If you've ever traveled along Interstate 35 in northern Iowa, you have definitely noticed the town of Clear Lake. The last major exit as you drive north out of Iowa, or the first major exit as you enter Iowa from Minnesota, for most travelers Clear Lake is a cluster of gas station chains and fast food restaurants.
What most miss is the charming resort town just a short distance from the interstate.
Three Quick Tips in Clear Lake, Iowa
Though I have often passed through – and by through I mean stopping at a gas station for fuel or a quick bite- Clear Lake, I haven't spent any time there. A speaking engagement in nearby Mason City presented the perfect opportunity for a short stop.
The day was colder and drearier than I had hoped it would be when the speaking engagement had been made. My girls and I arrived at our rental condo at The Harbourage on the shores of Clear Lake just before an icy blast from the north brought freezing rain and snow. An afternoon wandering the shops of downtown Clear Lake was out of the question.
The condo, provided for our overnight stay by Clear Lake Rentals, was wonderful for an afternoon indoors. My girls went immediately to the large loft area where they amused themselves playing imaginary games about towers and fair maidens before retreating into Minecraft to build the new world they had just imagined.
I relaxed on the couch for a bit, watching the lake water form icy white caps as the winds blew. The marina below was still half frozen. I imagined the condo was as wonderful a getaway for ice fishers in the winter as it is for warm weather vacationers in the summer.
I had easily slipped into the ‘Relax You're at the Lake' mentality, but I had work to finish – mainly my talk for the next morning. Thankfully my outline was nearly complete, and the task was easily finished.
With an afternoon still before us, the girls put on their swimsuits, layered their clothes over them, and donned winter coats. The short walk to the indoor pool was chilly and wet, but inside those walls was tropical. Splashing and playing for 90 minutes was the perfect escape for the cooped up energy after our drive.
Dining – Dinner
When I had asked the group I was coming to speak to where we should go for dinner, the response was unanimous – go for pizza at The OP.
The Other Place is a large sports bar located along Highway 18. On the Tuesday night we visited the huge room was nearly empty, only a few booths were being used and a handful of men sat at the long bar, enjoying an after work beverage and conversation.
We were seated promptly, though when I asked if we could be moved to a nearby table to better watch the hockey game, it was treated as an imposition. Our waitress, though competent and able to answer my questions, seemed to be having a bad night. I let my girls choose the pizza – half All Meat Supreme, half Hawaiian – and ordered a Cheesy Bread Stix appetizer and side salad.
The side salad was average – iceberg lettuce, a slice of cucumber, a slice of tomato, and croutons. The dressing selection isn't large, and the creamy Italian was simply ok. The Cheesy Bread Stx, however, were fabulous. Completely covered in melted cheese that stretched as you pulled the stix apart. A ‘cheese attack!” according to my daughters. And the marinara was wonderfully chunky and tasted home made.
And then the pizza arrived.
The All Meat Side looked tasty. But the Hawaiian… well, it appeared to be an onion & pepper pizza with a couple pieces of pineapple. The one slice my daughter was able to eat had only a single piece of pineapple on it. And, unfortunately, some peppers had crossed to the other half of the pizza, rendering it inedible for me, though the girls both said it was really good.When my waitress returned and asked how everything was I expressed our dis-satisfaction with the Hawaiian half. I may have used the word ‘inedible'. She merely shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
It was about this time that another employee appeared and yelled across the room, “I just got fired!” And then she didn't leave, but stayed and joked around with people. Was it a ruse? I have no idea, but it certainly made us a bit uncomfortable.
Maybe we visited the OP on an off night. Maybe the kitchen was out of pineapple and decided to ‘make up' for it with extra onions & peppers. Maybe there was something brewing with management and the staff was tense. I don't know.
I do know that the bread stix were awesome.
Dining – Lunch
Following the Social Media Breakfast, where I spoke about social media and how to manage it when you're a small business, Sara Broers (the event host) invited us to lunch at The Barrel Drive In with a few of her North Iowa Bloggers.
The Barrel Drive In, also along Highway 18, has been a Clear Lake institution since cars had fins and car hops wore roller skates. The Barrel nearly closed last year, ownership of an aging business nearly forcing owner Seth Thackery into bankruptcy. A plea in the local newspaper for help quickly drew community support both online and off and #SaveTheBarrel began.
Over the past winter, when the drive in was closed for the season, volunteers were hard at work replacing, repairing, and rejuvenating the space.
Our group met in a spacious dining area at the rear of the building, a space the owner plans to expand with a patio before summer begins. Our waitress was spunky, with a hip vibe that channeled the 60's while appearing completely modern. She took our orders efficiently, and wasn't flustered as people trickled in, adding to her workload.
The home made Root Beer is unbelievably creamy – my youngest said it tasted like a root beer float but without the ice cream. So, of course, she tried a root beer float as well, which she pronounced, “delicious.” (She's a girl of few words when pressed for descriptions.)
Though The Barrel is known for their broasted chicken, I had the grilled chicken sandwich. A simple salad preceded my sandwich, the house made French dressing a pleasant surprise. The sandwich isn't overly fancy – lettuce and tomato layered on the bun with the fresh chicken breast – it was the simply kind of tasty that leaves you satisfied.
The ‘drive in' portion of the restaurant is closed until summer, but we have plans to camp in the area and I hope to return on an evening when the roof-top DJ booth is spinning tunes and the parking lot is filled with classic cars.
Until that time, our stops in Clear Lake will take us away from the interstate and into the heart of town where you really get a flavor of this summer resort.