The engine gives a throaty hum, a little warm-up as instructor Tom Amlie asks our daughter Kylie if she’s ready. Strapped into water skis and holding onto a chest-high boom off the side of the boat, she grins and nods.
The motor guns, and she’s off, skimming the surface of Brainerd’s Gull Lake. Within 20 minutes, she advances from her practice boom to a tow rope and navigates the wake and waves like a water bug. Effortless. Happy. Focused.
We watch, stunned at how easy she makes it look. When she finally does stumble and wipe out, she bobs up, grinning.
“Can I do it again?” she yells.
It’s the kind of first-time summer experience that vacationers at this lake have had for generations. Some have their own boats, cabins and lake lots.
For the rest of us, venerable resorts such as Madden’s and Cragun’s fill in the blanks, providing equipment, coaching, accommodations and a big, reliable place to play. Last summer’s megastorm hit both of them hard, uprooting hundreds of trees, damaging buildings and forcing both to close temporarily, but it was a blip in their long histories that stretch back more than 75 years.
Cragun’s resort, with its aqua alpine accents on dark-brown exteriors, hugs the Steamboat Bay shoreline and keeps humming along year-round. Seasonal Madden’s spent the winter months completely rebuilding the Voyageur complex with 36 new units, and reconstructing Wilson Bay Lodge with 49 guest rooms and special event space.
With the capacity to accommodate up to 1,000 guests at Cragun’s and 600 at Madden’s, the resorts line the shore with an assortment of historic and modern hotel rooms, townhouses and cabins. Boats and water toys dot the beaches, where sunscreen-sticky, sand-gritty kids reluctantly agree to clean up and go to dinner.
Madden’s clubby vibe
Madden’s oldest cabins and historic Madden Lodge sit perched on Mission Point, the tip of Pine Beach Peninsula. It boasts one of the area’s best views for dinner with windows surrounding the lodge on three sides. We take a seat in the white-tablecloth dining room, but still feel like we’re on the lake as the wait staff serves plates of pistachio-crusted walleye with wild rice and beef short ribs.
Multiple generations surround us, merged together for vacations or special occasions from reunions to anniversaries. A girl dances across the lawn outside while her grandma sits by the campfire.
Madden’s spreads out across the peninsula with a diverse mix of lodging. It’s like several resorts in one, with shared activities that include the centrally located Recreation Center, where families order pizza, play a few rounds of lawn bowling on the perfectly clipped lawn, check out volleyballs and tennis racquets, and sign up for wakeboard and water ski lessons, trapshooting, trail rides through the Pillsbury Forest and more. The daily “Banana Taxi,” a giant yellow inflatable, carries a dozen kids around the lake, happy shrieks skipping across the bay as its tow boat turns a corner.
Closer to the base of the peninsula, Madden Inn and Golf Club (with the resort’s check-in area) perch dramatically above the main parking lot and on the cusp of Pine Beach East Golf Course.
It was golf that sparked the vision for a resort as far back as 1909, but obstacles including transportation, a Depression and war presented challenges. Madden’s counts 1929 as its official start date, and it’s continually grown since then.
Golf — especially with its resurgence and fresh course designs in the late 1990s and early 2000s — continues to lure guests to Madden’s and Cragun’s. Parents can drop younger children at the summertime kids’ clubs and score playtime of their own. Guests who prefer pampering to putting or pontoon rides can book spa appointments for massages and glossy manicures.
Madden’s sprawls across more than 1,000 acres. Families stick together or spread out according to interests. Our son Jon grins with surprise after outscoring four adults in his first time trapshooting. Daughter Katie loves to stroll to the ice cream shop and sits in the supersized Adirondack chair that makes your kids seem little even when they’ve surpassed your shoe size. Kylie, with her competitive streak and bravado, volunteers to scale inflatables at the beach and hurl herself into the water. Husband Bob wants to loosen up a rusty golf swing.
As the afternoon winds down, three of us lazily float or kneel on paddleboards, drifting toward Cragun’s, which hugs the shore with its multistory, multi-wing lodge.
Cragun’s homey feel
With close to 200 rooms in its main resort building, Cragun’s dominates when it comes to a compact, large resort that makes the most of its shoreline location with multiple docks and plenty of balconies. Open year-round and boasting one of the best do-it-all-here rosters of winter recreation, it also has rooms that still use wood-burning fireplaces.
The resort has an air of summer camp, with family activities such as Sunday welcome parties, bingo, medallion hunts, horseshoes, volleyball, wild animal shows, karaoke, movies on the beach, arts and crafts and horse-drawn trolley rides.
When we check into our room, the phone light blinks and a recorded message from longtime owners Dutch and Irma Cragun cheerfully welcomes us to their resort. Even that feels charming, a throwback to the days when grandparents would get on the phone at the same time to keep calls quick and long-distance bills cheaper.
The resort has a large indoor pool area with plenty of room to lounge or spread out, kids darting toward arcade games and ping-pong tables. A cafe sells slushie drinks that can be sipped on the spacious sun deck overlooking the marina.
We talk the kids into a pontoon-boat cruise that circles the bay, where we admire vacation homes, before they clamor for more pool time, easily making friends and planning the evening around them. Near dinnertime, a storm rolls in. The sky turns green, and we all gather on our balcony to watch lightning flash across the bay and rain pound the water in curtains.
It’s something that isn’t on the agenda, but it brings us together.
By evening, spirits are high up and down the long south beach that stretches in front of Cragun’s stand-alone seasonal cabins. These sought-after summer spots along the water draw families who prop giant swan inflatables and inner tubes beneath deck railings. Up and down the beach, staffers stop by and help families start evening campfires.
Sparks pop in the twilight; wood smoke curls through the thick post-storm air, and kids occasionally shriek as almost perfectly roasted marshmallows accidentally go up in flames.
Some days, the childhood years seem that sudden, too. Poof. Whoosh. Gone.
As our kids get older, bringing — and keeping — everyone together can be a bigger feat than learning to water ski or mastering trapshooting. We cling stubbornly to getaways that get shorter and closer to home. They’re still our chance to hit pause, push aside chores and focus on fun.
Resorts such as Madden’s and Cragun’s dish up Minnesota’s biggest smorgasbord of activities and first-time experiences. You can close your eyes at either place, and it could be any decade as guests click photos, swap fish tales and golf scores, and kids yell “Mom! Dad! Watch me!” while cannonballing into the lake.
Blink, and a new generation yells, “Selfie!” A boat and water skier speed across Steamboat Bay, stirring up waves that ripple toward shore and disappear.
St. Cloud-based travel writer and photographer Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Off the Beaten Path the Dakotas” and “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.”