Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Go-Minneapolis.com

It’s true, especially in recent years, that New Yorkers have benefited from the green spaces of our urban landscape.  Gardens, renovated parks, roof-tops, the High Line, Central Park, have all provided a peaceful and bucolic retreat from our usual foot-frenzied sidewalk scene.

While we can boast about our lush land spots, we don’t have much to offer when it comes to bodies of water. Sure. Manhattan is an island surrounded by two rivers, but have you seen the Hudson and East River lately? If toxic discharge of PCBs and sewage waste is your idea of a fun day at the beach, then grab your shades and melt your shorts off.

Otherwise, consider venturing to new lands-like  St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Granted, you can’t exactly take public transportation there but a short 2.5-hour flight from any NYC airport will put you in the middle of a relaxed scene that combines the best of both city and country atmospheres.  Best of all, taxis are abundant and a reliable light rail system travels from the airport to the  Mall of America as well as the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In 2011, Minneapolis adopted the tagline, “City by Nature”, a fitting slogan for this metropolitan area that includes three lakes (Lake of the Isle, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet) in the center of the town.  With a 10-mile total radius encompassing all three pools, locals and tourists alike can enjoy special paths created specifically for pedestrians and cyclists.

Recently, I visited this Midwestern state to enjoy their comprehensive cultural scene, hospitality focused hotels, top-notch restaurants, and one of the absolute best fitness facilities I’ve ever experienced called The Firm.

6SMITH    http://www.6smith.com

6Smith's Bacon and Bourbon. Photo by Ryan Leeds
6Smith’s Bacon and Bourbon. Photo by Ryan Leeds

Upon arrival, I jumped the light rail from the airport and met my host in Downtown Minneapolis. She whisked me to the affluent suburb of Wayzata for a late lunch at 6Smith, a modern, sharply designed restaurant with gorgeous views of Lake Minnetonka. The massive space boasts 220 seats inside with 130 seats on the outdoor rooftop deck. While it was too chilly to dine outdoors it’s a safe bet that when warmer weather approaches, hungry diners will flock to the outdoor space.

6Smith's Ancient Grains Salad. Photo by Ryan Leeds
6Smith’s Ancient Grains Salad. Photo by Ryan Leeds

After indulging on smoky bacon w/ dried cherries (served with a side shot of bourbon),  meaty crab cakes, and perfectly seasoned wings, I balanced it out with an ancient grains salad. (It’s my non-scientific theory that all prior calories in a meal are negated by finishing on a healthy note! ). Proprietor Randy Stanley, a veteran of the Minneapolis hospitality scene, excels at making guests feel perfectly at home by treating them to quality ingredients and service. 6Smith may not be in the center of all the action, but it’s well worth considering for destination dining.

FOSHAY TOWER   http://www.starwoodhotels.com

After a fabulous and filling meal, my host brought me to the Foshay tower, an art deco skyscraper that now houses the W Hotel. Located downtown, it was the tallest building in Minneapolis until 1972 and was financed by Wilbur Foshay, a shady Bernie Madoff-like businessman who finished the edifice months before the stock market crash in 1929. For a nominal fee, visitors can enjoy terrific views from the observation deck and museum. The fee is waived for hotel guests.  Late owls can sip cockails at the swanky Prohibition bar, located on the 27th floor. Once used as a board room for the late magnate, it’s now a hotspot for the in-crowd. Anyone who can transform a staid place of business into a commingling of cocktails should- in my humble opinion-be nominated for a Nobel peace prize.

Fine dining awaits on the ground floor at Manny’s, an old school steak and seafood joint with a stellar reputation, classic ambiance, and a sarcastic, but welcoming wait staff.

Radisson Blu Downtown. Photo courtesy of Meng Yang.
Radisson Blu Downtown. Photo courtesy of Meng Yang.

RADISSON BLU DOWNTOWN  https://www.radissonhotels.com/en-us/brand/radisson-blu

 I effortlessly checked into the snazzy Radisson Blu and relaxed in a large, quiet, and comfortable business-class room.  The hotel is so cool that they don’t even end “blue” with an “e.” Take that, grammar!

The corner location at the end of the hall offered plenty of space and privacy with a metropolitan view overlooking the town.  A firm King sized bed brought a deep and restful sleep and a full spread of fruits, cereals, coffee, yogurt, and other items welcomed me to the morning. Free, fast wi-fi was also available and although my slothful self should have put it to use, the 17th-floor fitness center went unused. For the more ambitious traveler, just note that it is available—although getting on a treadmill burns far more calories than just looking at it.

Radisson Blu Downtown. Lobby. Photo courtesy of Meng Yang.
Radisson Blu Downtown. Lobby. Photo courtesy of Meng Yang.

The hotel is just a short walk from Target center, local theaters, and Macy’s. There is also a cute, classic candy store next door (Candyland)  which has a broad range of vintage candy and kettle corn. There are numerous dining options around the property, but those not wishing to stray too far can enjoy the FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar, a farm to table restaurant located on the hotel’s street level.  With an ideal location, clean accommodations, affordable rates, and a non-intrusive but helpful staff, Minneapolis’ Radisson Blu is the perfect spot for business and leisure travelers. Those with yen for shopping will be pleased to know that the chain has a second location near the Mall of America.

THE FIRM  http://www.thefirmmpls.com/

After a day of bacon, wings, and chocolate coated kettle corn, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rather large mirror at the Radisson hotel. I saw a 6-foot weeble wobble staring back at me; It was time for action. I laced my sneakers and went to The Firm, a cavernous boutique fitness studio located in an industrial neighborhood.

Gyms can be an intimidating place, but from the moment I walked in the door, I felt comfortable thanks largely in part to general manager Susan Rowland.  Rowland’s cheery disposition could make Charles Manson utter “namaste”.  Her staff went out of their way to make me feel special and to let me know that I was a part of a community of dedicated health seekers.  It was also my birthday and they lavished me with well wishes and encouragement. I felt duly celebrated.

The Firm's Susan Rowland. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com
The Firm’s Susan Rowland. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com

It had been a while since I’ve taken a spin class and with slight hesitation, I took the plunge. Instructor Jim Stathis played fantastic music and kept the 60-minute class lively by inspiring riders in a sincere, non-annoying manner. Stathis is a committed, personable  athlete whose passion for exercise is infectious and inspiring.  His interest also extends to running and he occasionally offers a seminar on improving technique.

The Firm's Jim Stathis. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com/
The Firm’s Jim Stathis. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com/

The next morning, I returned to The Firm and entered the retro world of Doug Melroe, a fabulous stud who taught a vintage aerobics class. “The most important thing to remember, Ryan”, he told me before it started,  “is to JUST. HAVE. FUN!”  Melroe was decked in a snug white tank top with black, tight shorts and left a blaze of color behind every move. Like Rainbow Brite’s talking horse Starlite, I followed.

The Firm's Doug Melroe. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com
The Firm’s Doug Melroe. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com

I grabbed a step from the back of the studio—not one of the purple and teal plastic types that were prevalent in the early nineties- this was a handmade wooden step. This is Minnesota, after all where they build their cardio steps from scratch.

Melroe’s class was packed and he led it with a humorous, but high-intensity workout of high kicks and grapevines. After a few minutes, I felt sure that I could play Cassie in A Chorus Line. The mirrors along the wall begged to differ, though,  and suggested that I was more of an “Ed Grimley”  type. Still,  Melroe was kind and encouraging to his entire fitness flock. He is Red Bull in human form with the same exuberant flair as Richard Simmons. Through throwback tunes and occasional campy commentary, his legions of loyal students were left exhausted but elated.

The Firm's Kelly Miyamoto. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com
The Firm’s Kelly Miyamoto. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com

Kelly Miyamoto opened The Firm almost 30 years ago and many of her instructors have been with her from day one. It is a testament to her leadership, her sense of community, collaboration, and focus on well-being.  In addition to spinning and aerobics, The Firm offers Yoga, Cross Fit, Personal Training, and other unique workout experiences.  It is truly a place like no other and even New Yorkers who think they have the best of everything will leave with a tinge of envy, lamenting that a similar space doesn’t exist in Gotham.

On Saturdays, a well-stocked Farmer’s market is accessible just around the corner from The Firm. Somehow, you’ll feel less guilt scarfing down an order of mini-fried donuts from a local vendor once you’ve exerted yourself.

The Firm's Cycling class. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com
The Firm’s Cycling class. Photo courtesy of www.thefirmmpls.com

DOUBLETREE BY HILTON HOTEL DOWNTOWN ST. PAUL    http://doubletree3.hilton.com

For the most part, the last two days of my trip were spent in St. Paul.  My initial purpose for visiting was to see Minnesota Opera’s World Premiere of The Shining at the Ordway Theater. (Read the interview with its star, Brian Mulligan here.)  Fortunately, the hotel was located just down the hill from the famed venue and was conveniently situated a stone’s throw from the light rail system. It is also in close proximity to a weekend farmer’s market, the St. Paul RiverCentre convention space, and the Minnesota children’s museum.

DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR
DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR

The well-staffed hotel is a superb choice for culture seekers and business travelers alike. The open stone lobby with comfortable black chairs and benches provide a warm and elegant touch, as do the fresh baked, individual chocolate chip cookies waiting for guests upon check-in.   The hotel has some age on it,  but it was well maintained and extremely clean with crisp, clean linens and towels. The room, decorated in muted earth tones, had plenty of space and a view for miles. It also came with a microwave and a small counter. The bathroom was unusually small, but since I wasn’t planning on re-enacting Curly’s ballet dream sequence from Oklahoma! it got the job done.  The hotel seemed to be full, but I didn’t hear a peep from my neighbors and was treated to two solid nights of sound sleep.

DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR
DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR

Other amenities offered at the DoubleTree included complimentary wi-fi, a fitness center (which once again I neglected), a table tennis room, and an indoor heated pool. There is also room service, a business center,  and an onsite restaurant. I decided to check out the pool on a late Saturday afternoon. It was teeming with children and their parents.  I’ve often said that I enjoy kids in a Bette Midler sort of way: From a Distance. With that, I made a swift U-turn and headed back to my room for some silence and solitude.

DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR
DoubleTree St. Paul. Photo courtesy of Ketchum PR

When I checked out, the courteous staff called a taxi and offered a complimentary bottle of water.  Such are the small gestures that make a huge difference.

With its natural beauty, rich cultural offerings, excellent dining, and more classes at The Firm,  there is much more to explore in these towns and the rest of the state whose slogan is “Land of 10,000 Lakes”.  I look forward to returning again, hopefully, sooner than later.