A loon bobbles to the surface of Gull Lake while a boat grumbles awake and trolls across a nearby bay, leaving a “V” in waters gilded by the sun still hugging the horizon.
It’s the start of another promising day in one of Minnesota’s summer hubs — a day filled with sunscreen and sweat, sticky ice cream and frothy beer, dreamy dockside reading with toes in the water and the welcome weariness from a full day of wakeboarding or fishing, paddling or cruising.
Minnesotans head north like it’s part of their genetic coding, and perhaps by now it is. We first began flocking to the Brainerd Lakes Area after embracing cars in the 1920s and dusting off from the Great Depression in the mid-1930s.
We still do, and for the same reason: to seek a slice of summer paradise on lakes ringed by forests.
Boyd Lodge in Crosslake continues to draw new generations of the same families. Its vehicles are faster, the boats are more powerful and many come toting electronics, said Mike Schwieters, Boyd’s third-generation owner. But, he added, “There’s still the allure of going to the lake and spending the time together.”
Some of the mom-and-pop resorts that once lined the 500 or so lakes in the Brainerd area have disappeared, but vacationers still have a mind-boggling array of lodging choices.
Madden’s on Gull Lake
Want to let everyone in the family loose until the suitcases overflow with sandy clothes? Madden’s Resort, ideal for multiple generations, might be your place. Known for its timeless throwback feel, the Brainerd resort serves up an all-you-can-do buffet of activities that could be tough to cram into a week.
Tweens wander to ice cream shops and climb into a Paul Bunyan-sized Adirondack chair for goofy photo ops. Teens launch one another from water toys and shriek through wakeboarding lessons. Parents relax in the lakeside spa, go paddling or challenge one another with 63 holes of golf while kids ages 4 to 12 are at the Adventure Cove day camp. Grandparents help younger kids learn to lawn bowl and bait a fishing hook or grab a book for the beach or pool.
The resort, celebrating its 85th year, sprawls across 1,500 acres and covers a peninsula that juts into the south end of Gull Lake between Wilson Bay and Steamboat Bay. It feels big enough to be a stand-alone village after consolidating what were once several resorts. There are 287 units of lodging with a variety of styles, from historic hotel rooms at Madden’s Inn and newly remodeled Sunrise Villas to sunset-facing Wilson Bay hotel rooms and vintage yellow Mission Point cabins anchored by the Madden Lodge restaurant, with one of the area’s best lake views for dining.
Some parts feel more dated than others, but you might not notice when you’re taking trapshooting lessons or learning to fly a floatplane. It’s the breadth of activities that draws vacationers here. Lighted trails and a footbridge lead to restaurants, a coffee shop, art gallery, playground and the tennis and croquet club in the center of the peninsula.
Come evening, the sweet scent of campfire marshmallows drifts across the peninsula, and families gather to watch the sunset at Wilson Bay.
(Rates start at $179/ night, with lodging-only and all-inclusive options; 1-218-829-2811; www.maddens.com)
The new luxury vacation homes and 1980s townhouses (22 units in all) that make up Boyd Lodge sit along a channel of Rush Lake and a short stroll from Lower Whitefish Lake.
While Gull Lake claims the region’s biggest, grandest resorts, small and midsize family-run resorts still dot the Whitefish chain of 14 lakes, anchored by the town of Crosslake. Many, like Boyd Lodge, still require a week’s stay in the summer and are in the midst of expanding or building new accommodations with upscale furnishings, fireplaces, waterfall showers, granite and stone kitchen accents and screen porches.
It’s a big change from its early days, when owner Mike Schwieters’ mother chipped ice from the icehouse and hand-pumped water from the well. The remaining historic building — a red-trimmed log house that served as the main lodge for decades — sits by a new outdoor pool, kids’ pool and sauna debuting this summer.
A new two-story Boyd Lodge check-in area includes meeting spaces for weddings and reunions, a gift shop with candy and treats, and an inviting fire pit surrounded by chairs. It faces a large pond and footbridge where kids race across to reach the beach unless they’re trolling the perimeter for turtles.
While buildings are new, most of the old-fashioned daily activities have stayed the same. Turtle races continue to be a tradition, and Schwieters’ mom keeps making the almost 200 doughnuts they serve every Monday morning to welcome guests and provide a way for families to get to know one another as the week kicks off. As the week unfolds, there is an ice cream social, bingo, minnow races, T-shirt tie-dyeing and evenings where guests can make fruit pies by toasting bread and fruit filling over a bonfire.
While many guests have been coming for years and know their way around, Schwieters and his wife, Ruth, help newcomers find the best lakes to explore and other gems along the way, like islands where you can camp or picnic.
“[Each of the 14 lakes] has its own personality,” he says. The same can be said for the lakes’ many resorts. (Weekly rates start at $1,610; 1-218-543-4125; www.boydlodge.com)
Whiteley Creek Homestead B&B
For history lovers, fans of quaint old lake cabins and vacationers who can’t take a week off, Whiteley Creek B&B offers a different kind of Up North experience. Adrienne and Dick Cahoon, who was an excavator, salvaged cabins that were going to be destroyed to make room for larger lake homes. Three of those vintage cabins now sit on their 35-acre wooded property on a ridge south of Hwy. 210 near Brainerd.
Vintage aprons serve as valances and quilts cover beds. Antique utensils are put to clever use as toilet paper holders or as mobiles above the tables in an 1890s train car where breakfast is served.
The Out My Kitchen Window cabin with its rustic lofted bedroom, plank flooring and windows hung with dried hops overlooks the garden.
The Cahoons grows herbs and vegetables, including red, purple and white potatoes to add color and appeal to organic breakfasts, which might include pancakes with seasonal strawberry-rhubarb sauce or Flossie’s Eggs on the Rails, a twist on eggs Benedict and a nod to the B&B’s most prolific laying hen.
Across the property, restored cars and tractors from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s add color and character, and an outdoor fireplace crackles and pops, luring guests to rustic twig and wicker seats on a spacious screened-in back porch.
It’s the perfect spot for relaxing and planning the next day, swapping favorite places to eat and tips on the best ways to explore the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area about 12 miles up the highway. The former mining property known for rugged, challenging mountain bike trails also can be explored with bikes on paved trails or via canoe or kayak, paddling across clear, cool, deep mine lakes.
Guests who prefer to stay put can hike down the ridge behind the B&B, borrow a canoe and paddle across a wetland toward Whiteley Creek. The pretty river flows into the Mississippi River and is often overlooked in this lake-centric region.
“There isn’t a house in sight [along the creek], and you can see for miles,” says Adrienne Cahoon. “When you’re in the canoe, it’s just the birds and the beavers.”
($105/night for rooms; $135-$145 for cabins; 1-218-829-0654; www.whiteleycreek.com.)
St. Cloud-based travel writer Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and blogs at 10000Likes.com.