In Minnesota, it's devilishly hard to find the lake resort that's right for you.
Everyone wants the "best" resort. But asking the state tourism folks to clue you in is like asking a baker to pick out his best pastry: They all, of course, fit the bill.
You can't ask your friends. They can tell you only which resort they go to, and that one may be too luxurious/ too rustic/ not kid-friendly/ too family-oriented for you.
Finding your family's lakeside soul mate -- that resort to which you'll return year after year -- is challenging. It's not unlike dating; the right one is out there, but only you can find it.
The best way to narrow your search is to decide which part of the state you want to visit. Each vacation region has the basics -- fishing, golf, shopping, swimming -- but each is geared to a different kind of vacationer.
Perhaps the most famous resort destination is the Brainerd Lakes area, in the heart of Minnesota. Its grand lodges have always have drawn prominent guests: gangsters, governors, business tycoons and now golfers, who come for its brand-name courses. It claims the state's largest resorts, with many offering services such as spas and upscale restaurants that appeal to affluent guests.
This is where the yachts and speedboats play. Still, if you don't like the buzz of personal watercraft, you can find a quiet resort on a small lake; a few mom-and-pop resorts remain.
The busy village of Nisswa has old-fashioned souvenir shops and turtle races. Bicyclists can hop onto the Paul Bunyan State Trail there and ride all the way to Walker, nearly 50 miles north.
The area's Whitefish Chain of Lakes has a mellower, tucked-away vibe.
Park Rapids is the gateway to Itasca State Park, famed for the headwaters of the Mississippi. It's also home to the western trailhead of the Heartland State Trail, which connects with the Bunyan trail in Minnesota's longest bike trail system. The old-fashioned resort town offers plenty of shopping and a variety of family resorts on medium-size lakes.
Walker is on the shores of Leech Lake, the state's third-largest lake and a longtime fishing stronghold.
Bemidji, a college town just north of Itasca State Park, offers a mix of resorts. If you don't know what you want or have a family with varying interests, this is a good place to hedge your bets. On the shores of Lake Bemidji, you'll find resorts as well as a professional summer theater, satisfying restaurants and shops, a golf course, a state park with an excellent naturalist program and the northern trailhead of the Paul Bunyan State Trail. The famous statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, which started the giant-mascot fad in 1937, are there, too, next to a little amusement park.
For serious fishing and moderate-priced family resorts, head to the Grand Rapids area. The attractions of the Iron Range lie just to the east.
The area around Mille Lacs is a fishing haven with traditional resorts. Just to the northwest, the Cuyuna Lakes area has paddling, fishing and mountain biking around the lovely mine-pit lakes of Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, which some call a miniature Boundary Waters. Its main town, Crosby, is known for its antiques stores.
North Country retreats
The resort areas stripped across the northern tier of the state draw canoeists, campers and outdoorsy types with their abundance of nature (some of which can be enjoyed from cushy resorts).
The westernmost area, Lake of the Woods, is renowned for fishing and bird-watching.
Voyageurs National Park, tucked up against Canada in the center of the state, offers lots of water for exploring by motorboat, tour boat, houseboat or canoe. Tourists who don't have their own boats can hop onto one of the national park's tour boats for a narrated excursion.
To the east lies Lake Vermilion, sometimes called the Lake Minnetonka of the North because of its 1,200-mile shoreline and many bays, and because recreation boats fill its waters and homes of the wealthy dot its shores.
Canoes seem almost as numerous as cars in Ely, a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. At some resorts in the area, guests can paddle right into the wilderness. The town is also the home of the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center and has fine galleries and restaurants.
To the east, the Gunflint Trail is the other big jumping-off spot for the Boundary Waters. Luxury and traditional resorts, from which guests can take day trips into the BWCA, line the trail. If you want to truly get away -- there are no golf courses, bike trails or even cell-phone reception at times -- and if you want a chance to see a moose, this is the place to go.
At its eastern end, the Gunflint Trail spills into the North Shore. The area that follows the coast of Lake Superior north of Duluth has been Minnesota's favorite vacation spot since 1924, when Hwy. 61 was built. Only the hardiest souls dip into the frigid lake, and parents have to watch small children like a hawk on the rocky shoreline, but it has lots of good places to stay and the state's best hiking and scenery.
West for car racing, charm
Alexandria, just off Interstate 94 northwest of the Twin Cities, is known for golf, speedboats and stock-car races, and it has many small resorts on outlying lakes. You won't see many pine trees here on the edge of the prairie, but it has a professional summer theater, and it's on the Central Lakes State Trail, part of a bicycle-trail system that stretches from Fergus Falls nearly to St. Cloud.
Otter Tail County, just north of Alexandria, offers off-the-beaten-path charm. The area has more lakes and more giant roadside mascots (including Otto the Big Otter in Fergus Falls) than any other county in Minnesota. Along with Detroit Lakes, the area is known for small, traditional resorts and a rolling forest-meets-prairie terrain that lends itself to bird-watching.
The closest lakes getaway to the Twin Cities is the Kandiyohi lakes region around Spicer. It has traditional resorts and also county-run lake campgrounds that are much like resorts. Don't miss the Friday-night performances of the Little Crow Water Ski Team in New London, which feel like a blast from the past.