You won’t find Thunder Bay, Ontario, on any “Top Ten International Destinations” lists in slick lifestyle magazines — even in Canada. I’ve actually found myself in the awkward position of defending Thunder Bay as a vacation spot, while Canadians from more exotic cities shake their heads in bewilderment. It’s true that Thunder Bay lacks the European sophistication of Montreal, the élan of Vancouver, or the foodie and arts scene of Toronto. But it’s rich in history and natural beauty and it’s only a six-hour drive from the Twin Cities — and it’s got a wee bit of an international flair as well.

Race or tour, it’s great for skiing

There are Nordic skiing enthusiasts who feel that their efforts are pointless unless measured, timed and ranked against their peers; then there are the rest of us, who want solitude, perfect conditions and the company of (maybe) a couple of friends. The Sleeping Giant Loppet (www.sleepinggiantloppet.ca; 1-807-629-0649) is a nice compromise. Formerly called the Sibley Ski Tour, it’s held in early March on Sibley Peninsula of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, about 20 miles outside of downtown Thunder Bay. You can register to ski distances from 8K to 50K, you will be timed and there is an awards ceremony — but it’s really more of a tour. With a field of only about 900 skiers and a park that vast, the only time you’ll feel like you’re part of a crowd is at the beginning and the end. Early registration ends Feb. 1, but you can register any time up to the day of the event.

After the race/tour, you’ll want to shop, eat and relax. Stop by Fresh Air Experience (www.freshair­experience.ca; 1-888-282-6108) and shop for gear. The store stocks bicycle and ski equipment as well as good-quality outdoor clothing and footwear. The U.S. dollar/Canadian dollar exchange rate isn’t as far in our favor as it once was, but Fresh Air has an end-of-the-season sale on loppet weekend, so deep discounts can sometimes be had.

There is an array of mom-and-pop motels along Cumberland Street, the main drag. None of them are fancy; all are reasonably priced. Name-brand lodging is a bit more (about $110-$120 per night), but for the same price you can stay at the historic and charming Prince Arthur hotel (www.prince arthurwaterfront.com; 1-800-267-2675), walking distance to a variety of restaurants and to the waterfront.

Pancake wars

Thunder Bay is home to nearly 15,000 people of Finnish descent. The line-out-the-door breakfast spot, Hoito’s, (www.finlandiaclub.ca; 1-807-345-6323) is located in the basement of the historic Finnish labor temple in the former city of Port Arthur. Originally formed as a cooperative venture to feed IWW members from the nearby logging camp, humble Hoito’s features Finnish specialties. Mojakka (beef stew) and hernekeitto (split-pea soup) are served here, along with Hoito’s Finnish pancakes, thin and plate-sized and ready to be slathered with berry sauce and villi (thick, clabbered milk similar to Swedish filmjolk).

In Finnish cultures, sauna (pronounced SAOW-nah, not SAW-nah) is a verb. In Thunder Bay, you can sauna at Kangas Sauna (http://kangas sauna.ca; 1-807-344-6761). Sauna rooms of various sizes, some with changing rooms and private baths, are available on a first-come, first-served basis (a “medium” sauna is about $50 for a party of four). This isn’t the wimpy sauna at your health club. Be prepared to sweat it out at 180 F or above, and remember to take cold-water breaks and drink plenty of fluids. The sauna rooms are upstairs, the restaurant is downstairs. The Kangas restaurant features, among other things, Finnish pancakes. Are they better than Hoito’s? Local opinions vary. No one will judge you if you need to consume a second breakfast in order to judge for yourself.

Six months out

Campy fun can be found at Fort William Historical Park (http://fwhp.ca; 1-807-473-2344), where you can learn about Thunder Bay’s fur-trading origins with the help of actors portraying voyageurs and other historical figures. A more sobering portrait of a famous Canadian citizen is the Terry Fox monument just outside the city on Hwy. 11/17. Fox was a young distance runner who lost his leg to cancer in 1980 and embarked on a cross-Canada run to raise awareness for the disease. If you’re inspired to learn more, the best account of his life is Douglas Coupland’s “Terry.”

Marie Louise Lake (you skied around it at the Sleeping Giant Loppet) is great for swimming, kayaking or canoeing (you can rent equipment at the park store) and the park (www.ontarioparks.com/park/sleeping giant) has more than 80K of hiking trails suited to a variety of abilities. Some of the loppet’s ski trails (sans snow) can be found at the 10K Pickerel Lake Trail, which also allows bicycles.

 

Jean Sramek is a writer, theater artist and playwright based in Duluth.