On a resort trip last June, my 7-year-old daughter barely glanced at the sandy beach on Whitefish Lake. Instead, she couldn't wait to cannonball into the pool and slurp a neon blue slushie at Clamshell Beach, a resort in Pequot Lakes, Minn.
With her focus on such pleasures, my daughter was benefiting from the gradual upscaling of Minnesota resorts.
Vacationers have come to expect luxuries, from heated pools to plush bedding. As a result, many small, family-run resorts are adding perks and nudging up their level of convenience and service to compete with larger, posher competitors, even as they maintain a folksy mom-and-pop feel. Meanwhile, Minnesota state parks are quietly adding camper cabins for those in the market for a lower-price, more rustic option.
At Clamshell Beach, whose website boasts "lake cottage charm, luxurious amenities," a handful of original 1930s stucco cottages border the beach, but most guests want one of the resort's spacious new cottages with second-story screened porches. Inside, large bathtubs and flat-screen TVs add to the comfort.
But still, there are the homey touches. A dry-erase board at Clamshell Beach Resort's main office welcomes guests personally and lists where they are from. An awning above the refreshment counter is made of dock planks, each autographed by guests and painted with scenes depicting their time at the lake. It is dubbed the "Dock of Fame."
Dave Moe, who grew up at a resort near Park Rapids, and his wife, Lisa, purchased Clamshell Beach in 1997 and have methodically upgraded it, selling fractional ownership in the new cottages to fund the work.
"It used to be people just wanted a bedroom and a bath and to look onto the lake," Moe said. "Things have evolved like any other industry. People have higher expectations for vacations because they have a limited amount of time."
Resorts expand and evolve
Statistics from Explore Minnesota show that an estimated 2,527 resorts in 1970 numbered only 1,400 by 1985. Today, the figure is down to about 880 resorts. In some cases, one resort may have expanded and absorbed another. The shift has resulted in destinations with more polish and space.
The average size of a mid-century home was 1,000 square feet. Today's average is more than twice that, Moe said. New vacation homes and cabins reflect that change.
According to Tom Proulx, who runs Big Sandy Lodge and Resort in McGregor, Minn., with his wife, Elisa, said that vacationers "want that Up North Minnesota rustic feel, but to be in the lap of luxury and have the best of both worlds."
The resort's nearly century-old Carefree Pines cabins were replaced with luxury lake homes fewer than 10 years ago. The 100-year-old lodge, with its original lobby fireplace, remains, as does one original cabin, albeit with a refurbished interior.
"It had so much character," Proulx said of their so-called Rustic Retreat. It lacks air conditioning, space is cozy and guests share a single bathroom, but that makes it perfect for some vacationers.
Cabins upgrade camping experience
The most rustic of all cabins -- a camper cabin, with no plumbing -- has likewise boomed in popularity. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has built more than 40 camper cabins in the past four years, bringing the total to almost 80.
The DNR charges $45-$50 a night for the cabins, roughly a third of what resort cabins can cost.
Although guests must bring their own bedding and linens and cook most meals outdoors, a stay there doesn't require setting up a tent or trailer or maneuvering an RV. The cabins offer a solid shelter with four bunks that sleep five to six people, plus screened porches, a table and chairs, and heat that makes them popular year-round.
Newer ones include lights and outlets at each bunk for plugging in smartphones.
A survey of the DNR's new reservation system shows cabins book quickly on weekends. It's best to make reservations at least six months in advance and a year ahead for holidays.
"They're beautiful cabins," said Dana Banks, who stayed at a newer one in Sibley State Park near New London for a family gathering during Mother's Day weekend. "It's a nice place for people who don't have campers but still want to get away."
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the iPhone travel app Minnesota Lake Vacations. Her book, "Day Trips From the Twin Cities," will be available in July.