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Two dorms in Thunder Bay

In this Lake Superior port town, we found a pleasant place to stay and another we hope to forget.

Dorm hall at Confederation College.

© Beth Gauper

Rooms at Confederation College's Sibley Hall are reached through a maze of concrete-block halls.

Every so often, we stay in terrible places so you don't have to.

We know you love deals, so we're always on the lookout. That's how we ended up in a dormitory in Thunder Bay, the biggest city on Lake Superior.

Both Confederation College and Lakehead University are in the center of town and offer residence-hall rooms. Since the Confederation rooms have private baths, we decided to stay there and check out the Lakehead rooms afterward.

Here's the good news: the Lakehead rooms are very nice.

The rooms at Confederation College, not so much. Neither Booking.com nor Hotels.com identify its Residence & Conference Centre as a dormitory, or even say it's on the campus. I knew it was there – a good thing, since Booking.com supplies an incorrect address.

But when I turned into the drab campus, I saw no signs for a Residence & Conference Centre and had to ask a college employee member, who offered to lead me there in his car.

It's actually called Sibley Hall Seminar Centre Residence, and its atmosphere is closer to flophouse than residence hall. Several people were hanging around in the tiny entrance area, and rooms are along a maze of narrow, concrete-block hallways.

I had to walk along five of them to reach my room, and one of the halls stank like a Lysol-drenched hospital ward, or maybe a morgue.

“We have a resident who wears face masks and has a pretty bad case of OCD,'' said the emaciated young woman who checked me in. “I think it's the chemicals he puts in his face mask.”

No other double rooms were available, so my husband and I went off to the Thunder Bay Blues Festival on the lakefront, returning at 11 p.m. Youths were loitering on the step in front of the entrance, and the staff stared at us from behind glass panels as we walked in.

When we unfolded our sheets to put them on the bed, we saw old stains, and Torsten slept in his clothes. In the morning, he had to go fetch bath towels – they're supplied only on request and if available.

In the morning, we left at the same time as Monique Smit of Perth, Ont., who also had picked that dorm because of the private bathroom.

A double room at Lakehead University.

© Beth Gauper

A double room at Lakehead University.

“It's dumpy,'' she said. “The first room they tried to put me in, I opened the door of the bathroom, and it was disgusting, so I moved.” She paid $50 for her single room; we paid $60 for our double.

Booking.com, owned by Priceline, rates this property “Pleasant,'' 6.9 on a scale of 10. According to this booking service, it's 4 km from Confederation College and a nine-minute walk from Marina Park (not even close).

Hotels.com, owned by Expedia, gets it a little better. There, the property is rated “Poor,'' 1.8 on a scale of 5. It also supplies an accurate address.

Lakehead University is just north of Confederation, and when we turned onto the campus, we were able to follow a series of signs whose red arrows led us straight to the brick Bartley Residence Hall, surrounded by lawn and trees.

Tourism information and city maps were posted outside the office, and cheerful history major Laurin Haak offered to show us the rooms. “July is very busy, but we do get a lot of walk-ins, and we're good with that,'' she said.

Hallways were carpeted, and on the way, we passed a living area with a large flat-screen TV, fridge and kitchenette with toaster and kettle. Each room had tidily made beds, small fridges, towels, toiletries and a folder of tourist information.

This was more like it. Each floor has 10 rooms for 15 people, with a bathroom apiece for men and women. Single rooms are $35-$40, depending on size, and doubles are $55.

Guests also can use the Olympic-size pool, sauna, gymnasium and ball courts. Rooms are available from early May to mid-August. To reserve, call 807-343-8485 or email guestservices@lakeheadu.ca.

Is it worth it to stay in a dorm in Thunder Bay? Yes, if you're a single traveler or part of a group.

Otherwise, you can get a motel room for not much more. The family-run Strathcona Motel is TripAdvisor's No. 1-rated hotel in town, and it charges only $70 per night for suites with kitchens, or $60 if you stay two nights or more.

Thunder Bay is a fun town to visit, with many attractions — Marina Park, Fort William Historical Park, Kakabeka Falls, the Bay & Algoma Finnish/Italian/Polish neighborhood and nearby Ouimet Canyon and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

It's 80 miles northeast of Grand Marais, Minn. For more, see Exploring Thunder Bay.

Dorms are better deals in towns where summer hotel rates are higher. In Milwaukee, for example, Marquette University offers a great deal on very nice rooms in its modern Straz Tower.

For more, see On budget in a dorm.

Last updated on July 9, 2014