Finding a resort: Word of mouth can't be beat. Ask your friends, neighbors, colleagues and relatives for recommendations. No luck there? Call the resorts and resort associations listed in magazine and newspaper ads and ask for brochures.
And of course there's the Web: The Minnesota Office of Tourism's Explore Minnesota site, http://www.exploreminnesota .com, lists hundreds of resorts. For Wisconsin resorts, try http://www.lodging-wi.com. Expect to pay $500 to $800 a week for a two-bedroom cabin.
For information on Minnesota lakes, visit the Department of Natural Resources' Lake Finder, http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind. You'll find depth maps, topographic maps, water-quality information and fishing data for more than 4,500 lakes and rivers.
The beach: When researching where to stay, look for photos of the beach. If the Web site or brochure contains only promises of a "safe and sandy swimming area" and no photographic proof, your kids are likely to find themselves up to their knees in weeds -- once they get past the dead, bloated northern lying on the 4-inch-wide litter-box of a beach. This can ruin a vacation.
Family: Bring 'em all -- parents, grandparents, siblings, in-laws, nephews and nieces. A week might seem like a long time for a family get-together, but the upside is an ample supply of cooks, dishwashers, baby sitters, cribbage partners, fishing guides, storytellers, towel boys and lifeguards. Keep things sane by renting several cabins, far apart.
Pets: Leave 'em at home. You don't want Bowser to bite a kid in the face.
TV: No, no, no. It's OK if the lodge has one, for rainy days. But if you have a TV and VCR in your cabin, kids will waste hours inside watching "Blue's Clues," "Pokemon" " or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." They will grow listless and sullen. You will have no one to fetch towels and beverages. And grandma will have no one to read to.
The fish: If you plan to fish, be sure someone in your group knows how to wield a fillet knife. There's nothing more embarrassing and frustrating than spending hours in a stinking fish-cleaning house, making a mess of your load of sad little twitching sunnies while your resort neighbors dart in and out, making quick work of their 3-and 4-pound largemouth bass. If you find yourself in this situation, ask an Iowan for assistance. They know how to clean the small ones.
Reading material: Of course you'll want to stock up on the latest beach novels and checkout-line magazines before you hit the road. Don't be afraid to aim low here.
As kids, we made it a tradition before every vacation to ride our bikes to the Holiday store in Bloomington to pick up as many Mad magazines, horror comic books and sci-fi paperbacks as we could carry. In that dark pre-GameBoy era, pulp fiction got us through five-hour drives, fishing droughts and rainy days. I've passed on to my 11-and 12-year-old kids a seasonal passion for the Weekly World News and taught them to keep an eye out for local material in the small towns we pass through.
Last summer's find: The Northern Herald, a Bemidji weekly specializing in detailed accounts of neighbors quarreling over dogs, vandalism at remote rental properties and other examples of "leading edge journalism." Check it out at http://members.aol.com/nhrld.