Good-ol Minnesota, the backyard of the US. A destination long on my to-do list in late summer or early fall. When the comfortably warm days turn to comfortably cool evenings. A classic enjoyable contrast of the season. One that pairs perfectly with the vintage poetry that is the experience of the city and then onward north into the wilderness. A rustic and historic felt experience with a tone similar to the Northwest with its outdoor activities. A combined pleasure of mood that can be approached, of course, in many ways. My route, however, would begin in Minneapolis across the river on the University of Minnesota campus.
A rental will be in need for the drive north otherwise Minneapolis has a fantastic rail system steps from the airport. Just a quick and easy drive north and you're winding through the campus to The Graduate Hotel. Now, staying on a college campus, at a hotel that also houses students, may not sound comfortable but it really is. First, the campus is historically beautiful to stay in and around in itself. Second, the hotel is no different than a popular trendy hotel but with a collegiate theme and vibe. And third, it position's you perfectly to enjoy the calm and rustically charming riverside area by bike. Compliments of the hotel. It's a great set-up. So after quickly checking in I grabbed a complimentary bike and headed north. I originally planned to visit the newly renovated industrial complex at the Malcolm Yards for dinner that evening. But I instead opted to ride north through the campus and on through Dinky Town to The Saunder Shaker. A great little joint combining a contemporary touch to a rustic mood with tasty bites alongside crafted cocktails.
The entire area around the campus is a pleasure. Whether over to the Malcolm Yards or north through Dinky Town as I chose, everything is old and renovated, brick-clad and rustic with legit hole-in-the-wall eateries, bars, art finds, and the such. An area to enjoy for a day or two but I only had the evening. So after slowly obliterating my bowl of mussels and goonies cocktail, a great pairing I might add, I was back on the ride. And this was why I decidedly chose this location because for sunset I could head back south weaving back-and-forth across the pedestrian bridges over the river. A great ride, with many others enjoying lovely views of the river and historic building skylines. Had I been coming to just visit the city, I'd find this area a great approach first before staying in and exploring the city. And the rail system is just steps from the hotel to transfer over. But this time my plans had me heading north out of the city.
The next morning I had a coffee in the room and then headed back out on the bike. Just a quick ride away I arrived at the one and only. Maybe even the real reason I chose to stay in the area. Kitsch at its very best, old-school in honest form, and truly the epitome of hole-in-the-wall. No frill's great breakfast eating, with only a dozen counter seats and a massive serving of great personality and service. Al's Breakfast. After thoroughly enjoying my breakfast, and setting, I rode back to the hotel, checked out, and headed north to Duluth. The 2.5-hour drive is smooth and easy, not much to see but flat lake wilderness, but enjoyable nonetheless. It's when you turn the last bend that nears you into Duluth where the rustic steampunk-like style of the area reveals itself. The port town has many lasting relics of steel structures echoing its history as you arrive. And the enjoyable brick-clad atmosphere continues as you pull into Canal Park on the water edge. Here first, before checking in to my hotel, for a mouthwatering reason. An order of smoked fish, with crackers and herb cream cheese, at Northern Waters Smokehaus.
If a taste and flavor could be a greeting Duluth that would be it. After, just a short distance away, I self-checked into my room at the Oliver Inn. An ideal historic renovation with all the eclectic and quirky style you'd only hope to find. And a very special hole-in-the-wall treat in the basement. But that was for later. After refreshing up I walked the waterfront to the centuries-old Pickwick Restaurant & Pub. The grilling and its flavor are renowned, being I just had fish, I just had the veggie kebobs but the flavor was still very evident. A rustic environment of course and a flavor to match. One that would soon be quenched with a rock & rye cocktail at my hotel basement. The Rathskeller is the type of dim-lit cocktail cave you would hope to find in a place like Duluth. And it surely is in the highest complimentary way. After enjoying a couple, alongside some friendly conversation, I slipped upstairs for some shut-eye in my vintage sanctuary. Creaky stairs and all as I concluded my evening.
The next morning I anxiously arose for a fresh cup of coffee in the brick-clad seaside rustic town. And conveniently located steps away, not that everything isn't, was Duluth Coffee Company Cafe & Roastery. With cup now in hand, I walked up the hill and through the tough and rustic streets to my breakfast spot. And one that, of course, identifies a simple man's visit to Duluth. Uncle Loui's Cafe. After gratefully enjoying my breakfast-sammy amongst the locals I headed back through the streets for checkout. But I took a longer new route and appreciated the tough-as-nails area. It simply can't be understated how appreciative it is to visit places in America that still feel historic. After all, it's what we travel to see and feel internationally and seem to overlook in our own backyards. A quick refresh back at the hotel and I was off--and anxious. A quick stop for some goodies for the cabin heading out of town. Then it was on to the simple life leg of the trip. I couldn't have been in a better mood already. It had been far too long since my last fire pit. North along the beautiful waterfront of Lake Superior.
A charming, vintage-like, drive and much more like driving along the coast than a lake. Just a quiet stretch of beautiful views and mom & pop cafes, galleries, and the such. After about 2hrs of driving, with folk music blasting, I made it to my lunch stop at the Lusten Mountain Tram. A great way to see the area and a great view for lunch. After I was just a short drive from my getaway in the woods at The Cascade Lodge. An ideal set-up with individual cabins, a great roadside restaurant, and direct access to a great hike in the morning. That evening, after resting up, I made my backyard fire and enjoyed jazz, some wine, and charcuterie to the sunset. Cabin 10 is the choice, the perfect rustic little bugger you'd imagine with wood paneling and all. And the kicker is of course the private backyard patio and fire pit right next to a creek. The next morning I awoke early, made a pot of coffee, and enjoyed breakfast before my hike. And a needed one.
The Cascade River Loop is around 6.5 miles out and back. It's a rewarding hike taking you deep into the thick forest while the sound of the river guides. And a great snack stop at Hidden Falls before heading back. When I got back I jumped in Superior, and right back out, and was ready for lunch in Grand Marais. One of the most picturesque towns on the water you'll ever see. And right on the water, sitting on the patio I enjoyed the best basket of fish nuggets I'd ever eaten. You won't be angry about it but you'll be sitting at the Angry Trout Cafe. After I took a stroll through the little town and enjoyed, in person, what you only find in a movie. And these days it would have to be from the 80s. By that time of the day, all said and done, I was ready for a good nap at the cabin. That evening I enjoyed a mouth-watering broiled walleye at the lodge's roadside restaurant and pub. Lucky enough, it was live music night so alive and full of friendly locals. To end the evening, and my time in the area, I made a fire at sunset on the water's edge. While a cover of Jon Bon Jovi faintly played in the background.
The next morning I had breakfast and coffee in the cabin and headed back to Minneapolis. By the time arrived, let go of my rental and checked into a hotel I had time to rest and refresh before dinner. Now I must say, there are several fantastic choices for send-off dinners in the city. But after review, I chose to cross the river again and little further north to The Sample Room. A local institution. And for damn good reason. Great food, cocktails, atmosphere, and very friendly staff. And the best part is it's a vintage 1800s stand-alone building; in a quiet wooded area, with a backyard and a small direct access dock to the river. An extremely unique and wonderful experience and an ideal ending to my trip. The next morning I was only steps away from the rail system and on to the airport. Put the Leather slip ons to the test once again.
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