Combining Minnesota and Wisconsin makes for a nature and culture-rich road trip, with plenty of pit stops for keen golfers along the way, discovers Peter Ellegard
The still waters of the upper Mississippi River are shimmering gold as they reflect the trees lining its banks.
Here, in Wisconsin’s Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, two anglers slowly paddle their canoe past me in the dying rays of the setting sun.
Days earlier, while playing the Whistling Straits golf course – where golfing stars will battle it out in the 2020 Ryder Cup – alongside Lake Michigan, a bald eagle takes to the air from its nest atop a tall fir tree and soars majestically overhead on a fishing foray.
I’m taking a circular road trip of the neighbouring states of Minnesota and Wisconsin in America’s Upper Midwest, where I’m surrounded by nature.
Yet there is one natural marvel that proves more elusive. While New England is the big draw for Brits crossing the Atlantic to experience the autumn spectacle on “leaf peeping” tours, the show put on in the vast deciduous forests of the Great Lakes states is just as awe-inspiring.
It’s almost mid-October, normally peak autumn foliage season here, but Mother Nature is playing tricks this year.
Crisp autumn nights are a key trigger for the leaves to turn brilliant shades of crimson, yellow, purple and brown. Yet prior to my arrival temperatures have been an unseasonably balmy 32C, putting the phenomenon on hold.
I do enjoy tantalising glimpses of the region’s kaleidoscope of colours, though. Once, at the end of my trip through the Upper Mississippi River Valley that forms the border between the two states, and again early on in central Minnesota’s Brainerd Lakes, a popular holiday area encompassing 500 lakes and waterways.
I gaze at the vibrant red and yellow pockets of trees – the advance guard for the promised mass transformation to come – on a sunset cruise on Gull Lake aboard Destiny Cruises’ elegant motor yacht, North Star.
The yacht sets sail from a dock at the century-old, family-friendly resort Grand View Lodge, where I spend two nights.
It operates public cruises from May to mid-October and docks by fine-dining restaurant Bar Harbor Supper Club.
I enjoy cocktails and steak here after viewing the private historic car and wooden boat collection of restaurant owner and entrepreneur John Allen.
The area is also home to the Midwest’s largest racetrack, Brainerd International Raceway, where clients can watch high-octane drag racing and muscle car races, or perhaps even take the wheel of a racing car themselves.
Minnesota and Wisconsin offer an enticing combination for British visitors between spring and autumn. There’s plenty to see and do, whether or not the leaves have turned.
I start and end my journey in Bloomington, staying at the Radisson Blu and JW Marriott hotels that bookend the sprawling Mall of America’s shopping, dining and entertainment complex.
Just minutes from Minneapolis-St Paul Airport, it’s the largest shopping mall in the US and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
It’s well worth a day or two as part of a trip, especially as it is connected to Minneapolis and its airport via light rail.
Venturing into Minneapolis – which along with neighbouring state capital St Paul bears the nickname Twin Cities – I take in my first American football game.
Home team the Minnesota Vikings are playing the Detroit Lions at the magnificent new US Bank Stadium, where the Super Bowl will take place in early February next year.
Before the game, I experience one of the sport’s traditions, a tailgate party, drinking beer and shots served from giant coolers in the back of a 4x4.
It may be before midday, but the car park is full of partygoers, many wearing Vikings football shirts and some in fancy dress, and the atmosphere is rocking.
Wisconsin’s state capital is a green city rich in parks and gardens and with elegant architecture that includes the granite-domed Wisconsin State Capitol, Classical Revival-style Governor’s Mansion and Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces Monona Terrace and First Unitarian Society Meeting House.
I pig out at the delightfully named, A Pig in a Fur Coat, a restaurant where I feast on meat at tables made from butchers’ blocks, before retiring to my spacious room at the chic boutique HotelRED, which has polished concrete floors and walls.
My final day sees me drive back to Minneapolis along part of the Frank Lloyd Trail, created this year to mark the influential architect’s 150th birthday and taking in some of his most important Wisconsin buildings, before skirting the ridge-lined Upper Mississippi River.
I’ve driven more than 1,000 miles, but even with golfing detours it can be done comfortably in 10 to 14 days, and can also include Lake Superior.
It appeals to clients who like to discover a fascinating and beautiful part of America that’s off the beaten tourist track, but who also appreciate their creature comforts.
Get the timing right and they could also enjoy one of nature’s wonders too.
Book It: America As You Like It has a 14-night Fall Foliage and Golf y-drive to Minnesota and Wisconsin from £2,495pp, based on two sharing, including flights to Minneapolis, car hire and accommodation. A standard SUV with Your Car Hire costs £481.86 for 14 days, picking up on October 1, 2018. americaasyoulikeit.com; your-carhire.com
Toby McCarrick, executive director of the Great Lakes USA, says: “The peak of fall colour in Minnesota is usually during the end of September and the first week of October, when striking golden and red colours extend across the landscape.
In Wisconsin you can expect peak colour in the far north in the last week of September and the first week of October.
In central Wisconsin it’s around mid-October and, in southern Wisconsin, during the second half of October. Coupled with the mild days, clear skies and sunshine, the fall colours make for a stunning road trip.”