Your guide to the ultimate river journey, plus ten great Minnesota B&Bs for can't-miss getaways
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Wilson Schoolhouse Inn
Staying overnight at school probably wasn’t your dream as a kid, but it may be now that you can rent this entire one-room schoolhouse. Built in 1917, and now on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has been smartly refurbished with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a patio. A wall of nearly floor-to-ceiling windows faces 10 acres of woods and gardens. Two sleeper sofas pull out to accommodate a family or group, and a picnic table and grill allow for cookouts. The décor is mostly modern and free wireless Internet is available, though hints of the place’s former life remain: a blackboard and a couple of school-desks, for catching up on your studies.
The scene: You are the scene, as you get the place to yourself. A continental breakfast is left for you in the kitchen, along with tea, juices, etc.
The surroundings: The inn has the flavor of a vacation cabin, set in a wooded area outside of town and a couple minutes from the river. The lively restaurant and bar scene of downtown LaCrosse is only an eight-minute drive away, however, along with boat rides and the city’s riverside parkway, great for strolling.
The dinner choice: LaCrosse’s most popular fine-dining restaurant is the Freighthouse, a steak-and-seafood joint with a wine list honored by Wine Spectator, though the Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern recently opened beside the river with a classic, dark-wood ambience and live jazz.
The price: summer $155, winter $140
Wilson Schoolhouse Inn, W. 5720 Hwy. 14-61, La Crosse, 608-787-1982, wilsonschoolhouseinn.com
The Hancock House
You have to zigzag your way up a bluff to get here, but once on the wraparound porch of the Hancock House you can sit back and survey the hoi polloi below in well-preserved downtown Dubuque—which, of course, is what the 19th-century mogul who built this behemoth had in mind. The Hancock is a classic Victorian bed and breakfast in a classic mansion district, loaded with antiques and serving a classic, sumptuous breakfast at a great table full of guests. But there’s nothing stuffy about it—hosts Chuck and Susan Huntley are salt-of-the-earth friendly and the guest pantry offers complimentary beer and wine. The Victorian era was never so relaxed.
The scene: The Hancock is a busy place, with guests in town for weddings, anniversaries, honeymoons, or just traveling through. Lively breakfast-table conversation is abetted by the Huntleys’ gregariousness.
The surroundings: Although downtown Dubuque is still a quiet place at night, its historic riverfront is enlivened by a new riverwalk and a slew of pubs and restaurants in rehabbed warehouses. A cable car gets you to the top of the bluff behind town, where a number of touristy galleries, antique shops, and clothing stores have congregated.
The dinner choice: Dubuque gourmets have rallied around Pepper Sprout, a cute place with brick walls and a tin ceiling that specializes in locally grown food and familiar dishes (beef tenderloin, lamb chops) with creative touches.
The price: $80 to $175
The Hancock House, 1105 Grove Terrace, Dubuque, 563-557-8989, thehancockhouse.com
William M. Black Boat and Breakfast
By day, the William M. Black, a 1934 steamboat, is a tourist attraction moored behind the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. At night, your book club, family reunion, or Scout troop can rough it in the crew quarters, couples in the staterooms. As chronicled in National Geographic Traveler, the staff offers guests a little history lesson and a lot of breakfast in the morning, served in the museum’s Depot Café. The boat, once used to dredge rivers, hasn’t gone anywhere in a while, but the guides are still full of quirky stories about the days when boat workers would hold Friday fish fries on board, making ice cream in the machine shop by using a lathe to churn the cream. The stay includes passes to the museum and aquarium.
The scene: The crew quarters are popular with Scout troops, who are entertained with games and movies. Otherwise, it’s you, a rather cozy room, and a vintage iron boat nearly as big as a football field.
The surroundings: The boat is located in the port of Dubuque, a growing tourist area with a large casino and a popular riverwalk. Though after the museum closes, the area where the boat is docked quiets considerably.
The dinner choice: Star, a restaurant in the former Star brewery, tries a little too hard to be slick (a glowing, yellow bar, etc.), but the riverside location and innovative cuisine (coffee-encrusted pork loin) make for a unique night out.
The price: April to October $40 to $200
William M. Black Boat and Breakfast, 350 E. Third St., Dubuque, 563-557-9545, rivermuseum.com
This rebuilt mansion, once known as the Haunted Castle of Bellevue, bills itself as the most luxurious B&B in Iowa and it’s hard to argue with the claim. The whirlpools are accommodating, the big oak beds even more so, and on the rooftop observatory you can look out over the Mississippi while soaking in a Jacuzzi. Anyone headed across the river to Galena, Illinois, an upscale tourist mecca, may find this place a convenient stopover—from May through October, Mont Rest runs a river cruise from the Bellevue dock to Galena, serving canapés along the way.
The scene: A 20-minute drive from Dubuque and just a few hours from Chicago, the place attracts an urban crowd enjoying Mont Rest’s essentially him-and-her golf-and-spa package—a day at the Bellevue Golf Club overlooking the river or lunch and massages at the mansion, plus dinner for two afterward at the mansion or another restaurant.
The surroundings: Bellevue is a small town of about 2,350 people—which makes it Jackson County’s second-largest community. This is wide-open nature, and the thing to do is drive into the bluffs along the river, stopping in tiny towns and roadhouses. Or do as the Chicagoans do and head to Galena—with a full wallet.
The dinner choice: B&B packages include dinner, and there are several restaurants in town. But for a real white-tablecloth experience, reserve a table at Fritz and Frites, a French/German bistro in the scenic heart of Galena.
The price: $125 to $249
Mont Rest, 300 Spring Street, Bellevue, Iowa, 563-872-4220, montrest.com
10 More for the Road
Great New and Classic Minnesota Bed-and-Breakfasts, from Lake Superior to Lanesboro
This newer home in Redwood Falls, on the Minnesota River, has a tasteful, airy feel and a fridge well-stocked with homemade brownies and wine. $100 to $110, 103 E. Second St., Redwood Falls, 507-627-1875, tatankabluffsbandb.com
Hosts Rocky and Denny have designed their B&B (named for the dreamlike homestead in A Streetcar Named Desire) for maximum lounging—you have the house to yourself and a deck overlooking the Root River where evening martinis are encouraged. $125 to $150, 302 Ashburn, Lanesboro, 507-467-2407, bellerivebandblanesboro.com
This 10,000-square-foot mansion in bluff country embraces the classic, antique-filled B&B experience while offering dinner, too: a seven-course feast. $105 to $235, 218 Winona St., Chatfield, 507-867-3806, oakenwaldterrace.com
Eschewing doilies in favor of north-woods rusticism, this modern cottage features four miles of trails on 500 acres, canoeing on a private pond, and a fire pit. $175 to $245, 40361 Grace Lake Rd., Hinckley, 320-655-3901, woodlandtrails.net
Inn at Sacred Clay Farm
This dramatic new home, situated on farmland a few minutes from downtown Lanesboro, is a peaceful retreat built by local Amish carpenters and featuring enormous wood beams, a second-floor turret for reading, a meditation room, and breakfasts made from organic and/or locally grown foods. $140 to $235, 23234 Grosbeak Rd., Lanesboro, 507-467-9600, sacredclayfarmbandb.com
Park Point, the peninsula on the other side of the Lift Bridge, has a unique New England–coastal feel and Solglimt’s contemporary lodgings put you right on the beach. May to October 15 $175 to $240, October 16 to April $145 to $185, 828 S. Lake Ave., Duluth, 877-727-0596, solglimt.com
On a lake adjoining the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, this scenic outpost offers a sauna, five-course dinners, and, of course, canoes. $104 to $165, 827 Kawishiwi Trail, Ely, 218-365-4720, blueheronbnb.com
LoonSong Bed and Breakfast
Six miles from Lake Itasca State Park, on Heart Lake, this is the modern lake-home you wish you had. May to November $109 to $136, December to April $99 to $125, 17248 LoonSong Lane, Park Rapids, 888-825-8135, loonsongbedandbreakfast.com
A. G. Thomson House
A longtime favorite, this 1909 mansion continues to charm guests in Duluth’s historic hill district with its tasteful combination of classic—not frilly—décor, practiced hospitality, and multi-course breakfasts. $139 to $299, 2617 E. Third St., Duluth, 218-724-3464, thomsonhouse.biz
St. Paul’s riverfront getaway remains the most unique lodging experience in the Twin Cities—a three-story former towboat, with four staterooms, moored within the reflection of St. Paul’s skyline. April to October $150 to $235, November to March $140 to $195, 100 Harriet Island Rd. B3, St. Paul, 651-292-1411, covingtoninn.com