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A hipster scene booms in Wisconsin

Eau Claire is a hotbed of the arts, and recreational options abound. The dining scene is thriving, too.

The bustling Eau Claire Downtown Farmers' Market comes to Phoenix Park on Riverfront Terrace on Saturdays.
The bustling Eau Claire Downtown Farmers' Market comes to Phoenix Park on Riverfront Terrace on Saturdays.Read moreDavid Joles / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS

Eau Claire is the best city in Wisconsin you haven't been to.

Maybe you have, if you went to college there or had a friend who did. Or maybe you're a native who's already in on the secret of the Chippewa Valley.

But if you're like me and overlooked the small city in west-central Wisconsin, you're missing out on a great destination for a getaway.

The city of 67,545 is a little Madison and a little Milwaukee, with plenty of outdoor activities, from biking to kayaking, thanks to its location at the confluence of two rivers; a college-town youthfulness that manifests in bars, breweries, and cafes; a growing dining scene with a focus on local foods; and a booming arts scene, thanks to locals like Justin Vernon, of the Grammy Award-winning band Bon Iver, and Nick Meyer, founder of the arts and culture magazine Volume One and a force behind some of the area's music events and festivals.

"Eau Claire is a town where, if you arrive the wrong day, the wrong season, with nobody to show you where to go, it can look pretty dead," Meyer said. "But if you're here either the right day, the right season, or with the right guide, you can have an amazing experience here that I think really surprises people."

Like other Wisconsin towns, Eau Claire buzzes with things to do in warmer months. But even when I first visited for a conference in November, I found plenty to do and was immediately struck by this former sawmill town.

The trendy boutique hotel where I stayed provided a great first impression. The Oxbow Hotel opened in September 2016 after nearly four years of work converting the old Green Tree Inn, which had fallen into disrepair since opening in 1947 as the Edwards Hotel.

Meyer, along with partners Vernon and Zach Halmstad, founder and CEO of JAMF Software, and Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Center, were the creative force behind the hotel, which has 30 rooms and suites and an attached restaurant, bar, and performance stage.

Rooms feature unique Wisconsin touches, such as prints from local artists, local snack offerings in the minibars, and working record players, with records available to check out free from the front desk.

Another perk at the front desk (aside from the perk-up from free Kickapoo Coffee): bikes available for guests to use at no charge.

I checked one out on my second visit to the hotel, on a warm, sunny weekday in May. Before I set out, manager Allison Gumz gave me a map to the city's 30 miles of paved trails and showed me the hotel's recommended route around the city.

I got on the Chippewa River State Trail just across the street and headed west along the Eau Claire River, then north along the Chippewa River through Phoenix Park.

I crossed the Chippewa via one of a handful of railroad bridges throughout the city and followed the glittering river south through Owen Park, then west past the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire campus on the opposite bank. At Highway 12, I turned north to ride through Carson Park and back to the Oxbow.

The bike paths aren't new in Eau Claire, but they help contribute to the city's overall appeal, which has grown over the last few years as it has undergone a kind of renaissance fueled by projects like the Oxbow and the Lismore, another remodeled hotel downtown; a $45 million arts center under construction; and Eaux Claires, the indie music festival curated by Vernon and the National's Aaron Dessner.

"There really are a lot of people pulling in the same direction right now, and that's the only reason that things are really taking hold in the way that they are," Meyer said.

That includes locals like Meyer and Vernon, as well as newcomers. Meyer noted that Toy Car Studios store owner Justin Green is an Austin, Texas, transplant, and in December, a couple from Portland, Ore., moved to Eau Claire to start a bookstore after falling for the town while visiting for Eaux Claires.

"This place is on the rise quickly, so you can get in, you can have an impact," Meyer said. "What you do matters in a town this size. Anybody with any level of ambition can come to a community like this, especially when it's on the rise as fast as this is, open their thing, do their thing, work really hard, and it can matter here."

And though locals know they have a good thing going in Eau Claire, Meyer hopes more visitors will discover the city's appeal.

"I want to get more visitors here, and create stuff that makes it more of a destination that way," he said.

The city's natural attractions already help with that, from the bike trails and the rivers (the Oxbow also provides kayak rentals for an additional charge) downtown to gems outside the city, like Big Falls County Park and its tumbling cascade, and the Devil's Punchbowl, a small natural area with a bowl-like sandstone rock formation outside Menomonie to the west.

That doesn't even include the prime state parks nearby, from Lake Wissota and Brunet Island to the north to the network of state bike trails that include the Chippewa River, Old Abe, and Red Cedar.

Among the growing dining scene is the Informalist, which serves a locally sourced menu in the remodeled Lismore. Choices range from wood-fired pizzas and burgers to filet mignon and trout.

The Lakely, the Oxbow's restaurant, also has a locally sourced menu, overseen by head chef and Chippewa Falls native Nathan Berg.

"The local-food thing here is kind of just starting to hit and take hold," Meyer said.

Over cocktails at the Lakely bar later that night, I chatted with bartender Holly Roberts as she shook up a Gilly's Sugarbush Sour, a smooth and refreshing bourbon drink with lemon, maple syrup, and egg white.

I had met Roberts on my first visit to the Oxbow, on her second day on the job. She came to Eau Claire for school in 2008 from Green Bay and fell in love with the city.

"I've traveled a lot, and [Eau Claire] is like nowhere I've been to before," she said.

She recommended visiting the Firehouse, a craft beer bar that Oxbow manager Gumz had also suggested, Houligan's for dinner, and Clancy's, a laid-back bar of the dive variety.

The Dive is an actual Eau Claire bar whose name is a bit of misnomer. The trendy indoor/outdoor rooftop bar on the second floor of the Lismore is another spot for cocktails and is among Meyer's recommendations for visitors (aside from his own hotel and restaurant, of course).

"The brewery thing has blown up here, too," he said.

The granddaddy, of course, is Leinenkugel's in Chippewa Falls. The sixth-generation family brewery (now owned by the parent company of MillerCoors) celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. The lodge where tours start features a large stone fireplace, merchandise for sale, and a horseshoe bar for tastings.

The Jacob Leninekugel Brewing Co. celebrates its anniversary in August with a weekend of events in Chippewa Falls.

Tours provide a look inside some of the historic brewery's buildings, which feature new signs to celebrate the anniversary.

In Eau Claire, Lazy Monk Brewing moved into a new, bigger space on the Chippewa River in 2015. It serves up classic European lagers, like Bohemian Pilsner and Bohemian Dark Lager in a German-style beer hall inspired by the owner's homeland, Czechoslovakia.

The Brewing Projekt opened in April 2015 (after a two-year legal and red-tape battle) and is already looking to expand, with plans to move into an old brick building down the street next year. Beer offerings include Eauld Alliance, a bold Scotch ale; WISCoast, a drinkable pale ale; and rotating experimental brews, including some sours. Sip one on the large outdoor patio decked out in strings of lights before the brewery moves.

To the west in Menomonie, the Lucette Brewing Co. has been serving area favorites, like Farmer's Daughter, a blond ale; and Ride Again, an American pale ale, since 2010. The brewery imported a wood-fired pizza oven from Naples in 2015 and has been serving Italian-style pizzas since.

My mom - a road-trip buddy for my Eau Claire travels - and I stumbled on Lucette after a rainy stop at the Devil's Punchbowl. We scratched our other dinner plans as we dried out with a flight of four brews and ogled the thin-crusted pizzas being made right in front of us in the oven behind the bar.

Like the rest of the Chippewa Valley, the pizza didn't disappoint, and, for the countless time that week, I found myself asking, "How have I never been here before?"