Scrolling the lifeless procession of beige walls and unfortunate carpeting, you reassure yourself: It’s just a room, we’ll only be sleeping there.
True to an extent, but major-chain hotels end up playing host to a large chunk of your vacation, setting the vibe for the bookend hours of your rarefied reprieve from the 9-to-5. You can do better. And you can do weirder, quainter, quirkier, lusher, grander, and/or zanier.
Thankfully, Minnesota affords folks surplus vacation-rental opportunities that break the La Quinta mold. From a humble woodland bubble to a palatial riverside estate, here are the state’s standout spots to crash while you’re burning PTO.
To get started, let’s say you wanna stay in a...
Location: Cottage Grove
Average Cost: $245 per night, sleeps four
Paula and Michael Bushilla have built a booming wedding business at Hope Glen Farm, their historic property dating back to 1860. In 2016, the couple added a fairy-tale lodging option for wedding parties or anyone else passing through the southeast Twin Cities: the only rentable treehouse loft in the metro. And it’s a stunner, with a towering stone fireplace, jacuzzi tub, “secret room,” and views for days off the elevated decks.
History: “Our brides and grooms kept asking for a place to stay here on our property,” Paula says. “My dad built me a treehouse when I was a little girl, and that treehouse meant so much to me, so that was the inspiration. This is the treehouse beyond all of our wildest dreams.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “It was a major ordeal to go through all the hoops and regulations. We’re very grateful for our local mayor; he’s been a big fan from the beginning and just thought it’d be neat to offer the Twin Cities’ first treehouse lodging option.”
Typical Guest: “We’ve had guests come from all over the United States, and Spain, France, and England. Some people are looking for something very unique, and we’re honored to be on their list.”
Best Feature: “How the petrified wood pedestal sink turned out in the bathroom in the secret room. It’s in the shape of a heart.”
Special Memory: “It’s just so fun to surprise people with the secret room, because nobody suspects it. People freak out, sometimes they have tears in their eyes. It’s just so magical.”
Guest Review: “I felt like we were in a cottage in the enchanted forest!” Lacee wrote. “I especially loved the tower and the secret room—so magical!”
Location: Marine on St. Croix
Average Cost: $799 per night, sleeps eight
Fifteen minutes outside downtown Stillwater, an honest-to-goodness castle has majestically rested on the shores of the St. Croix River for 82 years. John Norusis acquired the Edwin Lundie-designed masterpiece two years ago, hoping to eventually retire on the six acres nestled alongside William O’Brien State Park. Until then, guests can enjoy its stone-and-wood splendor, including a sprawling patio that practically spills into the federally protected scenic riverway.
History: “It was built for the MacMillan family, who were cousins of the Cargills,” Norusis says. “It’s a really unique, special place. It’s 100 percent stone and it was quarried on-site.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “I was contacted by Disney a month ago by their new streaming service [to rent for shooting], so that was pretty cool.”
Typical Guest: “If it’s part of a wedding day or part of a 50th birthday party or an anniversary, it’s part of their memory. I’m glad to be able to assist in that.”
Best Feature: “It’s literally something out of a fairy tale. The moment I saw it online, I kinda thought when I looked at it it’d be less appealing, but the photos didn’t do it justice. The craftsmanship... I don’t know if there are masons alive who could do this.”
Special Memory: “Obviously not everybody can afford this place, but to be able to spend a weekend here... you’ve only got so many days here. If you can help people enjoy their special occasions and loved ones, that’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
Guest Review: “One-of-a-kind property!” Andrew wrote. “Amazing historical place and great place to relax; the deck and views are one of a kind.”
Location: Red Wing
Average cost: $375 per night, sleeps eight
Wanna shoot pool and sip non-transubstantiated vino in God’s house? You’ve got a 4,500-square-foot option in one of Minnesota’s historic river cities. Kelley Pufpaff’s converted church has been transformed into an idealized hangout spot: billiards, ping-pong, a fireplace, and a 70-inch TV, all situated under sky-reaching ceilings.
History: “It’s originally an 1880s Lutheran church. About 20 years ago, the congregation shut down, and a few years after that a realtor and her husband renovated it into their home,” Pufpaff says. “Around 2013, I saw [their listing], and I sent [the seller] an email that was like, ‘I’ll take it. I want it the way you have it.’ We turned it into a VRBO and we get to enjoy it as a family.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “It’s just beautiful. It has 22-foot ceilings, so in the middle of the winter when you’re feeling cooped-up, it’s my favorite place to be. When you walk into that place, it’s like walking into a fortress. You’re kind of in your own little oasis. From an ownership perspective, anytime something needs to be done to it, it’s not normal [laughs].”
Typical Guest: “Interestingly, it typically attracts groups of middle-age women that wanna go out, have a good time, open six or seven bottles of wine, catch up on stories, or maybe craft a little bit. That seems to be the most common renter.”
Best Feature: “I take personal joy from hitting a ping-pong ball 15 feet in the air, while, on the other side, I’m watching my family drink a bottle of wine in front of a warm fire. There’s also something about the choir lounge vantage point that’s really spectacular.”
Special Memory: “We generally have at least one big holiday there a year. One Thanksgiving we got a bouncy house and put it up by where the altar used to be.”
Guest Review: “An absolute delight! Even more beautiful in person,” Raz wrote. “You won’t want to leave, even with the charming towns and beautiful river views nearby!”
Average Cost: $750 per night, sleeps 12
Jeff Arundel’s whimsical urban castle, which has gone on and off the market for years, is a perpetual source of fascination for home-peepers. In 2017, the musician/restaurateur was set to unload his 108-year-old marvel to Brass Foundry Brewing Co., whose owners hoped to make it into a “destination brewery.” That deal fell through, so Arundel remodeled the rare downtown single-family home, stripping away some of its Lord of the Rings-ian mystique before placing it on the rental market earlier this year.
History: “In the ’80s, a really well-known couple—John and Sage Cowles—they made this old blacksmith shop into a residence,” Arundel says. “I bought it from them in 2002 and lived there for 15 years. I created what has come to be known as ‘The Harry Potter House.’ Everything about this place was a living art piece. We spent 90 days redoing it and made it into a downtown urban loft.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “There’s a weird way that when you go from being a home to a rental property, stuff breaks that never broke in 15 years [laughs]. The upside is the place has had a ton of curiosity, and now people can rent it and use it.”
Typical Guest: “Because of the proximity to U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings season has been really great. With regard to being the only single-family dwelling in that 12-block radius of downtown, there’s an allure to it, whether it’s U.S. Bank Stadium or corporate stuff.”
Best Feature: “It’s got a probably 30-by-50 room in it that the Cowleses used as a dance and yoga studio. I used it as a recording studio and rehearsal space. Now that’s become a ‘great hall,’ where it’s a great place to watch a game. The rooftop deck is also really unique.”
Special Memory: “There’s only special memories. I got married there twice. In England they have ‘great houses,’ those are the properties that have all memories attached to ’em—heartbreak, joy, wonder, envy. The reality of what happened to that house during my 15 years—the celebrations, heartache, wonder, drama—everything happened in that great home.”
Guest Review: “Great property!” Joel wrote. “Worked perfectly for our group, everyone is still talking about it.”
Location: Clear Lake
Average Cost: $125 per night, sleeps two
You ain’t gonna find horses, goats, and an ol’ swimmin’ hole at most reputable Holiday Inns. But in Clear Lake, a “prairie retreat” an hour northwest of the metro, you’ll discover all those barnyard amenities and more. That’s because the place is a legit farm, one John Kerwin’s family has been working since the ’50s. As farming profits dipped, Kerwin reconfigured his unused silo as a rustic living space with endless views of his pastoral grounds.
History: “The barn was built in 1909 by the grandson of the homesteader,” Kerwin says. “It still serves as a barn; the silo went into disuse, and just bit by bit we’ve built two living units into it. It was a nice, substantial concrete structure and up at the top there was a great view.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “We did get all of the county inspections and approvals, so we’re legal and people tend to like staying there. I’m a mechanical engineer; I was able to put the facility together. I think it fits in nicely with the farm.”
Typical Guest: “I think Airbnb is a group of early innovators, both the people that provide the housing and the people that stay. They’re looking for something other than a Motel 8.”
Best Feature: “Putting it back to productive use and embracing the city people in the countryside. I think that’s good for both sides.”
Special Memory: “Being out in the country. It’s less than an hour to get here from the city, and I’d encourage people to come out.”
Guest Review: “The views were jaw-dropping, sunrises and sunsets just beautiful,” Kent wrote. “We swam in the lake every day after our adventures.”
Location: Two Harbors
Average Cost: $165 per night
Unlike the titular one in the recent Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson vehicle, this lighthouse won’t make you descend into madness. Quite the opposite! Built in 1892, the centerpiece of Two Harbors’ Agate Bay on Lake Superior still keeps ships safe, but it also keeps guests cozy in four rooms decked out with antique furniture. You can hear the pride in MeLisa Swanson’s voice as the managing innkeeper with Lake County Historical Society describes the lighthouse/B&B/museum.
History: “The Coast Guard ran it before we took over, but it’s been a B&B since ’99,” Swanson says. “It is the oldest operating lighthouse in the state of Minnesota.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “There are lots of perks. It’s also a functioning museum, so to be able to work in a piece of history in my hometown is pretty amazing.”
Typical Guest: “We’ve had guests from all over the world: New Zealand, Thailand, different parts of Europe, Canada. It amazes me the amount of people that are either lighthouse fans or boat nerds who are intrigued by the oar shipping that’s part of the town.”
Best Feature: “Obviously the view of Lake Superior. You can’t go wrong with looking at that gorgeous lake every day.”
Special Memory: “There have been guests that have been returning for over 15 years. A lot of them have said, ‘It feels like our home away from home.’ It’s great to see them again and know they’re enjoying the experience.”
Guest Review: “We had full access to explore the lighthouse and the grounds,” Julie wrote. “We learned a lot, so great to be able to stay in a piece of (working) history! The views are spectacular also!”
Average Cost: $100-$180 per night
Before he became innkeeper/owner of the historic Jailhouse Inn last year, Tom Kaase was an actual sheriff. Now, alongside his wife Dorle, the personable ex-cop oversees 12 rooms inside the 10,000-square-foot brick building located two hours southeast of the Twin Cities. The B&B is famous for its Cellblock Room, which still features steel bars, as well its scones and cheeky “I spent the night in jail!” merchandise.
History: “This was, up until 1971, the Fillmore County jail, as well as the sheriff residence,” Tom says. “It was completed in 1869. [The previous owners of 26 years] thought it was a sign that somebody local was interested in it, as well as an actual sheriff of the county.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “It’s a very good clientele. The people we’ve had the opportunity to meet have been very rewarding. We’ve had 26 states and four foreign countries so far. People are interested in our story, but also hearing other peoples’ stories. The maintenance, the upkeep, and the weather are challenges.”
Typical Guest: “We get a lot of people that like to ride the bike trails, hiking, fishing, history buffs. People come here to celebrate birthdays, holidays, family reunions.”
Best Feature: “Just the uniqueness of it being the jail. One of our rooms is one of the old cellblocks. I started my law enforcement career here in Fillmore County. Being in the same building, the same jail, that was used for over 100 years.”
Special Memory: “We had a lady stay with us this summer that was on her motorcycle; she was doing 50 states in 50 days. We’ve had six bride and grooms and three proposals—and we’re batting 1.000 there. We had a 25th wedding anniversary for a couple who were married here. Bridal showers, baby showers, graduation parties—being part of those festivities is very rewarding.”
Guest Review: “The rooms are quaint, all with beautiful antique furnishings and several with fireplaces” Karen wrote. “The view from the porch is breathtaking.”
Average Cost: $200 per night, sleeps two
We can say, with a certain degree of confidence, that this is Minnesota’s only inflatable bubble hut operated by an 11-year-old girl. It’s absolutely the only such accommodation in the area, according to Bella Downare’s mom, Tammie. Sitting on five woodsy acres outside of St. Cloud, the fantastical structure has only been on Airbnb for a couple months, but guests are already raving about the experience and the lil innkeeper who bikes to Walgreens to purchase special snacks for her guests.
History: “My husband surprised me with a trip to Iceland for our anniversary, and our first day there was actually spent in a bubble,” Tammie says. “When we came home, I said, ‘I really want one of those.’”
Perks and/or Challenges: “There’s not anything like it in this state. It’s like you’re camping, but you have a 360-view of everything around you. Cleaning it is really hard on the outside, and keeping it that way, because you want to keep it clear for people.”
Typical Guest: “That’s what surprises me, it’s just such a variation: camping couples, an airline flight attendant from California, a young couple on their anniversary, a single lady from Iowa.”
Best Feature: “You feel like you’re in nature, and you see things you wouldn’t see—I’ve seen owls just swoop over the top when I’m lying there; you can see the stars.”
Special Memory: “Every single time we walk down to show somebody, it’s dark out. And when you walk into the woods it’s like fairy land—it’s lit up, it’s just beautiful. It’s like you’ve entered into another world.”
Guest Review: “Truly an incredible experience, we had great expectations and everything was even more wonderful than we imagined!” Olivia wrote. “Thank you Bella for all the little details.”
Location: Two Harbors
Average Cost: $92-$209 per night
If you’re checking in at Northern Rail Traincar Inn, and owners Cyndi and Jeff Ryder start describing “The Hobo Package” (straw, canned beans), know that they’re pulling your leg. The theme of their property is no joke: The couple rent out 16 rooms constructed inside boxcars that were once destined for the scrap heap. Today, each reimagined railroad relic features individual bathrooms and themes—Victorian, Safari, Lighthouse, Bear, etc.
History: “[The original owner’s 2002 launch] was quite the project, and I will be honest with you: I stood at my house, they drove the cars right by us, and I turned to my husband and said, ‘That woman is nuts, nobody is gonna pay to stay in those nasty boxcars,’” Cyndi laughs. “Are we rolling in dough? No. But are we comfortable, are we making it a successful business? Yes.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “There’s all kinds of challenges. Quite frankly structural ones: It’s boxcars sitting on rails.”
Typical Guest: “We get some people who think it’s mostly families with kids, and it’s not: It’s mostly couples. I bet 75 percent of our business is couples. From everywhere, we’ve had guests from all over the world. This summer alone we’ve had Netherlands, Ireland, England, and Germany.”
Best Feature: “Just the uniqueness of it. It’s something that was set to be demolished, and now it’s this really cool little hotel.”
Special Memory: “We don’t do a lot of venue-type stuff, weddings and reunions, but when we have, they’ve been very, very special.”
Guest Review: “The train cars are finished inside making for a nice room but still maintaining the boxcar feel,” Chris wrote. “Besides, how many of you can say you’ve slept in a boxcar?”
Location: St. Paul
Average Cost: $300 per night, sleeps five
Dan Kellogg is the type of guy who un-ironically and frequently punctuates his sentences with “arrrrr”s. So it’s not entirely surprising that the pirate fanatic from Excelsior owns a fully functioning pirate ship. Kellogg acquired his 65-foot wooden vessel—which was originally commissioned by Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort in South Carolina—about five years ago for $90,000. Docked at a Mississippi River marina near downtown St. Paul, the ship now transports guests into a pirate world, complete with “authentic pirate paraphernalia” from the Bahamas.
History: “I punched in ‘pirate ship’ on Craigslist,” Kellogg told City Pages in August, describing the seller as “a funky guy—an artist, a shipbuilder.”
Perks and/or Challenges: “People have so much fun dropping their day-to-day and stepping into a world of pure freedom, living in the moment. The charter business is laden with rules so we just stay dockside where most everything is legal.”
Typical Guest: “It’s really fun to be able to share it with all these pirate enthusiasts. [My family] grew up going to the islands in the Bahamas, and there’s a real pirate history down there, so I wanted to bring some of that to Minnesota.”
Best Feature: “Every nook has something in it: old classic books, swords, chests, even a few pirates. There’s bottles of rum hidden around the ship for the treasure-hunter adult guests.”
Special Memory: “We all know people who are struggling. The ship helps us laugh at it briefly, it helps us face the inevitable and the reality of life, which is death. Pirates were in pretty bad shape, but they seized the day and just went for it.”
Guest Review: “Who knew there was a pirate ship on the Mississippi?!” Annie wrote. “Staying here was like being on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. Amazing!”
All images courtesy of owners