One of the biggest perqs of being a travel writer is receiving invitations to visit destinations. Called FAM trips, short for Familiarization, these experiences usually last two to three days and are jam-packed with activities. When I say jam-packed, I mean we're running from morning 'til night. It's not unusual to visit four to six places in one day, shuttled by coach from one stop to the next. It's like a field trip for adults, and we're all taking notes and endless, endless photos. On these trips, if you're not taking a picture of your food and everything else around you, you're doing it wrong.

FAM trips are social, they're educational, they're fun, and they're EXHAUSTING.

I love 'em.

Since I've only spread my writing wings beyond covering Chicago in the last few years, I'm fairly new to the FAM-ily. Still, I've been on a few, and I can tell you that the trip hosted by Roseville Visitors Association was impressive. While the schedule was tightly packed, it was extremely well organized and we had all the tools we needed to not only share what we were experiencing, but to get to know our fellow writers.

This particular FAM trip introduced us to Roseville, Minnesota, a town "Perfectly Positioned" between Minneapolis and St. Paul. From our Thursday arrival through Sunday morning departure, a large group of intrepid travelers explored some of the highlights of the area and its prime location between the Twin Cities.

Inside the Roseville, Minnesota, Press Trip

Thursday

9am Our first activity of the weekend wasn't until 4:30pm, so I left a little early. When possible, I will always choose the two-lane and I wanted to drive the Great River Road for a bit. I crossed the Mississippi River at La Crosse and took the scenic route in a beautiful Mazda CX-5, courtesy of DriveShop. I'll tell you all about Grayce, as I named her (yes, I name cars), in another post. 

4:25pm So...I might have taken the really scenic route. I made it to the Roseville Courtyard by Marriott with just enough time to check in, clean up a bit, and check out the welcome bags. The Courtyard and Roseville Visitors Association had provided a Minnesota State Fair survival kit, complete with portable fan, cell phone charger, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and other goodies, and a bag with essentials for the weekend. What really impressed me was the binder. We had a binder! It was organized with our itinerary; the social media handles of all of our destinations; names, websites, and social media for the attendees, and more information we'd need during our stay. Impressive. Most impressive.

5pm I headed to the lobby and met my fellow FAM-ers before we left for our evening destination. I saw a few familiar faces, some from real life and some from online interactions. That's one of my favorite aspects of press trips - meeting the people I've only met virtually, and spending time with others who have chosen this crazy profession. There's an instant connection because you feel like you already know each other. We also met our hosts from Roseville as well as the hotel manager. I think we all knew it was going to be a fun couple of days.

5:30pm A bus - I mean, coach (that being the proper term) - picked us up for our dinner and culinary experience. Our host, Carrie Ford, narrated points of interest as we drove. "Carrie on the mic!" became a theme. I missed her "on the driver's side" tidbits when I left on Sunday. 

6 to 8:30pm (give or take) THAT Cooking School - We sang for our supper at THAT, short for Teaching, Heart, And Team building, Cooking School. The evening began with a sampling of Minnesota standbys, including SPAM and pineapple, Lefse, and Lutefisk. Lefse and Lutefisk are traditional Nordic dishes, and while the potato-based Lefse, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, was worth seconds, I didn't try the Lutefisk. It's a whitefish treated with lye that turns into a viscous, sticky mass, and I'm going to blame my cowardice to the lack of a fork (yet I somehow found one later...).

THAT Cooking School

After we were done exclaiming "Lutefisk! Who eats Lutefisk!" we were given our cooking challenge. Each team of six had a different theme, and it was a madcap race to see who could make the best dish with the best presentation, including the table. Our group was, shall we say, enthusiastic. Our theme was the Minnesota Vikings, and our dish was "SKOL! Bites" - a.k.a. pork tacos with bacon wild rice and a corn salsa. Donna Hup's husband Myles turned our table into a pickup truck, because we were tailgating. Get it? It was a fun and ingenious way to get us all comfortable with each other very quickly. And I'm not just saying that because our team won. (But it doesn't hurt...)

SKOL Bites - the winning dish at THAT Cooking School

The coach took us back to Courtyard and we all called it an early night. We had a busy, BUSY day ahead of us.

Friday

5am Ugh. My alarm went off way too early, but I had to get a few things done before we left for the day. Fortunately there was an in-room coffee maker, and they somehow knew to leave me extra packets of regular. 

8am After a quick bite in the breakfast room we all met in the lobby and awaited our coach. We had to be at the Como Park Zoo at 8:30am sharp for a couple of behind-the-scenes experiences. After our interactive experience the night before it was like greeting old friends.

8:30 to 10:45am I LOVE COMO PARK ZOO!!!! We started off with an introduction to the zoo and its history. It's the only free zoo in Minnesota and began in 1897 with the gift of three deer to the City of Saint Paul. After learning about the crazy things zoos used to do, like walking wild cats on a leash and allowing people to ride the giant tortoise, we helped create "enrichments" for the polar bears. These were treats designed to challenge the animals, like tubes stuffed with fruits and vegetables and wrapped with fruit roll-ups, and Frisbees painted with marshmallow fluff. All the kids, both the young ones and those old enough to have grandchildren, loved this, and we hadn't even seen any animals yet. 

That was coming, though; oh yes, that was coming.

Making enrichments at Como Park Zoo
Making enrichments at Como Park Zoo

We split up into two groups and ours headed out to feed the giraffes. WOW these babies are tall. We were able to meet Clover and her daughter Violet before heading to the back to meet more of these beautiful beasts. It's hard to explain how big they are until you're craning your neck to look up at them.

Giraffe at Como Park Zoo

Our next stop was a quick introduction to the gorillas and orangutans. I could have watched these primates all day, and while it seemed like some of them were posing, 40-year-old Amanda was not impressed.

Gorilla at Como Park Zoo
Baby orangutan at Como Park Zoo
Orangutan at Como Park Zoo - Amanda is not impressed

Next up were the polar bears. The enrichments we'd created were strewn around the habitat, and as we eagerly waited, Buzz and Neil sauntered out. They both headed for the marshmallow fluff first, to the delight of the kids who'd created their sweet masterpieces. 

Polar Bears at Como Park Zoo

If this sounds like an incredible experience, it was, and it's not just for press. Get a group of ten together and you, too, can take a behind-the-scenes tour before the zoo opens for $35/person. If you just want to feed the giraffe while you're there during regular visiting hours it's only $5.

11:05am to 1pm We left the zoo and went straight to Can Can Wonderland. What had once been a can manufacturing plant has been turned into an indoor playground. There's a big focus on the arts, with an indoor miniature golf course that was created by 56 artists. Many of them were designed by a classroom of 7th graders, and others were by artists who had answered the call for submission. It's a bizarro world of fun. It's also completely ADA-compliant, even though it's only required to be 50% accessible. In addition to the games they've got a menu of pizzas, nachos, and custom cocktails that will knock your tees off.

Can Can Wonderland
As we entered the warehouse, a couple of my fellow writers, Janet Frost of GoLearnThings.com and Kelly Ratcliff, of DiningDuster.com, and I were immediately drawn to the Blackstack Brewery next door. We three "Beer Renegades," as Janet called us, snuck out and grabbed a seat at the bar, but not before getting a photo of the beers
Blackstack Brewery
(see - photos of everything, everyone, all the time). If we hadn't been on a bus the rest of the day all three of us would have grabbed a growler, but we had more places to go and things to do.

 

1:30 to 2:15pm Tired yet? Feeling a bit of sensory overload? Yeah, so were we, which is why this next stop was perfect. We strolled around the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden next to the Walker Art Center. It was a relaxing respite. Even the giant bell had no clapper, so it could swing and sway without destroying the relative peace. The garden is the location of the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry, as well as a giant blue rooster, but I think my favorite piece was the tree filled with wind chimes. The music was soft and melodic, and the only thing that disturbed it was the woman talking about how soft and melodic it was.

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

2:45 to 4:15pm Somewhat rejuvenated, we got back on the bus for our next stop, the Science Museum of Minnesota. Oh, this was such a tease! I've never seen so many interactive displays. What really caught my attention, though, was the number of dinosaur skeletons on display and the GIANT astronaut.

Triceratops Skeleton at Science Museum of Minnesota
Giant astronaut at Science Museum of Minnesota

Because apparently Kelly and I are rebels, we took a few minutes before the bus left to join Nikki of Our Little Family Adventure to find Snoopy and the gang. Down the street from the museum are sculptures honoring Saint Paul native Charles Schulz's characters.

Peanuts Sculptures in downtown Saint Paul

BREAK! We boarded the coach and headed back to the Courtyard for a short break to freshen up and, most importantly, recharge our phones.

5:45 to 8pm Dinner that night was at Bonfire Grill, co-hosted by Visit Saint Paul. Since we'd spent a good portion of the day exploring what that city had to offer, it was nice to say "thank you" in person. I had a massive Cobb salad and tried a local nitro beer. The room was filled with excited chatter as we all recounted our day. 

Cobb Salad at Bonfire Grill

8:50 to 10pm After dropping off several of the group, the coach took a few of us beer fans to Bent Brewstillery. It's the first combination microbrewery/microdistillery in Minnesota. The highlight was getting another behind-the-scenes experience, a quick tour and tasting with owner Bartley Blume. His passion was contagious, and I'm going to have to write a whole post about this guy, because his story is fascinating. (Plus, he was holding a Boston Terrier, my grandma's favorite dog, so he was instantly OK in my book.)

10 to ??? (I think it was 1am) Oh, wait, did you think I was done? The FAM portion of my day was, but a friend of mine from high school lives in Minneapolis. I hadn't seen him in years, so when he invited me to a party that evening I had to say yes. He picked me up with a friend of his (who eerily looked like my sister, if I had one) and off we went to the oddest house party I've ever been to. I don't mean the party was odd, I mean the house was odd. I'm not sure how much I can tell you, so I'll just leave you with this recreated scene from The Twilight Zone:

Twilight Zone Room at Bizarre House Party in Minneapolis

Saturday

7am Ugh.

8:40am to 10pm Minnesota State Fair Day!

Short version: I have got to get to more State Fairs. Someone suggested to me that my next book (first one's coming out this fall!) should be about State Fairs, and I can totally get behind that idea. Lemme tell you why.

Our first stop was a visit to Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar. In a fair that's known for its food, this is one of the icons. We met Sweet Martha's kids, who are two of the sweetest and happiest people I've ever met. I don't think I've seen bigger grins, except maybe for the people eating their cookies. Served fresh out of the oven, they're piled high in a bucket, so high that you have to eat about a dozen before you can even put the lid on. And oh, my, are these yummy. Don't just believe me; they made $4 million dollars last year from the Minnesota State Fair alone.

Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar

I won't give you the play-by-play from my day because, frankly, you're probably done with me and my FAM trip by now, so I'll just give you the highlights. 

  • Saw a giant lumberjack made out of discarded clothes (who was kinda creepy)
  • Split a giant onion blossom with Kelly and her sister
  • Tried local favorite Schell's beer (yum)
  • Listened to an incredible Ecuadorian band
  • Tasted Minnesota wines*
  • Found four fellow beer lovers and we tried every. single. beer in the Craft Beer tasting
  • Ate brie on a stick
  • Ate hot dish on a stick
  • Petted a horse. I refrained from screeching "horsies!" as this guy was bigger than a car.
  • Walked through a forest of Christmas trees
  • Applauded three marching bands
  • Saw a pony in a suit
  • Rode through a "tunnel of love" **
  • Tried - and did not like - a pickle beer
  • Tried - and liked - a 'smores beer
  • Did not buy a motorized rubber ducky
  • Watched the fireworks and closed down the fair
Lumberjack at Minnesota State Fair
Onion Blossom at Minnesota State Fair
Schell's Beer
Pony in a suit at the Minnesota State Fair
New friends at Minnesota State Fair

*Minnesota Wine Country Tasting

Nikki, the aforementioned Charles Schulz sculpture fan, coordinated a tasting in the Minnesota Wine Country building, so we were able to try samples of the various wines available, as well as wine slushies. These were paired with wine fried brie (on a stick), Sriracha deep-fried cheese balls (CRAVING), salmon and shrimp sliders, and wine fried kalettes. The wines were served in a holder made of cardboard cut out to look like the state of Minnesota. In Chicago it's all about the flag; in Minnesota, their state pride is strong.

Deep Fried Sriracha Cheese Balls at the Minnesota State Fair

**Ye Olde Mill

I'd walked by Ye Olde Mill a couple of times during the day and had no idea it was a bona fide "tunnel of love." You get in the boat and ride in the dark. Pitch dark. I have no photos because it was...dark.

Need more Minnesota State Fair? Check out the coverage from my fellow FAM-ers:

10pm I caught the free fair bus back to the Roseville transportation center and the Courtyard's shuttle pulled up right as I got off the bus. My high school friend had told me the fair's bus system reaches all over the Twin Cities, making it very easy for people to get to and from the fair from anywhere.

10:15pm I entered my room, dog tired and ready to collapse, but the Courtyard had beat me to it. Sitting on the bed was a reclining pup made out of towels! I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

 puppy made of towels by Courtyard Marriott

Sunday

8 to 10:30am I'd made it! I had survived this epic FAM trip, made even more epic by my extracurricular activities, but when I visit a place and I'm not sure when I'll return I try to see as much as I possibly can. I slept in (for me), moved a little slowly, had a quick breakfast with Angela from Dang Travelers and her friend Lori, and got back on the road.

What a weekend.

So there you have it. The inside scoop on what a press trip is really like.

Thanks to Roseville Visitors Association for the incredible exploration of the Twin Cities. You're truly "Perfectly Positioned!"

FAM Trip with Roseville Visitors Association

All of our accommodations and activites, except for the food and drink at the State Fair, were covered by Visit Roseville. All opinions, enthusiasm, and exhaustion are my own.