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 couldnt fail to make money for the men who came to tap its riches, and it didnt.
When anniversaries, birthdays and Valentine's Day roll around, swains everywhere wonder where to take their sweethearts to celebrate.
Of course, it has to be somewhere romantic. But what's romantic? To many, it's the floral Laura Ashley look, with lots of lace, patterned wallpaper and antiques.
To others, it's a rustic cabin in the forest, minus the heart-shaped whirlpool but with loads of privacy and atmosphere.
When its 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.
Its more like a cold day in Mongolia.
Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.
When Lake Superior lighthouses had keepers, there was nothing romantic about life there.
The posts were cold, lonely and meagerly furnished on the government dime. The work was physically taxing and repetitive. Through the long nights, keepers had to get up every two hours to wind the mechanism that rotated the lens.
It's no wonder many of the early lighthouse keepers were hermits or grouches.
Once, four walls and a little Victorian frippery were all innkeepers needed to attract guests.
Then, they got creative.
Now, there's an inn room with eight walls, and a room with just one. There's a room with bars and a steel door. There are rooms on water and on wheels.
Before the Root River State Trail was built, the only places to stay in Lanesboro were some small hunters' cabins near the city park.
That was before there was anything to do in the isolated village besides hunt and fish. Now Lanesboro is the recreational and cultural capital of southeast Minnesota, with a new theater, an arts center and 60 miles of paved bicycle trails.
With visitors pouring in, Lanesboro also has become the bed-and-breakfast capital of the Minnesota, with more B&Bs than any other town, plus several small inns.
There are a lot of good views in the world from observation towers, skyscrapers, bluff-top parks.
But the best view always is the one you can admire from your own room.
Many places in the Upper Midwest have a lovely window on the world cabins on lakes, hotels on rivers, B&Bs in the bluffs. But some rise above the others, often literally.
When the innkeepers of the St. Croix Valley were trying to think of a way to get prospective guests through their doors, they didn't have to think long.
Hmm, they thought. Chocolate would make people come running. Let's offer wine-tasting, too. And gifts and discounts for those who reserve rooms.
Oh, it's almost diabolical.
Everyone looks for something different in a B&B. Some people just want to relax in fancy environs, and their search is relatively easy: Look for high-end inns and be willing to pay for them.
I'm always on the move when I stay at a B&B, so I look for one that's near whatever I plan to do biking, hiking, touring. If the proprietor is reasonably friendly and the room clean and comfortable, I'm happy.
But I like inns best if they have a unique character and reflect their surroundings. When we stayed at the Silver Star Inn in Spring Green, Wis., one May, for example, the owner didn't lavish wine or chocolate on us.
It was a sweltering afternoon in June
when I knocked at the door of Seagren's Pokegama Lodge in Grand Rapids,
Minn. I'd spent the previous night in a dusty room on the far side of
town, on the edge of a mosquito-infested wood, and the day trudging
around the town, which is on the Mississippi River and surrounded by lakes.
I was hot. I was ready for a swim. And there the lake was, shimmering away at the foot of the three-story B&B. Rarely has a plunge felt so good.
Since then, I've looked for places to stay that have beaches or access to a lake. Minnesota and Wisconsin have hundreds of lake resorts, but in summer, most rent only by the week. That's where B&Bs come in.
To a city kid on vacation, amusement parks are nice but nothing is more appealing than a friendly wet nose.
Mewling barn kittens, curious cows, a trusty mutt for a weekend one May, they were part of the family when my children and nieces and I stayed in the guest house of a Wisconsin dairy farm.
Awesome, my son Peter said after a Holstein nuzzled his hand. Im going to be a farmer when I grow up, after Im in the NBA.
Long before Chaucer wrote "The Canterbury Tales,'' inns were a place to meet interesting people. They still are. When travelers gather for breakfast, or for evening drinks and hors d'oeuvres, they tell stories and trade tips that pave the way for the next day's travel.
If you're on vacation and you want to get to know an area, staying at a B&B gives you a big head start. Supplying information and personal service is how B&B proprietors set themselves apart from hotels.
They've certainly helped me over the years. Sometimes, I feel like the Blanche DuBois of travel journalism: Wherever I go, I depend on the kindness of strangers.
At B&Bs, every good innkeeper knows that the quickest way to a guest's heart is through the stomach.
Guest like hot tubs, too, though many don't use them. Elegant decor is appreciated, though many people (well, men) barely notice it.
But everyone eats and remembers a great breakfast. That's why B&B proprietors knock themselves out providing one for guests.