Stretched out along the length of Lake Pepin, Lake City gives itself over to water-loving tourists all summer long and then retreats into a quiet winter.
On June 28, 1922, 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson strapped two eight-foot pine boards to his feet, grabbed hold of an old clothesline, and let an airplane pull him across the Mississippi River just offshore of Lake City: On that day, water-skiing was born. Replicas of his skis (he broke the originals while skiing) are on display at the Lake City Area Chamber of Commerce (101 Center St. W., 651/345-4123 or 877/525-3248, www.lakecitymn.org , 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., closed Sat.–Sun.).
Lake Pepin, as this 28-mile widening of the Mississippi River is known, is the Upper Mississippi’s top spot for sailing, water-skiing, and boating, and with 625 slips, the city-owned Lake City Marina (201 S. Franklin St., 651/345-4211) is the largest marina on the Upper Mississippi.
If you don’t have your own boat you can rent one from Hansen’s Harbor (35853 Hwy. 61 Blvd., 651/345-3022, boats start around $300 a day plus tax and fuel) or take a ride on the replica paddlewheeler Pearl of the Lake (651/345-5188, www.pearlofthelake.com , 1 p.m. Wed.–Sun. public excursions, $15).
The Hale Irwin–designed Jewel Golf Club (1900 Clubhouse Dr., 800/738-7714, $40 off-season 18 holes, $70 in season 18 holes) is the tops of the city’s golf course trio and also brings in many tourists.
Great River Vineyard (35680 Hwy. 61, 877/345-3531, www.greatrivervineyard.com , open Aug.–Oct., call before coming), three miles north of town, has seven acres of trellises, but instead of fermenting their grapes they produce juice, jelly, and jam. You can also pick your own grapes. There are also a couple of apple orchards selling directly to the public (Aug.–Nov.) along the highway near town.
The family-friendly Sunset Motel (1515 Lakeshore Dr. N., 651/345-5331 or 800/945-0192, $55) has an outdoor heated pool, game room, and fish-cleaning house, and they’ll even pick you up at the marina.
The guest rooms at the Red Gables Inn (403 High St. N., 651/345-2605 or 888/345-2605, www.redgablesinn.com , $99–150) are all named for old Mississippi paddlewheelers. Now a bed and breakfast, the Victorian home was built in 1865 just off the main highway. The comfortable porch is unbeatable.
From the road, it looks like a rundown fishing village—because that’s what it once was—but now Camp Lacupolis (71000 Hwy. 61, 651/565-4318 summer, 507/324-5216 winter, www.camplacupolis.com , $109–120), at the southern end of Lake City, is a vacation spot with unexpected charm. The dozen cabins are all mismatched and lined up along the water. They come fully equipped, and some are even air conditioned. There is limited space for RV parking, as well. It is particularly popular with anglers.
Hok-Si-La Municipal Park and Campground (2500 Hwy. 61 N., 651/345-3855, www.ci.lake-city.mn.us , $15) has 41 tent camping sites, a few of them secluded enough to feel private. It’s a short walk to the beach and hiking trails.
The relaxing Rhythm & Brew Coffeehouse (220 Chestnut St. E., 651/345-5335, 7 a.m.–2 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–2 p.m. Sun., $2–7) has a small menu of soups and sandwiches. Musicians sometimes take the stage on Sunday; otherwise, you can take a seat at the piano.
The local choice for home-cooking away from home is The Galley (100 Lyon Ave. E., 651/345-9991, 6 a.m.–8 p.m. daily, $3–11), a no-frills joint with a typical all-American roster of steak, seafood, and sandwiches. They also serve a Friday fish fry and a Sunday breakfast buffet.
For something a little fancier, there’s Nosh (310 Washington St. S., 651/345-2425, www.noshrestaurant.com , 5–9 p.m. daily except closed Tues., $16–25), with upscale treats like handmade pasta, local lamb chops, and paella.