Historic River Towns – Stillwater, Minnesota
With Jo’s sister Donna and husband Dan, this will be our fourth historic river town and historic hotel Thanksgiving weekend. Previously we have enjoyed Galena, Illinois and the DeSoto House Hotel (1855), Dubuque, Iowa and Hotel Julian (1854), and Red Wing, Minnesota and the St. James Hotel (1875).
Like other larger river towns downstream, Stillwater has done an excellent preserving its historic buildings and landmarks. It hosts the State’s oldest still standing courthouse and its unique Lift Bridge, constructed in 1931, is still in service. Former freight houses, mill structures, and beer caves now house shops, antique stores, restaurants, and bars. Many of the stately Victorian homes of lumber barons and merchants have been restored and are now B&Bs. Over 60 of these homes are designated landmarks. The city has a number of attractive parks with over 11 miles of walking and hiking trails. We took the historic downtown walking tour that took past several landmark buildings as well as up and down two of the five long stairways that separate the downtown area from the surrounding neighborhood bluffs. Pioneer Park located at the top of one of these stairways provides scenic views of both the river and downtown area.
Stillwater Hometown for the Holidays
Downtown Stillwater offered special holiday activities from November 29 thru December 31st. Main street holiday lights, shop Christmas window decorations, Victorian Carolers along historic Main Street, live reindeer with Santa and sleigh, free horse-drawn carriage rides along the St. Croix River, and shopping specials.
Thanksgiving at the Lowell Inn
Listed on the Historic Registry, the Lowell Inn opened for business in 1927 and retains its elegance and charm. It has 35 rooms, each of which is uniquely furnished, and a classic colonial style dining room.
The comfortable hotel lobby is furnished with classic overstuffed leather chairs and sofas, beautiful dark wood trim and moldings, and unique antique fixtures and artisan appointments. The centerpiece is a large wood burning fireplace. The unique Matterhorn Room is filled with Swiss wood carvings, plaques, decorations, and two authentic and functional Black Forest cuckoo clocks.
Their Thanksgiving Buffet is very popular with hotel guests making up only a small portion of the diners. The entre’ selections were turkey, ham and roast beef, all quite moist, soaked in gravy or without, complemented by a large selection of vegetables, fruit, and salads. About four or five dessert selections finished off the meal. We had our reservations for 12:45 pm; there was also a morning buffet and a late afternoon serving time. But it seemed like there was a steady stream of diners waiting for tables from morning to early evening. A five star meal in an elegant dining atmosphere for $19.95 helps explain the popularity.
We had breakfast at the hotel the next morning and found the food and wait service equally top-notch. Jo ordered her eggs medium-hard and mine were over easy and each was done exactly right and hot. The eggs were served with the thick slices of toast that melted in your mouth. My tomato juice was in a long-stemmed wine glass – nice touch. Water glasses kept constantly full as were our cups kept full with the top quality, fresh brewed coffee. (We home roast our own coffee beans so we feel we know good coffee from average). You can see more photos and info on the Lowell Inn under “Links” lower down the page.
Stillwater Restaurants & Dining
If good food and service were our main priority, we should have eaten all our meals at the Lowell Inn, but we wanted to experience some of the other Stillwater dining establishments. We weren’t disappointed with our lunch at the Dock Café. Located on the river, with views of the river from every table, the Dock Café offers what I would call an upscale menu (How do I know it is upscale? Price and menus with difficult to pronounce descriptions!). Our salads, soups, and sandwiches were tasty and service was attentive. On the other hand we were disappointed with our Friday fish fry dinner at the Brine Restaurant and Bar located on Main Street. Slow and inattentive service. Worst french fries in memory – limp, cold, and tasteless. Baked beans from a can. The fish wasn’t too bad, lightly battered but three small pieces for $9.95 with the limp, untasty fries and beans was no deal. But on the positive side, they have an excellent selection of beers (including craft and imported) on tap and in bottles and not overly expensive. We scored again on the positive side the next morning: breakfast at the Main Café. They were busy, yet gave us prompt wait service and our food arrived in a timely manner. Nothing fancy in terms of decor or table service – just your very decent small town café giving good food and service at a fair price.
Next time we are in Stillwater we have to stop at Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop as the advertise the Best Burgers in Minnesota so we need to compare them against our findings in our Best Burgers of Duluth quest.
For more photos, maps, and info on Stillwater see our link to “Things to See and Do . . . ” further down the page.
Great River Road & St. Croix Trail
Gong north, the Wisconsin Great River Road actually completes its journey at Prescott, Wisconsin where the lazy Mississippi River coming from Northern Minnesota joins the wild and scenic St. Croix River that forms the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. At this point the St. Croix inherits the character of the Upper Mississippi with its high bluffs and steep valleys. So in our travels we prefer to stay along the St. Croix versus following the Mississippi to St. Paul, Minnesota. To continue on the scenic river road, you cross the river at Prescott into Minnesota and then immediately turn north on Highway 21, the St. Croix Trail. You’ll pass Afton Alps Ski Area and then proceed under the I-94 Interstate Highway that joins Wisconsin and Minnesota. There the road changes to Minnesota Highway 95. Soon you’ll arrive in historic Stillwater, Minnesota – the birthplace of Minnesota. It was here in 1848 that territorial convention was held that began the process of making Minnesota a state. After Stillwater, the scenic St. Croix Trail continues north along the river until Taylor Falls and the St. Croix Interstate Park.
We hope to return to Stillwater next summer to explore more of what the town offers. Several of the restaurants have outdoor patios with views of the river and I’d like to do a more complete walking tour of the historic structures and homes. Next time I do one of the steep stairways between downtown and the surrounding bluffs, I’ll take a rest half-way up. Just about had a heart attack doing the stairs from the Warden’s House to Pioneer Park non-stop!