YOUR SHIP WILL COME IN when you least expect it. You will be comfortably swaddled in the high-thread-count sheets of the South Pier Inn, slumbering in the shadow of Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge, when a horn will blast, your bed will buck, and you will rise up like Lazarus expecting the Rapture. Then you will notice a gargantuan black mass just outside your window and, although the sight may prompt you to invoke the name of the Lord, it is neither the Messiah nor the Apocalypse. It is a ship, passing into port. It could be a laker, in town to load taconite, or a seagoing “salty,” taking soybeans to Europe. And if you’re like many of South Pier’s guests, you’ll throw on some clothes and go out to see it. Indeed, for bona fide boat fans, this is heaven.
There is an alternative, however, to being blasted out of bed (technically, bridge workers call the horn blow a “salute,” as in “If a ship salutes us, we’ll salute ’em right back”). Ship schedules are posted in the Duluth Shipping News, distributed free throughout the city and published by Kenneth Newhams, a true “port authority” if there ever was one. Newhams moved to Duluth after marveling at the 1,000-foot ships on a road trip, and today he makes striking port photographs and videos, available for purchase at Grandma’s Marketplace and local art galleries.
If you’re staying at the family-owned South Pier, built in 2002, just steps from the foot of the Aerial Lift Bridge, you can also take advantage of the hotel’s Late Night Ship Call. Upon request, the front desk will telephone to alert you when a ship arrives between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. After all, proximity to ships is what you’re paying for at the South Pier. That and a certain modern look—all muted tones and stark rectangles—epitomized by the magazine at the bedside, Elite Traveler, which promises “The essence of luxury.” Except here you’re almost in the way of the region’s largest, most unlikely form of transport.
Of course, Duluth, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, isn’t all ships anymore. Nor is it Bob Dylan, despite the fact that the local Convention and Visitors Bureau still gets about 30 calls a year from fans asking for the address of his boyhood home. (For the record: it’s 519 Third Avenue East.)
No, today’s Duluth is surprising. It’s avant-garde, with the Playground, which opened last year on downtown’s Superior Street to showcase edgy theater, music, dance, and film. And it’s haute, with the new Nokomis Restaurant & Bar, on scenic North Shore Drive, serving maple-thyme glazed salmon and other nouveau supper club entrées. It’s deep, too, as in “The Abyss,” an exhibit that opened last year at the Great Lakes Aquarium. The show, created with the assistance of Titanic wreck discoverer Robert Ballard, explores life seven miles down in the ocean, and is expected to help the financially challenged aquarium stay out of dry dock.
Even Canal Park, Duluth’s tourist nucleus, is slowly injecting more attitude into its family-focused activities. Lake Avenue Café, which displays local art and offers such dishes as Bohemian pork goulash, has been joined by Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar as an artisanal alternative to neighboring mainstays Grandma’s Saloon & Grill and Red Lobster. Segways and four- and six-person cycles called surreys, all available at Wheel Fun Rentals, now scoot around Duluth’s Lakewalk, the elevated boardwalk sidling up to the port. And more adrenaline-charged trips can be arranged through the Midnight Sun Adventure Company, which opened last summer in the park’s historic Endion Station train depot. The outdoor store offers guided kayaking, rock climbing, and adventure tours and boasts high-profile owners, including local architect David Salmela’s sons, Chad and Cory, who are both world-class athletes, and Cory’s wife, Kara, a two-time Olympic biathlete.
This is not to say that the grit has been washed from the blue-collar bastion. Superior Street’s still a funky jumble of eclectic antique stores and blowsy old bookshops. The locally beloved Sunshine Cafe in West Duluth still greets customers with such aphorisms as “Add a smile, why not?” on handmade signs papering the breakfast joint. And over in Gary–New Duluth (not the most touristed part of town), Puglisi Gun Emporium probably deserves the title of Minnesota’s most curious boutique. Housed in an old bank building, with wood cases lining the walls and fresco-like scenes covering the ceiling, Puglisi’s complements its selection of rare shooting irons (engraved Colt .45, $14,750) with oil paintings for sale, a tiny merry-go-round crammed in a corner, and a set of circa-1700s Indian elephant armor displayed on an iron pachyderm skeleton. A little weird, a little cool. Like colossal ships in the middle of the Midwest. And going out to salute them in the middle of the night.