Outside the window, waves lapped the shore and sunrise cast an orange glow over the water. A tree swayed in the breeze.
This was a great winter getaway -- and I was in Grand Marais, not to be confused with Grand Cayman or any number of other grand Caribbean islands. Temperatures in this North Shore town approached minus-10. But who needs snorkeling and nightclubs after a five-hour flight south when there is snowshoeing and fine dining via a five-hour drive north?
Grand Marais was once little more than a fishing village tucked against Lake Superior, or the place you'd spend an afternoon during your stay somewhere else along Hwy. 61. Now it has developed into its own weekend destination, with a new stylish hotel, restaurants serving inventive fare such as homemade sage ice cream and art galleries with big-dollar paintings alongside bold jewelry. Those updates, though, have not overshadowed the old-time town.
During the late months of fall, the scent of fish hangs over historic shingled shacks on the edge of town, where workers at the Dockside Fish Market don rubber waders to scrape roe out of fresh-caught herring. The legendary Ben Franklin store offers everything a townie needs to survive the coldest months, from wool clogs and ice scrapers to board games and wild rice. And alongside upscale restaurants are those with down-home charm.
Nature is close at hand, too. The road uphill still climbs to the Gunflint Trail, which cuts inland to the Boundary Waters. And while Superior can be lovely in summer, it's in winter that the water shows its moody beauty. One weekend last December, flying waves from a powerful storm created horizontal icicles on a fence near the water.
So when it dawned on me that a warm destination during the coldest months was not in the cards this winter, I booked a room in the heart of Grand Marais -- and into the clutches of winter.
First up on the agenda, a stroll on the beach.
My snow boots scraped against hard pavement: the pebbles of the rocky shoreline had frozen into a solid mass. I kicked at one rock, then another, that looked good for skipping on the open water in the bay. A third finally gave way and I sent it flying and landing with a plop. Vapor rose from the water into the chilly air, making the lake resemble an oversized hot tub.
Soon I arrived at Artists' Point, a peninsula of rocks and pine trees cut through with hiking trails. At the tip of the point, bushes hung heavy with ice, the result of spray from rogue waves. An even coating of snow disguised craggy rocks. I took one step and sunk a few inches; my next step found me thigh-deep in snow.
My face felt taut with cold and my fingers started to ache, so I returned to the trees, a shield from the most brutal of Superior's winds. Steely water showed through tree branches, and then at a bend in the trail, the town came into view, a collection of humble buildings hugged by a harbor and a bay. After half an hour of exploring the lake and its rugged shoreline, the vision was almost a surprise -- and a relief.
In Grand Marais, I could experience unrestrained nature without giving up the comforts of town: a sleek hotel room with a fireplace, a small but thoughtfully stocked bookstore, art galleries and a selection of restaurants, from highbrow to home-style.
The art of town
Sun shone bright in the four-season porch of the Pie Place, a restaurant on the outskirts of town where house-made maple sausage makes mornings sublime. I thawed out from my walk and filled up on breakfast at this local favorite. As I drove back downtown, otters frolicked in the lake amid chunks of ice.
At the Sivertson Gallery, I relished the northern landscape all over again, this time while sipping tea and sitting in a cushy chair by a fire. Finely detailed carvings of owls and bears fashioned out of walrus tusks by Inuit artists occupied glass cases amid paintings and photographs, often of North Shore scenes, by regional artists including Layne Kennedy and Adam Reef.
Surrounded by wild water and tree-covered hills, Grand Marais seems to inspire art, professional and otherwise. A mosaic depicting the seasons, created by the children of town with the help of local artists, covers a wall of the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op. Across the street, a painted lake scene spruces up a semitrailer now used for storage. An 1918 mission church serves as the gallery and studio space of the Grand Marais Art Colony, which began in 1947 as a summer retreat for artists looking for inspiration from nature and is the oldest such colony in the state.
After my tour of downtown, I creaked open the door of Drury Lane Books, a tiny white clapboard building next to Superior. It was my last stop before returning to my room to spend the afternoon curled up with a book by the fireplace.
Under a starry sky
As dusk began to settle, I drove up the Gunflint Trail into the deep woods. I was on the hunt for moose, which often come to the road to lick salt (none that night), and a good cross-country ski trail, which I found at Bearskin Lodge.
I strapped on rental skis under the pale glow of the parking lot and headed out. Deep shadows cast by low-lying lights defined the groomed trails. I aligned my skis with the grooves and set off. Quickly, trees drowned the glow of the lodge.
Under the soft blanket of night, I felt further from the stress of life than I would have felt lying on a hot beach. My legs moving, my arms pulling poles, I was impervious to the subzero temperature.
I first noticed the sky -- black and luminous at the same time, speckled with innumerable stars, some bright, some as faint as distance fireflies -- when I tumbled on a gentle hill and landed on my back.
Sometimes, circumstances beyond your control point to unexpected beauty: You see the night sky because you fell down. You discover the wonder of a North Shore winter because the south, this year anyway, was beyond your reach.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282