Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part I: Why you should visit Iowa, specifically Clear Lake June 1, 2015

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Clear Lake

Clear Lake in northern Iowa is home to one of Iowa’s largest lakes and many quaint, home-grown shops like J Avenue. The community also has a definite artsy vibe.

WHY VISIT CLEAR LAKE? In Iowa, of all places. Oh, yes, we Minnesotans have not always spoken highly of our neighbor to the south. But why, oh, why? They are a great bunch, I’ve discovered during the past three years of crossing the border to explore communities like Decorah, Marquette, Mason City and, most recently, Clear Lake.

A quissensitial small town scence

A quintessential small town scene photographed at the lakeside park on the end of Main Avenue in Clear Lake.

My husband and I have found exactly the type of towns we love—small, friendly, charming, historic, unique and not overly-crowded. The rural character of Iowa suits us, farm kids from southern and central Minnesota.

Lake Time Brewery, a great place to converse with the locals on a Friday evening.

Lake Time Brewery, a great place to converse with the locals on a Friday evening in Clear Lake.

You can joke all you want about pigs and cornfields. But I’ll tell you, this state is about a whole lot more than farming. It’s truly about a people who are down-to-earth friendly, like locals Connie, Nancy, Chris and “They Call Me Norm,” whom we met at Lake Time Brewery in Clear Lake. Or Anna, who served oven warm cookies with a broad smile at Cookies, etc. Or Mark, who guided us on a brief tour of the Surf Ballroom when the dance floor was officially closed.

Brick paver sidewalks line Main Avenue and the lakeside walk. That detail adds to the character and charm.

Brick paver sidewalks line Main Avenue and the lakeside walk. That detail adds to the character and charm of Clear Lake. Take time to read the messages.

As a traveler, you remember friendliness or lack thereof.

My husband waited a long time for this oversized and delicious burger.

My husband waited a long time for this over-sized and delicious burger at a downtown Clear Lake restaurant.

Just like everywhere, our visit to Clear Lake wasn’t perfect. Lunchtime at a downtown restaurant found us waiting an extraordinarily long time for our food with diners who arrived after us served before us. Eventually the waitress offered an explanation: A new cook.

This is not the restaurant with the near duplicate name. Just one of the many downtown Clear Lake dining choices.

This is not the restaurant with the near duplicate name. Just one of the many downtown Clear Lake dining choices.

And our lack of knowledge that two restaurants in town share nearly the exact same name led us to the wrong one for our evening meal.

Balloons marked a graduation reception at a public rental space in the lakeside park.

Balloons mark a graduation reception at a public rental space in the lakeside park.

Still, we loved Clear Lake. The welcoming shopkeepers, the relaxed pace, the lovely shops, just the general ambiance of this lakeside town appeals to us. There’s a sense of community. It’s a place where you can walk and bike and drive and feel at-home-comfortable. I expect if we’d ducked into any of the many graduation receptions in town, we would have been welcomed or at least politely told about another spot to grab a bite to eat.

We were just a few days too early for the seasonal opening of the South Shore Sweet Spot.

We were just a few days too early for the seasonal opening of the South Shore Sweet Spot which is shaped like an ice cream cone.

We were disappointed that a few attractions, like the Clear Lake Fire Museum and South Shore Sweet Spot, were not yet open for the season.

I would love to revisit North Central Iowa Gardens in Clear Lake at a later date.

I would love to revisit Central Gardens of North Iowa in Clear Lake at a later date.

And, had we visited later, Central Gardens of North Iowa would have been much more inviting with water flowing and summer flowers blooming. And, certainly, if Mark had not arranged a special tour for us at the Surf Ballroom, we would have been unhappy. Check ahead (especially if you’re driving some distance to tour the Surf Ballroom) or plan your visit for after Memorial Day. And probably before Labor Day.

Downtown Clear Lake on a Saturday morning in mid May.

Downtown Clear Lake on a Saturday morning in mid May.

But most of all, visit Iowa. It’s much more than pigs and cornfields.

FYI: This post introduces you to a seven-part series on Clear Lake, Iowa, which my husband and I visited on May 15 and 16. I’ll show you Clear Lake’s Americana charm, character and artsy vibe and take you to the lake, Surf Ballroom and inside a remarkable chapel.  Enjoy the tour.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling