Over the last miles of Hwy. 169 in northeastern Minnesota, the sharp rocks, pine trees and deep blue lakes of the boreal forest welcome visitors to Ely, Charles Kuralt’s favorite place at “the end of the road.” Kayak-topped cars drive slowly down Sheridan Street as hikers with heavy backpacks traverse the sidewalks. Although Ely is the gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, it’s a vibrant tourist destination all its own. From the delicious scent of smoky sausages at Zup’s grocery store to critter-watching at the International Wolf Center, the area offers many pleasures for the in-town tourist. Here’s what’s new or worth revisiting in this popular Up North getaway.
What to do
Ely Folk School is a new organization housed in a storefront on Sheridan Street, with workshops of all kinds almost daily. Upcoming classes include flatwater canoeing, rosemaling (a Norwegian folk art), Kevlar canoe repair, natural dyeing, log construction, wildcrafting teas and pine-needle basketry (1-218-235-0138; www.elyfolkschool.org).
The Dorothy Molter Museum is dedicated to Ely’s longtime BWCA resident, who served homemade root beer to thousands of visitors every year. It has a new deck and remodeled welcome building (1-218-365-4451; www.rootbeerlady.com).
The North American Bear Center sports a new addition for those who want to learn about one of the BWCA’s most celebrated animal inhabitants (1-218-365-7879; www.bear.org).
Where to eat
Insula is Ely’s newest fine dining restaurant. The menu offers an excellent balance of well-conceived dishes, including seafood and fish. Dinner entrees come with a choice of sides: The sweet potato stackers and the hand-harvested wild rice from Nett Lake Indian Reservation are recommended. The wine list is simple but well-chosen. Breakfasts are enticing; don’t miss the crabcakes with hollandaise and eggs with smoked salmon, avocado and tomato. The restaurant uses many locally grown ingredients and has options for gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian and dairy-free eaters. The decor is simple, the high tables comfortable. This is definitely Ely’s new foodie destination (1-218-365-4855; www.insularestaurant.com).
Gator’s Grilled Cheese Emporium does not serve alligator: It’s named after the owner’s rescue dog, Gator. This new restaurant serves American favorites such as macaroni and cheese and, of course, grilled cheese, at very reasonable prices. The wait staff is friendly, and the outdoor patio is relaxing and shaded in the afternoon and evening. Free Wi-Fi, too (1-218-365-7348; www.gators inely.com).
Where to shop
The Brandenburg Gallery features prints by local wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg, and also sells books, handblown glass birds and an ever-growing selection of reasonably priced cards featuring the photographer’s work. His newest venture is a series of daily nature videos that come together for a year-round Web documentary at www.nature365.tv. The Feb. 1 installment is a favorite (1-218-365-6563; www.jimbrandenburg.com).
Susan Schurke’s Northwoods Apparel sells woodsy anoraks (parkas), jackets, pants and accessories sewn above the store. There is also locally crafted jewelry from Wild Rose Design (1-218-365-6602; www.susanschurkenorthwoodsapparel.com).
Legacy Toys is the creation of entrepreneurs Mistaya and Brad Ruoho, who dove into the toy business last year. Their fun space is filled from floor to ceiling with boutique toys, and anchored by a giant faux rain-forest tree and a real fish aquarium. Kids will love the puzzles, stuffed animals, dress-up clothes, games and full array of plastic play animals (1-855-328-8697; www.legacytoys.com).
Steger Mukluks sells the cold-busting soft-sided winter boots made in Ely since the mid-1980s, when Patti Steger sewed the first pair by hand, and also an array of products, from candles and jewelry to dog collars and sunglasses (1-218-365-3322; www.mukluks.com).
Oldies but goodies
Front Porch Coffee & Tea Co. serves exquisite coffees, teas and light meals; linger over your tasty beverage on the comfy porch or nosh in the air-conditioned indoor seating area. The menu includes wraps, soups, sandwiches and tasty desserts as well as meals for gluten-free and younger diners. Yes, the sign that says “Unattended Children Will Be Given a Free Espresso and a Puppy” is still on the wall (1-218-365-2326; www.elysfrontporch.com).
It’s the details that make Burntside Lodge a classic: the ironed sheets, the raked sand on the beach, the inviting wooden chairs perfectly placed around the grounds, and the docks for viewing sunsets and sipping morning coffee. The historic cabins are impeccably clean and outfitted with simple kitchen needs. The venerable restaurant serves nightly dinners and weekend breakfast, and the bar’s low leather chairs, attentive bartender and exquisite views of Burntside Lake through the pines make it Ely’s favorite cocktail destination (1-218-365-3894; www.burntside.com).
And nothing has changed at Piragis Northwoods Co. It still has everything you need for canoe trips and other outdoor activities, from full outfitting services and canoes to bug spray and waterproof matches. The first floor has a great selection of casual clothing, and the upstairs bookstore has a range of hammock-ready reading material (1-800-223-6565; www.piragis.com).
Kathryn Kysar is a writer, professor and traveler based in St. Paul.