Central Gardens of North Iowa
We started our morning off at Central Gardens of North Iowa, where we found a lot going on during a midweek morning. Line dancing was in progress, so we got energized for the day and exercised early. The dance lessons and country music made a fun kick-off to the day.
Central Gardens is almost three acres and features more than 20 themed gardens. The only free public garden within 90 miles of Clear Lake has over 18,000 visitors annually. I particularly enjoyed the water features, where they had a waterfall in one area and a bubbling brook in another. The garden became a multi-sensory experience with places to sit nearby: sit and listen to the water.
The kids love the Bee Happy Discovery Garden offering vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Families were coming to visit the three resident chickens at the Happy Hen House when we were there. For some families coming to the garden was a weekly event.
After dancing in Central Gardens, we worked up a thirst, so it was off to Holistic Harmony for a bit of sustenance for the rest of our day.
Iced tea is my go-to drink, so I was excited to see the variety available at Holistic Harmony. They sell brewed tea and bulk custom blends you can take home and brew yourself. They also offer herbs for brewing herbal tea. Essential oils are another one of their product lines. They provide products and services that promote beneficial responses for the mind, body, and soul using alternative therapies, tea, and education.
Surf Ballroom and Museum Tour
Then we were off to the Surf Ballroom and Museum, where Buddy Holly, Richie Vallens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson made their last performance. Plan to spend at least an hour.
First, they have a museum with a short video discussing the site’s history and the events leading up to the crash.
You’ll find a lot to do here. We had a great time in the green room, looking for our favorite stars’ signatures on the wall. You could spend hours just doing that. Then, of course, you’ll want to view the Surf Ballroom from the stage, just like Buddy saw it. I particularly enjoyed the detailed architecture with a Caribbean flair. Again, I highly recommend taking the guided tour to understand everything you see.
The Fox House
If you take the Deluxe Tour, it includes a tour of the Carl J. Fox home across the street from the ballroom. Fox built the Surf Ballroom, and his former home is still a beautiful mid-century modern house on Clear Lake.
Three Stars Plaza
At the end of our tour, we make a quick stop at Three Stars Plaza, located just down the block from the Surf Ballroom. While the sculpture looks a bit like a UFO, closer examination reveals a 15-feet tall stack of records on the spindle of an old-fashioned turntable. The plaza is a tribute to the three fallen stars, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Vallie, and J.P “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Standing under the stack, you’ll see their names inscribed in the records. You can push a button on this interactive exhibit, hear excerpts from their songs, and learn about these pop icons.
Lunch at The Other Place
We had lunch at The Other Place, a regional original with 11 locations throughout Iowa and Kansas. They offer a made-from-scratch menu, and you can taste the difference. You’ll want to try the house-made ranch. You can tell they make it in-house from scratch.
We visited on Tuesday when they had a pepperoni pizza and salad special. Other local favorites are the hot tuna sub and the pork tenderloin; however, check out their menus for daily lunch specials or the main menu.
Memorial Crash Site Visit
After lunch, we drove into the countryside to visit the crash site in an Iowa corn field, the entrance marked by a gigantic pair of Holly-style glasses. You’ll have a one-way walk of about a quarter mile into the corn field to the memorial and actual crash site. If you do not wish to make the walk, there is a great photo opportunity at the trailhead, so still worth the visit. For a map to the Memorial Crash Site, click here.
Shopping in Downtown Clear Lake
After some serious shopping in the quaint shops in downtown Clear Lake and a stop at the original Cabin Coffee for a midafternoon pick-me-up, we walked a few blocks to the Lady of the Lake boat docks, where we got out on the lake.
Lady of the Lake Cruise
We sat back and enjoyed a 90-minute public cruise on the Lady of the Lake Cruises around Clear Lake, a natural, spring-fed lake. The Lady of the Lake is a double-decker boat with an open view on the top deck. You can sit at tables, enjoy the view, and some snacks or a cocktail from the cash bar onboard.
The captain narrated about the boat and the lake for a fun time on the water. At 14 miles around, I found Clear Lake is more expansive than I expected. If you want to get out on the lake and do some fishing, walleye fishing is a top sport here. You can rent a fishing boat at Clear Lake Boats to try local water sports. Being on the water provides a whole new perspective on the town!
Piper’s Pro Planning: Schedule
The Lady of the Lake Cruise happens almost daily except Wednesdays. Wednesday evenings, they offer dockside entertainment. Check their cruise schedule as you plan your day in Clear Lake.
173° Craft Distillery
The backstory on 173 Degree Craft Distillery starts like one of those bar jokes. “What do you get when a physician, chemist, and engineer start a distillery?” But the result is not a joke but rather a unique experience.
Uncle John and his nephew Doug are both trained chemists. In addition, the family patriarch Darrell taught high school chemistry. So knowledge passed down through three generations of chemists brings a one-of-a-kind experience to 173° Craft Distillery, named because the boiling point of ethanol is 173 degrees. This fun fact will come in handy at your next cocktail party. In the meantime, try the Molecular Martini.
While the drinks were tasty and pretty, the beautiful interior struck me. They featured murals detailing the distilling process, and the lights cast a lovely shade of blue. In addition, the rooftop patio is perfect for hanging out at the lake on a summer evening.
They produce their spirits on-site and offer large viewing windows so you can peek at the equipment and their process. Most production activities happen when the bar isn’t open; however, you might catch a glimpse of them working on one of the processes.
After cooling off with an adult beverage at 173 Degree Craft Distillery, we headed to Avion Azul for dinner.
Dinner at Avion Azul
Avion Azul, Spanish for Blue Airplane, is appropriately located at the Mason City Municipal Airport, just a few miles from Clear Lake. I wondered where the blue came from in the name, and it turns out blue is the owner’s favorite color. As a result, you’ll find blue throughout the décor making the restaurant upbeat and happy.
I love Mexican food, so I was particularly excited about trying this restaurant and wasn’t disappointed. Fodor’s featured Avion Azul in this article, which they listed in the fourth category, Cockpit-Worthy Airport Cafes. Watching the airplanes is a lot of fun, and their patio is the perfect spot to see the activity.
Our meal kicked off with guacamole made tableside. I love anything made tableside, to learn the secrets of preparing a dish. Check out the video to see how they make it at Avion Azul.
I happened to be in Clear Lake, Iowa, for Taco Tuesday, so I had to choose the tacos at Avion Azul. For those who aren’t taco aficionados, carnitas are shredded pork tacos topped with cilantro and onions. I always ask for extra cilantro. The meat in these tacos was extra flavorful and tender. It was the perfect way to celebrate Taco Tuesday!
Of course, to honor the location, my end of the table shared a margarita “flight,” which made it extra fun. You have a choice of four out of six flavors in your flight, mango, strawberry, peach, raspberry, passion fruit, watermelon, or prickly pear. No matter your selection, they’re delicious.
For more ideas about things to do in Iowa, check out Sara Broer’s book, “100 Things to Do in Iowa Before You Die.”
Have you ever been to Iowa? Where have you gone? What have you seen?
This trip was my first visit to Iowa, and I know I’ll need to come back!
Pin this to your favorite Iowa travel board!