Did Leif Ericson himself lead one of the first-ever group travel events to Alexandria? The scholarly consensus: probably not, since the 1898 assertion by local farmer Olof Öhman that he had found the Kensington Runestone, purportedly left by 14th-century explorers, has been discredited by most experts. Still, it’s a fun legend to claim, as Alexandria proudly does, with a museum dedicated to the Runestone and a giant Viking statue downtown. Not only do many local businesses use the Runestone or a Viking in their logos, but the legend lives on in the name of the state’s National Football League team, the Minnesota Vikings.
Even with this long-standing attention to historic preservation, Alexandria remains proudly up-to-the-minute in offering the spaces, amenities and activities to meet the needs of modern meeting planners who seek a location that is, in the words of the town’s motto, “Easy to get to, hard to leave.”
“We have so many great ways to keep you busy,” says James Feist, executive director of Explore Alexandria. And while the city is bustling all summer long, Feist says there is still plenty to do in fall and winter. “Our fall colors are wonderful, so many groups take scenic boat tours to Lake Carlos Sate Park, which is located on the Chain of Lakes. You can boat right into the state park, no matter where you are staying, and enjoy picnics, campfires, and our 14 miles of hiking trails at Lake Carlos State Park.”
Big Ole, the country’s largest Viking, is a 28-foot-tall statue who bears a shield with the bold proclamation: “Alexandria, Birthplace of America.” He stands guard over Alexandria’s downtown on Broadway Street, which Feist says is unique among Main Streets. “Our historic downtown has more than 40 locally owned businesses, which is impressive for a micropolitan area of about 40,000,” he says. “If you want to find unique, local items that you won’t find in a chain store, we have fashion, jewelry, antiques, crafts, home décor and gifts from local merchants who are passionate about what they do.” And if you’re feeling ready for some sustenance, you’ll find a significant collection of locally owned restaurants within the historic blocks of downtown Alexandria.
All that shopping can build up a tremendous thirst, but luckily Alexandria has some notable spots for sipping locally crafted potent potables. Panther Distillery, located in nearby Osakis, is one the few distilleries that produces whiskey completely from start to finish. “We use only Minnesota-grown grains (rye, corn and wheat),” says owner Adrian Panther. “We support local Minnesota farmers, and we know where our corn comes from.” Products sold include Minnesota 14 Whiskey, Pike Street Bourbon, White Water Whiskey (a moonshine), Saint Paul Rye Whiskey, Bad Medicine Spiced Rum and Spiked Apple Spirits. The distillery offers tours to see the fermentation tanks, taste the mash, gawk at the three 500-gallon Kentucky-built stills, and then, of course, enjoy the tasting experience. “This is a true manufacturing facility that makes whiskey every day (except Sunday when it’s closed),” Panther says.
Keep the theme going by making the next stop at the Carlos Creek Winery, just a 15- minute drive away from the Panther Distillery. Owned by the Bredeson family, the winery insists: “Drinking a seriously good wine doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, and having fun doesn’t mean you can’t be drinking seriously good wine.” Its Minnesota Nice label sells Hot Dish Red, Woebegone White and You Betcha Blush. “We do quite a number of corporate events and parties,” says Director of Events Paige Meier. “We can work with just about any size group or budget. We really excel at customizing the experience to meet your client’s needs.” The winery offers a Grand Stables Hall, which accommodates 100 to 350 people, and a Winery Tasting Room that can be configured for up to 100 people. The Orchard Terrace can also be rented, and your event can include a winery production tour, horse wagon rides and even custom-labeled wine bottles.
Museums and Theater
Located right by the 55-mile Central Lakes Trail, the Runestone Museum features the Kensington Runestone, which is thought by some to record the journey of 14th-century Norse explorers into the center of North America. A collection of Ojibwe and Dakota beaded items, an award-winning tipi, a pioneer immigrant exhibit, and several historic buildings (open May - October) are also must-sees here. The museum’s outdoor space is available for rental. Canopies can be set up for 100 people for a breakfast and meeting, for example. Or 200 chairs can be arranged outside for performances, like musicians or storytellers.
Another museum in the area includes the Legacy of the Lakes Museum & Gardens; its distinctive event venue, Legacy Gardens, can accommodate 250 people. Here, guests can enjoy the walking paths, gazebos, water features, bridges, natural plantings, environmental pond and a stage, ideal for performances and wedding services. The museum has a preferred caterers and rental list.
There is even a community theater right on Broadway, the town’s main street. “Our vibrant community theater produces a multishow season each year between September and May,” says Rachel Barduson, board member of the Alexandria Area Arts Association. “We have more than 10,000 audience members annually.”
“When it comes to offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, we certainly have it in Alexandria,” Feist says. “We have 351 lakes in our area, so no matter if you’re here for business or pleasure, or a little bit of both, you’ll be able to enjoy spectacular scenery and perhaps some fun in or on the water.” Ten local golf courses make Alexandria a duffer’s dream come true. “We have 150 holes to play, so you can keep busy for a while,” says Feist. And the pace keeps up even in the winter, with 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, and snowmobile rental available at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center. “Lake Carlos Park has groomed crosscountry ski trails, and we have very popular candlelit cross-country ski and snowshoe events throughout the winter,” he says. And of course, if it’s winter in Minnesota, you’ll want to consider that uniquely experience of ice fishing, a perfect way to connect with your inner Viking.
Stylish Event Spaces
Minutes from downtown, The Phoenix Event Center offers seating for 300 in a customizable space with an oversized stage and great dance floor. The Phoenix has remarkable acoustics and ambiance, and is committed to consultation and flexibility with planners. “We’re open seven days a week, and we host a number of office parties, associations and business events,” says owner Jon Gaugert. The venue offers exclusive bookings, so you won’t share parking or event areas with any other groups. That “exclusive” touch even extends to signage—the outdoor sign can be personalized to reflect the meeting and group name.
Holiday Inn Alexandria offers 16,854 square feet of flexible meeting space for up to 400 people. It’s gained popularity among planners for The Barn, a unique space that turned an historic building into a “modern-rustic” event center. “It’s been one of the most unique venues in the area since the late ‘60s,” says Director of Catering Serena Lehman. “After multiple renovations within the last three years, it’s now a unique venue space for up to 325 guests.”