Our suite at South Pier Inn, with a warming fire and a jetted tub, commanded a 270-degree view encompassing the blue water of Superior Bay and the Aerial Lift Bridge at the entrance to Lake Superior. In the morning the surface of the bay was a glistening white slab of ice that looked for all the world as if it was sprinkled with popcorn. Mid-morning a small icebreaker came by to break up the sheet, and a flock of mallard ducks (inexplicably 90% male) settled on the icy water. Bathing in such temperatures might seem suicide, but the water was probably thirty degrees warmer than the air, which that morning hovered around 12 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit), and minus 29 with the wind chill.
As a Californian I’ve not been exposed to much snow, and with the exception of ski vacations, my travel has been confined to the other three seasons. It hadn’t really occurred to me to travel in the winter until my eldest son and daughter-in-law took their honeymoon to Scandinavia in February, traveling above the Arctic Circle in Lapland.
Travel is meant to broaden our horizons, to give us a taste of (to us) the exotic, so we followed suit and took an uncommon vacation to Minnesota in late December. While there we took a side trip to Duluth on the shores of Lake Superior, a city of 86,000 that sees most of its visitors in the summer. It’s a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, a drive over mostly flat terrain until we reached Duluth, which is perched on hills overlooking the lake. Its steep streets are reminiscent of San Francisco.
Despite the biting cold, there’s a certain beauty to the winter, and the city offers the visitor plenty of entertainment.
We first went on a short shopping spree, with a stop at Duluth Trading Company (www.duluthtrading.com) to peruse their cold weather gear and to get a first hand look at a store that I only knew from the catalogues that arrive each year in my mailbox. Just down Superior street is Lake Superior Art Glass (www.lakesuperiorartglass.com), where you’ll find the work of sixty glass artists from around the country, as well as reasonably priced jewelry, paperweights, ornaments and goblets made on premise by owner Dan Neff.
The Lake Superior Railroad Museum is a great place to spend several hours on a cold winter day. Entirely indoors, the train museum shares a former train station with the Duluth Art Institute, the St. Louis County Historical Society, and the Veterans’ Memorial Hall. If you have a lot of time on your hands, you can explore all of the museums for the price of one ticket. The trains take up the lower floor, on original track, surrounded by Depot Square, a recreation of more than twenty quaint shops from 1910 Duluth. Besides extensive photo galleries and video documenting the role of the railroad in developing the area, there are also short videos on specific historic engines that comprise the collection, which includes the state’s first steam locomotive, the William A. Crooks, built in 1861; the 566 ton, 128-foot long Mallet; and locomotive snow plows, among many others. You can sit in the cab of a snowplow, and tour a dining car, mail car, caboose, freight car, Pullman, sleeping car and passenger car. The exhibits span more than a century of railroad history, from steam to diesel.
Of course, as dedicated epicures we didn’t want to leave Duluth without sampling some its gustatory pleasures. We’d been tasked with bringing back some smoked meat from Northern Waters Smokehaus. Besides various smoked fish (including Lake Superior whitefish), sausages, corned beef and bison pastrami, they get rave reviews on Yelp for their sandwiches. Our party stopped in for lunch and had the Smokehaus Tacos, Pastrami Mommy, and my favorite — Cajun Finn, made with their house-smoked Cajun-spiced salmon, green onion cream cheese, roasted red peppers, peperoncini and lettuce. But I’ll offer some constructive criticism here — their bread is dull. They would benefit from homemade bread.
Duluth is noted for its brewpubs. For dinner we headed to Fitger’s Brewhouse. Though it can, with a few convolutions, trace its origins back to Duluth’s first brewery in 1857, the modern incarnation dates from 1995. Master Brewer Dave Hoops oversees a crew of nine, who annually turn out more than 3,000 barrels of craft brew from a catalog of over 100 different recipes. We had their sampler before ordering our favorites. Our beer — ale, lagers and stout — were exceptional. The root beer was phenomenal. And the beer is complimented by an outstanding menu of burgers, salads and sandwiches. Fitger’s uses the aforementioned smoked fish from Northern Waters Smokehaus, and in a nice little ecosystem, Fitger’s raises Scottish Highland cattle, grass fed until they’re almost ready to turn into burgers, when they’re fed spent grain from the brewery. If you’re vegetarian, try the black bean chili or wild rice burger. As for myself, I was most impressed by the Artichoke Chicken Sandwich.
Worth a winter side-trip is Gooseberry Falls State Park. Forty miles north of Duluth, the falls freeze in the winter, like a paraffin sculpture of flowing water.
Northern Waters Smokehaus
394 S Lake Ave
Duluth, MN 55802
Fitger’s Brewhouse Brewery & Grille
600 E. Superior St. 55802
(218) 279 BREW (2739)