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Sunset cruise on Lake Minnetonka

Minnesota: I found the nice

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postedNovember 19, 2019

Come for the mall. Stay for the small.

Fans of my writing (do not laugh) know I am touting a formula that helps destinations focus on what motivates visitors to come, and what might entice them to stay.

During my tour of Minnesota in August, my host was Jake Juliot, PR and communications specialist with Explore Minnesota. He told me that many visitors come to the state because of the Mall of America in the Twin Cities, but they often miss out on cool experiences in and around smaller cities and towns.

So come for the mall, and stay for the small. I’ll tell you about sites of all sizes that I visited.

Full disclosure: I came for the meeting. My Minnesota visit began with an NTA Board of Directors meeting at the Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, just outside of Minneapolis.

The property opened in time for Super Bowl LII in 2018, and it’s a winner. 

“We make a great hub and spoke,” said Heidi Keyho, group sales account executive. “If some people want to shop, they can head to the Mall of America while others stay here and golf or game.”

NTA board members Angela Harness (left) and Ashley Kingman at the Vikings Museum in Eagan
NTA board members Angela Harness (left) and
Ashley Kingman at the Vikings Museum in Eagan

Our two days of meetings were punctuated by memorable evenings in neighboring towns. Denise Olsen of Enjoy Eagan took us to that city’s newly constructed training center and headquarters of the Minnesota Vikings.

“We are very excited to have the Vikings village in our city. It’s a game-changer,” Denise said.

Our group toured the Vikings Museum and then had a lively dinner (with an excellent variety of beer) at Union 32 Craft House.

The board’s final outing together was a dinner cruise on Lake Minnetonka, departing from the inviting town of Excelsior. If there’s a more peaceful and beautiful way to spend a summer evening, lead me to it.

Meeting adjourned

When the board meeting concluded, Jake whisked me away to downtown Minneapolis, where we lunched with some of the Meet Minneapolis team—Kristen Montag and Danny Rojas—at Hell’s Kitchen, a group-friendly restaurant with quirky décor and fun people.

As we ate, Danny told me about outdoor activities.

“The Mississippi River running through the middle of town is a great asset, with kayak and canoe tours, plus Segway and walking tours along the riverfront,” he said.

Indoors-wise, the metro area has 55 museums, ranging from the American Swedish Institute to the Wells Fargo Museum. We visited a cool one: the Mill City Museum, which was built on the foundation of an 1880s mill that eventually became General Mills.

The museum features exhibits of General Mills products through the years: Gold Medal flour, Wheaties, Cream of Wheat, and Betty Crocker goodies.

The highlight of my visit was “Flour Tower,” an eight-story freight elevator show—a ride, really—with scenes and voice recordings of long-ago mill workers. Their tales are both funny and poignant.

I spent my one night in Minneapolis at the luMINN Hotel. It is indeed illuminating, with elaborate ambient lighting in the rooms and a floaty-changey system in the lobby bar that is so cool I took a video. Originally constructed in 1914 as an office building, the boutique hotel opened in late 2017 with 55 rooms, each with a kitchen.

I didn’t cook, though, because I was going to see “Mamma Mia!” that night. Because I’m locked in to the ’70s for eternity, I had been looking forward to the show for weeks, ever since Jake had sent the itinerary.

Gayle Junnila, market development manager for Explore Minnesota, drove us to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. With a main theater that seats 600 and two more intimate performance venues, it’s the largest professional dinner theater complex in the U.S.

Groups can tour the facility and arrange for a post-show Q&A. I would have liked to ask the actors a few Qs after enjoying the disco paradise that is “Mamma Mia!”—questions like, “Are you on loan from Broadway?” and “Why are you so talented?”

Visitors can walk across the Mississippi River at the headwaters in Itasca State Park.
Visitors can walk across the Mississippi River at the headwaters in Itasca State Park. (Photo by Bob Rouse)

Headwaters and loggers

The next morning, Jake and I hit the road to Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi River begins. Once there, I was surprised at how thrilling it was to cross the Mississippi on foot. The 2,555-mile river escapes from Lake Itasca and flows over a row of rocks in a stream some 30 feet wide.

The headwaters are the main draw for many of the park’s 400,000 summertime visitors, who might also spend a few days hiking and laking while camping out or staying in cabins.

One quarter of the state’s remaining old-growth pine—red and white—is within the 32,500 acres of the park. Our guide, Emily Nelson, told us, “We say that people come for the river and stay for the pines.”

Emily gets it.

From there we drove to the Forest History Center, located just outside of Grand Rapids. We toured through a re-created logging camp that’s set to Dec. 15, 1900, when 70 loggers and 24 draft horses lived there. They logged in the winter, when the ground is frozen, so they could skid the logs out of the forest.

At the bunkhouse and cookhouse, period interpreters convincingly described the conditions and the daily routine, including stoking each man with a diet of 5,000 calories (because of the demands for energy), with ingenious ways to incorporate prunes into the food (because of what you are imagining they’re for).

Remarkable: In a few hours, I understood an industry and way of life I had never given any thought to before.

Jessie and Jake sawing at the Forest History Center
Jessie and Jake sawing at the Forest History Center (Photo by Bob Rouse)

Convinced I couldn’t cut it as a logger, I went with Jake and our Visit Grand Rapids host, Jessie Siiter, into town to grab a bite and a pint at Rapids Brewing Co., which had just opened. The menu includes pizzas made with local products, such as venison, and several house-brewed beers.

The very walkable downtown has shops and art galleries, and groups can arrange a cupcake decorating class or get local musicians to provide entertainment.

“You can never find a night in this town that doesn’t include live music,” Jessie told us.

Along with the logging industry, the region gained famed in the 1890s for its iron ore. Today, some of the abandoned mine pits that are now filled with water add to the region’s 1,000 lakes and attract paddleboarders and folks who fish.

The drive out of Grand Rapids the next morning took Jake and me into a thick, spooky layer of fog that shrouded the pines. I remembered that Jessie had mentioned a Haunted Pines and Mines Ghost Tour. I was sort of glad we had skipped it in favor of the pizza.

My “iron-made-in” tour

Our next stop was Hibbing, where we met Beth Pierce, director of the Mesabi Iron Range Tourism Bureau. We visited the Hull Rust Mahoning Mine View, which overlooks the world’s largest open-pit mine: eight miles long and three miles wide. The overview is a park with mining equipment you can walk around (or in): production trucks and ginormous shovels.

I’d like to spend more time in Hibbing. It’s the birthplace of Bob Dylan, and I’m fascinated by the high school. Built in the early 1920s for a then-exorbitant cost of $4 million, the school was a showplace to promote (and atone for) a mining company’s relocation of the entire town. They found a big deposit of iron beneath the original town, so they moved it—lock, stock, and high school.

The auditorium, where Dylan first performed, is outfitted with cut-glass chandeliers and a pipe organ, and the library is adorned with statues and a 60-foot oil painting. Groups can self-tour during the school year or get the story from a guide in the summer.

From the Hibbing mines, we journeyed to the Lake Superior coast, just as tons of iron ore have done. We stopped at Split Rock Lighthouse, commissioned in 1910 following a 1905 storm that sank or damaged 29 ships. Tours departing every 20 minutes show visitors where the lighthouse keepers worked and lived a century ago, and trails lead down to the shore. “You can make a day of it, or you make it a half-hour stop,” Jake said.

Our next stop was Glensheen, a wonderfully preserved mansion in Duluth built by an early 1900s iron magnate. You can take one of several specialty tours, but you’re free to wander through the house and the grounds.

Split Rock Lighthouse
Split Rock Lighthouse (Photo by Joe Michl, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society)

“We switched to self-guided tours because visitors preferred to view the rooms on their own,” said Dan Hartman, director. “If you want to bang through in 30 minutes, you can.”

The change made Glensheen more approachable to a wider audience—families or groups pressed for time—and it helped the estate to nearly double its visitation.

Glensheen offers activities and events that include lakeside concerts, kayak tours, and a Nooks and Crannies Tour that reveals the items and spaces that Dan and his staff are continually discovering.

“If we were to be a boring house tour, we’d just go away. So we look for new ways to create atypical experiences,” he said.

During the drive from Duluth back to Minneapolis, Jake and I discussed the wonderful people we had encountered. He explained “Minnesota Nice” to me.

“It’s a real thing,” he said. “Whether people are from the city or from more rural areas, they are genuinely friendly.”

Mall of America
Mall of America (Photo by Mall of America)

When we arrived in the city, I was ready for the mall. My host for a quick tour of the Mall of America was Millie Philipp, also with Explore Minnesota.

“I worked for the mall when it first opened, and I love the energy,” she told me.

I enjoyed our dinner and a stroll past many of the 500-plus stores. MOA touts its status as the most-visited attraction in the U.S., and Millie helped me understand why.

“People come here with no luggage. They buy and buy and they save enough on taxes—no sales tax on clothes and shoes—to pay for their flight,” she said. “And if you come in wintertime, you don’t need to bring your coat. You can take light rail from the airport to a hotel that’s part of the mall and never go outside.”

They come for the mall and stay for the mall.

I stayed one more night in Minnesota and capped off my visit the next day in the same way I started it: visiting cool sights with super-nice people—this time in Roseville.

A rose is a rose

The suburb that sits just to the north of the Twin Cities is as pretty as its name. And just as accessible.

“This is a great spot for groups to stay because we’re perfectly positioned: 10 minutes from St. Paul and 10 minutes from Minneapolis,” said Shannon Thomasser, director of sales for the Roseville Visitors Association. “And we have one of the lowest lodging taxes.”

My favorite Roseville attraction is Bell Museum, the state’s official natural history museum and planetarium. The organization has been around since 1872, but its new building is just over a year old.

The whole place is a love letter to the state of Minnesota, showcasing its natural resources. In the Touch & See Lab, you can feel the fur of indigenous animals and handle a collection of fossils. You’ll definitely want to spend time studying a series of natural dioramas depicting animals and plants. The extremely accurate scenes were created during a span of a dozen years, beginning in the early 1940s. You can tour all of Minnesota in a single morning.

Bell Museum
Bell Museum (Photo by ll Museum/Duncan Millar)

During the rest of my morning in Roseville, Shannon and her colleague Liz Nowak took me to Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, located right on the edge of Roseville in St. Paul. We strolled through the conservatory, which includes a Japanese garden, a butterfly garden, a bonsai tree gallery, and a gorgeous sunken garden.

“In the winter, when people are tired of the cold weather, they come into the greenhouse and just browse,” Liz said.

And I’ve got to say: We’re all indebted to Roseville. It’s the home of the very first Target—and the first Dairy Queen.

Come for the Bell. Stay for the Blizzard.

My whirlwind drive-through of Minnesota provided me with a mental collage of its people: the gritty laborers of yesterday and the bright people and smiles of today. I came for the disco paradise … and found the nice.

For more information email Explore Minnesota’s Millie Philipp or visit

Top photo: Sunset cruise on Lake Minnetonka
Photo by Bob Rouse