I arrived at my cabin overlooking Gull Lake Narrows and brought in all the goods I’d need for my summer getaway. It took just one trip from the car, carrying my beach bag, a novel and a suitcase filled with items such as swimsuits and shorts — and nothing more. I skipped the extras I’m so used to lugging when I rent a cabin: the bags of groceries, the cooler of frozen foods I prepared in the weeks leading up to departure, the knife from home because, well, it’s sharp.
A resort chef prepped my breakfasts and dinners. Faced with dirty dishes on the table, I just walked away. I was vacationing on the American plan, also known as the modified American or all-inclusive plan. Basically, they cook, I play.
For this pampered experience — days without kitchen duty — I headed to two Brainerd area resorts known for top-notch food service, Lost Lake Lodge and Grand View Lodge. For a little extra cash, I found myself kayaking on a lake, losing track of time and then dashing into the dining room for my dinner reservation, hungry and grateful.
For the small resort experience, I went to Lost Lake Lodge, long known for its excellent restaurant, which, one server admitted, has ebbed and flowed over the years. It was flowing, thanks to the chef who’d arrived from Naples, Fla., excited to cook with exotic fare such as walleye and wild rice.
The other resort is a classic beauty perfect for families, Grand View Lodge, with nearly 10 dining options, from a lakeside Mexican cantina to an upscale wine bar.
Lost Lake Lodge
I’d passed go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses, boat rental businesses and supper clubs on the busy lanes of the Brainerd Lakes region, but when I turned up the long driveway to Lost Lake Lodge, all of that felt far away.
Tall pines and aspens lined the way. The lodge, a half-timbered classic with a red screen door, sits on a rise between two bodies of water. From there, a lawn sweeps down to tiny Lost Lake, ringed with trees. Behind the lodge, a walkway leads to the resort’s 14 cabins, boat docks and quiet Gull Narrows, a ribbon of water that connects Upper Gull and Gull lakes, and requires a low wake: Boats need to slow down as they pass.
After I placed exactly three items in my cabin’s refrigerator — an apple and two power bars — I was ready to explore.
I poked my head into the timber shack beside Lost Lake that held life vests, grabbed one and headed onto the water.
There were just the two of us on the small lake: me in a bright yellow kayak and the loon.
I approached slowly and eventually discovered that the bird was too occupied with preening to notice me. She turned her neck in an “Exorcist”-like twist to groom the feathers on her back. Next, she flung her head straight back, thrusting it back and forth to rub her back. She rolled over, revealing a white belly and one webbed foot hovering above the water’s surface, and used her beak like a comb. She rose up in the water and flapped her wings. By this time, I had drifted so near that I could hear the whooshing air around her.
That’s the kind of pre-dinner preparation a vacationer needs.
The bird continued her obsessive ablutions as I eventually paddled to shore. After tucking away the things I’d used, courtesy of the lodge, I followed the path beside Gull Narrows to my cabin, sidestepped a turtle and quickly changed for dinner.
My encounters with nature didn’t end in the dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame a view of the Narrows, which sparkled in the setting sun between trees.
Nature appeared on my plate, too. Dinner showed off the chef’s regular trips to area farmers markets. Morel mushrooms became a seasonal appetizer, mushroom puffs, that highlighted earthy flavors. It was a lovely starter to a meal of pan-seared walleye on a bed of wild rice salad, framed with farm-to-table asparagus spears.
The next morning, French toast made from thick slices of challah bread fueled my 45-minute solo hike around Lost Lake.
I stepped off the Lost Lake Lodge entrance road and became enveloped in a sea of green, rippling with tall grasses and taller trees. But when I slowed down, other colors came into view. A teal caterpillar inched along the trail. A neon blue dragonfly flitted by. A yellow dandelion sprouted from the forest floor.
I looked down at my socks, tucked into leggings (my shield from ticks), and saw that I was just another mammal carrying on the evolutionary work of the woods. A few dandelion seeds had lodged into my sock so I would carry them to fertile soil who knows where.
Turns out, I’d carry them to Grand View Lodge, a few minutes by car down the road.
Grand View Lodge
I zipped across Gull Lake in a speedy pontoon, heading back to Grand View Lodge after coasting along the shore, spying cabins simple and grand and hearing their stories from the young captain.
When I checked in at Grand View earlier that day, I felt like I’d landed in a wonderland of summer activity. The drive to the main lodge passed a clapboard church and a candy and ice cream shop, where families streamed out the door, licking cones.
Proof came when the desk clerk handed me not only the key to my cabin, but the “Northwoods News,” a printed schedule of activities for the coming week and the various restaurants’ hours of operation (there are 10, including pizza delivery). Activities ranged from guided nature hikes and bike rides to beach bingo, an early morning paddleboard tour and “banana tubing,” riding an inflatable banana behind a speedboat. (I watched kids squeal as they rode the inflatable fruit.)
My eye went straight to the pontoon cruise, one of 14 organized activities that day — and it was a Sunday, so the list was on the light side.
Before the cruise, I roamed the extended grounds, past manicured gardens and clapboard cabins. Children splashed in the lake; families frolicked in the indoor water park by the lake; a foursome played shuffleboard.
Dinner that night was at Cru, a French-inspired restaurant and wine bar. It was a delicious choice, although I had been tempted by On the Rocks, a casual outdoor spot near the lodge (not to be confused with the casual outdoor restaurant, Tanque Verde Cantina, serving Mexican food and cocktails on the water’s edge). Italian Gardens, in a charming yellow cottage, almost lured me in, but I decided against it because meals are served family-style and I was traveling alone.
When I returned to my room that night, I felt pampered reading my novel, drinking tea with no worries about washing the cup later and listening to a frog hum its throaty music outside the screen porch.
I felt even more pampered the next day when I first dined on a vast breakfast buffet — yogurt parfaits in glass jars, giant waffles, fresh fruit — and later stopped in for a massage at Grand View’s Glacial Waters Spa.
Like I said: wonderland.