Family reunions, taking turns, gratitude: What to expect at Minnesota lake resorts in 2021
Mike and Ruth Schwieters' family has been working to bring guests together at Boyd Lodge on Whitefish Lake since 1934. Nothing prepared them for the past year's requirement to keep guests apart.
The coronavirus pandemic had the Schwieterses traveling from their resort near Crosslake, Minn., to Duluth for bulk disinfectant, figuring out contactless check-in, constantly cleaning everything from boats to bathrooms, and canceling some of the resort's most beloved activities, such as ice cream socials and bingo.
For Abbey Pieper and Ben Thuringer of Madden's Resort on Gull Lake, even the 100-mph, hurricane-worthy winds of a 2015 supercell storm couldn't compare to the unrelenting hits of the pandemic. COVID‑19 shut down resorts statewide for a month and half in 2020 and decimated more than a year's worth of corporate events at Madden's.
Happily, for all the struggles resort owners and staffs juggled, many found that once they reopened, families kept showing up.
"People were just happy to be up here and to get away," said Mike Schwieters, who made sure Boyd guests could safely gather around bonfires, boat and fish on the lake and watch the sunset. "The things that mattered, mattered."
While the summer of 2021 brings its own challenges — adapting to loosening mask and distancing requirements, struggles to find staff, lingering pandemic wariness and a record number of reservations — resort owners are eager to see families reconnect with relatives, friends and one another.
Resorts also are hoping that the gratitude so evident in 2020 can carry into 2021, as guests may need to be gracious with fellow travelers who may have varying levels of comfort as masks come off, smiles come out, and shrieks and splashes return to beaches and pools.
"People say, 'It feels like we lost a whole year,' Schwieters said. "There's a desire to get some of that back."
Here's what Up North vacationers might expect in 2021.
Resorts may resume traditional events such as turtle races, ice cream socials and other group activities, along with dining at larger resorts, though some activities may remain on hold or be adapted to the outdoors. Check resort or hotel updates carefully.
Pool capacity restrictions might mean you have a few hours at a pool rather than all day as you rotate with other guests. Small exercise rooms or saunas may allow only one family group to participate at a time.
Shorter hours, shorter staffs
Restaurants may need to get creative to handle worker shortages. That could mean counter service rather than table service, streamlined menus or limited hours or days of operation. If you run into crowds or long waits, consider takeout or packing a picnic. The North Shore town of Grand Marais has added more public picnic tables as well as additional food trucks for speedy, casual meals.
Fewer special requests
Tourist destinations are struggling with finding enough staff, regionally and internationally, as many guest workers are unable to travel. Don't expect early check-ins or late checkouts. Some lodgings may need a full day between reservations to do COVID-19 deep-cleans before the next guests. Cascade Vacation Rentals on the North Shore has asked guests to bring their own bedding and towels — read requirements for your destination carefully. Some resorts also may have fewer amenities available, such as puzzles or games, to check out.
Families who want to reconnect are reserving reunion houses and groups of cabins or vacation units. Boyd Lodge had a family gathering in May to celebrate and grieve parents who died during the pandemic. The pent-up demand for rescheduled 2020 celebrations — especially weddings — means weeknight ceremonies as well as weekends. Madden's had 43 weddings scheduled by mid-May. The big resort can handle one wedding per day throughout their season, which runs through October.
Safeguarding the community
If you've been exposed to COVID-19, get tested and confirm you're negative before you travel. Be respectful of fellow travelers or business owners who ask for masks to be worn. Some of Minnesota's favorite destinations, such as Grand Marais, have only a small hospital, and it isn't equipped with an intensive care unit or ventilators, said Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County Tourism.
Embracing solo sports
Outdoor recreation such as golf, mountain biking and kayaking boomed in 2020. Plan ahead with reservations for equipment rentals or guided tours as much as possible. Look for the return of outdoor events such as Grandma's Marathon in Duluth (June 19) and the already sold-out Lutsen 99er mountain bike race (June 26).
A St. Cloud-based freelance writer and photographer, Lisa Meyers McClintick has been writing travel features for the Star Tribune since 2001.