Night fell over the vast surface of Lake Superior, and families huddled around bonfires as cold waves crashed nearby on the rocky beach, drowning their chatter and the crackle of burning wood. I was glad to be sitting at a table in the candlelit dining room at Lutsen Resort with my two pre-teen nephews, first-timers to Lake Superior.

I'd been making an annual pilgrimage to the lake since I was a teenager, and I hoped that a long weekend on its shores would be the start of a yearly tradition. For my nephews' first encounter, I picked Lutsen Resort because I wanted them to get a taste of resort life rich with history, but free of fussiness. I wanted to create memories, not manners.

Not that I didn't mind the white tablecloths and linen napkins or the tasty $45 filet mignon with scallops and truffled butter sauce. My nephews didn't feel the same way about their meal: pan-fried trout with patti-pan squash.

The waiter happily said that he'd substitute fries for the squash, but he brought both, and while I was staring out the window -- stuck in a trance as I watched the waves come and go -- Joey and Chayse neatly folded their unwanted squash into their napkins and set it next to their plate. I looked around the pine-paneled dining room to see if anyone had noticed, but other diners seemed focused on the water, and without remarking, the waiter carried the butter-stained napkins to the kitchen.

In that moment I was grateful to be at Lutsen, where nostalgia wins out over pretense and the view of the lake trumps the etiquette of its guests.

The resort -- one of the state's oldest, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year -- dates to the late 1800s when Swedish immigrant Charles Nelson built a homestead on the site. In the early 1900s his house became a stop for passengers aboard the steamship America, and when Hwy. 61 was improved, the Nelson homestead became a popular destination for travelers.

That homestead burned in the 1940s, and another built to replace it burned, too. The current lodge, designed by Edwin Lundie, a Minnesota architect with Scandinavian roots, was built in 1952 by Nelson's son, Ed Jr., who learned to ski in Europe and developed the Lutsen Ski Resort in the steep hillsides across Hwy. 61 from the resort.

Back then, families spent their days outdoors, took their meals in the restaurant and slept in the spartan rooms that fill the top two floors of the lodge.

Many families today favor the dozens of modern cabins and townhouses that have been built among the woods on the hillsides beside the lodge. We stayed in a log cabin with a wood stove and a deck overlooking the lake.

"Sweet," Joey said when we stepped inside. I was excited, too, but mostly because we had a modern kitchen with a dishwasher and microwave oven, and the beds were a lot more comfortable than the ones I'd tried in the lodge during earlier visits.

Casting about for fun

Our plan was to limit the activities to one a day. That way, we would have time to enjoy the lakefront and its wide, rocky beach strewn with Adirondack chairs, and time to explore the trails that run along the river that spills into the lake near the lodge.

On our first day we met Lutsen activities director Adam Harju on the beach for fly-fishing lessons in the river. Adam gathered the boys and a couple of others about the same age for an on-land demonstration. Afterward, he waded into the river with coffee mug in hand and the boys in tow.

Harju somehow kept the boys from snagging one another as they practiced casting into the river. Fling. Fling. Fling. With each cast the boys ventured farther into the river, stepping carefully through the riffles and over slippery algae-covered rocks. With their heads bowed toward the water and their arms spread for balance, they waded through the ripples calmly and silently, like zen masters in search of enlightenment. I sat back in an Adirondack chair and watched. Neither got the lunker they'd hoped for, but they seemed to revel in the experience.

The next morning we ate breakfast in our cabin, then the boys searched the nearby golf course for errant golf balls.

By afternoon we drove to the ski resort across the road, which becomes a popular alpine slide during the summer. Riders with plastic sleds in hand take chairlifts to the top of the hill, then zip down the half-mile concrete slide to the base of the lift. We'd signed up for an eight-pack of tickets, but after their first run, the boys were begging for an unlimited pass.

I joined them for a couple of runs, and could see the appeal. I put the sled on the concrete track, sat down, leaned back and gripped the shift-like brake as gravity sent me flying down the mountainside. At first I kept steady pressure on the brake, but let go as I neared the bottom. Everything -- the woods on either side of me and the lake view ahead -- became a happy blur.

That night we built a fire in the wood stove and the boys curled up in their sleeping bags in front of it. I opened a window so we could hear the waves crashing on the shore below us, and we cooked a pan of Jiffy Pop on the stove.

Coming back next year

By the next morning the weather had turned -- it was raining and cold, and I worried that our kayaking trip, their first, would be a bust. At the lodge, our guide, Melissa Carlson, helped the boys practice getting in and out of their kayaks, and then we loaded the boats onto a trailer and drove about a half-hour to an inland lake, where we parked and unpacked the van.

By then it was pouring and cold, and I expected the boys to complain about the terrible weather and leave Lutsen hoping that next year we'd go to an indoor water park. Instead, they paddled around like pros, skimming the water with outstretched hands. And when the sun peeked out for a few minutes, they stared into the clear shallows, where they could see the muddy lake bottom and small fish darting under their boats.

Carlson told us that kayaking, even in the rain, had become one of the resort's more popular activities. I wasn't surprised. Despite cold fingers, wet heads and a long drive back to the Twin Cities ahead of us, the boys seemed to love it, and even before getting out of their kayaks they were asking if they could come back next year.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376