Liz Miller first got her feet wet as a waitress at the No Wake Cafe, an aptly named restaurant inside the Covington Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on a riverboat docked at St. Paul’s Harriet Island. When the cafe closed, Miller took over innkeeper duties. Then in 2004, Miller decided to take the leap into ownership of the B&B, a refurbished 1940s towboat.
“I bought the inn to save the life I loved on the Mississippi River,” said Miller, a lifelong St. Paul resident who has run the Covington for 12 years.
The permanently moored vessel lies just across the Wabasha Street bridge in the shadow of downtown St. Paul.
From its various decks, you can gaze at the picturesque skyline, highlighted by the Science Museum of Minnesota, West Publishing and the St. Paul Cathedral. Kayakers and towboats pushing barges silently glide past the inn’s windows.
“We are right across from downtown,” Miller said. “But it’s so peaceful and quiet.”
However, after more than a decade of harsh Minnesota winters on Harriet Island, Miller is selling the B&B with plans to move to a remote Caribbean island with her fiancé, William Peterson, and run a small resort.
“I’m a fan of flip-flops and tank tops,” said Miller. “And I don’t like to hibernate.”
Of course, summer is prime time for the floating inn, when the four “staterooms,” some with authentic portholes, are booked almost every weekend.
Each of the four suites has a bathroom and shower, deck access and gas fireplace or stove. Miller has added plenty of homey touches, including upholstered window seats, colorful patterned area rugs and vintage furniture. She’s placed planters filled with flowers on the decks.
The quaint Pilot House, a two-story suite connected by a spiral staircase, even has vintage brass boat controls, allowing you to imagine piloting the towboat down the river decades ago.
Miller serves her guests breakfast in the salon, which was the towboat’s old engine room. On cool days, guests play board games piled on shelves or read in front of the fireplace. The Covington offers Wi-Fi — but no TVs.
Miller lives in the one-bedroom innkeeper’s suite, off the galley kitchen. It includes a living room, bathroom and office. She even has room for an elliptical exercise machine. “And I have the best view on Harriet Island,” she added.
Miller has climbed the wood and metal spiral staircase hundreds of times to traverse the boat’s three levels, which encompass 3,200 square feet of finished space. “It’s decorated with a nautical theme,” she said. “But not kitschy.”
The expansive upper deck, where guests socialize and gaze at the river, is more than 2,000 square feet. It’s also where Miller hosts her book club during the week.
In the evening, when her chores are done, Miller sits on the deck to watch the sunset. “When the lights of the city come on, I can see them in the reflection on the water,” she said.
Covington Inn guests come from the Twin Cities — and from as far away as Japan. Many are celebrating special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Lodgers often walk across the Wabasha Bridge to downtown for dinner, to see a play or go to a concert at Xcel Energy Center. “One couple got married at Fort Snelling and then canoed down the river to the inn to stay,” said Miller.
In the 1940s, the 300-ton towboat steered barges of petroleum down the Mississippi River. In the 1990s, Tom Welna and Ann Holt, of the River Valley Preservation Co., rescued the boat from a ship scrapyard and hauled it upriver from New Orleans to St. Paul.
The couple gutted the boat and reinvented it as an inviting river retreat, opening in 1995. The boat’s interior boasts a vintage vibe, thanks to weathered wood covering the floor and walls, which was salvaged from a church and other old boats. “This wainscot is from doors in the St. Paul Armory,” said Miller.
The No Wake Cafe closed in 2000, and Welna and Holt hired Miller to take over the day-to-day job of running the inn. A few years later, the couple decided that living on a boat wasn’t safe for their toddler, so they put the Covington Inn up for sale.
Miller took out a small-business loan, bought the boat and B&B business — and moved in.
“It was scary, but I’m glad I took a chance,” she said. “I’ve made a comfortable living, and I’m my own boss.”
Miller easily embraced the life of a modern-day Huck Finn. She drives across the Wabasha Bridge for groceries and supplies, and walks her dogs on Harriet Island Park. “I look forward to the crowds at the Irish Festival and other island events,” she said.
The new owner could choose to turn the boat into a single-family home or a restaurant. Or simply continue running it as a one-of-a-kind B&B, which was a good fit for Miller.
“My personality and heart is in this boat,” she said. “When guests tell me it’s the most charming place they’ve ever stayed, it makes me proud and happy.”
Sonya Talarico, 651-334-1963 and Angie Dainty, 651-808-1071, firstname.lastname@example.org, of Coldwell Banker Burnet have the listing.