ELY, MINN. -- One image of Ely is as a way station for outdoors enthusiasts, either on their way into the Boundary Waters to canoe, portage, hike and camp, or on their way back -- people in bicycle shorts coming into town for a respite, all sweaty and bug-dopey and high on their wilderness adventures.
Ely doesn't have to be that way.
You can do Ely without being in hiking or biking shape -- or attire -- and you can have a good time at it.
There are walking trails and scenic drives on which you don't feel like an interloper and places where a few hours will yield knowledge you didn't have at the beginning of the trip.
My family's recent week in Ely was such an experience, and there are things remaining on the list for next time.
Ely has become more of a destination in recent years, as opposed to being only a launching pad to the wilderness.
Its downtown is basically a two-street affair. Hwy. 169, the main road in from the west, becomes Sheridan Street, the busiest one in the town. Chapman Street is one street over and home to the Ben Franklin, Pamida and Ace Hardware. The library, where free Internet access is available, and the Post Office are both a block off Chapman.
Our son attended a five-day basketball camp for kids at Vermilion Community College while we hung out in and around Ely without him. We spent time as a family at the end of the week.
In other words, we combined an array of favorite activities -- basketball, fishing, sightseeing, staying up late (the kids), sleeping in (the grown-ups) and being Up North.
Eating and sleeping
In addition to the small motels along Sheridan Street, there's premium lodging at the northern edge of town, the Grand Ely Lodge, where all rooms overlook Shagawa Lake and the restaurant offers a nice alternative to another short jaunt downtown.
Downtown is dressed-up enough for an entertaining afternoon or evening walk through the half-dozen blocks that comprise the business district.
The Chocolate Moose, at the busy corner of Sheridan and Central Av., is both slightly hip and very family, with outdoor tables and a screened-porch area. Northern Grounds Cafe, a half-block away on Central, serves bagel French toast in the morning and morphs from an order-at-the-counter place to a sit-down restaurant in the evening.
Speaking of morphing, the Minglewood Cafe, 528 E. Sheridan St., goes from bakery by morning to tea in the afternoon to a Chinese menu at night. Vertin's and Cranberry's are traditional spots of choice, with the former serving breakfast all day and the latter a family-style bar and grill. (Who needs Perkins and Applebee's?)
This summer, Ely's Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a "Taste of Ely" on Tuesday nights. Participating stores stay open until 9 p.m. and feature area specialties.
For example, Country Simple Pleasures teamed up its own (very) hot raspberry salsa with Dorothy Molter Root Beer, a premium soft drink based on the recipe Molter brewed for her guests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) until her death in 1986.
You can walk off breakfast, lunch and dinner along the Trezona Trail, which runs 4 miles around man-made (and fish-stocked) Miner's Lake. For bicyclists, the trail also connects to the International Wolf Center, a half-mile east of town.