St. Charles: Small-Town Charm with a Big-Town Feel
We came in fast and the landing was hard, but that is to be expected when you fly into Lambert International Airport in St. Louis. The town, like the airport, is gritty and has a hard-nosed edge to it. But outside of the vast city lie small picturesque towns full of charm, history and character. One of my favorites is St. Charles.
Founded in 1769, St. Charles, originally known as Les Petites Cotes, was named by French Canadian fur trader Louis Blanchette. Once a distant outpost, St. Charles soon became a thriving trade center because of its Missouri riverfront location. Here, weary settlers visited the town to trade and purchase supplies before heading out West to the great unknown. And today, its frontier history beckons the traveler to come and experience life as several great Americans once knew it.
Standing on the banks of the Missouri River, you can almost imagine life traveling with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they left St. Charles in search of the “all-water route” to the Pacific coast, a vast journey that began right here. To get an idea of the challenges that the pair faced, a visit to the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum is, above, in order. Inside this beautifully designed building, reminiscent of a barn, you will find educational exhibits, exquisite views of the mighty Missouri and even a full-sized replica of the keelboat used by the explorers as they made their way west. Displays informing visitors about the river’s ecosystem and Native American life are also a highlight as you make your way throughout the building on this self-guided tour. The museum is a special place to visit, with many knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers who will make sure that you know so much about the adventures of Lewis and Clark that you could probably write a book.
Heading outside, you might find yourself on the Katy Trail. This byway is a 237-mile foot/bike path that nearly stretches across the entire state of Missouri. With more than half the trail following the path Lewis and Clark took along the river, you are bound to see some bald eagles soaring and fishing along the banks. This meandering hike crisscrosses in and out of small quaint towns along the way and is a refreshing approach to acquaint yourself with this vast Midwest state. Suggestion: Spring or fall is the time to venture down this path as the humidity of summer can quickly suck the life out of you with a prickly wet heat that blankets you from head to toe.
Across from the museum are the brick and cobblestone streets of the historic district of St. Charles. Beautifully restored homes and businesses stretch as far as the eye can see. This is a place that is meant to be savored and strolled
at a leisurely pace so you can take in the variety of experiences offered. Look for the First State Capitol of Missouri housed on the second floor belonging to merchants Peck and Shepard. The building is open for tours just about every day of the year except Mondays during winter.
Yet, most likely it will be the sweet aroma of fresh-baked cookies drawing you farther down Main Street and into Grandma’s Cookie Store (401 S. Main). Warning: Be prepared to stand in line because locals from all over consider this renowned establishment the place to see and be seen. Another sweet-smelling place and a personal favorite of mine is the Bathhouse Soapery. It’s full of handmade small-batch soaps, bath bombs and custom-blend perfumes, you surely won’t be able to leave this establishment empty-handed. Afterward, skip on over to Di Olivas Oil & Vinegar, also on Main Street, where you can sample such local favorites as bacon oil and golden pineapple white balsamic vinegar. And don’t forget to stop in at Bike Stop Café, where you can rent a bicycle, sip coffee and eat a monstrous quesadilla all at the same time. The cafe also offers a premier shuttle service for bike riders and kayakers alike.
After indulging your sight and senses, it is time to grab some grub. Wherever you go on Main Street, it is doubtful that you will be disappointed. A local favorite is the Trailhead Brewing Company. From light fare to full-fledged meals, you are bound to find something on the menu that will complement many of the fine ales that are created there. I highly recommend the Brewhouse Onion Rings hugged by an ale batter that quickly warms you from the inside out. Near the Ameristar Casino is one of the best barbecue places on earth in a state where barbecue restaurants are a dime a dozen. Housed in the beautifully renovated St. Charles Municipal Water Works building, Hendricks BBQ is the place to be if you are a barbecue connoisseur. Its fame comes not just from its meat, but it is also appreciated for serving unique small batch whiskeys, bourbons and moonshines. I can personally vouch for the Bootlegger Bellini, a concoction of cranberry moonshine and champagne. Besides the melt-in-your-mouth juiciest smoked brisket I might just be willing to die and go to heaven for, the sturdy fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits are also excellent choices to soothe both stomach and soul.
If you happen to be lucky enough to be visiting the area during the Christmas holidays, you’ll find the town packed to the brim with things to do. When we were there, snowflakes shining like paper moons fell while we rode in a horse-drawn carriage, the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves almost lulling us to sleep as we pulled the blankets tightly around us. After bidding our trusty steeds farewell, we headed over to Santa’s Cottage and Train Land, which is housed in the Katy Depot. If the “ho-ho-ho” of Santa and the twinkling of thousands of lights doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, then I doubt there is much hope for you.
Another memorable event of the season is St. Charles’ traditional Las Posadas celebration. Hundreds of the faithful carry white candles as they follow behind “Mary” and “Joseph” as they seek shelter at various businesses along the way. The journey ends when the group arrives at the live nativity scene on the riverfront.
If you are still in the mood to broaden your historical perspectives, then the nearby town of Defiance makes a great day trip. Here, you will find the historic Daniel Boone home, which you can tour along with a village of more than a dozen 19th-century buildings, including the picturesque Old Peace Chapel, a historic white church where lovers of all ages tie the knot.
Of course, if you are in the area, following the Augusta Wine Country Trail is an idyllic way to spend the day. In fact, this region is actually the first region in the United States to be designated an American viticultural area. Following the trail will give you a glimpse of small-town America and the amazing vistas viewed from the rolling hills of the state. St. Charles County has numerous wineries, including my all-time favorite, Blumenhof Vineyards and Winery. For award-winning wines, you can’t beat Blumenhof, which has won more medals for its Missouri wines than any other producer and features such varietals as chambourcin and vignoles.
If you want to experience a traditional big Sunday brunch, Chandler Hill Winery in Defiance tops the list with its carving, omelet and bagel stations. Most of the wineries in the area offer free weekend entertainment from big names to small, but whoever you see, the music often can be funky and fun-loving and the wine even better.
And, as usual, small mom-and-pop art galleries seem to go hand-in-hand with a glass of vino, so finding the perfect one to indulge your artistic taste is as easy as strolling to the Foundry Art Centre back in St. Charles or Augusta Gallery near Balducci Vine-yards in Augusta.
Of course, if you are looking for some high-rolling action, there is the Ameristar Casino along the waterfront. Here you will find the typical games of chance and the Ara Spa, a place to be pampered after a day spent hiking, biking and kayaking down the Missouri River.
While St. Charles offers its guests small-town charm, it certainly has a big-town feel. Paired with a trip down to the state’s entertainment capital of Branson, you will find that Missouri offers the charm, excitement and history that is often lacking in other so-called destination vacations.
So what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and head to the Midwest and discover for yourself all that is to experience in America’s Show-Me State.