It takes faith to climb as many as 100 steps from your car to a vacation cottage, especially after you've had to shift gears and say a little prayer just to drive up to the parking lot. But as you listen to leaves rustling in the treetops, you won't regret the effort.
Perched on a bluff in Fountain City, Wisconsin, Hawks View Cottages makes the perfect endpoint to a weekend drive along the east bank of the Mississippi. The sun sets over the verdant valley, and you think of what you saw (and ate!) along the way. Stockholm's shops include Abode Store and Gallery, featuring river-inspired crafts. Pocket gardens hide behind artsy shops in Alma. In Pepin, the peach pie at Third Street Deli tastes like pure summer. And tomorrow morning at Perrot State Park in Trempealeau, you can hike up Brady's Bluff for one last sweeping Mississippi view.
Pictured: Buena Vista Park in Alma overlooks the Mississippi River.
WHAT TO DO
Abode Store and Gallery Abode is one of several artsy shops -- many with a Swedish theme -- in Stockholm. (715) 442-2266; abodegallery.com 
Buena Vista Park A moderately easy wooded trail from Second Street in Alma leads up to one of the region's finest river views. (608) 685-4442; almawisconsin.com 
Perrot State Park The park offers fabulous overlook hikes, including Brady's Bluff. (608) 534-6409; wiparks.net 
WHERE TO EAT
Nelson Cheese Factory In Nelson, a former cheese factory now houses a gourmet wine and cheese shop that also serves deli sandwiches and ice cream. (715) 673-4725; nelsoncheese.com 
Kate and Gracie's Don't miss the divine roast beef sandwich. (608) 685-4505; kateandgracies.com 
Pier 4 Cafe & Smokehouse (pictured at left) The tangy sauce and smoky flavors here bring Memphis barbecue to Alma. You can even get a barbecue fix at breakfast with the heavenly Smokehouse Omelet. (608) 685-4964; pier4cafe.com 
Smiling Pelican Bake Shop A Twin Cities pastry chef brings her baking talents to tiny Maiden Rock. (715) 448-3807
Third Street Deli More than a deli, this Pepin restaurant serves high-quality bistro fare from a deli case. (715) 495-2982
WHERE TO STAY
Hawks View Cottages and Lodges Basic breakfast fixings are provided, but with so many nice bakeries along the road, you'd be wise to pick up something special for your morning noshing. From $175. (866) 293-0803; hawksview.net 
Northfield, Minnesota: 44 miles south of Minneapolis You'll see lots of bikes and Birkenstocks in this two-college town on the Cannon River. St. Olaf offers great music, while Carleton has an 880-acre arboretum. A food and crafts market takes over the river walk on summer Saturdays, and a full day's worth of cute gift shops and bookstores lines Division Street. Don't miss the tiny museum about a foiled Jesse James bank raid. Pictured at left: Northfield hosts a reenactment of the Jesse James robbery. (800) 658-2548; visitingnorthfield.com 
Lanesboro, Minnesota: 126 miles southeast of Minneapolis Tiny Lanesboro (aka Bed and Breakfast Central) struck tourism gold in the 1990s with the Root River Trail. Most visitors still come for easy, scenic cycling (rentals are available). But other draws include Scenic Valley Winery, the Commonweal Theatre and the Old Village Hall, where seasonality feeds the creative menu (just be sure to make a reservation!) (800) 944-2670; lanesboro.com