Hockey, The Lake and Tater Tot Hotdish: The Minnesota Experience In Bemidji

Sometimes my trips require a lot of planning. Sometimes I spend days figuring out the logistics, coordinating transportation, mapping routes and brainstorming ideas. My trip to Bemidji, Minnesota last weekend was not one of those times.

It was the easiest vacation in recent memory. We packed whole lot of essential Minnesota experiences into one visit and kept our driving time to an absolute minimum. And the good news is, you can completely replicate it. Here’s how:

I was in town to watch my cousin play hockey for Bemidji State University. (Congrats on a great season, Beavers!) He’s #1. (Like, literally, he wears #1.) He also holds a bunch of goaltending records for BSU and is totally a public person that complete strangers recognize in public. This seems stressful to me, but he seems to handle it in stride.

Fun Fact: His friends and teammates are the Fitzgerald triplets who appeared in the Baby Geniuses movies as kids. The New York Times wrote this fabulous story about them.

The Beavers were in the WCHA playoffs, so we stayed at the Country Inn and Suites. It’s literally connected to the The Sanford Center, where the Beavers play, so it couldn’t have been easier.

On Friday afternoon, we pulled into the lot, parked, unpacked and didn’t leave the complex for the rest of the night. The hotel lobby becomes a gathering place before and after games, and it was one of the few public hotel spaces I’ve ever seen that really felt like people hang out there naturally and voluntarily. (Sometimes hotel lobbies feel a little contrived, you know?)

The Country Inn and Suites had free coffee, tea and cookies, comfy seating, a roaring fire and a free lending library, complete with lots of children’s books for my kiddo. And that’s just in the lobby. There’s also a good fitness room, pool and whirlpool, trail access (more on that later) and free breakfast in the sunny breakfast room, all with views of the south shore of Lake Bemidji.

I was in town with my sister, my parents and my toddler (that’s everybody, just chillin’ by the fireplace) and we met a few more of my cousins and my grandma in Bemidji. (We travel in a pack!)

My sister and I all joked that we could have just sat around the hotel for hours if we didn’t have anything else to do at night. That is typically not my travel style at all and a real testament to how easy this set-up is.

(A note from me: I stayed at this hotel for free. This impromptu review of the property was definitely not planned and was not part of the partnership agreement we discussed, but it’s important that I tell you about our relationship anyway. It’s also important to tell you that I don’t usually review hotels in this way, but this one really did feature into the story too much to leave it out.)

To make things even easier, a restaurant I’ve been meaning to try, JJ’s Dockside, is located right in the complex. Like the hotel, JJ’s Dockside faces the lake and offers patio seating that would be fantastic during warmer weather. Since we visited in March, we ate inside the rustic chic bar and restaurant instead. (Think lots of wood juxtaposed with glittering chandeliers, a combo that somehow works).

The menu features a variety of sandwiches, pasta selections, salads, burgers and dinner entrees. I opted for a panini and E had a really fantastic mac and cheese from the kids’ menu that we all snuck bites of. (It was so good!) My mom went with a salad topped with a fat shrimp and my sister was super excited about the inclusion on avocado on her burger.

But my dad opted for the oh, so Minnesotan tater tot hotdish, so his is the entree I’ll showcase here. (The green beans were a nice addition.)

I was psyched to find local beer from Bemidji Brewing Company on the menu, which makes this restaurant an especially good option for beer fans who arrive in the city after the taproom closes. I picked the IPA, which is pretty much always my first choice when I’m trying a new brewery.

After paying our tab, we just walked right over to the Sanford Center when the doors opened. It’s inside the whole way, so that makes this hotel a super attractive lodging option for hockey fans and people attending other events at the arena. If you’re able-bodied and/or can handle a few miles of walking, biking, skating or scooting, you can also visit many of the city’s attractions without ever getting in your vehicle again. (I saw folks on scooters and motorized wheelchairs out enjoying the day, so I think scooting is actually a pretty fantastic verb to use in this situation.)

There are lots of hiking and biking trails that connect around the shores of Lake Bemidji. The Paul Bunyan State Trail stretches 123 miles from Lake Bemidji State Park (more on that in an upcoming post) to Crow Wing State Park and wraps right around the lake, just steps from our hotel. The mixed use trail is handicap accessible for all but a few miles.

You can also walk or bike the Mississippi River Trail, which starts at the Mississippi River headwaters at Lake Itasca, just a short drive from Bemidji. The 3,000 network of roads, trails and pathways follows the Mississippi south through ten states, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s also a short walk or ride into Bemidji’s charming downtown (about 1.9 miles from the hotel to the end of the shopping district), so it’s definitely doable to leave the car at the hotel and combine exercise with a little retail therapy or to walk off a big dinner. I’ll have a Downtown Bemidji Shopping Guide for you all shortly!

I walked Brynn on a strange, winding hike determined my own “ooh, look at that!” curiosity instead of any traditional route, which I’m sure she would have preferred. (My sister is an early rising, Fitbit wearing, preparing for a 5K type walker/hiker who had already logged four miles before I woke up that morning.) Our three mile jaunt took us along both trails and along the lake.

I’ve never been to Bemidji in the winter and it was interesting to watch people ice fishing on what was almost surely the last weekend of the season. I started hearing reports of ice going out on Minnesota lakes weeks earlier than usual almost immediately after we returned home.

Our route took us right by a beach, which would be fun to check out during the summer. We got a little taste of warmer weather our last day in Bemidji, though. Temperatures climbed into the 50s and it was nice enough to hang out on a park bench before heading out for more hiking and yes, more hockey. We are Minnesota natives at heart.

What about you?
What do you love in Bemidji?
What amenities do you love in a hotel?
What do you want to see the next time you’re in town?
What foods, drinks, activities and attractions do you think of as a stereotypically “Minnesotan?”

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