We are not hikers and campers and yet, given the choice of a place to go for a few days to get away from the Twin Cities, our party of three would vote time and time again for a trip to the North Shore.
Following the family pattern, we made two trips last summer, one quickie and one for a chunk of Monday-through-Friday relaxation.
The neat thing from all of our North Shore trips is that we've been able to combine some standard recreational fare with some activities that aren't readily apparent to a Lake Superior novice.
In some ways, it's like knowing about a good fishing hole. If I tell you ... and you go ... the lines might be a bit longer next time. But in the name of sharing our good times and showing off what we've learned, here are a few of the issues and some some sample days along Hwy. 61 and the less-traveled roads nearby.
Issue 1: Where?
We've come to favor staying on the southern end of the North Shore. First, it cuts the driving time by an hour or more.
If lunch is a drive-through and you're committed to getting there, you can make the trip in 3 or 3½ hours. Also, the Lutsen area is only about an hour from the resorts and motels north of Two Harbors and the last part of the drive always seems to be the longest.
Well, it is the longest now that you can drive 70 miles per hour from the Twin Cities to Duluth and 65 on the expressway from Duluth to Two Harbors before the highway narrows to two lanes.
Issue 2: Sleep
We're not a camping/trailer-hauling/rustic-cabin family.
Part of the pleasure of the North Shore is being woken up early by the sun rising over Lake Superior and hearing the lake -- all the more on a bad-weather day under a dry roof in a warm room.
Our most recent choice was Grand Superior Lodge, along Hwy. 61 in Castle Danger, about 12 miles north of Two Harbors. We stayed in a log home on the lake ($179 a night) that had one bedroom, a sofa sleeper in the living room, a lakeside deck, full kitchen and a rocky beach suitable for fishing or wading.
That's a weekday/busy season rate and pretty standard for higher-end places along the shore.
There are suitable places that cost a lot less, including those across the highway from the lake and numerous hotels and motels in the towns along Hwy. 61.
Issue 3: What to do
It's never been a problem to fill our Lake Superior days; it's more about choices. During our recent trip, for example, our son, 11, wanted time every day for fishing -- and we did, spending two days fishing from the rocks at the resort and two days along the highway.
Our three days during the last trip were divided into a Two Harbors/Beaver Bay day, a Lutsen day and a day hanging close to where we paid darn good money to headquarter ourselves. Each day could have used a few more hours.
We've learned that the pleasures don't have to be elaborate and that most people who live along the North Shore are wonderful about pointing you in the right direction and going the extra mile to make you feel welcome. We asked about a place to fish at the Silver Bay tourist information stop and learned about an out-of-the-way lake that has a small but fishing-worthy public access.
There was the second trip to the Northern Lights Roadhouse in Beaver Bay where the cashier remembered us from two nights earlier and was thrilled to welcome us to her bustling restaurant.
And as much as people make of the scenic joy of driving along Hwy. 61, we learned a couple of off-the-main-road secrets that will serve us well when we want to take things a bit more slowly.
The area along Hwy. 61 comes with all kinds of options. It's about 150 miles from Duluth to the Canadian border at Grand Portage. There are dozens of hotels, restaurants, parks, waysides and attractions along the way.
Our list isn't meant to be comprehensive in the least, but more a sampler of what's available.
In fact, one thing we learned from sitting around an evening campfire and talking to people we met along the way is that everyone has a place or two that they're dying to share with others.
These are ours.
The log homes are beautiful and have big windows overlooking Superior and lakeside decks with barbecue grills.
High season (mid-June through late October, Christmas and several other holidays) weekend rates range from $99 for a guest room to $369 for the two-story, three-bedroom log home that has two fireplaces (one gas, one wood) and sleeps eight. The log homes are closer to the lake than the log cabins; the Web site features a map of the place.
There are also lake homes for rent down a separate drive. Prices vary by season and sometimes a minimum stay is required.
There are more choices every year at Lutsen, some of them along the water and others at the top of the steep road that leads to the skiing and summer recreation areas. Bluefin is about 9 miles south of Lutsen in Tofte and has lodging ranging from simple rooms to multibedroom units.
A trail extends from Bluefin to Godin's Sugar Beach Resort, a more traditional place a short hike south.
There are plenty of small family-run places along Hwy. 61, and 10 visitors could list 10 different favorites. A few worth knowing about are the Cliff 'n Shore (1-218-834-4675), right by the new Silver Creek tunnel, with three cabins, seven motel rooms and a nice beach; Dodge's Log Lodges (1-218-525-4088), between Two Harbors and Duluth along scenic North Shore Drive; Godin's Sugar Beach (1-218-663-7595) and Solbakken Resort (1-218-663-7566) near Lutsen.
The Minnesota Office of Tourism is an excellent resource. Travel counselors are available to help find lodging at 651-296-5029 in the Twin Cities and 1-800-657-3700 elsewhere. On the Web: http://www.exploreminnesota.com.
Where to eat
Food comes in two varieties: what you bring and what you order. We stop at the Super One in Two Harbors (just off the main highway on the south end of town) to pick up the stuff that doesn't travel well from the Twin Cities.
It's the last supermarket until Silver Bay and has the feel of the bigger stores in the metro area. When we run low on stuff, we do our best to patronize the small grocery stores along the highway.
Our favorite restaurant is the Northern Lights Roadhouse in Beaver Bay (1-218-226-3012), which has a full supper menu, big burgers and stuff for kids and overlooks the lake. The menu features fresh fish, a nightly buffet and dishes unique to the restaurant.
Other places we like include Kamloops Restaurant at Superior Shores (1-218-834-5671) and Blackwood's Restaurant in Two Harbors (1-218-834-3846). For Easter 1999, we stayed at Superior Shores but couldn't get into its buffet until midafternoon. We went to Blackwood's for breakfast, marking the only two-buffet day in our family's history. Both were good ... and we didn't need to eat again until Wednesday or Thursday. Supper reservations are a good idea at Kamloops.
Tracks at Caribou Highlands Lodge at Lutsen (1-218-663-7316), a quiet break from the mountain's recreation area, has good sandwiches. Coho Cafe (1-218-663-8032), at the north end of the Bluefin Bay boardwalk, has good pizza. Rustic Cafe in Castle Danger (1-218-834-2488) has shepherd's pie and skillet breakfasts that are worth ordering. It also had the best sugar-rush deal on the North Shore last summer -- buy a pound of fudge for $7.99 and get a half-pound free.
Betty's Pies (1-218-834-3367) has moved into its new, larger restaurant above where the small shack used to be, about 4 miles north of Two Harbors. Same pies ($15 for a fruit pie and about $22 for a cream pie), bigger menu and now it's even comfortable to eat there.
Stuff to do
At Silver Bay, we were directed back to Lax Lake Road (County Rd. 4), which hits Hwy. 61 at Beaver Bay, and told to follow it west. After about 10 miles, we came to Lax Lake and a public boat landing that included a good-sized dock.
Several families were swimming, coexisting with the handful of boats that pulled up over the afternoon, and we were able to set up on the dock for an afternoon that yielded a number of small fish that fell for the crawlers we'd purchased in Beaver Bay.
The next day we went to the Temperance River and, parking at the rest area along the highway, took a short hike down to a rocky ledge secluded from many of the overhead trails that people take to gawk at the falls.
The 11-year-old caught about a half-dozen trout, including a 13-incher and an 11-incher, and his mother caught a few with a 99-cent drop line. (You need a trout stamp in addition to a fishing license. The stamp is $8 and available at the Holiday store in Tofte.)
A $23 pass gets full access for a day and $20 gets all you can ride on the slide, which involves taking a chairlift to the top of a mountain and careening down a half-mile concrete slide of steep dips and curves. There are two lanes, one for slower traffic, and tall people get a warning that the sleds can get a bit tippy if you're not careful going into a curve.
Want proof? My dreams of making the U.S. luge team were probably ended for good when my plastic sled tipped over heading into a curve, sending me into a highlight-reel sprawl that I'm glad wasn't caught on video.
We took an afternoon cruise on the Grampa Woo (1-218-226-5686; http://www.grampawoo.com ), which runs daily two-hour excursions during the summer along the lake. There are three routes, depending on the day of the week, as well as special cruises during the summer.
The weekday cruise costs $20 and $10 for kids under 12, and lunch is available on the boat. The boat's captain, Dana Kollars, is steeped in the history of the area, and it's interesting to see sights from the lake as opposed to the highway. Most tours leave from East Beaver Bay, some from Two Harbors.
There's a miniature golf course in front of the Country Inn -- it was the site of last summer's family tournament -- and several bait shops. Our favorite is Viking Bait and Tackle (1-218-834-2760).
Both Two Harbors and Grand Marais, about 90 minutes north, have concrete sea walls that let you take a walk with the lake all around you.
Another option, one of our discoveries from last summer, is to take Lake County Rd. 3 (which meets Hwy. 61 at Betty's Pies) on a 25-mile stretch that loops above Castle Danger (where there's a turnoff to get back to 61, if you want) and goes through the forest to Lax Lake Rd. (County 4).
Turn right at the stop sign to get back to the main highway.
If you turn left, Lax Lake Rd. hits County Rd. 5, which runs into Silver Bay and then back to the highway.)
We saw no more than a half-dozen cars on County Rd. 3, which alternates between blacktop and gravel.
Staff writer Howard Sinker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org