The existence of heaven is a matter of debate best left to theologians. But this much we know: Paradise lies right outside your door, in a place that some call God’s Country and others simply Minnesota (and, sometimes, western Wisconsin). Endowed by the Almighty or the glaciers (you pick) with a jackpot’s worth of lakes, ponds, fishing holes, and Sweet-Jesus-that’s-purty scenery, this region is a sort of Promised Land—but with state parks, scenic byways, island resorts, waffle shops, spas, and golf courses. Kingdom come, sure. But don’t hurry. We’ve got plenty to do here before then.
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For Centuries, a Getaway that’s not Far Away
By Joel Hoekstra
THE OJIBWE CALLED it “The Home of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker,” after a local species. European settlers renamed it Madeline, after somebody’s wife. Me? I’ve dubbed it “The Perfect Weekend Getaway Spot,” after several weeks of crushing deadlines and tedious social obligations.
The allure of an island vacation is the isolation. Cut off from 24/7 news updates and reliable cell-phone service, you can forget the world’s cares. There’s nothing to do except read and relax and reflect on Life’s Big Questions. Late breakfasts, grilled dinners, long naps, fireside chats—that’s what I have in mind when I persuade a couple of friends to join me for a short stay on Madeline Island in northwestern Wisconsin. Imagine a weekend with Thoreau, a nicely balanced Cabernet, a bit of smoked Cheddar….
We arrive late one afternoon, traveling, like most visitors, via the car ferry that connects the island’s only town, La Pointe, with the mainland town of Bayfield. Fourteen miles long by three miles wide, Madeline is the largest of nearly two-dozen green isles known as the Apostle Islands, an archipelago that lies off the shattered tip of Bayfield Peninsula, a couple hours’ drive east of Duluth. In winter and spring, local residents rely on an ice road lined with Christmas trees or a contraption called a windsled to get between the island and the mainland. In summer, Madeline, located two miles off shore, is accessible only by boat or private plane.
I’ve rented a three-bedroom cabin for the weekend. (Most lodging on the island consists of cabins and cottages—many of them privately owned and rented out when the owner is away.) After picking up a key and getting directions at the leasing agency, we navigate a thickly forested two-lane road up the island’s north side until we see a tiny sign on a tree that says “McGill Cabin.” A turn down a narrow drive leads us to a small wooden structure with a green-shingled roof, a stone fireplace, and three bedrooms. There’s a large kitchen, fully equipped, and a table long enough to seat a dozen people. The deck has a view of Bayfield and several of the other islands. We pour some wine, open a box of crackers, and settle in to watch the sunset. That night, we fall asleep to the sound of waves slapping the rocky shore.
I’m hoping to spend the next morning sitting in a chaise in the sun, devouring some prize-winning novel as birds sing in the birch branches above. But it’s cold and raining, so our group decides to head into La Pointe, which, upon closer inspection, proves little more than a crossroads, a commercial strip that sprang up between the Catholic and Protestant missions more than a century ago. Anchored by the old post office at one end and the marina on the other, Main Street is an easy walk: We pass a boutique selling hand-dyed clothing and, oddly, hula hoops; gnomes and duck decoys populate the lawn in front of the local woodcutter’s shop. One of the oldest businesses in town is a half-century-old artists’ cooperative that traffics in woven goods, pottery, prints, and photographs. I’m glad to be away from the hustle of city life, eager to commune with nature and contemplate life’s simple pleasures, yet I’m surprisingly excited when we encounter a small shop serving espresso drinks.
We return to the cabin for lunch. Afterward, I leaf through a coffee-table book on the history of the region. It’s easy to imagine the Apostle Islands as untouched by humans, pristine, remote, and mostly uninhabited—with the exception of Madeline Island, which has a year-round population of roughly 220. But that image is largely an illusion: Most of the islands that now comprise the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore were logged and farmed before federal protections were put in place in 1970. Madeline has been a hub of activity for nearly 500 years: Indians, voyageurs, missionaries—nearly everyone saw opportunities in its natural harbor, abundant resources, and location. In the days before railroads, Madeline was a nerve center of North American trade. Now it attracts nearly 2,500 tourists each summer.
I find myself wondering how the locals feel about out-of-towners, so I go into La Pointe to find to some year-round residents. (Plus, I’m feeling a little antsy: You can only take in so many prize-winning novels and fireside chats, after all.) At the Madeline Island Museum, just off Main Street, I meet director Steve Cotherman, who tells me that residents often work round the clock during the summer, juggling several jobs, in order to have enough money to survive the winter, when the paychecks are few and far apart, the pace of life almost glacial. “It’s all about being independent and free—that’s the thread that connects islanders,” Cotherman says. The result is a quirky community made up of misfits and nonconformists, like the talented turn-of-the-century boat builder who used to walk the streets in high heels and a kimono.
The next morning, a Sunday, my friends and I loll around the cabin, then, as before, drive into town to see what’s going on. Main Street is quiet, so we walk down to the Indian cemetery, where tiny houses enshrining the dead stand alongside tilting tombstones. When a shopkeeper suggests that we visit to the island’s north end to check out Big Bay State Park, we jump at the suggestion. All this solitude, self-reflection, and sleep is growing a little dull.
By mid-afternoon, the clouds have rolled in again. Over supper, the three of us find ourselves struggling to make conversation. The isolation is splendid and the company is pleasant: But we’re clearly in need of some additional stimulation. Natural beauty and a good night’s sleep can be wonderfully refreshing, but they’re not much to talk about.
We head into town looking for some sociable company. We find it at Tom’s Burned Down Café. Just off the main drag in La Point, it’s hard not to miss. Resembling a shipwreck on land, it’s a ramshackle affair, the barmaids wearing short shorts, the band always on break, and the walls barnacled with bumper stickers and beer labels. You know the place—there’s one on every island, from Key West to Oahu: It’s packed from mid-day till after midnight. Redolent of limes and salt, it’s Jimmy Buffett territory.
This ain’t Margaritaville, and I have to admit that a cozy evening with Jose Cuervo wasn’t really what I had in mind when I planned this weekend. But after a few days of solitude and self-reflection, a few hours of quaffing tequila, dancing with strangers, and hooting over bawdy jokes sounds like just the tonic. I feel like Robinson Crusoe rescued by a party barge.
Joel Hoekstra is managing editor of Minnesota Monthly.
Destination: Northwest Minnesota
The northwestern corner of Minnesota is home to many of the state’s more than 10,000 lakes, not to mention some great golfing and eating options.
Chase on the Lake Resort
When fire destroyed the historic Chase Hotel in 1997, it stole a cherished landmark from the town of Walker. Now, following a $30 million rebuilding, the Chase is back in business. Located downtown on the shores of Leech Lake, the new Chase blends early 20th-century décor with modern refinements. Guests can enjoy swimming, boating, relaxing in the whirlpool, or just lounging by the beach. 502 Cleveland Blvd., Walker, 888-242-7306
Blueberry Pines Golf Club
Situated eight miles south of Park Rapids, this Joel Goldstrand–designed 18-hole showcases bluegrass fairways and large, sloping greens amid rolling hills and majestic pines. Five tee-box setups ensure an enjoyable day on the course for all, regardless of ability. GPS-equipped carts provide precise distances between your ball and the pin. With water hazards on 10 holes, a little help might not be such a bad thing. 800-652-4940, blueberrypinesgolf.com
Red Lake River Corridor
Canoers, kayakers, and boaters can all go with the flow as the river traverses the picturesque landscape of the Red River Valley. Beginning in Lower Red Lake, the waterway travels 193 miles through wildflower-filled prairies and wide open farmland, idyllic river bluffs with towering cliffs, and wooded embankments, as well as the secluded marshes surrounding the Red Lake Indian Reservation, laden with water lilies and wildlife of all kinds. redlakerivercorridor.org
Evergreen Eating Emporium
In Minnesota, walleye reigns supreme, and restaurants that know how to serve it up right are packed on weekends. At the Evergreen Eating Emporium in Thief River Falls, guests have their choice of how they’d like the state’s most sought-after fish. Try it broiled, deep-fried, pan-fried, or, dilled. This fine-dining eatery also serves up plenty of seafood options, including crab legs, shrimp scampi, and Norwegian Atlantic salmon. 700 State Hwy. 32 S., Thief River Falls, 218-681-3138
Destination: Southwest Minnesota
Back in the day, southwestern Minnesota was a sea of rippling grass. Today, many interesting sites still pay homage to the area’s prairie and pioneer roots.
Blue Mounds State Park
A 100-foot cliff of bruise-colored Sioux quartzite sits atop Blue Mounds State Park, like a thick slab of rare steak flopped down on the prairie. Standing on top, you can look south into Iowa, and west into South Dakota. Step back into a gentle swale and you can imagine what the prairie was like when the grass ran unbroken in all directions. A herd of 100 bison roams a 500-acre pasture, furthering the illusion. The park has picnicking and camping sites. 507-283-1307, dnr.state.mn.us
The Calumet Inn
The Sioux quartzite that undergirds much of southwestern Minnesota built settlements like Pipestone. One grand Romanesque building that remains is the historic Calumet Inn, erected in 1888 and still putting up visitors. Rooms are furnished with antiques, clawfoot tubs, and other period appointments. Nearby is Pipestone National Monument, where Native Americans still quarry pipestone. 104 W. Main St., Pipestone, 800-535-7610, calumetinn.com
Nobles County Pioneer Village
Step back a century and visit the village your great-grandparents might have lived in. The Nobles County Historical Society in Worthington has assembled nearly 50 old buildings and major artifacts at Pioneer Village, including a sod residence, one-room school house, blacksmith’s shop, Lutheran and Methodist country churches, general store, whitewashed farmhouse, and a caboose from the Rock Island Railroad. 507-376-4431, noblespioneervillage.com
In Minnesota’s early days, German immigrants settled New Ulm on a bank overlooking the Minnesota River. The town’s heritage is still on display. Tour August Schell’s brewery, mansion, and gardens. Sample seasonal and year-round craft beers. Continue German-style indulgence with dinner at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff for pork ribs and sauerkraut. Schell’s: 1860 Schell Rd., New Ulm, 800-770-5020 schellsbrewery.com. Veigel’s Kaiserhoff: 221 N. Minnesota St., New Ulm, 507-359-2071