If you saw the instagrams or tweets we posted during the Minnesota leg of our ‘Midwest America’ roadtrip you might be forgiven for exclaiming “who the heck is Paul Bunyan?” because we just happened to bump into four of the hirsute, plaid-clad giants during our drive around the ‘Land of 10,000 lakes’. We also saw his pal Babe (a huge blue Ox), and Lucette, his sweetheart.
So, just who is he? Well, he’s a giant lumberjack from American folklore, endowed with super-human strength, who originated in the stories of North American loggers. Legend had it that he needed around half a dozen storks to carry him to his parents and that it would take at least forty bowls of porridge to fill his tummy. If you’re a fan of Fargo then you’ll probably be familiar with him. There are Paul Bunyan statues across the United States. You can find him in California, Oregon and Maine. We saw four in one morning’s Bunyan-filled drive around Minnesota. We stopped at Brainerd, Pequot Lakes and also saw Lucette in Hackensack. Josh’s favourite Paul Bunyan was in Akeley – where you could sit in Paul’s hand and his beard danced in the wind. Hannah’s favourite Paul Bunyan was the one in Bemidji, where he’s accompanied by Babe and has very square shoulders. Hannah even wore her finest “Paul Bunyan” outfit for this very special occasion. And why not, right?
Aside from the King of the Lumberkjacks, Minnesota had an array of treasures – some big (like the cherries in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden or the humongous Mall of America) and some small (like the super narrow breakfast joint in the adorably named Dinkytown) but all a lot of fun.
After a beery-cheesey couple of days in glorious Wisconsin we began our Minnesotan adventure in Minneapolis, where we stayed in the swanky Kimpton Grand Hotel with views of downtown from our fifteenth floor room. This hotel was so fancy you could watch TV in the bath. After hitting the hotel’s free wine hour, we set off for a breezy walk to the endless bridge, St Anthony falls, and around Water Power Park. Here old mills had been converted into beautiful apartments with views of the Mississippi. The fall colours were spectacular and there were people rollerblading, walking their dogs and posing for engagement photo-shoots. We crossed the bridge and wandered through a cool, laid-back neighbourhood up to Punch Pizza – a charming neighbourhood pizza parlor for dinner. The dough was sour and the toppings generous; lovely. Alas, Nye’s Polonaise Room (a piano bar and polka lounge) on the same road was closed and after a long walk to Fulton Beer brewery (which was reserved for a private function) we headed back to the hotel bar for more booze where Josh had a very nice milk stout courtesy of Left Hand Brewing.
The next day we were up with the larks, as per usual, and jumped in the car so we could start the day at Al’s Breakfast in Dinkytown. Reportedly the narrowest restaurant in the city of Minneapolis – at a width of ten feet – with just 14 stools and in operation since 1950, we absolutely loved this place. It was greasy, the waiters shouted at you to move down whilst you waited for a stool and the portions were big enough to satisfy Paul Bunyan but the food was tasty, honest, cheap and it was an experience like no other.
It was a blustery, cool autumnal day so we spent some time enjoying the art as well as some fresh air at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The paint on the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture was faded and Hannah was sad that the Cowles Conservatory was closed the day we were here but it was a fun stop after we’d just seen the striking Weisman Art Museum. More fresh air was had at the pretty (and wonderfully named) Minnehaha Park where the leaves were bursting with colour and the waterfall looked especially beautiful. If it was a good enough stop for President Lyndon B. Johnson then, we figured, it was a good enough stop for us!
From there we drove to the largest mall in the United States – the Mall of America – and wearing our most comfortable walking-shoes, decided to check out the 500+ shops, the backdrop to Jingle All the Way and to see the largest indoor theme park in the United States. That’s right, yes, this mall is so big it even has a theme park inside it! We actually had a really fun time drinking sodas in the food court, checking out clothes in Madewell and Urban Outfitters and gawping at the Halloween shops.
All that walking had worked up our appetites so we jumped in the car and zoomed across to the 5-8 Club to try our first ever Juicy Lucy. The Juicy Lucy or Jucy Lucy has a disputed provenance; with two neighbourhood burger joints each claiming they invented it. According to (font of all knowledge) Wikipedia, Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club differ in how they spell it; the former omits the letter “i” in “Juicy”, while the latter uses the standard spelling. Shirts worn by staff at the 5-8 Club have the motto “if it’s spelled right, it’s done right” while advertising for Matt’s Bar says “Remember, if it is spelled correctly, you are eating a shameless rip-off!” What’s all this fuss about? Well, it’s a burger that’s made with cheese inside the patty that melts as it’s cooked and then oozes out when you bite into it. Sounds amazing, right? It was! Hannah ordered sweet potato fries and was shocked, appalled and, ok we admit it, intrigued when it came with a pot of marshmallow bleu sauce. If we don’t contract type 2 diabetes before we reach all fifty states it will be a miracle.
We then swung by the lovely, friendly Ale Jail beer shop – to grab a few beers – before arriving at our next lodgings for the night: the Covington Inn in Saint Paul. A restored 1946 towboat, the Covington Inn is a quirky, charming floating bed-and-breakfast moored on the Mississippi River. We slept in the Master’s Quarters – a surprisingly huge and comfortable room with a big private deck and teeny-tiny (but perfectly usable) bathroom.
We walked across the bridge from Harriet Island into Downtown Saint Paul and up a rather large hill to the stunning St Paul’s cathedral; one of the tallest churches in the USA. We walked through the peaceful, handsome neighbourhood to the Happy Gnome – a beer bar with over 70 taps and very strong cocktails. It was a bit expensive here but Josh got to try a few beer paddles and the ale was lovely.
And then onto the superbly retro Mickey’s Diner Car; which has been operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for nearly 70 years. Spanning three generations the diner has remained family owned and operated. It’s appeared in the Mighty Ducks movie and a Pet Shop Boys pop video. Bill Murray, Woody Harrelson, The Beach Boys, Meryl Streep, John Stewart, Roseanne Barr and New Kids On The Block have all eaten here. And now so have we. We ordered huge plates of cooked chicken which came with toast, barbecue beans, slaw, potato hash oh and fries. Enough food to see us through a 3-month hibernation. The food was all beautifully made and great value. The car was all beaten-up red leather stools and booths, Formica tables, glistening neon and accompanied by American classics on the juke-box. Do not miss this place if you’re in Saint Paul – it’s an institution.
After a few beers on the deck of the Covington Inn, a very comfortable night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we set off for Itasca, Minnesota’s oldest state park. Today, the park totals more than 32,000 acres and includes more than 100 lakes. Here you can walk across the mighty Mississippi as it starts its winding journey 2,552 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Seeing the Mississippi Headwaters got Josh very excited and it was lovely to have a walk amongst the trees and water and catch some fresh air. Our SatNav sent us on a very weird diversion which meant we, quite unexpectedly, drove around much of this park so can attest it really is lovely.
As much as we could have lingered in Itasca we had to push on to the next state (North Dakota) and bid farewell to Minnesota. It felt like a rough and ready, no-nonsense place. With charms that reveal themselves to you slow and steadily. The Twin Cities were a lot of fun – rich with art, great bars and good eating – and we only scratched the surface. And the countryside; with the abundance of lakes, forests and shoreline is clearly a treasure. Seeing so many Paul Bunyans in one day was also giddy-making. As was hearing all the glorious accents we’d only ever heard before in Fargo (the film). We’re sad that we missed out on seeing the World’s Largest Loon, the World’s Largest Pelican and the World’s Largest Boot. So clearly we need to go back. So yah, visit Minnesota if you can!
Rate the State:
Good for: Paul Bunyans! Lakes! Fun and friendly Twin Cities! Oh and yes, the fall colours were spectacular.
Bad for: those looking for glitz and glamour.
Overall: A solid 9/10