Whether you decide to experience the natural beauty of the North Shore, the fine dining in Stillwater, or the arts scene in Chicago, we'll tell you where to go and what to do.
A Date with the Lake in Lutsen
The moose arrives as if on cue; as if some resourceful stage manager just shooed him in, stage right. A vague hiking-inside-a-nature-flick sensation began about an hour back, atop Oberg Mountain, when our guide stepped aside, Vanna-like, announcing, “This is your first whoa-ho moment.” And so we walked out onto a chunk of ancient lava bedrock overlooking Lake Superior and a sky so classically clear and blue you could see the Apostle Islands without squinting. Later, white deer heinies bounded through the spruce as a neon-orange sun escorted us down the Sawtooth Mountains. Then, that moose. Bare-headed and spindly legged, nonchalantly sizing up our passenger van. Whoa-ho indeed.
Nature has a tendency to lay it on thick here in the Arrowhead, Minnesota’s triangular northeastern tip. Would you expect anything less from a place where the Superior National Forest’s four-million pine-addled and water-pocked acres bump up against Austria-sized Lake Superior’s craggy North Shore? It’s beautifully inescapable, even from inside our cushy Surfside on Superior condo (surfsideonsuperior.com), the newest of the accommodations at the Bluefin Bay family of resorts, in Tofte (bluefinbay.com). The evening my friend Romelle and I arrive, we raise the shades on the two-story windows, and—pow!—full moon caught in a Lake Superior sunset. It takes all we have to look away long enough to pour the champagne. I love how just sitting there sipping something, watching that ocean-like lake’s perpetual back-and-forth with the sky, feels like vacation time well spent.
We begin mapping out the morning’s hike. Then we give up and ask the guest-services staff’s advice. As lifelong friends, Mel and I have somehow managed to find ourselves on roughly the same page for more than 25 years, and this is no exception. We both crave a lovely, yet vigorous morning-long hike, one that gets us back in time for lunch before appointments at Bluefin’s Waves of Superior Spa. Within minutes, our concierge has not only identified a five-mile hike promising lake views and Temperance River rapids, but she’s lined up a shuttle that will drop our car off at one endpoint and us at the other. The shuttle is complimentary, as are loaner bikes, gear, guided hikes and kayak trips, yoga classes, s’mores packets, and more.
During dinner at Bluefin Grille, Mel and I sit side by side, neither willing to turn our backs on That View. Our glutes have been worked and handily pummeled; our souls gently expanded. We sip wine, chat, and wait for our locally sourced something-or-other as a bowling ball of a moon begins its ascent, laying a thick glossy path of light onto the water. Seriously. It’s like somebody pressed a button.
Drive up shore. Plan for pit stops along scenic Highway 61, such as Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, or Lou’s Fish House in Two Harbors.
Lake Superior Fish Sampler—house-smoked salmon, mustard-seed yogurt, horseradish, and crackers, plus mixed greens salad—in Bluefin Grille’s bar. Also: s’mores at the waterside bonfire.
Breakfast at Bluefin’s healthy-local-casual Coho Café & Bakery. Try the Café Scramble with house-baked seven-grain toast.
Biking or guided kayaking.
Lunch in condo.
Relax, read, or hot tub overlooking lake.
Guided geology beach tour/agate hunting.
Condo pizza party (take out or take-and-bake from Coho).
Catch the shuttle for Carlton Peak-to-Temperance River hike.
Light lunch at Bluefin's Waves of Superior Spa Café, now run by North Shore chef Judi Barsness, of Chez Jude fame.
Indulge in a Girls’ Getaway Spa package.
Happy hour and getting ready for the evening at the condo.
Dinner at Bluefin Grille. Pan-fried walleye with porcini wild rice, natch.
Live music at Bluefin Grille’s bar.
Yoga in the Tofte Room.
Drive to Cascade River State Park, 20 minutes up Highway 61, for a short loop to take in all the falls and eat a picnic.
Pack up. Grab a scone and lattes from Coho before heading home. Find last-minute gifts at WatersEdge Trading Post next door (watersedgetrading.com).
Get On a Boat!
Outdoorsiness doesn’t get much more high-end than chartering your own private boat, complete with chef. Sail Nouveau trips set sail from Bayfield, Wisconsin, along Lake Superior’s south shore, and venture into the pristine Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for swimming, hiking, or just up-close admiring. You can even play captain, should the urge strike. The luxury fleet runs from 42-foot catamarans to 57-foot monohull sailboats, accommodating up to six people for an overnight trip. Don’t forget the champagne, fancypants. • All-inclusive three-day trips start at $1,675/person. sailnouveau.com
Love Lake Life
When the town and the lake share a name, you can generally bet that lake’s a stunner. Case in point: Lake Geneva, in the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, a classic vacation town with golf courses, boat tours, fancy restaurants, and a bunch of resorts both old school and luxury (we’re lookin’ at you, Grand Geneva Resort & Spa). A zipline adventure park injects some zest into the pristine natural scene with eight zips, including the 1,100-foot, 35 mph finale. We dare you. • lakegenevawi.com
Back to School in Grand Marais
For my mother, a typical act of bravery involves keeping a roomful of preschoolers occupied with nothing more than popsicle sticks and glitter glue. Which is why I’m surprised to see her reaching a gloved hand into a smoldering trash can at a pottery studio just outside Grand Marais. “Quick, it might flare up,” our instructor warns, as Mom tentatively grabs a pot. She extends her arm over a pail of chilly Lake Superior water and drops the hot earthenware vessel. Plunk! It sinks like the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Traveling breaks us out of our routines and comfort zones. It opens us up to new experiences and knowledge about our world—and ourselves. This becomes apparent when I describe our destination, the North House Folk School (northhouse.org), to my mom as we drive north. I tell her they offer classes on traditional artisan crafts, from sausage-making to blacksmithing. “They even have one called Build Your Own Casket,” I venture, hesitantly, knowing a milestone birthday is approaching. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” Mom remarks, never ceasing to surprise me.
Next time. Instead, we spend the next day creating raku pottery with artist Kristi Downing, whose personality is as colorful as her hand-dyed attire. We glaze pots to be kiln-fired and then dropped, molten-orange-hot, into garbage cans filled with combustible material. “Smoking” blackens the clay and the oxygen-deprived environment makes the glaze’s colors more intense. It's an unpredictable process, but no harm in praying to the kiln gods, Downing says, pointing to her wall-mounted effigies.
After a restful night at East Bay Suites (eastbaysuites.com)—we lucked out with the “studio” condo that includes an enclosed bedroom and a Murphy bed, perfect for quarantining snorers—we explore the harbor-side town. Most of the shops reflect the hamlet’s dual role of Boundary Waters launch pad (campfire cookware, mosquito netting) and artist colony (photography, ceramics).
We skip the knickknacks for the reasonably priced fine art and handicrafts. Many items feel rooted in their place, such as Stephan Hoglund’s jewelry (stephanhoglund.com) made with local minerals and agates, and Liz Sivertson’s paintings (sivertson.com) of woodland creatures depicted in glowing, Northern Lights–hues. Just be warned: the docents at the Johnson Heritage Post art gallery (johnsonheritagepost.org) can be aggressive with sales, and when a gorgeous knit-beaded bracelet is slipped onto your wrist, it’s tough to resist.
Grand Marais is so far from the Twin Cities that my cell phone thinks I’m in the next time zone. But when last night's hostess at the Crooked Spoon (crookedspooncafe.com) takes our order at Sydney’s (14 S. Broadway, 218-387-2632) the following afternoon, her warm recognition makes us feel at home. Packing up, Mom tallies up her new experiences: visiting Grand Marais, eating purple potatoes, and, of course, making the raku pots. Though she decorated each with the same glaze, one green turned glossy and speckled with copper; the other a matte, smoky olive. Similar, but different. Just what I’ll expect from our next visit.
Wake up in one of Grand Marais’s mom-and-pop cabins (Anderson’s, andersonscabins.com; Elsie’s, elsiescabins.com), B&Bs (MacArthur House, macarthurhouse.net; Pincushion Mountain, pincushionbb.com), or newer multi-bedroom condominiums (Terrance Point, Cobblestone Cove, gmhotel.net).
The “whiz-up” window at the 44-year-old World’s Best Donuts (worldsbestdonutsmn.com) opens at 4:30 a.m., but, come on, you’re on vacation. (The donuts are good, but won’t unseat A Baker’s Wife in Minneapolis).
Class at the North House Folk School. Perhaps you’ll make a pair of moose-hide moccasins finished with Anishinaabe-style bead embroidery?
Sydney’s fires thin-crust pizzas to provide a little healthy competition for the family-friendly stalwart, Sven & Ole’s (svenandoles.com), and defeats DQ’s desserts with its chocolate custard with house-made ganache.
Biscuits and gravy—and a slice of Bumbleberry pie—at the Pie Place Café (thepieplacecafe.com).
Summit Eagle Mountain, a moderately challenging 3.5-mile hike, to reach Minnesota’s highest geographic point.
Lunch at Naniboujou Lodge (naniboujou.com), under the spectacular ceiling painted with colorful Native American–influenced designs. Get the Danish cream dessert.
Hit the shops and galleries. Consider buying the iconic walleye-impaled bait-and-tackle shop, the Beaver House (thebeaverhouse.com), listed at $288K; leeches negotiable.
The Crooked Spoon has the town’s most upscale menu, with seared scallops and crab cakes. For Lake Superior fish, head to the Angry Trout (angrytroutcafe.com).
Bedtime reading from the novel you picked up at Drury Lane Books (drurylanebooks.com).
Borrow East Bay’s loaner bikes to hit any shops you missed yesterday.
Grab smoked-fish wraps from the Dockside Fish Market (docksidefishmarket.com) to fuel the trip home.
Concordia Language Villages aren’t just for kids. The adult week or weekend immersive programs pair language instruction with presentations on culture, history, music, and art. By the end of your stay, you’ll be giving mange tusen takk to the cooking staff for whipping up ethnic meals from the culture you’re studying. • concordialanguagevillages.org
Simply Sisters Retreat Center was built in 1891 for the St. Benedict’s Sisters convent in Richmond, located about 20 minutes west of St. Cloud. Today, the historic home, which has retained its vintage woodwork and stained glass, is a popular retreat for “power” quilting or scrapbooking sessions for up to 12 guests. • mnretreatcenter.com
Enjoying fine food and wine in Stillwater
Have you heard the one about the two guys who thought they could load a 6,000-pound pizza oven into a 150-year-old downtown Stillwater building in under an hour? Naturally, it involves skeptical structural engineers, police, and, of course, beer. It’s a real nail biter, especially when told by one of the instigators or chaperones. Especially when sitting next to one of your very best ladies, sipping a local brew, and sampling pizza fired in 90-seconds flat by that gorgeous Italian behemoth. (The oven, not the guy.) Especially when that pizza—including the Thai Chicken sprinkled with bright veggies and the surprisingly delicate smoked-bacon-dusted Macaroni and Cheese—is so flippin’ good.
QuickFire Pizza (quickfirepizza.com) is the first stop on our Foodies on Foot tour (foodiesonfootmn.com), and tour-averse Hayley and I are already sold. It is a bull’s-eye of a basic recipe: good stories plus good food. A century ago, lumber mills, steamboats, and trains dominated this St. Croix River-side hamlet. Today, it’s Victorian B&Bs, diverse shops, and gourmet attractions. Lots of them. In the past two years alone, the old delicious draws (cooking classes, wineries, and foodie boutiques) were joined by several new restaurants, a boutique spice shop, and the Lift Bridge Brewery taproom (liftbridgebrewery.com). These foodie tours, now on their second season, offer a fine alternative to going broke trying to experience the tastes of Stillwater: four destinations, with samples and owner chitchat at all.
At stop four, a contemporary American restaurant called Revé 324 (reve324onmain.com), Hayley and I are feeling the tour’s cumulative effects. A sparkling Pinot Grigio and an adorable dessert sampler leave us both rosy-cheeked, gabby, and perhaps a smidge too delighted by the restaurant’s tall party of an owner. And also: full. Oh so full. In earlier, wilder years, we would have transitioned seamlessly from the tour to the Martinis and Manicures Happy Hour that’s just getting started in a glassy nook near our table. Instead, we opt for shopping and lattes.
At least we’re somewhat clearheaded for our evening class at Cooks of Crocus Hill (cooksofcrocushill.com): Hands-On Stuffed Pasta. Our Sardinian-born teacher/chef relates some Italian geography and cuisine fundamentals before we all press in, shoulder-to-shoulder, at the massive kitchen island, kneading, stuffing, cutting, and pinching, digging a tad deeper into our experience with food.
Foodies on Foot Savor the Flavors of Stillwater tour.
Check in. Recommended: one of the three homes on the Just for Me Spa campus (justformespa.com), just east of downtown.
Treatments at Just for Me Spa. (Tip: they have a circular six-chair pedicure setup nicknamed “The Circle of Love.”)
Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar (423 Main St. S., Stillwater, 651-439-5375) for some kind of pimento wood-smoked meat and rum drinks on the patio. Order a round of Kill-Devil shots for the pirate wannabes among you.
Wake slowly. (See Kill-Devil shots above.)
Shop in downtown Stillwater. Don’t miss Spice & Tea Co. (myspiceandteaco.com) and Stillwater Olive Oil Company (stillwateroliveoil.com), just two doors apart.
Quickfire Pizza. Enjoy it on the back patio or get takeout and head to the river or Northern Vineyards Winery’s elevated deck overlooking the St. Croix (northernvineyards.com). (Deck access requires you purchase a glass of wine.)
Choose your poison: tour the Lift Bridge Brewery or enjoy a tasting at Northern Vineyards Winery (in a storefront downtown) or St. Croix Vineyards (in a century-old barn just outside of town). scvwines.com
The Green Room’s river-facing rooftop patio (215 Main St. S., 651-342-0215) for cocktails and appetizers.
Take a class at Cooks of Crocus Hill.
Reserve one of the private cabanas for live music on Shanghai Bistro’s knockout patio, with tiki torches, twinkle lights, and a waterfall (324 Main St. S., 651-430-9000; $100 minimum, with a $300 minimum from 4–10 p.m.).
If you’re in the mood for one last hurrah: Champagne Buffet Brunch at Water Street Inn (waterstreetinn.us). It's the only brunch in Stillwater right now, though rumor has it the Green Room may be starting something soon. If you’re all foodied out, grab coffee and a pastry from Mara-Mi (mara-mi.com).
The Scenic Epicurean
Private and scheduled cooking classes at chef Linda Harding’s home in Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, happen in her kitchen overlooking Lake Pepin. Another pretty option: go with her to gather ingredients from nearby farmers first. While you’re eating in the area, check out Maiden Rock’s Smiling Pelican Bakeshop (W3556 Hwy. 35, Maiden Rock, WI, 715-448-3807) and the new sit-down version of the Twin Cities food truck, the Chef Shack, in Bay City (chefshack.org). • Classes start at $60/person; thekitchensage.com
It’s trite for a reason: Wisconsin does beer and cheese right. When narrowing your choices, you can’t go wrong with the state’s lovely southwestern corner. New Glarus Brewing Company (mmm, Spotted Cow) (newglarusbrewing.com), Minhas Craft Brewery (formerly Huber) (minhasbrewery.com), and Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern (dare to try the local Limburger) (baumgartnercheese.com) represent just a sampling of the worthy attractions waiting along these bucolic, rolling roads. Athletic types might consider touring via bicycle. • travelwisconsin.com
Kohler’s Five-Star Spa Experience
let’s just get it out of the way: the worst part about Kohler is coming back to reality. The moment your massage therapist gives you the tap to let you know it’s time to bring yourself out of your bliss coma on the table; when the valet tucks your bags in the trunk. Parting is such sweet, sweet sorrow. I say that because one should be prepared for that moment at the end of your visit, wherein you’re sent squinting into the harsh light of everyday life.
But before the endings, there are unmissable, unforgettable beginnings and middles. And often, those beginnings and middles in Kohler World are caps to experiences in the Real World: Kohler is the place you go to celebrate finishing a marathon. A 40th birthday. A friendaversary. Or, in my case, having a baby.
A long traverse across Wisconsin’s beer belly lands you square in Kohler village, the company town built just outside Sheboygan near the headquarters of the plumbing and fixture manufacturer. You’ll know you’re there when you see rows of neatly manicured homes, with yards that look as if each blade of grass has been measured with a ruler and stragglers clipped, posthaste, by garden gnomes with tiny pairs of shears.
As the mother of a five-month-old, I absolutely luxuriated in my first introduction to the American Club—it’s the only five-star resort in the Midwest and is owned by the Kohler Company—when the punctilious doorman and receptionist traded me my many bags for a mimosa. What a life! After a jaunt to eat pork-belly buffalo “wings” and an overstuffed Reuben at the hotel’s pub, the Horse & Plow, I came back to discover the staff had worked their magic in my absence, performing turndown service. Someone had cleaned up after ME. Why, I had so much time on my hands, I decided to take a bath. (When in Rome, right?) Sinking into the deepest tub I’ve laid eyes on, I watched as the water poured from a ceiling fixture and the tub lit itself up in calming tones, and immediately felt my shoulder blades relax down about four feet.
This Kohler brand of preciseness is what makes the place a priceless respite from the rest of the messy world. It allows you to stay in the moment, appreciating all the details you missed as you hurried through life B.K. (Before Kohler). When I dined in the hotel’s Wisconsin Room, the electric-yellow yolks of my eggs Benedict flowed across my plate like a sunrise; flower blossoms exploded with vibrant pinks and purples in the gorgeous garden outside the windows.
Then on to the resort’s spa, where I experienced the new Citrus Reviver, a Vichy shower treatment that includes a full-body exfoliation, done with frozen mitts and cold stones as hot water pours over you, and a lotion massage. It fired all my senses (and even confused them a little), but I left feeling relaxed and refreshed. With access to the spa’s waterfall pool, whirlpool, cold-plunge pool, and sauna, I could have spent the rest of the day lounging. Truly, a total reboot from the last five months of raising my first child—a joyous, but decidedly non-luxurious, experience.
The best part of Kohler is not being on a schedule. That said, there are a few highlights to consider (details at americanclubresort.com):
Yoga on the Lake
Sun salute while looking toward Wood Lake in this 1,400-square-foot, heated-floor yoga studio. Drop-ins welcome.
Craverie Chocolatier Café
The café serves sandwiches, soups, and smoothies, but be sure to save room for dessert. Led by chocolatier Anette Righi DeFendi, the Craverie’s candy cases are full of beautiful (many are hand-painted) and delicious sweets. The Terrapins (turtles) are their signature candy, but don’t miss the Rare Gems, chocolates paired with powerful fruit flavors such as pomegranate, sour cherry, and orange-ginger.
Kohler’s four public courses are among the few that the pros also play—a golfer’s bucket-list dream destination.
This art-deco industrial building gives home-décor enthusiasts a peek into the nation’s largest plumbing-ware manufacturer’s foundry and kilns. The three-hour tour shows visitors how everything from glass sinks to cast-iron tubs is made. Closed-toe shoes required—you’ll get safety glasses at the door.
Kohler Design Center
This three-level display of Kohler products past and present can be a little overwhelming, but infinitely inspiring. And don’t miss the nearby Ann Sacks show room where you’ll find stylish tile to go with all those Kohler fixtures (annsacks.com).
Hydrotherapy Hot Spot
Glacial waters at Grandview Lodge on Gull Lake is a spa in the classic sense: arrive an hour before your appointment to take a sauna or steam; indulge in hydrotherapy services such as the Thermal Waters soak with a customized blend of essential oils, or the Glacial Rain, which includes a Vichy shower to open up your chakras. Or maybe it’s something more exotic, like a four-handed or ashiatsu massage, or a Hungarian herbal mud wrap. You can’t go wrong. You can only go limp. • grandviewlodge.com
The spa in this posh, downtown Minneapolis hotel offers full-body treatments such as the Tropicale: saltmousse, a pineapple wrap, and body balm, plus an 80-minute lomi lomi massage, for starters. Remember to bring workout gear (if that’s your thing) and your swimsuit to take advantage of the gym and sauna/whirlpool facilities, too. • ivyspaclub.com
Chicago is Gallery City
i’m entranced by the chicago skyline. Not the real one—the one wrapping around the James Hotel lobby (jameshotels.com), sketched with pencil and black paint onto large metallic-gold puzzle pieces. The amount of detail and precision is breathtaking. It’s simple yet complex, with just the right amount of imagination and whimsy—an ideal beginning to my weekend of full immersion into Chicago’s arts scene.
The Art Institute of Chicago and the outdoor sculptures at Millennium Park may be the Windy City’s best-known art attractions, but I’m here with my friend Amanda, an interior designer, to explore the lesser-known galleries that lie just below most tourists’ radars. While our styles are polar opposites—she of the girly-girly, pink-and-purple vein; me of the neutral everything, black-is-a-color breed—we are both fans of modern art and sculpture, and want to find out what the up-and-coming underground-artist scene has to offer.
The James has branded itself as an art-focused hotel—they even have their own “art partner,” Monique Meloche, a well-known contemporary-art dealer who helps curate the works at the James as well as at her own gallery (moniquemeloche.com). Each of the hotel’s guest rooms and common spaces are decorated with local artwork selected by Meloche. All of it is for sale, although I’m not sure how one would bring home, say, a sculpture made of 50 vintage suitcases stuffed full with the contents of a motel room. After enjoying the art inside the hotel, we decided to take advantage of the “See Art Chicago” package, which includes a walking-tour map of Meloche’s favorite nearby art experiences.
Most of the picks are within a mile of the hotel, but the package also includes two public-transit day passes for art destinations beyond. The tour includes both the traditional, expected art-viewing spots (the Museum of Contemporary Art) and many we’d never have known to visit without Meloche’s recommendation (the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, for example, currently featuring giant, zoomed-in photos of wildly decorated acrylic nails).
Not surprisingly, the super-colorful nail-art photos were Amanda’s favorite of the day. My top pick, however, didn’t materialize until we were strolling back to the hotel. As we neared Navy Pier, I spotted a sculpture crafted from canoes—a spiral of bows, sterns, beams, and seats reaching toward the bright-blue summer sky. It was at once whimsical and structured—and totally captivating. Just like the city itself.
Check in at the James and hit the Primehouse Bar. Split the cheese and whiskey pairings—the organic spirit is sourced from the nearby Koval distillery.
Order a dry-aged steak in Primehouse’s main dining room. The beef is aged on site in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room, which is a fancy way of saying it’s primo meat.
Retire to your room and relax among the crisp, modern furnishings. Get some beauty sleep for a full day of walking and browsing.
Room-service breakfast delivered to your door. Browse the tour map to make a plan for the sites you want to visit.
End your tour in Millennium Park to take selfies in the Bean and watch the giant digital faces spit water at unaware tourists.
Head back to the James for dinner. Swap out beef for the seasonal salmon preparation of the moment.
Sleep in and have the hotel chauffeur bring you to The Publican (thepublicanrestaurant.com). The hashbrowns are amazing.
Stroll back toward downtown and enjoy the sights—Navy Pier, the Riverwalk, the skyline. Hit up any art destinations you weren’t able to fit in yesterday.
Feast on a giant turkey leg at the Purple Pig (thepurplepigchicago.com).
The new Radisson Blu Mall of America (radissonblu.com/hotel-mall-of-america) is as much modern-art museum as it is boutique hotel. A dramatic, bright-white, geometric wall draws guests through the entryway, outfitted with hanging woven beehive chairs and dangling light bulbs, and up the escalators to a gallery-like lobby filled with fire-engine-red chairs of various shapes and sizes. Conveniently, light-rail access to downtown Minneapolis means such artistic mainstays as the Walker Art Center and Guthrie Theater are a short ride away.
Art on the River
The bluffs of Winona are chock full of art, from the Minnesota Marine Art Museum's fine-art collection (including works by Van Gogh and Picasso) to the city's abundance of stained-glass windows. The Village House Inn (villagehouseinn.com) was built in 1870 and offers insight into the past as well as access to the city's best treasures. Book the Girlfriends Getaway package to have the house to yourself (four rooms, each with a private bath), plus a trolley tour, restaurant gift cards, and tickets to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.