North Shore Winter Guide
The snowiest months are among the best times to visit Lake Superior—as long as you know the best spots to stay and play
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As the story goes, a Norwegian immigrant landed on the shores of Grand Marais in the late-1800s knowing just two words, “coffee” and “pie,” and managed to survive well into old age. These days, he’d have to include phrases such as “elk carpaccio,” “hot-stone therapy,” and “in-room Wi-Fi” to truly take advantage of the North Shore’s offerings. Such comforts are especially appreciated in the dead of winter, which, incidentally, is one of the most beautiful seasons on the Shore. Whether this winter will mark your maiden voyage or your annual pilgrimage, we’ve compiled the best places to stay and play along Lake Superior’s Minnesota border.
Duluth / Two Harbors
Drive Time: 2.5 to 3 hours
WHERE TO STAY
Duluth has seen notoriety for a burgeoning fleet of microbreweries that has cropped up around the area’s oldest brewhouse, Fitger’s, established in 1884. In 2008, the pioneering brewery renovated its hotel rooms and suites, which have some of the best views of Lake Superior and downtown Duluth. The well-appointed rooms are the best kind of historic: charming (old-timey photos and original brick walls) but modern (pay-per-view, in-room coffee, and Aveda products).
If the temps dip precipitously, you never have to leave the Fitger’s complex, home of Fitger’s Brewhouse (also a great place to catch live music), a fitness center, a salon, and several retail shops, including Alpaca WaWa (alpaca wool clothing), and The Market, a gourmet kitchen store. $$
If Joseph Cotton were alive today, he’d make the cover of Esquire. The wealthy attorney worked for U.S. Steel and later as private counsel to John D. Rockefeller. In 1908, he built the Cotton Mansion: a 16,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance palace complete with a stained-glass atrium, which has been converted into a B&B.
The mansion’s seven rooms are each uniquely—and lavishly—decorated. All but one include a fireplace and whirlpool tub. Guests enjoy a complimentary gourmet breakfast and wine and cheese on Friday and Sunday nights. Specials include a Romance Package ($50 off your third night’s stay and a complimentary bottle of champagne) and a Retreat Package, which includes an in-room massage. $$
Step into the main lodge at Larsmont Cottages (25 minutes north of Duluth, just shy of Two Harbors), and you’ll hear the sweet, soft croon of Bing Crosby (Big Band music plays 24/7 here). On weekends, if you look out the picture window you’ll find a snowsuit-clad cocktail hour: guests holding wine glasses through mittens while enjoying a roaring bonfire.
The cottages aren’t as quaint as the term suggests. They feel more like suburban condos, a little impersonal but definitely upscale: full kitchens with granite countertops, two-way gas fireplaces, and sweeping views of Superior, which is right out the back door. Each unit includes a telescope and one would be remiss not to use it, especially to see a full moon over the lake.
The resort includes an indoor pool, an outdoor hot tub, a sauna, and massage offerings. The resort’s Ledge Rock Grille is one of the most upscale restaurants in the area, with bourbon-planked sockeye salmon and a robust wine list. $–$$$
Grand Superior Lodge
Just 15 minutes past downtown Two Harbors, this mighty, modern lodge (with accompanying cabins and log homes) attracts city folk with its slick outdoor ice bar. Yet the indoor bar, just off the lobby, offers the same stunning view with cozier digs from which to enjoy a hot toddy and an all-too-early winter’s sunset. $$$
Lighthouse B and B
If you’ve got a thing for lighthouses (you’re not alone: the lighthouse thing is a thing), you’ll want to stay at Two Harbors’ Lighthouse B&B. In this working watchtower built in 1892, you’ll share the bathroom facilities with the other guests, but you’ll also sleep beneath the mariner’s guiding light with Lake Superior at your side. $
WHAT TO DO
Dabble in Beer:
Duluth’s newest brewery, Canal Park Brewing Company (canalparkbrewery.com), is also its best. The main dining area offers a full menu and features floor-to-ceiling windows that face the lake, while the bar showcases its giant tanks of beer. You may want to walk back to your hotel after one of Canal’s double beer samplers, which feature tastes of the brews currently on tap. The Stoned Surf IPA, a hoppy, medium-bodied brew with a bold grapefruit bouquet, is worth taking home in a growler.
Go to Italy:
Two blocks from Fitger’s, Va Bene Caffe (vabenecaffe.com) Italian bistro is noted for its gelato. (Even in the dead of winter, the tubs are eaten halfway down.) Va Bene’s enclosed solarium will make you feel as though you’re part of the lake—if it happened to be located in the heart of Rome. Authentic Italian fare includes light, pillowy, homemade gnocchi and a hearty bolognese well-suited to cold wintry nights.
Canal Park is Duluth’s main retail draw, and no visit is complete without a stop by the famous Duluth Pack Store (duluthpack.com) for some outdoor haute couture (there really is such a thing) and Waters of Superior (watersofsuperior.com) gallery, which features local artists and authors, as well as clothing, jewelry, perfume, and serveware.
Tourists don’t typically venture to Duluth’s grittier west side, but that’s where you’ll find Duluth Pack’s worthy—and less expensive—competitor in Frost River Trading Co. (frostriver.com) on West Superior Street. (You can’t miss its cherry-red exterior, which stands out among the block’s shabbier storefronts.) Frost River’s styles are plentiful and its manufacturing local.
Release your Inner Adventurer:
Get in touch with your hardcore side with Positive Energy Outdoors (outdooredventures.org) in Two Harbors. You’ll feel like an original voyageur as you dogsled, skijor, and ice climb your way along the Shore—no experience necessary.