“It’s getting busier and busier,” Kate Keeble said. “It’s been overwhelmingly amazing.”
At first, the Keebles weren’t sure the concept of a year-round hostel would fit in on the North Shore.
“It’s not really a thing here,” Kate Keeble said, adding that they initially had to educate guests on the more communal, social nature of a hostel.
To her surprise, it’s turned into a not-so-hidden gem, with an estimated 4,500 guests — ranging in age from 20 to 80 — since opening in February 2016. Last August, they had a 97 percent occupancy.
Inside, red pins fill a world map tacked to the wall, showing that guests have come from all over. Two guestbooks are already filled up, mostly with visitors from the Twin Cities but also from as far away as France and Malaysia. The couple’s Airbnb page has more than 400 reviews.
Outside, colorful Adirondack chairs give a front-row seat to the Lake Superior vista, and wooden benches circle a fire ring. Inside, North Woods decor covers the walls — from deer antlers to a map of the Superior Hiking Trail, which passes just a mile south of the hostel.
The couple said they chose the name of the hostel after the children’s game, Hungry Hungry Hippos. The “hippie” vibe also fits their eco-conscious efforts, using green cleaning products and installing fixtures to conserve water use. They’re also self-professed “upcycle nerds,” salvaging wood from dilapidated local buildings for the inside walls. The tin ceiling is made of repurposed old panels from a local restaurant’s walk-in coolers.
Now it’s Instagrammable, hip lodging, with comfortable queen beds in five private bedrooms on the main floor, walled off with sliding doors and chalkboards listing each guest’s name. The two-level building also has a bunkhouse upstairs in a former hayloft that can sleep 10 people.
The kitchenette displays a list of local restaurants and has cereal, pastas and willow walking sticks for sale for hikers.
After trading life in St. Paul for the quieter northland 13 years ago, Kate Keeble worked as a chef at the Gunflint Lodge before she and Jeremy became caretakers of a resort in Grand Portage, Minn. They bought this former apple orchard in 2012 with dreams of reviving it as a working farm.
Instead, the family’s laundry room now doubles as an office for Kate, who quit her full-time job within months of opening the hostel. Jeremy still works full time in construction as the couple raise their 2- and 9-year-old daughters.
“I’m the plumber, the reservation lady and the housekeeper,” Kate said, adding that the couple are exploring opening another hostel on the North Shore. “We like turning old buildings into fun lodging.”
A night in a hostel isn’t for everyone, though. Guests arrive to find a package of earplugs in their room to combat noise from the thin walls and community space. And guests share two bathrooms, while the bunkhouse has a half-bath.
But for travelers on a budget, it’s an affordable stay (private rooms are $59 a night while a single bunk is $25) and, like all hostels, it’s a sociable atmosphere.
Already, the couple are working on expanding the business, building a shower house and opening up sites for primitive camping and canvas tents next spring. Meanwhile they’re getting some competition in Grand Marais, as the new Wunderbar opened an upscale “glampground” with yurts and vintage camping trailers.
Inside the Hungry Hippie kitchenette one night, guests mingled as they poured coffee and made dinner. One Minneapolis man said he was a frequent guest while taking classes at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. A young woman traveling solo ate cheese and crackers for dinner while the St. Paul family roasted hot dogs on the campfire outside.
At dusk, the sky glowed with patches of pink and purple as temperatures dropped into the 40s. Most guests retreated to bed while a few huddled around the campfire, mesmerized by flying sparks or the shimmering white full moon rising in the pitch-black sky.
A pair of St. Paul sisters grew impatient with the lack of cell service before finding a new distraction, lying down in the cool grass as they stared wide-eyed at the sky. The young girls gawked at the Milky Way and squealed with excitement as they witnessed their first shooting star.
“Where we live, there’s like 10 stars,” the 10-year-old sister said to her younger sister. “Here, there are 50 — or 100!”
The Hungry Hippie Hostel is located at 401 County Road 14, off Hwy. 61, northeast of Grand Marais and about 4 1/2 hours from the Twin Cities.
More info: Go to hungryhippiefarm.com or to Airbnb. To make a reservation, call 1-218-387-4827.