Minnesota to the max

By Peter Beaumont

Minnesota offers the best of all worlds with its hip cities, culture and wilderness, says Peter Beaumont.

The Walker Art Centre boasts works by Warhol and Rothko.
The Walker Art Centre boasts works by Warhol and Rothko.

We are having lunch in Cafe Barbette, a hip and intimate eatery with walls covered in an eclectic mixture of art and patrolled by fierce-looking waitresses dressed in black.

The streets outside, in the process of a speedy gentrification, are lined with trendy bars and lively, scruffy restaurants serving international cuisine. We could be in Manhattan, but we are actually in uptown Minneapolis, the heart of the Midwest.

Lake Street has always been a focus for Minnesota's immigrants. Today, it is dominated by Mexicans, Chinese and Somalis, but once it was the centre of the state's Scandinavian culture, wryly celebrated by one of the city's most famous sons, Garrison Keillor - who still broadcasts his Prairie Home Companion from the Fitzgerald Theatre in neighbouring St Paul - and slyly mocked by the Coen brothers in their film Fargo.

It is this image of plains gripped, Narnia-like, in an endless winter - where things move slowly and the conversation is punctuated by "you betchas" - which has stuck in the popular imagination.

But it's only half true.

For the other reality of Minnesota and the Twin Cities (St Paul and Minneapolis, separated by the Mississippi River) is that it is the hidden jewel of the Midwest: laid back, quietly hip and so liberal it was one of only two states to vote for Walter Mondale in his calamitous presidential bid in 1984.

Lest we forget, it is also home to the Mall of America, a shopping centre so vast that charter flights bring shoppers here from Iceland and Canada.

Minneapolis' vast Mall of America is a tourist attraction in its own right. Photo / Bloomberg
Minneapolis' vast Mall of America is a tourist attraction in its own right. Photo / Bloomberg

And while the Minnesota of Keillor's Lake Wobegon is still visible in the pretty rural settlements, the city buzzes with an energy not found in Keillor's shaggy dog stories of Norwegian farmers.

There is a vibrant local music, arts and nightclub scene and the weather, so savage at the height of winter that you can drive your car on to any of the 10,000 lakes for ice fishing, has created peculiarities in urban planning. In Minneapolis's city centre, a series of skyways allow you to walk from block to block high above the traffic.

In spring, the city suddenly comes alive, bursting from winter through a brief period of brown into colour.

I'm struck by this walking back to the central city's Nicollet Mall one afternoon after visiting the Walker Art Centre and its collection of paintings by Warhol, Rothko and Lichtenstein. Dead ahead is the IDS building, architect Philip Johnson's stunning mirrored tower that opened in 1974, reflecting the nearby Wells Fargo Building against a sky of deepest blue.

There are a number of artists whose beginnings are inseparable from their Minnesotan roots.

The early compositions of Bob Dylan were replete with images of the state's Iron Range and woods. Before that came author F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose Great Gatsby, as its Minnesotan narrator Nick Carraway reminds us, is really about the insecurities of Midwesterners gone east.

Where these two great monoliths of American culture collide is in the odd little lakeshore town of Duluth, voted by Outside magazine, the bible of the American outdoors, as one of the top 10 towns in which to live.

It was here that Bob Dylan was born in 1941, a fact still marked with annual Dylan celebrations.

And it is from here, too, that Jay Gatsby himself hails - starting life as a poor Dakotan named James Gatz who is rescued on the shore of Lake Superior by wealthy copper miner Dan Cody, and who begins his reinvention in Duluth after Cody's death. So, putting Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited into the CD player and packing a copy of Fitzgerald's novel, it is up Highway 61 towards Duluth that I head.

Once this town had the highest number of millionaires per capita in the US, based on shipping steel to New York. At the South Pier Inn, next to the town's Aerial Lift Bridge on the canal-front, you are supplied with a typed copy of the local shipping news and a pair of binoculars on checking in so that you can watch vast ore carriers pass by your window from the comfort of the hot tub.

For all the influence of its industrial heritage, Duluth has a funky feel - the influence of a large satellite campus of the University of Minnesota - which is reflected in the Electric Fetus music store; Amazing Grace, a basement restaurant with a tiny stage that hosts live music; and Fitgers Brewery - the quality of whose range of beers suggests you might want to book a taxi home.

But, in the end, Duluth is a gateway to Minnesota's most important treasure, the great woods that stretch back from Highway 61 as it runs along the North Shore into a haze of birch and alder-covered hills. There are trails here you can walk for a couple of hours, for a day, or, as in the case of the Gunflint Trail, where you can disappear for several weeks.

It is a place where the resort hotels, such as the Lutsen with its waterfront cabins, seem locked pleasantly in the time-warp of the family resort hotel, with organised hikes and family activities around the fire on its little beach of fine washed basalt and agate.

It is out of season when I visit and almost deserted. And when we light a fire on the beach in a rapidly chilling evening, I can finally imagine the ghost of the impoverished Gatz - soon to be Gatsby - wandering the strand in his torn sweater, waiting for the opportunity to be reborn.

THINGS TO DO

Go shopping in the Mall of America. No fewer than 400 stores in a vast covered space with a little amusement park in the middle.

Drink coffee at Cafe Barbette. In its former incarnation as Cafe Wyrd, this was voted the place most likely for gay men to meet; 1600 West Lake St, Minneapolis.

Visit the Walker Art Centre, a cubic building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The Walker is home to an impressive collection of contemporary art.

Celebrate Dylan in Duluth. The town holds an annual festival on the work of its most famous son.

Take a paddleboat ride in Stillwater. A short drive from the Twin Cities, this pretty town on the St Croix River is full of antiques stores and cafes.

Hang out by Lake Superior. Open all year round, Lutsen Resort is a place for those who like their outdoors with a bit of comfort.

Hike the Superior Trail. This 330km footpath follows the ridgeline above Lake Superior.

Spend a night with Garrison Keillor. Keillor's weekly show is recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St Paul.

Further information: See minneapolis.org and wminneapolis.com. Find out more about Duluth at visitduluth.com.

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