Darkness had fallen over Gull Lake by the time I pulled down the long, tree-lined driveway of Grand View Lodge. Light from the main building's paned windows punched holes in the darkness, spilling over gardens full of bright pink flowers.
Inside, pine floors creaked as I walked to the front desk. A stuffed moose stared from a hulking fieldstone fireplace. Vintage photos adorned the amber-colored log walls. The history of this classic lodge -- built in the early 1900s with Norway pines felled on the property -- was as obvious as the antler chandeliers overhead.
As I checked in, I also started to see why families return year after year, making Grand View one of Minnesota's classic getaways. The clerk handed me a long list of activities and told me about the kids' club and the spa.
I signed up for a horseback ride, a sunset pontoon cruise, a workout on the beach and a two-hour spa treatment that included an "energy-center cleansing." I wondered about the wisdom of spending time at the lake in a dark room "om-ing" with a massage therapist, but gave in to my curiosity because the spa had recently opened and other guests had raved.
Downstairs in the pub, complete with rolling popcorn cart, I stopped for a sandwich. The band played a Jimmy Buffett song, ladies in navy blazers and white jeans sipped gin and tonics and teenagers in swimsuits and sweatshirts hovered around a platter of onion rings and French fries.
After dinner, I followed a path lined with lampposts to the lake. I couldn't see much, but I could hear boats tapping the dock and smell the smoke from shoreline bonfires.
The next morning I got a full view of the resort. The lodge sits high on a hill overlooking Gull Lake. A lawn sweeps down to the beach, where there's a restaurant and indoor pool. Rows of cabins and townhouses, along with clusters of whitewashed Adirondack chairs, face the lake.
Grand View was originally designed as a hotel for folks who traveled to the Brainerd area to shop for lake property. Many of the original cabins still stand. In 1937, the lodge was sold to Brownie and Judy Cote, who saw the future of resorting and began expanding the operation. Now on the National Register of Historic Places and still in the Cote family, the resort has nearly 200 cabins, townhouses and lodge rooms; four restaurants, and a new conference center.
Doug Dypwick, a Grand View employee, ferried me to and from a nearby farm for my horseback trail ride through a state forest. After the ride, he gave me a tour of the resort. As we passed one of three golf courses, Dypwick told me that despite its size, at its heart Grand View is still a ma-and-pa resort. How could it be, I wondered.
As we pulled into the main parking lot, he pointed to a man in khakis who was doing some lawn work near the road. It was Randy Cote, one of Brownie and Judy's sons and a Grand View owner; Dypwick told me that he's frequently seen doing odd jobs around the property during the summer.
Beach time at the lodge
The skies were so blue and the weather so warm during my trail ride that morning, I sat atop my horse dreaming of the beach. That afternoon, I claimed one of those beachside chairs and pushed my toes into warm sand. Before kicking back with a book, I paused to watch the moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas juggle their fruity drinks and tubes of sunblock. The air was filled with the scents of summer: brats on the grill and coconut-oil sunscreen.
Out on the lake three teenagers, towed by a white speedboat, clung to what looked like a big inflatable red sofa as it skipped along the waves. A tall wake sent the girls and their Wilma Flintstone ponytails into the air with a screech that made everyone look. Down the beach, a former Miss America tended her kids while her husband sat on the dock, dipping his feet into the water as he talked on his cell phone.
That night, I was dining at Sher-wood Forest, a log restaurant in the style of Grand View's main lodge that's operated by Grand View. The restaurant lies 4 miles down the road, but I planned to get there via the sunset pontoon boat ride. Because no one else had signed up for the excursion, I instead caught a ride in the white speedboat, minus the blow-up sofa.
With its vaulted ceilings, log walls and a fieldstone fireplace that stretched across one wall, the restaurant was reminiscent of the main lodge. And like the lodge, it had a timeless early-20th-century quality broken only by the occasional ring of a cell phone. After a satisfying meal, I rode back to the resort in a van and headed to the beach for a stroll.
There, Chuck Robbins, a longtime Grand View regular, invited me to join him and his granddaughters at their campfire to roast marshmallows. I declined, admitting I had a fitness class at 6:30 the next morning, and he looked at me as if I was insane.
Secretly I was hoping the class would be canceled, but six of us showed up, and for an hour we lunged, crunched and sweated on the beach while a pair of lazy ducks watched from the dock.
I watched puffy clouds float through the sky and heard screen doors slam as campers left their cabins for breakfast, a big buffet in a lodge room overlooking the lake. I followed. At breakfast, parents read the New York Times while grandparents negotiated with grandchildren about tennis lessons and kids' club.
Rubdown in the spa
By the time I'd checked into the Glacial Waters Spa, those crunches on the beach were just a painful memory. Josh, a soft-spoken guy from a nearby town, told me to relax, explained the energy-cleansing process and ushered me into a treatment room through an arch-topped, Hobbit-like door. My body was scrubbed, massaged with a high-pressure hose and doused with a Vichy shower, a bunch of nozzles hung from the ceiling that Josh shot at me.
My chakras were next. He pulled a cart over to the table and positioned it over my forehead, then turned the spigot. Drip. Drip. Drip. As the warm oil hit my third eye center (otherwise known as my forehead) and dribbled down the sides of my head, I wondered how a guy from northern Minnesota ended up working in a resort spa. He told me that he was a heavy equipment operator and that he hurt his back on the job. Massage not only relieved his pain, but had changed his life, he said. I was so relaxed that I knew it was changing mine, too.
On my way back to the beach, I saw Randy Cote again, and I started to think that there might be some truth to what the driver said about Grand View still feeling like a ma- and-pa resort. There are the campfires, the popcorn cart, the old-time cabins and this laid-back owner.
Cote was cleaning up some construction debris near the new conference center, and he had a certain sense of calm about him that made me want to ask if he'd ever had his chakras cleansed. But as the warm summer wind off the lake dried sweat from his forehead, I decided it was a silly question. Spending time at his family's resort no doubt offered serenity enough.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376