Thirty years ago, motorists whizzed right through Duluth on their way to Minnesota's North Shore, putting it into their
rear-view mirror as fast as they could.
That changed in the early 1990s, when the rejuvenation of Duluth's lakefront started to transform this working-class port
town into the belle of Lake Superior.
Now, it's packed from summer through fall, and rooms at its hotels and B&Bs can be hard to come by. It's a Cinderella story, really.
Like robins and maple sap, Lake Superior ore boats aren't much affected by the never-ending winter that humans find so annoying.
In Duluth, icebreakers help the big lakers get out of ports the third week of March. Then traffic starts to move within Lake
Superior and then, after the Soo Looks open, from other Great Lakes.
Ah, but when will the first oceangoing boat arrive? Whoever guesses that wins the annual First Ship Contest sponsored by the city and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and the grand prize of an all-expenses-paid trip to the port town.
In Duluth, you can lead a child to water — but just try leading her away.
“Mom, it’d be worth moving to Duluth just so we could go to this beach a lot,’’ said my daughter Madeleine, jumping from rock to rock at Brighton Beach.
Duluth, once the ugly duckling of Lake Superior, now is one of the best places in Minnesota to take children. On Canal Park, the lineup of tourist attractions can keep a family entertained for days.
It's a hot Saturday in Duluth, and it seems as if every tourist in town is on Canal Park.
But a few have found their way to a quieter spot, on Amity Creek above downtown.
Just off Skyline Parkway, some 10-year-olds are having a great time climbing rocks and splashing in a pool beside a waterfall, thanks to a mother who went to college in Duluth. She's brought her daughter's soccer team to play and cool off between tournament games.
When it's not cold or snowy enough in Duluth, the natives start to grumble.
This Minnesota port on Lake Superior loves winter, though it's not for weaklings.
The breezes that earned it the nickname "Air-Conditioned City'' will chill your bones in winter, and if you don't keep moving, you'll wind up as stiff as the bronze sculptures along the lake.
One March, I went up to Duluth but woke up in Siberia.
Twenty inches of snow had fallen overnight. A savage 70 mph wind was howling around the glass-walled lobby of the Willard Munger Inn. Swirling snow had turned the air white.
But then my niece and I noticed cars crawling along Grand Avenue. Then more cars. So we bundled up and got in our car, and to
our surprise, made it all the way across town to Lester Park.
Most people don't think of Duluth as a beach town.
It's a little chilly, for one thing. But the port city has six miles of sandy beach along the largest freshwater sandbar in the world.
Just over the Aerial Lift Bridge, Park Point is where Duluthians play. They hike and run on a two-mile trail through forest and dunes. They paddle canoes and kayaks. They hang out on the beach, watching waves in winter and braving them in summer.
A few steps into the forest, and it hit.
The tang of cedar bark and pine needles, moistened by droplets of mist from waterfalls. The loamy richness of earth carpeted by ferns.
It was that north-woods perfume all Minnesotans instantly recognize, a powerful eau de outdoors that gladdened my heart and also made it sink with the realization that I'd stayed in the city far, far too long.
To many people, it's still a revelation that Duluth is one of the best places to hike, not just in Minnesota but in the
It's a city of 86,000, after all. But this hillside town, once called the San Francisco of the North, has spectacular terrain for trails, along glacial beach terraces high above Lake Superior and on creeks that tumble down rocky ravines.
Many hikers blow through Duluth on their way to sections of the Superior Hiking Trail farther up the North Shore. But the 43 miles that cross Duluth provide the most concentrated scenery on the entire trail, lake views and waterfalls included.
Once, a wind-whipped sand spit was not the most desirable address in Duluth.
Today, people lust after a beach cottage on Park Point, just beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge. But the Ojibwe preferred the calmer estuary of the St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior at what today is Duluth-Superior Harbor.
The French explorer Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, for whom the city was named, didn’t waste much time on the lakefront when he arrived in 1679. Nor did the early fur traders, who hustled straight up the St. Louis, which, via the little Savanna River, connects Lake Superior to the Mississippi.
It took a servant a day and a half to polish one of their chandeliers. It took three Norwegian craftsmen three years to carve their woodwork.
Still, it's hard to begrudge Chester and Clara Congdon their nice things, because apparently they were very nice people.
Chester gave 11 miles of Lake Superior shoreline to the people of Duluth and made sure it was preserved for them in perpetuity. Clara donated her time and resources to the Methodist church; her servants ate the same meals she did and were paid twice as much as others.
This summer, two small yellow boats are puttering about Duluth's harbor amid tall ships, freighters, sailboats and kayaks.
They're 18-foot electric boats owned by Canal Park Boat Rentals, and they can be rented by anyone who'd like to explore the harbor or inspect giant freighters at the terminals where they're loading grain, coal or taconite.
“They're wonderful because it's quiet,'' says owner Tom Althaus. “A lot of people think electric boats are slow, but they go about the same speed as sailboats or the big boats, and you can talk as you go.''
On Duluth's Hawk Ridge, a bird in the hand is worth at least two in the sky.
They're impressive when spotted overhead. But up close, it's easier to get to know a bird — say, the northern goshawk, a fierce predator whose image once adorned the helmet of Attila the Hun.
As she held a young goshawk by the legs, naturalist Willow Maser struggled to make herself heard above its high-pitched screeches.
Remember all those summers when you looked longingly at Lake Superior, wishing you could swim in it for more than a minute
without going numb? The summer of 2012 wasn't one of them.
Non-stop, beastly hot temperatures mellowed the waters of the big lake, turning it into the world's largest swimming
Water-surface temperatures pushed 75 degrees on the notoriously cold stretch between Duluth and Grand Marais. That's the
in a century and 20 degrees higher than normal for mid-summer.
When the ore boats start arriving in Duluth, the tourists soon follow.
Fifty years ago, ships were part of the industrial landscape on Canal Park, and no one thought they were all that romantic.
But things have changed. Today, these hulking big boats are to Duluth what killer whales are to Sea World. Because, boy, do they make people come running.
In 1890, Duluth was a treasure chest waiting to be opened.
It sat at the foot of Lake Superior, connected to the steel mills and cities of the East by water. White-pine forests lay to the south and west, and rich veins of iron ore to the north. It couldn’t fail to make money for the men who came to tap its riches, and it didn’t.
John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan swooped in, made killings and took the profits back to New York. But other millionaires — in the 1910s, Duluth had more per capita than any other city in the world — stayed, building mansions that remain as monuments to a bygone opulence.
In summer and fall, festive Canal Park draws the crowds. But when cold winds blow in winter, a brewery suddenly looks much
Started in 1882 as Fink's Lake Superior Brewery, Fitger's was a mainstay in Duluth, surviving Prohibition but not industry consolidation. It closed in 1972 and almost was razed, but the sprawling building on the lake reopened in 1984 as a hotel, restaurant and shopping complex.
Now, the complex also boasts a day spa, a nightclub, a dinner theater, a brewery and a coffeehouse — everything anyone could want for a little getaway, all under one roof.