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Iowa Great Lakes equal great fun

An exhibit inside the Iowa Great Lakes Maritime Museum is shown.

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- The Okoboji Great Lakes area has a lot to offer -- and that is not an exaggeration.

"Located in the northwest corner of Iowa, Okoboji is the central hub of the Midwest, being a short distance from a lot of the largest metropolitan areas," said Iowa Great Lakes Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Stacy Rosemore.

From amusement parks to golf courses to museums to shopping, Okoboji has it all. But perhaps one of the largest attractions (literally) would be the six lakes in the area.

Covering approximately 15,000 acres, the natural glacial lakes are the largest in the state. They offer a wide variety of water recreation, from fishing to kayaking to parasailing.

"West Lake Okoboji is the largest attraction for water recreation," Rosemore said.

With a variety of water sport and boat rentals in the area, the possibilities are endless. However, the possibilities don't end at the waterfront.

Arnolds Park Amusement Park

The three-car train slowly makes its way up to the top of the wooden hill, closer and closer to the sign that clearly reads "The Point of No Return." As the train reaches the top, just under the ominous sign, it stops for a second, as if contemplating the drop, and then ... Whoosh! The train is speeding down the wooden track at 50 mph, curving up and down and to either side, racing with the wind, trying to defy the laws of gravity as it swoops down steep sides and up strange angles -- and then it stops. The ride is over, barely more than a minute after it began.

Titled "The Legend," the 1927 wooden coaster is one of the many classic rides available at Arnolds Park Amusement Park.

Built in 1889, Historic Arnolds Park is just that -- historic. One of the longest-operating amusement parks in the world, the park consists of both classic and modern rides.

Arnolds Park used to feature the Roof Garden, which had a dance hall, retail shops and the Fun House. A center of music, the Roof Garden featured popular artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys and Johnny Cash.

In 1968, the Roof Garden was hit by a tornado and rebuilt. However, in 1987, the park closed and the Roof Garden, along with several other buildings, burned to the ground.

Arnolds Park reopened in 1989, only to face closure once again 10 years later as the new owners wanted to put a condominium complex in its place. The Okoboji community was told it had to raise $4 million to save the park. Within 30 days, the community raised well over $7 million.

"It's your typical amusement park," said Rosemore. "There are rides for kids and people of all ages. People can walk through the park for free, or purchase a day pass to ride everything. It's kind of like Coney Island -- it has an old-fashioned amusement park feel."

And even though the Roof Garden is no longer there, the music still exists. There are free concerts Saturday nights during the summer for the "Live at the Lake" series. The Iowa Rock 'n Roll Music Museum and Association is also located in the Arnolds Park Amusement Park complex and hosts Thursday night concerts.

Exploring the culture

Not looking for a thrill? For the tourist that would rather kick back and learn some Iowa history or look at some good old art, Okoboji offers an exceptional amount of activities.

"We have the Maritime Museum, which features a lot of old boats and basically a history of the area," Rosemore said. "We also have the Iowa Rock and Roll Music Association, the Abbie Gardner Cabin and the Higgins Museum, which shows a history of money and banking, as well as a lot of art galleries with some permanent and traveling exhibits."

The Abbie Gardner Cabin and Museum is a historical site that shows one of Iowa's tragic frontier events -- the Spirit Lake Massacre.

In the summer of 1856, the Gardner family arrived at Lake Okoboji and built a cabin. They came with eight people and all the food they needed for the winter.

In March of 1857, Inkpaduta, a Dakota leader, led his band north to the Okoboji area in search of food.

When the settlers of the area refused to give up their food, Inkpaduta's band took action, killing 33 people and abducting four women, one being Abbie Gardner.

Eventually, Abbie Gardner and another captive were set free. Inkpaduta eluded capture for several years before moving to Canada, where he died.

In 1891, Gardner returned to the cabin and turned it into one of Iowa's first tourist attractions. It's now furnished with pioneer artifacts gathered by Abbie Gardner, with other items currently at the Dickinson County Historical Society in Spirit Lake.

The Okoboji Summer Theatre in Spirit Lake is a great place to be for any theatre lover. Open only in the summer, it offers nine shows throughout the season that vary in genre.

There are also several golf courses in the area, including Brooks National Golf Club.

"We also have a couple of miniature golf courses -- Pirate's Cove, Treasure Village and Ranch," said Rosemore.

Shopping and dining

"We have a lot of unique shopping," said Rosemore. "Lots of people come to town with their own tastes and flare. There are lots of great shops open year-round."

The Central Emporium located in Arnolds Park is a historic mall with a variety of interesting shops.

With Peruvian jewelry at Dellapina's, natural smoothies at MaKonu, and an "optimistic" clothing line at Life on the Lake, the Emporium has a lot to offer shoppers.

The Okoboji area also offers several gift and antique shops, each with their own distinct personalities.

After all that shopping, one might be inclined to grab a bite to eat. And finding something in the area to suit one's taste buds shouldn't be a difficult task at all.

With more than 50 restaurants available, Okoboji offers tastes of Jamaican, Asian, Mexican and American foods, in addition to cafes and bars.

For those with a craving for seafood, Yesterdays is the place to be.

Having been in the area for 28 years, the menu offers everything from sandwiches and salads to fresh fish, steaks and pastas.

One room, titled the Florida room, has skylights and windows. Other areas have cherry oak booths and brass finishings.

One of the more unique aspects of Yesterdays is the Japanese Teppanyaki Room.

"You have your own personal chef at the table," said Duane Zahradnik, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Marilyn. "He prepares your hibachi vegetables and fried rice right there at the table in front of you."

The Teppanyaki Room has two tables, each with 8-10 people per table.

"You definitely need a reservation for that room," said Zahradnik.

Another highlight is their wine, which they research in depth to be sure it's of high quality.

"Our wine is very unique," said Zahradnik. "You get your bank for your buck with our wine. You can't buy our wines in the stores; they are very nice and unique."

For reservations, call 712-332-2353.


Sometimes, at the end of the day, the only thing someone may be thinking is, "Where am I going to sleep?"

The answer is a matter of personal preference. From hotels to resorts, to bed and breakfasts and to camping, all of the options exist.

With more than 15 campgrounds in the area, pitching a tent or building a campfire isn't out of the question.

However, if you're looking for an old house feel together with today's modern technology, the Wild Rose Inn of Okoboji is for you.

Currently owned by Mark and Shelene McDermott, the 2.5 acre property holds 13 suites, a formal dining room, living room, commercial kitchen and a common room titled the "Admiral Quarters." Outside is a dry creek with a connecting waterfall and pond, as well as a gazebo, patio and century oak trees.

Although it was built in 1998, the bed and breakfast was built to look like an old Victorian house, with a lot of trim work, detail and ornate decoration.

"We have our own private chef," said Shelene McDermott. "Oftentimes we get special requests. Sometimes people request champagne or chocolate strawberries in their room, so we do that."

The Wild Rose Inn holds numerous events, including weddings; bridal showers, family reunions and corporate retreats, and is located between Okoboji and Spirit Lake by West Lake Okoboji.

"Walk-ins are welcome, but reservations are recommended, just so people can get the room they want for the nights they want," McDermott said.