. There are only 10 bedrooms, each decorated differently and two with fireplaces; all are very cozy. The high-ceilinged parlor has a small library, baby grand and a fireplace where one can have late-afternoon tea or a sherry. Mrs. B's offers a five-course set menu at dinner for $19, a bountiful spread for guests and non-guests that is famous in this corner of Minnesota.

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Regional food and drink: Minnesota's marvelous and plentiful wild rice is perfect company for the state's abundance of wild duck, geese, pheasant, venison, walleyed and northern pike. Since it's also a dairy state, there's a variety of cheeses, including an Amish-made blue that we find delectable.

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