By ANNA BAHNEY
New York Times
“I remember doing this when I was a kid,” Linda Clarksean said with a laugh as she walked up the steep ramp to the 84-year-old Tipsy House holding the hands of her 5- and 6-year-old grandsons. Battling the tug of gravity through the fun house of impossibly angled rooms, they arrived at the peaked roof for the view of Okoboji, a resort on the Iowa Great Lakes.
Even among Midwestern boosters, the Iowa Great Lakes may seem like a dry joke. Waterfront condos and nightclubs in rural Iowa? But the Okoboji that emerges from a horizon of dark green corn stalks in Northwestern Iowa (within a couple hours’ drive of cities like Omaha, Des Moines and Sioux Falls, S.D.) is less condos-and-clubs and more an oasis of American family vacations past.
There are darting speedboats and languid pontoons sharing the blue water that wake-washes a beach full of sunbathers and wading children. Beyond the beach, several shiny crew-cab pickup trucks are parked in a grassy field at showy angles with shirtless young men tossing a Frisbee between. And from high above the roof of the Tipsy House comes the click-click-click of the Legend — the 1927 white wooden roller coaster that has been whipping and yanking riders around the lakeside amusement park for generations — ratcheting up to its point of no return.
“I just love the old-time feeling,” Ms. Clarksean said, surveying the scene. “Everything has stayed pretty much the same since I was in my 20s.” She and her family come down to Okoboji from Jackson, Minn., every summer to spend a Saturday, like this one in July, at Arnolds Park Amusement Park and on the beach. “It’s our favorite place to come as a family.”
Vacationers have been coming to these waters — a chain of glacier-carved lakes that somehow slipped away from Minnesota — since the mid-1800s. Although grand hotels have risen and fallen and railroad lines have come and gone, Okoboji has withstood tornadoes and floods, economic downturns, overzealous developers and the fickle fads of time.
Now, thanks to philanthropists and preservationists who saved the amusement park that anchors the area from being turned into condos so that it may celebrate its 125th year next summer, the region is thriving. A $1 million overhaul of the Legend, one of the country’s oldest wooden roller coasters, has just been completed. Sixty miles of bike trails have been developed around the lakes. A new classic-car museum just opened. And without sacrificing the beloved spots that regional regulars have frequented for decades, there is an appetite for growth with two newly opened craft-breweries and an upscale restaurant.
From Des Moines to Omaha and from eastern South Dakota into western Minnesota, when people say they are going to “the lakes,” they mean Okoboji. And the lakes are numerous. The largest are Big Spirit Lake, a grand, mostly residential enclave; West Okoboji Lake, which is lined with hotels, bars, beaches and the amusement park providing the pulse of the region; and East Okoboji Lake, a serpentine lake stretching between the other two. Taken together the lakes and the towns strung along them — Spirit Lake, Okoboji, Arnolds Park, West Okoboji, Milford — are collectively referred to as Okoboji.
But this sort of lay-of-the-land isn’t necessary for most visitors, as they — like me — have been coming to Okoboji for decades.
I return every summer to be with extended family that gathers at a lake house on Big Spirit Lake. As traditions go, these visits follow a comfortably narrow script: between boat rides and dock-time we sit around our cabin playing a version of corn hole while eating taverns (Iowa loose-meat sandwiches) off paper plates.
Feeling an itch to add some new places to our favorites, I flipped the script: “Anyone want to check out the new microbrewery in West Okoboji?”
I had a gaggle of 12 cousins — and one adventurous aunt — behind me.
The industrial-chic taproom of West O Beer would blend seamlessly into any urban hipsterville: there was a life-size Jenga-like game made of two-by-fours, a floor littered with the shells of peanuts, $45 hoodies for sale and large windows for watching the bearded beer-makers in wellies brewing.
The cousins and their spouses — 30-something professionals who traveled from their homes in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado Springs, Washington, D.C., Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and across Iowa to be together in Okoboji for the weekend — felt right at home and mostly ordered flights of four samples for six bucks. They loved the summer freshness of the Honeysuckle Saison, but felt the Coco Stout was not heavy enough. The double I.P.A. was very good, but their favorite was the Holy L Session India Pale Lager. I opted for the 1919 Root Beer, which at $1 a glass was a spicy and sweet treat.
Another taproom that opened in 2012, Okoboji Brewing Company, in Spirit Lake, offers its own craft beers and homemade sarsaparilla in a cozy cabin setting. When the cousins and I visited, we had the staff doing dishes in the back to keep up with all the flights we sampled.
The next day we were back to Okoboji classics with lunch at the nearly 70-year-old O’Farrell Sisters restaurant. It has operated in its current low-slung, cement-block building since 1958, and the diner’s décor echoes that era with a long lunch counter and gold-flecked Formica tables. We ordered fish sandwiches, but were mostly interested in the “massive” cinnamon roll and the Bloody Mary, with green olives and pickled asparagus — both generous in their own delightful ways.
Fortified, we headed for Arnolds Park. Although compared with visiting major amusement parks (which can leave you feeling beat-up, screamed-at and robbed) visiting Arnolds Park is more like a pleasant stroll along the lake.
The pay-per-ride park charges no admission, which makes it more welcoming to intergenerational families. As an independent park, there are few commercial tie-ins. The tilt-a-whirl is just a tilt-a-whirl; the bumper-cars are just bumper cars. With a surprisingly addictive game involving launching water-balloons at your friends and family, go-kart tracks and a miniature golf course (and not a costumed character in sight!) the park is truly an amusement park, not a theme park.
My sons, 2 and 3 years old, charged the park lurching giddily from the train ride to the Kiddie Coaster ($4 each for a ride). We tottered up and down the Tipsy House several times with them collapsing in peals of laughter and giggled as we bumped our way through the Mirror Maze (both of which are free).
The star of the park, of course, is the Legend roller coaster ($8 a ride), which is one of the 15 oldest wooden coasters in the world. The ride peaks at 63 feet and speeds on its tracks at 50 miles per hour, generating timeless roller-coaster screams that hang in the air over the intimate park.
There are things about being in Okoboji that can feel — especially arriving from a dense costal metropolis — like a throwback to some earlier, more civilized time. Parking at the amusement park is always free and tipping at several family resorts is discouraged. Driving the short distance from West Okoboji Lake to Big Spirit Lake still takes one past a farm with roaming cattle and several cornfields. And there is a cottage industry in Okoboji devoted to having a wry laugh at itself.
For decades T-shirts have been sold from a store called the Three Sons, touting the University of Okoboji. It’s the Lake Wobegon of higher learning whose entrance exam, available at the store’s three locations, is 20 corny word puzzles. There are no campus, curriculum, faculty or dorms, but the university (“Where fun in life is your degree”) does team up with local groups to host tournaments for softball, tennis, soccer and an annual marathon and triathlon. University of Okoboji apparel is the mark of an Okoboji insider — the Midwest’s version of a Black Dog hoodie from Martha’s Vineyard or an OBX sticker from the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
For dinner on our last night, my husband, Michael, and I wanted to try the high-end restaurant that opened last year in the Central Emporium — a collection of shops next to Arnolds Park. If for no other reason than it was a good story: The head chef and owner, Jeremy Neppl, is a graduate of Okoboji High School who studied at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked at a restaurant in Napa Valley before returning home to open Restaurant 1856, named for the year people started summering in Okoboji.
Our dinner companions, my cousin Tim and his wife, Chelsea, from San Francisco, were delighted to enjoy satisfying versions of the restaurant’s signature drinks — an old-fashioned with Templeton rye whiskey and no soda for him and a gin gimlet with Hendricks gin and St-Germain elderflower liqueur for her. “I’ve never been brave enough to order an old-fashioned in Okoboji before,” Tim confessed.
Indeed, it was a far cry from the canned beer people were sipping on their boats and the fishbowl drinks people were slurping on the lakeside deck of the Gardens bar and restaurant, directly below us.
But that was part of the fun — to be behind the wall-to-wall windows as the pink light of the sunset fought through the moody cloudscape of a brewing thunderstorm, eating excellent lamb shanks and prime rib while watching those aboard the party boat below climb to a teetering high platform and flip into the lake. A restaurant like this didn’t ignore lake culture — it just added to it. We’d be putting this on our list of Okoboji places to visit each season.
Our last must-visit-or-it’s-not-summer stop was the Nutty Bar Stand in Arnolds Park. People have been lining up for its namesake bar — a block of vanilla ice cream, dipped in chocolate, rolled in nuts and served on a stick — for more than 60 years.
Of course, over time, things do change, and within resort communities there is usually a healthy fear things may change a little too much for comfort. The Nutty Bar used to be a dollar. It used to be made with a block of Iowa-made Blue Bunny ice cream. Now it is $3 a bar and the ice cream is sourced elsewhere, according to the stand’s owner Doug Frederick. (The company changed its packaging and it didn’t work for the bars, but he still serves Blue Bunny dip ice cream).
Mr. Frederick, who has owned the stand since 1989, said he’s pleased with the updates the park has made. “I remember the old park, which was more wild and woolly, and now it is more family — and family goes well with ice cream.”
He paused, musing on something.
“But where does it stop? I’m hoping it doesn’t get to feel like the Dells,” he said referring to the Wisconsin Dells, a large resort area to the northeast he felt was too commercial. “What would happen if we get discovered? Okoboji’s really pretty special the way it is. We’re still a little backward here — backward in the best way.”