DULUTH — The Aerial Lift Bridge towers overhead. Great Lakes freighters pass just 70 feet away. And you can watch it all in your room, relaxing in a whirlpool.
They’re among the features that set South Pier Inn apart from the other hotels in Duluth. And it’s part of the reason the South Pier Inn received a coveted statewide award this month.
The inn, located just beyond the Aerial Lift Bridge along the Duluth ship canal, was awarded the Minnesota Lodging Association’s 2013 property of the year award for hotels with 50 rooms or fewer. The award is one of five given out by the association each year.
“It’s huge,” Betty Sola, one of the inn’s owners, said of the award. “It shows people appreciate what we offer here.”
It’s the first time since the awards began in 2006 that a Duluth hotel has received one of the awards.
It came as a surprise, said Branden Robinson, the inn’s general manager. “We didn’t know we had been nominated for it.”
The nomination came from Mike Wilmes of Wilmes Hospitality, who called the inn “one of Duluth’s best-kept secrets.”
“Located at the foot of the Aerial Lift Bridge across from Canal Park, you can watch 1,000-foot Great Lakes ships pass just a few yards from your room,” he said in his nomination letter. “The staff provides exceptional service, and their amenities include binoculars in every suite.”
The lodging association has 300 members, said Grace Hertel, an association spokeswoman. South Pier Inn was chosen because of its impact on the lodging industry and for being a model of stability for others to follow, she said.
“It’s recognizing how unique the property is, being on that pier and being such a small property,” she said. “It has all the amenities you could possibly want.”
Two-thirds of its 29 rooms are waterfront suites with views of the Duluth harbor, ship canal and the city’s hillside. The suites have separate bedrooms and living rooms. All the rooms have private balconies and gas fireplaces. Rooms and suites range from $97 a night to $377, depending on the room, the view and the time of the year.
■ Loyal following
In the 11 years since its 2002 opening, family-owned South Pier Inn has been building a reputation and a loyal following as it competes with bigger hotels in nearby Canal Park. Many guests are couples and are retired or semi-retired, but some are families and the inn’s corporate clientele is growing, Sola said.
“When people come here, they say they can really relax,” she said. “There’s so much to do, so much to see. Just sitting out on the deck, watching the activities of the harbor, they can look eye-to-eye with the ships’ captains.”
For some, the small inn with its close-up view of vessels entering and leaving the harbor has become a ship-watching destination. For aficionados, ship arrivals and departures are posted daily and late-night ship calls are offered for those who don’t want to miss a single passage.
And there can be a lot of ships to see, with dozens of vessels ranging from tiny sailboats to massive freighters passing under the Aerial Lift Bridge on the busiest summer days.
Sola recalled guests from Iowa who wanted the nighttime ship calls because they said there are no ships in Iowa, and they didn’t want to miss a single one.
Then there’s LaVonne and Charles Stendahl of Cambridge. To say they’re regulars is an understatement. In the last six years, they’ve stayed at South Pier Inn about 130 times.
“We come twice a month particularly in the winter time,” LaVonne Stendahl said. “We don’t enjoy it when it’s really crowded in the streets of Duluth. We like to come in the fall and winter and spring.”
The couple, who are retired, live in the country where it gets pitch-black at 5 p.m. in early winter. But in Duluth they enjoy the night lights and the activity.
“We like seeing the lift bridge going up and down, the boats passing,” she said. “When we’re on the balcony, we can almost touch the boats passing. We like the sparkling of the water, and the lights of Duluth.”
■ Fits right in
The inn at 701 Lake Ave. S. was built in 2002 by the Sola family — Betty Sola and her husband Dale, sons Steven and Rand and Rand’s wife, Carrie. The family also built high-end townhouses nearby.
“We decided to build a little hotel, and it took off like a rocket,” Betty Sola said.
The construction of the two-story, L-shaped inn on the one-acre bayside site didn’t come without controversy. Some residents were concerned about traffic and parking congestion, blocked views and whether the building would fit the surroundings.
“There were a lot of misconceptions about what it would be,” Sola said. “All came to rest when we opened.”
Many say the gray-and-white inn with its staggered rooms, private decks and nautical touches not only fits right in, it enhances the entrance to Park Point.
“It’s been very well accepted,” Sola said.
Occupancy is at capacity from May to October, and most weekends in the winter, Robinson noted.
But does the opening next summer of the new 68-room, three-story Park Point Marina Hotel on Park Point about one-half mile away have them worried?
“Not at all,” Sola said. “It will be good for us.”
“The way people become aware of us is driving by,” he said. “They’ll drive by and realize we’re here.”