THE ROAD TO THE LAKESIDE HOTEL in Old Frontenac, about 75 miles south of Minneapolis, begins on pavement, turns to gravel, and peters out in the sandy bank of the Mississippi River. I’m not supposed to be here, according to the signs posted on the beach: private property. But most of the signs are falling over, like the concrete benches on the shore, the rusting referee chair on the weed-choked tennis court, and the hotel itself.
No one has stayed here in decades. Three stories tall, with multiple balconies and white-clapboard siding, the place resembles a Western movie set and I expect, peering through its broken windows, to see a black-hatted poker player slipping aces up his sleeve. But I don’t see a thing, save for a staircase and a few church pews, stripped from a nearby abandoned parish. A massive wood cornice lies across the front porch, where thorny creepers are making for the doors, crashing a party that ended long ago.
The Lakeside, just after the Civil War, was the heart of Minnesota’s first resort community, nicknamed the Newport of the Northwest. Here, where the Mississippi widens into Lake Pepin, steamboats dropped heat-stricken Southerners into the breezy wilds of America’s natural air conditioner. There was a horse track nearby and a theater, bar, dance, and billiards hall. President Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the hotel, as did the Randolph Hearst family and numerous other notables. On the bluffs above, you can still see the summer homes, sporting high ceilings and tall green shutters in the Southern manner, of the rich who came to stay.
The river was the place to be then, a 2,552-mile-long adventure—the Route 66 of its day. When President Millard Fillmore touted the nation’s prosperity in 1854, where did he go? Up the river, of course, on a parade of steamboats—the Grand Excursion from Rock Island, Illinois, to St. Paul. The Mississippi was the line between east and west, the edge of the frontier, daring the adventurous to cross, and, as a result, no other river in America runs as deep into our national mythology, symbolizing freedom and mobility.
But we don’t come here anymore. The merry-makers have moved on, along with the rest of us. Despite living within a couple of miles of the Mississippi for all of my adult life, I’ve never swum in the river, never fished it, never picnicked beside it. I’ve spent more time on rivers in Europe and Asia, and I know less about it than I do about Lake Superior—or almost any other body of water in my vicinity. I take the greatest river in America for granted.
TO SEE WHAT I’VE BEEN MISSING, I set out from Minneapolis on a 600-mile journey along the Mississippi, down one side and up the other, on the Great River Road, which is actually a series of roads comprising the ultimate scenic route from Minnesota to Louisiana. I head as far south as Dubuque, Iowa, covering most of what’s considered the Upper Mississippi, before the river broadens into what Mark Twain rhapsodized as the “mile-wide tide, shining in the sun.”
Twain’s rapture may have been misplaced. Whatever the cultural intrigues of the Delta, the Upper Mississippi is arguably the more attractive half—“God’s country,” as one local put it to me. Banked by bluffs and broken up by islands, it’s essentially a canyon river here, its narrowness precisely its charm. And, in fact, Twain was not immune. In his notes for Life on the Mississippi, he describes these bluffs: “Where the rough broken turreted rocks stand up against the sky, above the steep verdant slopes, they are inexpressibly rich & beautiful…the very tints to make an artist worship.”
Twain, of course, missed out on the Great River Road, which rises high into the hills and passes through river towns as sleepy as turtles in the sun. The byway was conceived during the Great Depression, when most of the 43 dams that now straddle the Mississippi were built to generate cheap power. By then, many Americans were already estranged from the river. Driving along it, I note the advances that have carried us, over the years, farther from the water: the railroad running alongside, the county highway through town, the interstate well inland. Once, we were amphibious, but we’ve evolved into landlubbers; the river is now vestigial.
In Dubuque, I immerse myself in this river history at the massive, Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, which opened in 2003. Here, I encounter catfish big as go-karts, snakes, and sharks (who knew they swam as far north as Lake Pepin?). I learn how glaciers made the river, and how man, for better or for worse, remade it.
Theodore Roosevelt warned, “Leave it as it is, the ages have been at work on it, and we can only mar it.” But, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves. The Mississippi is part of the largest river system on the continent—the fourth largest in the world—draining 40 percent of the nation and flying through Minneapolis at 89,868 gallons per second. “This thing is awesome,” the thinking went. “What can we use it for?”
As the exhibits explain, we changed the Mississippi’s course, depth, flow, and floodplain. We dredged it and dammed it, and then we turned our backs on it, left it for dead. The river is now a channel, maintained at no less than nine-feet deep, where barge trains longer than ocean liners haul millions of tons of sand, scrap metal, and petroleum. Only now, in places like this museum, are we reawakening to the river as something other than a resource.
FROM ST. PAUL SOUTH TO WINONA, the river towns are lined with levees, parkland, and the occasional row of condominiums, mostly around Lake Pepin. Crossing into Iowa, clusters of mobile homes predominate, tucked into the riverside woods and sometimes quaintly called camps. The Mississippi must be the largest body of water in America not yet colonized by luxury homes.
This was the frontier not so long ago, and in the rugged “driftless area” where Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa meet—where the glaciers never arrived to grind down the scenery—that free-spirit, entrepreneurial vibe can still be felt. In northern Iowa, I pass a sign for a fur center, where you can sell your squirrel tails, rawhide, furs, and pheasant feathers. In the hills high above the river, a mechanic turned folk artist spends his days sipping Busch Light and taking a chainsaw to logs until the pompadour of Elvis Presley emerges.
In the river town of Bellevue, Iowa, I hit the state’s largest pork roast, arriving early for a church service that precedes the feast, blessing the gluttony. As I settle into a pew, a drum kit and accordion are brought out and I soon realize that even here, in the Lord’s house, individualism thrives. For this will be a service like no other—a polka mass.
“Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” the priest intones, and the band kicks into the Liechtensteiner Polka, the lyrics praising God even as the music celebrates the area’s oompah heritage. When the congregation exchanges the “peace”—handshakes across the pews—we do so, ironically, to the tune of Hank Williams’s Cold, Cold Heart. I’m impressed with Iowa, which is supposed to be boring—clearly boredom is the mother of invention—and I devise a new travel credo: Where there appears to be nothing going on, that’s where people may be doing extraordinary things.
River denizens once made money off the river itself, punching pearl buttons out of clamshells, packing steamboats with grain and livestock. To remain relevant, river cities have had to find something else to offer. Some states began allowing riverside gambling, such that floating casinos now dominate the harbors of St. Louis and Dubuque. In other towns, change, if it arrives at all, often takes some strange turns.
As I drive down to McGregor, an Iowa river town about 1.5 hours north of Dubuque, the bluffs rise so steeply that my Honda Civic is climbing at a mere 40 miles per hour, floored. Locals call this place Little Switzerland and I wonder if I’ve stupidly brought a knife to a gunfight, not realizing that the Iowa terrain had any fight in it at all.
McGregor, population 876, is isolated both geographically and geologically, hemmed in by bluffs on three sides. It has a Wild West feel, its main-street buildings outfitted with balconies and boardwalks, the façades unchanged in 130 years save for signs in store windows: “Welcome to Outcast Alley,” “No Sticks in the Mud.” You could cross this town in less time than it takes to down a sarsaparilla soda, yet the streets are full of tourists, beaming at the oddity of it all.
In an antiquarian bookstore, stuffed with rare Mark Twain editions, the owner tells me that many river towns were so depressed a few decades ago they were taken by the kind of schemes Harold Hill might have proposed to River City—“great ideas,” he cracks, like building mini-malls to lure visitors. McGregor resisted. Or rather, he says, “No one in McGregor had any great ideas—and thank God.” Soon enough, people started coming here anyway, precisely because nothing had changed.
Among the first visitors were artists and musicians, who found the town’s empty storefronts perfect for enacting their own Wild West fantasies. Jim Boeke, a bushy-bearded fellow, started a Western-wear company on Main Street that’s now supplied outfits for just about every Hollywood cowboy movie made in the last 10 years. He claims to own only one piece of modern clothing, a sweatshirt from his mother-in-law.
I notice many other men strolling about town with holstered guns and cowboy hats, like extras from Deadwood—buying groceries, tossing footballs in the street. The locals pay them no mind. Then, shortly after high noon, these men gather tourists in front of Uncle Sam’s Saloon for a staged bank robbery, bullwhip tricks, and slapstick—what you’d expect to see in Deadwood, South Dakota, not Iowa.
“Welcome to the circus without a tent,” the group’s ringleader tells me when the shooting stops. He has long gray hair and a droopy mustache, like Wild Bill Hickok. He and his cohorts live here or just across the border in Wisconsin or Minnesota and they call themselves the Hole-in-the-Sock Gang. Along with these monthly shootouts, they also raise money for flood relief and other local causes, helping to keep this river town afloat, despite their outlaw appearance. “It’s the river,” he says. “Once you get attached to it, you can’t let it go—the beauty and the bluffs.”
It must be nice, I think, to become attached to a place simply through proximity, like imprinting. But something tells me these guys haven’t thought about it too deeply; in fact, that might impair the process. As we’re talking, another performer shouts at the ringleader, “Are you blowin’ smoke up his ass?” and he replies, “It’s McGregor, ain’t it?”
IF OUR MOST VIVID PERCEPTIONS of the Mississippi date to the steamboat days, it’s probably also true that these sentiments are misleading. Twain, who romanticized the river more than anyone, reckoned that the average lifespan of a riverboat was only about four or five years, due to fires, ice, and collisions. Only a quarter survived long enough to be scrapped. In just a short stretch of the Mississippi near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 32 steamboats are believed to have gone down, often in flames.
Yet Twain venerated life on the Mississippi because of the freedom it afforded. A river pilot, he argued, is the “only unfettered and entirely independent human being.”
Outside Genoa, Wisconsin, I encounter one of the last of this breed, a guy still making a living off the Mississippi. He’s loading nets, with the help of a friend, into a long, flat-bottomed boat, its motor painted green and gold, “Lambeau” carved into the side. A sign at the edge of his driveway advertises catfish, mudcat, and carp, smoked or filleted.
“We’re Stupid and Stupider,” he says, introducing himself and his buddy. Only a fool, he suggests, would try making a living at this. “After a hundred years of being fished,” he says, “these fish are so smart you only catch the stupid and the blind.”
His friend hasn’t fished in a while, not for money. “We was the best,” he says, pegging the late ’70s as the golden years for guys like them, when they were setting 30 nets a night, muskrat pelts earned you 50 cents, and tap beers were only 15 cents. Fewer people today care to buy a fish wrapped in butcher paper from a lone guy; they want the pre-packaged supermarket stuff, ocean fish with omega-3s. The fisherman wraps a hunk of smoked carp and tosses it to me—“Snack on that,” he offers. I dig in with my fingers, not sure what to expect: Our tastes, like everything else, have moved on, become civilized. Yet it’s surprisingly good, even if the oil is so intense I smell like the river all night.
“Life on this river,” says the angler, stepping into his waders, “it’s impossible.” Yet within a few minutes, he’s backing the boat toward the water; save for the occasional high-spirited carp, no one will boss him out there but himself.
THE RIVER PILOTS aren’t gone completely. There are plenty of boats on the river, and about every year some romantics decide to Huck Finn their way down, leaving Minneapolis for New Orleans in anything from a kayak to a homemade raft.
I finish my trip on the last little steamboat to ply the Upper Mississippi, the Julia Belle Swain, a three-story floating anachronism that’s been used as a set-piece in movies about the steamboat era. Its twin engines, dating to 1915, have logged a million miles apiece. The boat is based in LaCrosse, to which I’m heading from Winona, and its cruises have been especially popular with Europeans, who tour the Mississippi just as we would the Rhine or the Danube.
It’s a paddle-wheeler—a big, slow box of iron, wood, and steam—just the lumbering sight of which might compel its passengers to cancel any pressing appointments at their destination, were they the kind of people to have any. A profusely mustachioed chap leans over a filigreed railing, playing a harmonica. “We’re making river history today,” he tells me. “Think about it—this boat won’t always be around.” In fact, a few weeks after this trip, the boat will be moored in LaCrosse for the foreseeable future, owing to the sluggish economy.
Resisting change on the river, though, is a little like complaining about kids today: Every generation seems to have to done it. When the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi went up in 1856, spanning Iowa and Illinois, a steamboat crashed into one of its supports a few weeks later (sabotage, it was claimed) and river pilots up and down the river are said to have blown their whistles in solidarity. In 1870, when a railroad was set to pass through Frontenac, the town’s founder donated land much farther inland for the railroad to use instead, so strong was his nostalgia for the old river life.
I recline in a deck chair on the Julia Belle Swain and a Dixieland band begins to play, as if the clock had stopped out here about the time that Twain went up to that Big Muddy in the sky. But of course it didn’t; nothing ever stops on a river. In civilizing the Mississippi we simply may have lost what Twain alluded to, something uncivilized in ourselves, an instinct to drift unfettered, that we are now nostalgic for and can only be reawakened by a trip downstream. I daydream about going much farther, to New Orleans and beyond—how easy it would be.
Tim Gihring is Minnesota Monthly’s senior writer and arts editor.
Nights on the Mississippi
Where to Stay, Play, and Eat
Golden Lantern Inn
Red Wing, MN
A staple of the Minnesota bed-and-breakfast scene, the Golden Lantern is the rare mansion that doesn’t feel like a claustrophobic collection of antiques—it feels like your own house, if you were president of the Red Wing Shoe Company in the 1930s. Instead of Victorian gewgaws, this boot-money abode is outfitted with Mission furniture, simple yet well-crafted, kind of like, well, you get the idea. An unusual abundance of common rooms, like a walnut-paneled library, a stone porch, and three quiet patios, means you don’t have to creep up to your room upon arrival and stay there. At night, you could slip into a whirlpool, make s’mores in the garden fireplace or flick on the flat-screen TV in your room, just as you would at home.
The scene: Most guests are here to hit the antique stores or the trails—early to rise, early to bed, contributing to the inn’s residential, rather than lounge-like, feel. It’s within walking distance of downtown (about 3.5 blocks) yet it seems, in its leafy, quiet neighborhood, almost suburban.
The surroundings: Red Wing makes a good base for exploring the smaller, more quaint river towns south of here: Stockholm, Wisconsin, with its terrific pie shop and art gallery; Pepin, Wisconsin, home of the Laura Ingalls Wilder cult; Lake City, the sailor’s paradise; Wabasha, the sleepy setting for Grumpy Old Men.
The dinner choice: In town, hit the Norton’s, recently relocated from outside town, where it was more of a supper club; here, it’s big, bustling, and urbane, with jazz and R&B music on weekends in the lounge. For extraordinary dining, drive a half-hour south to Lake City, where Nosh serves up exquisite, locally sourced American cuisine with Mediterranean touches.
The price: May to October $129 to $235, November to April $99 to $235
Golden Lantern Inn, 721 East Ave., Red Wing, 888-288-3315, goldenlantern.com
Tritsch House Bed and Breakfast
Completely revamped last year, this 1902 Queen Anne beauty is perched on a bluff, affording a nice view of the Mississippi. The place’s youthful, enthusiastic new owner, a snowboarding buff, is pushing the trend toward less formalism in bed and breakfasts, offering individual tables for a deluxe-continental breakfast, a classic pool table, Jacuzzis, and flat-screen TVs in the rooms. Modern lines and warm wood combine for an airy, classic feel, as in the walk-through kitchen—hardly hidden, like in many bed-and- breakfasts—featuring a countertop bar, sound system, and television (of course), but also a tin ceiling. From the rear porch, you may spot the deer that descend to the river at night.
The scene: A younger crowd, appreciative of the relaxed atmosphere, is discovering this place, though bed-and-breakfast regulars, enthused to have a stopover in such a small town, still predominate. If you’re looking for doilies and four-course breakfasts, keep moving.
The surroundings: Alma is a sleepy river town if hardly typical, its streets built like terraces into a steep bluff, with stairways connecting them. Red-brick buildings dating to the Civil War are well-preserved, and a castle-like museum housing a world-class armor collection recently opened here. Buena Vista Park, atop the bluff, offers some of the best views on the Upper Mississippi.
The dinner choice: The grapevine-shaded patio of Kate & Gracie’s, accented by a small waterfall, is an unexpectedly gracious find. Recently highlighted in Gourmet, the restaurant is operated by the hospitable folks who once ran the hip Eli’s restaurant in Minneapolis.
The price: $95 to $135
Tritsch House Bed and Breakfast, 601 S. Second St., Alma, Wisconsin, 507-450-6573, thetritschhouse.com
Lynn and Fred Ihrke are the kind of innkeepers who think of your wishes before you do—come home from dinner and you may find a glass of port in your room, the radio tuned quietly to jazz. There’s an element of effortless escape behind all the mood-setting, and it’s difficult, in your private sunroom of this elegantly restored Victorian, not to feel enveloped in a more relaxed era. Breakfast isn’t rushed, it’s four-courses worth of organic, largely local foods, spiced by Watkins products—a nod to the home’s namesake, an heiress to the Watkins natural- foods empire.
The scene: There’s a hushed and almost baroque feel to this mansion, with its heavy draperies and sumptuous breakfast.
The surroundings: The islands and lakes of Winona comprise one of the most picturesque locations along the Mississippi, best viewed from Garvin Heights Park. The Minnesota Marine Art Museum is an unexpectedly rich collection of paintings and other art with marine themes, by such artists as Winslow Homer, Claude Monet, and Camille Pissarro, along with a fascinating folk-art gallery of work by contemporary Wisconsin artists Leo and Marilyn Smith.
The Dinner choice: Cross the bridge to Fountain City, Wisconsin, to visit the Monarch Tavern, a river traveler’s rest stop since 1894 and still featuring the original hand-carved bar, hundred-year-old tables, and Fountain Brew, only found here and written up in Gourmet. Check out the friendly owner’s eclectic history collection in the basement, including a stuffed albino deer (the area is known for the unusual creatures).
The price: $149 to $229
Alexander Mansion, 274 E. Broadway, Winona, 507-474-4224, alexandermansionbb.com
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