Road trip: A stunning scenic picnic on the North Shore
Before you head up, you'll want to pack a couple things. A picnic blanket isn't necessary, but you will want a small cooler, a plastic baggy full of damp paper towels, and a lemon. While there may be some 3.2 beer available along the way, you might be inclined to bring something a little more refined to drink. Heading out of Duluth, Fitger's Wine Cellar is located in the Fitger's Brewery Complex on Superior Street. Grab a bottle of Slate Stone Riesling ($15.99), a bit dry and conveniently packaged with a screw top, and a couple of plastic glasses and stash them in your cooler before hopping back on the road.
Following Superior Street just a block or so to London Road, take a right and slowly cruise out of town by the lake.
Enjoy the drive up the scenic side of Highway 61 that hugs the edge of the great lake. As you get closer to Knife River, you'll want to watch the left side of the road for Russ Kendall's Smokehouse at 149 Scenic Drive. Until a couple of years ago you could still catch old Russ occasionally working behind the counter. Sadly, he passed away, but the family-run business still caters to passers-by looking for the rich, smoky fish they purvey. The best are the small ciscos and the locally caught whitefish. The fish flesh is creamy soft, campfire-scented with just a little saltiness. You'll find other smokehouses along the way, but this is the best fish to be had in the area. It also sells beef jerky and beer. A bar is attached to the busy shop, if you're inclined to take a breather. Then load up your fish, a sleeve of saltine crackers, and maybe a little cheese. Be prepared to pay cash--there's a $10 minimum for cards. The prices are so reasonable it's not always an easy minimum to meet.
No picnic is complete without dessert. Just a bit down the road is Great! Lakes Candy Kitchen 223 Scenic Drive. Run by third-generation candymakers (their grandfather was Gust Cankelake of Canelake's in Virgina, Minnesota, home to some of the best old-fashioned candies in the state.) The ladies carry everything a sweet tooth could crave, from kiddie memories like Smarties Mega Pops or sheets of candy dots to their handcrafted creations. Amber-hued caramel caresses the Granny Smith apples on a stick, and the front case is full of chocolate-covered confections. The creamy white-chocolate almond bark will pair nicely with the smoked fish, but don't leave without a sack of the dark chocolate, sea salt-studded, gooey, lovely caramel candies. Half a dozen could go missing before you realize you've got your hand scouring the bottom of the bag for more.
Enjoy the rest of the cruise north to where the scenic road meets the speedy Highway 61. There's a Holiday gas station on your right, just outside of Two Harbors if you need any gas or further provisions. Turn around and head south back down that golden road.
Just a mile south of Knife River on the left is a small sign that indicates Stonybrook Road. Turn there. While there are plenty of other roadside stops along the way, this one is seldom crowded. There are several picnic sites just off this tiny winding road that eventually returns to the highway. You'll find plenty of large, flat rocks and stretches of green grass to spread out your bounty and savor.
Sip the crisp, apple-green flavors of the wine while marveling at the shimmering little waves dancing across the big body of water. The delicate smoked fish falls away from the bones and spreads out on a saltine like butter on toast. A little spritz of that lemon jazzes the whole thing up. When you've devoured your catch of the day, wipe those greasy, fishy hands on the wet paper towels with another squirt of lemon. If there's any candy left, cleanse your palate with that rich dark chocolate and the salty, butter-rich caramel that stretches across your molars before melting down the back of your throat. Moments this perfect are brief; if you don't stop and look around, you might miss it.
(When the colors run dry up north, check out our guide to great food road trips along the Mississippi River Valley.)