I think of myself as an adventurer. A bon vivant. A wanderer. I have been far and I have been wide, and each journey seems a little wackier than the former. For example, there was the time I went all the way to the Rock of Gibraltar and forgot my passport, not realizing, of course, that it’s actually part of England and that my Spanish visa wouldn’t work when crossing the border. Sadly, I missed the monkeys that inhabit the Rock, but I ended up in an Iberian Kmart hunting for doodads and trying to make my traveling companion not hate me for getting so close to Africa (a mere 14 miles) with nothing to show for it.
And then there was Uruguay. When South American uber-chef Frances Mallmann chose to open a small inn and restaurant in the pueblo of Garzon, I couldn’t wait to side-trip it during a vacation to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, the map on Hotel Garzon’s website was wrong and it led me on a wild goose chase until my rented Fiat was nearly out of gas, forcing me to ask a weathered gaucho for directions. Since I speak Castilian, my strain of Spanish must have sounded as foreign as English to him. After several panicky calls to Garzon, my trusty BlackBerry ultimately guided our fume-fueled car into the little country town to enjoy the very best meal of my life in a dining room lit only by candles.
After the aforementioned adventures (and others too numerous to mention), planning a vacation takes one of two routes: complex or obscure. I just don’t do simple. Because I often get the itch to leave the city—and quickly—Allegiant Air has become a close friend. Based in Las Vegas, the company offers last-minute blowout rates for some really funky, random destinations. For my latest vacation, I decided to see just how far Allegiant could take me into the land of oddities. This was when I discovered that they fly to Fargo.
Why on earth would anyone ever want to go to Fargo, N.D.? My answer is, Why not? The mere parameters of my desired adventure were that I go via Allegiant and that I go to a place I didn’t have previous interest in seeing. Fargo seemed to fill the bill. And for $29 each way, it was an easy decision.
One of the things that attracted me to Fargo was Hotel Donaldson, a rather hip boutique hotel. This got me wondering: Does one quaint hotel make a city more accessible? To be honest, I never would have considered Fargo if my only option for accommodations was a Motel 6. A fun hotel makes a foreign land less imposing. And indeed it became the central character in my Fargo experience.
The history of the Hotel Donaldson runs in tandem with the growth of Fargo as a city. Built in 1893, just after a fire destroyed much of downtown, it was the headquarters for the International Order of Odd Fellows, an organization in which members bonded through ethical values consisting of truth, love and friendship. After that incarnation, it became a workman’s hotel. Decades of neglect left the structure in disrepair.
In 2000, after a gutting and extensive renovation, the Hotel Donaldson was born as a haven to cultivate local arts, from performing to culinary. With 50 regional artists gracing the walls and common spaces throughout the premises, each guest room is dedicated to a single artist’s work. The building, its rooms and its walls have spirit. They have the same buoyancy and self-sufficiency that can be found in the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, which are attractions all by themselves.
The city of Fargo bears a similar story. Working-class gives way to mild urban gentrification set against a backdrop of a winding river and the bountiful plains. Fargo is a place where values are still valued and community really exists, which provides a guest from Las Vegas, for example, a true vacation from her day-to-day life.
I like to feel the asphalt when I get to a new place. So, after dropping my bags at the Hotel Donaldson, I hit the streets in search of the essence of the city. On my walk downtown I discovered that Fargo is connected to Moorhead, a neighboring city, by three bridges that extend over the Red River. Fargo’s historic center has benefited in recent years from extensive redevelopment, including housing, shopping and entertainment.
With a population less than 100,000 and falling, Fargo has the same kind of urban dissipation that has affected much larger cities, such as Detroit and Cleveland. But the residents aren’t going down without a fight. They embrace tourism and service at a level I haven’t seen in my travels. I couldn’t seem to walk a block without someone pointing me to the two main sights of the city: the historic Fargo Theatre with its classic Americana-imbued architecture, and the Plains Art Museum, which celebrates the wide open field of possibilities that once attracted settlers to towns like Fargo.
And then there is the food: the benchmark by which I judge all experiences. Truck stops, diners, steak houses and a rather savvy mix of ethnic eateries make up the roster. Fargo basically has two nice restaurants: The HoDo at the Hotel Donaldson is definitely the hippest spot in town, followed by the locals favorite, Monte’s Downtown, where you can enjoy wild boar and walleye—two of the town’s specialties.
Did I stick out like a sore thumb being from Vegas? Well, the honest answer is yes. This is a real industrial kind of town, and I tried to tone down the showgirl as much as possible, but the thing about Vegas is that it won’t be shaken that easily; it likes to travel and make itself known.
Fargo, meantime, likes to stay put. For example, the novelty of the Coen brothers’ movie Fargo gave it a standing spot in popular culture, but it had little effect on the city and its residents, who don’t seem to get the allusion when I mention it in passing. That movie was really about Minnesota, dontcha know.
While not nearly as wildly anecdotal as my other jaunts, Fargo reminded me that it’s the special places that make a journey memorable and their relatability to that which you are already familiar. Even when trying to escape the lights, it is nice to find a bit of neon in the Plains—courtesy of the Donaldson’s glowing signage.