Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Trumpeter swans flock to Mississippi River for the winter

Thousands of once-endangered trumpeter swans spend their winters on the Mississippi in Monticello, Minnesota.
Swans use winter as their social & courting season.

The trumpeting sound of Monticello's swans 
Here's a glimpse of the thousands of trumpeter swan that winter on the Mississippi River in Monticello, Minnesota, December through early March. Even better, you can hear the joyful honking of trumpeter swans who are fed daily around 10:30 am, the best time to see the swans in Monticello.

Look for my full feature on their comeback in Minnesota and why they winter on this bend of the Mississippi River in the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend section Friday, Jan. 17.

--Lisa Meyers McClintick

video


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Follow snowbirds to best stops along Interstate 75

Even without a polar vortex hitting the Midwest, the beaches of Fort Myers, Florida, beckon winter snowbirds. 
Eat your way down I-75 to Southern warmth

Photos & text by Lisa Meyers McClintick

The Berea, Ky, rest stop is filled with regional art.
Had enough of the Midwest’s bone-chilling polar vortex? Follow the snowbirds south. Whether you can stay in Florida for a month or more or don’t want to pay airfare for a shorter visit, chances are you’ll be following Interstate 75 south.

Tugged by the promise of balmy beaches and sunshine, “an estimated $18.6 million snowbirds went to Florida on I-75” in 2012, says Dave Hunter, author of “Along Interstate 75.” He has done the 1,780-mile I-75 trip so many times for more than 20 years, that he’s become the go-to guy for all things I-75.

His book, Along I-75, is now in its 17th edition. It includes detailed maps for finding the best places to stay, to stretch your legs and to dine along the entire route, while a second book, “Along Florida’s Expressways,” includes the best stops once you cross the Sunshine State’s border.

Interstate 75 is wisely tackled over a few days, following the advice of other snowbirds and savvy roadtrippers who know which states have the higher gas prices, what brutal city rush hours to avoid and the best places to take a rest. Here are five of Dave's favorite stops (strategically spaced out). It's a great way to savor America’s melting pot of comfort food. 

Dayton, Ohio
Swing into a tropical mood with agave margaritas, Columbian seafood stew, sweet rum shrimp, and tapas with a diverse menu from Latin America and Spain. Need to move after driving all day? You could get lucky and snag a dance class.
Kentucky Artisan Center

Berea, Ky.
Grab an affordable cafeteria lunch special such as country-fried steak and chicken and dumplings with bourbon bread pudding and derby pie. Stretch your legs admiring folk art, fine art and bluegrass music from hundreds of Kentucky artists. Arrive too late to eat? Head to Berea’s Boone Tavern, a historic hotel with classic Kentucky cuisine.
Folk art at Kentucky Artisan Center

Williamsburg, Ky
Students serve up Kentucky hot browns, Southern fried catfish, steaks, and caramel apple pie in this restaurant at the Cumberland Inn run by the University of the Cumberlands.

Dave Hunter's in-depth guide to I-75 travel.
Forsyth, Georgia
Savor southern comfort foods served with creative elegance: Vidalia onion soup, shrimp and fried
green tomato Napoleon, crab-stuffed North Carolina trout and grits, and peach and blackberry buckle with bourbon ice cream.

Tifton, Georgia
Warm up with black kettle chili or Brunswick stew followed by a sampler feast of oak-smoked ribs, pork and chicken with a side of fried okra.


A shorter version of this feature was published in the Winter 2014 edition of USA Today's Go Escape magazine. For more of Hunter's tips for winter migration along Interstate 75, check out his website or guidebooks.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Park hosts moonlight ski around granite quarries

Haley Entner and Dayna White of St. Cloud enjoy cross-country skiing at St. Cloud's Quarry Park & Nature Area.

Frost flocks Haley Enter on a super-chilled morning.
Minnesota's Quarry Park offers unique ski trails 

Story & Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick

On a mid-December morning, the air bites so frigidly, even the snow seems to protest with a stiff-squeak as skis swish through the tracks. A few quick glides beyond the trail leads to pretty scene that almost looks natural: a snow-covered pond with a rocky edge.


Quarry Park's Annual Moonlight Ski

Friday, Jan. 3, 2014
6 to 10 pm
Free ski rentals (for this event) at Fitzharris Sports and Revolution Bike and Ski.
Free parking (normally $5/day). 

Event includes hot cocoa, a bonfire and places to warm up.


Study it more closely, and parts of the ledge seem artificially steep, rocks suspiciously square. Occasionally a rough chunk of cubed granite sports ridges left by dynamite and blasts that regularly reverberated throughout St. Cloud from the late 1800s into the 1950s.

These days, skiers, snowshoers and winter hikers head to the 625-acre Quarry Park and Nature Preserve for a woodsy escape minutes from St. Cloud’s busy retail hub.
Snow blankets Quarry Park's quarries.
More than 4.2 miles of winter trails loop through this vast park with about 30 former quarries. Traditional skiers can choose the 2.2-mile outer trail or an inner 2-mile loop with a 3.5K stretch for skate skiers who glide along with graceful speed.

On this far western edge of the city it’s quiet enough to hear the distant whistle of trains echoing across the Mississippi River and the rustle and rattle of brown oak leaves that refused to fall. The arthritic oak branches canopy parts of the trail while pines or birch flank other stretches.


Stripped of summer’s thick curtains of leaves, winter woods make it easy to see  “grout piles.” These rugged mounds of discarded quarry rocks tower above the tree line like snowy funeral cairns for giants. On thick summer days, breezes stir deliciously cool air that lurks deep within these grout piles, a wisp of natural air conditioning on the 10-minute walk to the designated swimming quarry.  In the winter, they shelter skiers.

Winter adds quiet beauty to St. Cloud's quarries.
Haley Entner and Dayna White, friends and work colleagues, dodged dangerous windchillls by sticking to a loop dotted with woods and rock piles, avoiding the park’s open stretch of prairie known for mid-summer’s Indian paintbrush. They wrapped up a morning outing with frost flocking their hair and hats.

While Entner visits Quarry Park often with her family during the summer and fall, she fell in love with the winter season more recently during the annual moonlight ski. 

“We went out there and just had a blast,” Entner said. The snowy season now outranks others at the park. “It’s so much more peaceful out there in the winter,” she says.

All of the ski trails are considered flat enough for beginners with a few gentle hills.  The easy pace gives visitors time to ponder the land’s history.

The first quarry opened in the early 1860s, with granite growing into an international commodity and St. Cloud earning the nickname “The Granite City.” St. Cloud Red Granite, which came from the park’s quarries, was used on parts of St. Paul’s Landmark Center and the James J. Hill House.

Quarry Park offers some of Minnesota's longest lit ski trails.
The region still claims the world’s biggest granite producer—Coldspring—along with many other granite and rock companies with sheds and showrooms along the Highway 23 corridor. The Stearns History Museum has a permanent granite quarry display, and the park itself continues to add to its interpretive displays that include quarrying equipment, rocks and a derrick that’s occasionally demonstrated.

Quarrying on what’s now park property ceased in the mid-1950s, letting Mother Nature take over. The giant granite bowls filled with spring water, making them irresistible to youth and college students.

“Swimming and partying at the quarries were a longtime tradition,” says Peter Theisen, Stearns County parks director.

The 112-foot-deep swim quarry remains the park’s biggest attraction, but other quarries also offer secluded and scenic spots for trout fishing, scuba diving, rock-climbing and challenging mountain bike trails. Hikers can find marsh marigolds while walking across a floating boardwalk, yellow lady’s slippers in the woods, and even prickly pear cactus on the dry, rocky outcroppings.

Winter boasts a more subtle beauty: iced branches that glitter like crystals, cool blue-gray shadows and pale sunshine mingling on a snow-white canvas, and the brighter blend of clear sky, dark pine and etched trees.

Returning after dark, the park feels even quieter. Trail lights shine like hip-high beacons, welcoming skiers to weave along its granite legacy while soaking in the beauty of a winter’s night.

For more information on St. Cloud-area attractions, visit www.GraniteCountry.com.

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a travel writer based in St. Cloud, Minn., and the author of Day Trips from the Twin Cities. This feature originally ran in the Star Tribune's Outdoors Weekend


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Insider's guide to Mall of America holiday shopping

With more than 500 stores, free concerts and coffee plus valet parking, Mall of America bustles all December.

Enjoy MOA's festive Christmas season 

Feature & photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick

If you’re want to brave the crowds for holiday shopping at Minnesota’s Mall of America, there are plenty of reasons to join in the festivities.

Mall of America's Disney store
Here’s what you should know to be a savvy holiday shopper at the Mall of America and to make the most of your experience.

Best bit of advice? Take a day or half-day off and make it fun. Why? Because some of the best services are Monday through Wednesday from 1 to 7 pm, which is this year’s MOA Holiday Happy Hour.

Make MOA parking easy:

If you can get your shopping done during Holiday Happy Hour, Mall of America offers free valet parking at the mall’s north entrance. Follow valet parking signs from 24th Avenue. Valet parking also is available from 7 pm to closing Monday through Wednesday and 10 am to close Thursday through Sunday, but it costs $10.

Besides not needing to troll for a good parking spot, you can text the valet crew to get your car and have it warm and ready when you’re ready to go.

Grab free coffee

Hair salon at Mall of America's America Girl store.
Stop by one of five Caribou coffee locations in Mall of America and use the secret code (“Happy Hour”) for a free 12-ounce cup of coffee. It will give you the pick-up you need when shopping energy flags. If you’re really lucky, you might catch a surprise giveaway, free treats or gift cards given out by holiday helpers.

Sit with Santa

 Kids can visit Santa at the Sears Court from 9 or 10 am to 7 or 8 pm daily through Dec. 24 without any appointment. Avoid the 1 to 2 pm or 5 to 6 pm break times. You also can schedule a more intimate photo session with Santa through www.professorbellows.com.

Let the kids play Nintendo

 If you or your kids need a break or a distraction from the shopping hubbub, head to West Market Square for the Mall of America’s Nintendo Holiday Mall Experience. It’s a chance to try out its new 2DS, Wii U and 3DS XL, as well as sample new games.

Shop MOA, earn ride wristbands

 
If you spend $250 between late November and Dec. 24, you can earn two free wristbands good for all rides at Nickelodeon Universe. That, too, makes a great gift for grandkids. To get the Nickelodeon Universe wristbands, take receipts to the park’s north entrance. Wristbands must be used by Feb. 28, 2014.

Enjoy a new light show

 Grab a spot on the second or third floor overlooking Nickelodeon Universe to see the new Universe of Light show. The nine-minute presentation with lights, music and smoke effects runs at 7 pm and 9:30 pm Monday through Thursday, 7 and 10 pm Friday and Saturday and at 7 pm Sunday. Universe of Light is staged from Nickelodeon’s South Entrance.

Enjoy holiday songs and carols


Mall of America mirror maze
The Rotunda fills with music 10 am to 8 pm every Saturday throughout the holidays with a variety of school groups, church groups and professional musicians that make it festive to stop and take a break. You can grab seats in the Rotunda or watch from the upper levels that overlook it. Don’t miss registering to win a Goo Goo Dolls autographed Fender guitar and album or a necklace set courtesy of Chapel of Love.

Check for other MOA holiday events



There’s truly always something happening throughout December at the Mall of America, so check the events page. You can catch a booksigning by Minnesota Vikings legend Bud Grant, test out Anki DRIVE racing games, test out Canon’s PIXMA Facebook app or gather ideas for Bisquick holiday pancakes.

Read more about the Mall of America's top attractions and enjoying a memorable holiday here with children.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mall of America Top Things to Do

Mall of America's Nickelodeon Universe's natural lighting can cure mid-winter cabin fever, but it's also festive at night.


Mall of America's best bets for fun

Photos & story by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Whether you’re a chic shopping connoisseur, a family seeking an amusement park in the dead of winter, or someone who craves crossing “world’s biggest” off a bucket list, Minnesota’s Mall of America beckons to millions of visitors each year. 

It boasts more than 500 stores, but goes beyond being a supersized shopping mall. It’s clearly Minnesota’s top destination with a naturally lit Nickelodeon Universe, Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium, mini-golf, Lego Store play area, spooky ropes course, American Girl store, Build-A-Bear workshop, night clubs, themed dining galore, plus a rotunda stage that draws top celebrities throughout the year.
Mall of America shoppers

It also doesn’t hurt that in 2013 it connected to its first hotel, Radisson Blu. With an artsy upscale vibe, it makes girlfriend getaways, romantic urban escapes and memorable family weekends even easier. You can ditch the coats and even shopping bags (the hotel can pick them up) and focus solely on roaming the mammoth Mall of America.

Another bonus: The Mall of America’s a 10-minute light-rail train ride from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and can connect to downtown Minneapolis and Target Field where the Twin play. Coming in 2014, the light rail line heads to St. Paul, as well.

Nickelodeon Universe theme park anchors the mall with its skylights, lush landscaping and even live trees with the rest of the mall surrounding it in three- or four-story directional wings: North Garden, East Broadway, South Avenue and West Market.
Mall of America North Garden

Bikini Bottom Plunge
If you’re too wiped out after a day at MOA to explore the downtowns, take heart and consider this: The Mall of America sprawls large enough to hold seven Yankee Stadiums or 258 Statues of Liberty. A mere 10 minutes spent in each of the 500-plus stores would require 86 hours and bring new meaning to shop-‘til-you-drop.

Our humble advice: Pick a focus and have a plan. Take a stroller for worn-out kids or armloads of purchases. Be sure to wear comfy shoes, bring a camera and accept you’ll only see a fraction of the behemoth Mall of America--especially with an expansion underway.

Mall of America Peeps store

Here’s a look at Mall of America’s top picks: 


(Shoppers, please note: While the list includes a few MOA interactive stores, we won’t even try to cull out MOA’s best shopping. It’s an overwhelming parade of haute boutiques and clothing such as Henri Bendel, Hanna Andersson, Columbia Sportswear, Long Tall Sally, A/X Armani Exchange, Farm Boy/Farm Girl and Nordstrom Rack for outlet deals. Specialty shops hawk everything from hundreds of Pepper Place hot sauces and See’s Candies to Peeps and Rybicki Cheese (from neighboring Wisconsin) and Victorinox Swiss Army gear. Suffice it to say, there’s shopping for everyone. Or you can skip Mall of America shopping completely and still have plenty of fun.)


1. Nickelodeon Universe
Nickelodeon Universe
The most gawk-worthy scene at Mall of America claims to be the largest indoor amusement park. What was originally Camp Snoopy when Mall of America opened more than 20 years ago has morphed to more modern characters, replacing Peanuts characters (created by St. Paul native Charles Schultz) with cable stars. Goodbye Snoopy, hello SpongeBob for the Bikini Bottom Plunge. Goodbye Lucy, hello Dora.

Dutchman's Deck ropes course
Most Nickelodeon Universe rides fit the 48” and under crowd with lots of tot options, including the Frog Hopper, trucks, a whirling school bus and mini-coaster, but you’ll also find a log flume, the spinning Fairly Odd Coaster, and the Pepsi Orange Streak that flips upside down for older kids seeking scream-worthy thrills. You also can whirl through the new Teenage Mutant Ninja, spin crazily on Brain Surge and pay extra for the dizzying heights of The Dutchman’s Deck Ghostly Gangplank and Anchor high ropes course (The reward is a new 56-foot spiral slide
back to the ground).

Sharks and turtles swim overhead at SEA LIFE Aquarium.
Even if you don’t want to go on the rides, they are fun to watch from third-floor food courts and at night when the Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and hot-air balloons are colorfully illuminated.

2. SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium

The popular SEA LIFE aquarium starts with a journey from northern Minnesota’s Mississippi Headwaters and follows the river south to the swampy land of alligators and South American fish and tropical ocean life. The highlight is walking through SEA LIFE's clear tunnel as sharks, sea turtles and rays swim above. Also popular: a dark room with illuminated tanks of mesmerizing jellyfish. Watch for little water eels that look like the poor unfortunate souls from “The Little Mermaid,” along with frilly sea dragons and Sea
Life’s touch tank with sting rays. For a special splurge, you can do a Sea Life sleepover, go on behind-the-scenes tours, snorkel with the fish or SCUBA dive with the sharks. (At Mall of America’s East Broadway entrance)


MOA Moose made of LEGOs
3. LEGO at Mall of America
This open, airy LEGO Store offers the Mall of America’s best free fun for kids with several Lego-building stations and supersized inspiration that includes a 34-foot tall LEGO robot sure to wow even the most jaded mom or dad. Other giant LEGO creations include a saber-toothed tiger, helicopter, Greek warrior, giant green dragon and other LEGO monuments of creativity (and patience).  Don’t miss the Minnesota-inspired artwork along the outside of the store, too. Anyone missing favorite LEGOs at home can find 180 different elements on the cool Pick-a-Brick wall (164 South Avenue; 952-858-8949).

4. Mall of America’s American Girl store


American Girl dolls can match their owner's looks.
If you have a 7- to 10-year-old girl in your life, the American Girl store at Mall of America ranks as a dreamy, two-story pink fantasy filled with historical, modern, and custom dolls that may match your eyes, hair and skin tone. While the dolls and accessories aren’t cheap (dolls cost about $100 each; accessories as simple as glasses go for $10), the books in the store’s library are well written, nicely illustrated and always a good deal. Anyone who has received one of these dolls usually keeps them for life.

The store amps up the dolly-and-me experience by offering a doll hospital (for repairs), doll salon (to tame doll hair reverting to a witch doctor look) and American Girl Bistro where special seats let girls dine alongside their dolls with light luncheons and holiday specials while overlooking Nickelodeon Universe. It’s wise to make reservations.

5. Build-A-Bear Workshop at MOA

Build-A-Bear Workshop
Nicely located near American Girl and Sea Life Aquarium, Mall of America's Build-A-Bear Workshop offers a top stop for tots, who love choosing a stuffed animal and watching it come to life. It’s all about the process here, starting with choosing a bear, dog, bunny or other creature that they take to special filling stations. Sweet staffers help them adding stuffing, along with a heart. Kids also can create a birth certificate and choose from elaborate outfits that make it a magical and personal experience. They’ll also keep the new critters safe in the store if kids clamor to go on more rides.

Mall of America Rotunda
Other favorite shopping destinations for young kids: a sprawling Nickelodeon gift shop stocked with TV characters, a Disney store with a magic princess mirror, a Peeps candy store, and Sanrio (stocked with Hello Kitty merchandise), and impromptu magic tricks at Abaracadabara.

6. Look for free entertainment
The Mall of America’s Rotunda has been dubbed Hollywood of the Midwest with more than 400 annual events that include book signings, performances and a chance to see top celebrities. Those who cater to younger audiences tend to draw the biggest crowds. Think Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber. Throngs of up to 25,000 fans can pack the main floor and upper-level overlooks. Even if Mall of America entertainment is more humble than A-List celebs—a cheerleading competition, bestselling author or traveling choirs—there’s usually something fun to see.

7. Spend the night
Mall of America's first attached hotel, Radisson Blu, offers chic style.
It’s a luxury to tuck into comfy beds and enjoy the hip décor at Radisson Blu after a long day at the mall with a lobby designed to look like a giant shopping bag stuffed with tissue paper (but looks more like an artsy ice berg with funky lighting). Rooms typically start at $199, but you can nab specials such as the ones on Black Friday that give guests first dibs on sales. The hotel connect by skyway to the Mall of America, and its Fire Lake Grill, with Minnesota specialties and foods smoked, barbecued and grilled. If you need to save money, there’s a Carlson Suites across the street, a Radisson with a Minnesota-themed Waterpark of America northwest of MOA and even cheaper rooms if you drive about 15 minutes across the Minnesota River to Eagan, which has
FireLake at Radisson Blu, Mall of America
lower lodging taxes and often offers complimentary Nickelodeon Universe wristbands or other pick-your-package options.

 8. Take the kids to Toddler Tuesdays
The mall is ideal for the stroller crowd—especially on Tuesday mornings through the winter when it’s uncrowded and well-suited for Toddler Tuesdays. The weekly event includes a nice lineup of crafts, activities or performances aimed at the preschool crowd. You’ll also find deals at Nickelodeon University and in many of the restaurants, some of which offer free kids’ meals.

9. Go to the movies
Another Mall of America perk? Free Saturday morning movies at 10 a.m.. It’s perfect if you have one parent go with the kids and another sneaks off to buy holiday or birthday gifts. There’s also an option for sensory-friendly movie showings that welcome families who have kids with autism and other disabilities. Kids have the freedom to movie around if needed, keep lights on, have the sound turned down or make other adjustments to fit their need.

There also are movies at 11:30 am on Toddler Tuesdays.
Cadillac Ranch wild rice pizza

10. Blend dinner with entertainment
You’ll find tempting restaurants throughout the Mall of America with every kind of gimmick from bull-riding at Cadillac Ranch to 1950s nostalgia at Johnny Rockets. The biggest standouts blend food with entertainment. Toddlers and younger kids love Rainforest Café’s mesmerizing aquariums, a tropical waterfall, simulated rainstorms and gorillas that come to life when it thunders and lightning flashes.

Fish entertain kids at Rainforest Cafe.
Teens and adults can grab a game of bowling with illuminated lanes and arcade games at Sky Deck Sports Grille and Lanes. Want a little snark with your meal? Dick’s Last Resort has a staff famously ready to razz its diners. If you want to soak in Minnesota’s Up-North décor, opt for Famous Dave’s. Founded in Wisconsin and headquartered in Minnesota, this barbecue joint pulls flavors from the South—Texas, Georgia and Tennessee—but the décor is pure Paul Bunyan with Smokey the Bear signs, fishing rods and tackle and checkered tablecloths.

For more information 

For more advice on a Mall of America getaway--especially with kids along--check out my feature and other parents' Mall of America reviews at Family Vacation Critic. If you're heading to the MOA for the holidays in 2013, check out Mall of America's Christmas promotions, giveaways, valet parking and free events in this 10,000 Likes post.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Duluth, Minn: Top Things to Do for Holiday Fun

Bentleyville lights up Duluth's Bayfront Park. Photo by Lisa MeClintick
Duluth, Minnesota, with the magical backdrop of Lake Superior, has always been a favorite summer and fall getaway for Twin Cities residents and others across the state.

If you need another enticement to head north, here are the top things to do for the holidays in Duluth. It’s a winning weekend getaway with its own Christmas train, a superb Christmas light show with Bentleyville, excellent shopping and the always scenic allure of Lake Superior. Here's a run-down of Duluth's best holiday events:

1.    Stroll through Bentleyville Tour of Lights.

“Five…four…three…two…ONE!”

With a visual whoosh, Bentleyville Tour of Lights lights up as a waiting crowd cheers. Three million lights in a carnival of colors transform damp foggy December evening at Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park into a festive wonderland.

Duluth Christmas lights with Up North themes

Volunteers pass out cups of cocoa and cookies, and crowds amble forward through tunnels of lights to gaze at the 12-story tree that looms above Bentleyville. It occasionally flashed in patterns, pulsing to holiday music that ranges from acoustic guitar carols to Jimmy Durante’s “Frosty the Snowman.”

The Bentleyville light displays outgrew founder Nathan Bentley’s Esko home and debuted in Duluth in 2009. It takes more than 900 volunteers almost two months to set up decorations that fill nine semi-trailers.

Displays range from dinosaurs and erupting volcanoes to the Nativity scene and Noah’s Ark. There’s a distinctive Northern flair, as well, with Santa on snowmobile, ore tankers and tall ships, a dogsled team that seems to surge forward, fish and frogs that appear to jump from lakes and a moose and an elf that portage a canoe.

Nice surprise--halfway through Bentleyville you can roast marshmallows while wrapped in the warmth and wood smoke from several bonfires.


Duluth's shipping celebrated at Bentleyville.
Bentleyville opens the week of Thanksgiving and runs nightly through Dec. 26. It takes about 45 minutes to see the displays, but you’ll need at least an hour if you have kids under 10 who want to visit Santa. The first 15,000 kids receive free knit Bentleyville hats. Admission is free (including cookies, cocoa, popcorn and marshmallows), but monetary donations are welcome, as well as food or unwrapped toys. Nearby parking is $5.

2. Ride the holiday train
Duluth's 2012's Polar Express pulled into Fitger's.
A conductor yells “All Aboard!” and kids (sometimes in pajamas) scramble to climb into the illuminated train cars of North Shore Scenic Railroad. The event has been known as the Polar Express in the past few years, but includes a new story as the Christmas City Express in 2013. The journey begins with boarding at the landing below Fitger’s where you can hear Lake Superior’s waves. The train then rumbles to Duluth’s 1892 Depot. Inside the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, a Lionel model train set whirs to action and a full-size steam engine chugs to life, spewing smoke and blowing its whistle as kids gather for an interactive reading of the book, “The Christmas City Express.”

Each child gets to visit with Santa before heading back to cookies and cocoa at Fitger’s ($16/person; 1-800-423-1273; www.northshorescenicrailroad.com).

North Shore Scenic Railroad also runs trains from Fitger’s to Bentleyville several times a night for $6/person.

3. Kick off season with a parade
Duluth’s holiday events kick off with a Christmas City of the North Parade the Friday before Thanksgiving. The illuminated parade with about 70 units begins around 6:20 p.m. and heads up Lake Avenue.

A.G. Thomson House, Duluth.
4. Duluth mansions dress up for the holidays
December may be the best time to admire Duluth’s many mansions, a legacy of boom years when it claimed more millionaires per capita than anyplace in the United States. If you’re traveling without kids, you can stay in one of seven historic homes operating as Duluth's bed and breakfasts.

Each has its own charm and characteristics, but among our favorites are the Firelight Inn for its fireplace and spacious porch; A. G.Thomson House for its overall charm and hospitality and Olcott House for its unique music room. Solglimt offers another spectacular option with modern, artsy décor and fantastic location along the lake just past the Aerial Lift Bridge on Park Point Drive.
Firelight Inn B&B in Duluth.

5. Glensheen holiday tours

Glensheen Historic Estate, Duluth’s most famous mansion, opens for holiday tours through Jan. 5 with volunteers in period costumes and a self-guided tour that recreates a guest’s holiday visit to Glensheen in 1912. There’s a photo area also set up for families who want a memorable portrait and good excuse to wear fancy Christmas dresses.


6. Savor scenic slopes
Overlooking the city and the lake, Spirit Mountain offers 22 downhill ski runs and claims the Midwest’s largest terrain park. The resort also grooms 22 km of Nordic ski trails and tubing runs and operates the Timber Twister alpine coaster and double-seat Timber Flyer zipline year-round. Just be aware of the windchill.
Bentleyville

7. Hit the Edgewater Waterpark
Edgewater Resort and Waterpark provides free bus shuttles to Bentleyville, and you also can board the Bentleyville train here. All rooms include passes to the tiki-themed activity pool, lazy river and slides, and you can pay extra for lakeside suites with balconies.

 8. Shop at Fitger’s and Canal Park
The easiest place to stay if you’re riding the train is Fitger’s Inn, a converted brewery above the tracks and overlooking the lake. The Fitger’s complex includes a few levels of boutique shopping, including a toy and book store, outdoorsy gear stores and women’s fashions. You’ll find more shops and a handful of impressive galleries at Canal Park, as well.

9. Learn about shipping
Ore tanker, Duluth, MN
If the lake hasn’t iced up—and chances are it won’t by early December—you can watch for iron ore tankers heading east from the Duluth Harbor. Let kids get behind the wheel in a pilothouse and explore the rich legacy of shipping at the free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Maritime Museum.

10. Check out the new children’s museum
Check out the new location for the Duluth Children’s Museum, which moved from its location at the historic Depot to Clyde Park in 2012. It’s an up-and-coming area of the city with funky converted warehouses and lots of space for colorful, hands-on learning.

For more information and details, check out Visit Duluth.

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the guidebook “Day Trips from the Twin Cities” and “Minnesota Lake Vacations” mobile travel app.