By Kevin Revolinski
Not far south from where the Mississippi River leaves Minnesota and becomes Wisconsin’s western border, a narrowing of the valley constricts the waters to form Lake Pepin, a beautiful 22-mile-long lake between the river bluffs never more than two miles wide. Here on its shores you’ll find the perfectly walkable little town of Pepin.
Also known for being the birthplace of children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pepin hosts a museum and gift shop honoring her in its downtown. And the Little House Wayside Cabin, a replica of her childhood home which was the setting for “Little House in the Big Woods,” sits on three acres seven miles northwest of town.
For breakfast, face the day with caffeine and a pastry at The 404 Coffee Shop or get the full from-scratch breakfast at Homemade Café. A jaunt to Villa Bellezza, a quaint vineyard seemingly transplanted from Italy, offers samples of their more than two dozen wines and tours from vineyard to tasting room. Their restaurant Il Forno serves pasta, panini and wood-fired pizzas. Sunday brunches bring an Italian buffet and mimosas to go with your cannoli.
Other dining delights include the guilty pleasures at the homemade fudge and ice cream shop attached to the Garden Pub. (Have a sip at their Tiki Bar, too.) Walk to the corner of the same block for local artisan crafts at The Tin Boutique.
The finest dining in town is at the aptly-named Harbor View Café, with its upscale seasonal menu and lengthy wine list in a casual setting. The modest deck at The Pickle Factory is a nice perch for a sundowner and some tavern fare as you look across the lake to the bluffs in Minnesota.
Speaking of the lake, Captain Bob, one of the hosts at the town’s Harbor Hill Inn, commands sailing excursions on his 32-foot Catalina 320—including sunset and starlight cruises.
After your busy day, rest your head at the aforementioned Harbor Hill Inn, an 1870 Queen Anne-style Victorian home a block away from Pepin’s marina.
THE LONG AND WINE-DING ROAD
This stretch of the Mississippi also has its own wine trail, and in addition to Pepin’s own Villa Belleza, there are two other stops nearby. Ten minutes north in Stockholm is Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery, an 80-acre farm and orchard with a tasting room and a full calendar of events throughout the summer season. To the south, up in the bluffs above Alma, is Danzinger Winery, an 18-acre vineyard using all its own grapes for an assortment of reds and whites, ranging from dry to sweet dessert wines.
A BEAUTIFUL BYWAY
Pepin is but one of 33 towns along Wisconsin’s 250-mile segment of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. From Prescott to Potosi with La Crosse right in the middle, State Highway 35 (and part of 133) slips between bluffs and river with a variety of regional parks, small-town charms, and scenic overlooks. Visitor centers at either end offer ideas, and free maps are available online at wigrr.com.