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Great Winter Getaways

Forget Cabo and Cancún. The cure for cabin fever—a spa weekend, a ski trip, or some family fun—is just a few hours’ drive from home.

Great Winter Getaways
Photo by Jeff Johnson (left) and Joel Larson (right)

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When I think of the Brainerd Lakes area, I think of pull tabs and party boats—not spa getaways. Which may explain why I tend to prefer the scenic North Shore to the Paul Bunyan Byway. So when I started scoping out destinations for this year’s winter travel guide, the idea of heading to Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake both intrigued and unnerved me. Would the place be packed with deer hunters and snowmobile racers? Would we have to subsist on Bud Light and chicken-strip baskets? How nice could the spa really be? Visions of burly, buffalo-plaid-wearing massage therapists flashed in my head. I would have to be brave.

Three weeks later, my city-dwelling and equally brave friend Phoebe and I are on Highway 10, heading north to Nisswa. We’re wearing our Uggs and down parkas. We’ve stocked up on Starbucks and Smartwater, and we’ve swapped Cities 97 for a country-music mix.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive flies by, and I begin to understand why people love this area: It’s incredibly accessible from the Twin Cities. We arrive at Grand View Lodge and park—one of only two cars in the entire lot. It’s still and quiet, and the snow is falling softly. This is not what I expected—and I love it.

The resort’s rambling 90-year-old lodge is classic and genteel. Inside, there’s an enormous blazing fire, clubby leather chairs, a tasteful amount of taxidermy, and sprawling views of the lake. I could cozy up here for a week.

After checking in, we head downstairs to the Northwoods Pub for lunch. Somewhere between pints of Summit and sloppy-joe quesadillas (hey—when in Rome), we fall under Grand View’s spell.

Our cabin is near the water—one of 65 on the property. It’s not exactly luxurious but it is infinitely cozy. “Like being at camp!” Phoebe exclaims. (This is why I brought her.) We drop our bags and head to Glacial Waters Spa, a quick drive or a long walk from the cabin.

Phoebe and I feel like Hansel and Gretel when we spot the arts-and-crafts cottage in the woods. The place is humming with mothers and daughters, couples, bridal parties—all padding around in fluffy robes and glazed-over looks of contentment.

Spa experiences are all about the details, and Glacial Waters hardly misses a beat. The gorgeous locker rooms are stocked with full-sized Aveda products, there’s hot tea and cold fruit, and the relaxation room is actually relaxing—with the exception of few loud talkers who remind me that we’re still in Brainerd.

I start off with an aromatic thermal-waters bath, followed by a massage. My therapist is not flannel-clad, but she does have quite a grip. Phoebe and I drift from sauna to steam room. We get facials. We lounge in front of the fireplace with other semi-coherent guests. I open up my notebook and write: “When was the last time I took a bath?!” But then, this is why we have come here.

Back at our room, we pop open a bottle of pink champagne. (Who said anything about roughing it?) Feeling braver after our successful day, we walk to dinner in the freezing cold. The path to the lodge is lit with glowing lamps and starlight and snow. It’s one of those rare moments when winter ceases to be cold and freezing and becomes, instead, something magical.

At the Grand Dining Room, we order the prime-rib special. I’ve never before ordered the dish—it always sounds so big and raw. (Remember that scene with John Candy in The Great Outdoors? Exactly.) But after one tentative bite, I want to devour the entire slab.

Which brings me back to my original assumptions: I was wrong about this place. I’m sure there are plenty of casinos and karaoke bars up here. But Phoebe and I would never know that as we nestle into our beds, a real fire crackling in the fireplace and snow blanketing Gull Lake.


Grand View Lodge & Glacial Waters Spa, Nisswa, 866-801-2951, grandviewlodge.com


It’s cold outside. Really cold. You’re stiff. You’re tired. You haven’t seen the sun since 2009. At Fusion Life Spa in Deephaven, it’s warm. So warm. Happy people are lounging in front of a fireplace. They’re wrapped in fluffy robes, sipping fragrant green tea, and drifting in and out of consciousness.

Fusion can do that to a person. Designed by an architect and a globe-trotting aesthetician, the day spa is a deeply soothing space that offers exotic treatments such as purifying bath rituals; an invigorating ginger-grass scrub with warming silk-oil massage; and the new Zen Fusion Facial, a transcendent combination of chakra massage, detoxifying facial, and reflexology. Even manis and pedis use organic ingredients rather than products with chemicals and preservatives.

For more lasting, head-to-toe healing, Fusion offers traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, colonic therapy, and chiropractic care. Come for a single treatment (perhaps a soak in the Japanese tub to keep the winter blues at bay?), but stay for the day. You’ll experience escape in its purest, most heavenly form.


Fusion Life Spa, 18142 Minnetonka Blvd., Deephaven, 952-345-3335, fusionlifespa.com


Part of the allure of a ski holiday is the chance to throw the boards on the rack and get out of town. But if you don’t have enough gas to make it to Big Sky or Aspen, consider heading north: There are some compelling reasons to point your snow tires toward Biwabik, an Iron Range city with a three-digit population.

Just one hour from Duluth (or between three and four hours from the Twin Cities), Biwabik’s short Main Street has been gussied up with a mishmash of European architectural detailing. The buildings’ heavy-lidded look reminds visitors what they came here for: some Alpine or Nordic fun.

The road leading out of town up to Giants Ridge ski resort skirts lonely lakes and hills thick with slender birch and snowy pines. Eventually, buildings in the style of Scandinavian chalets appear. Across the way is the hotel lodge, made with the sort of heavy timbers you’d expect in the north woods.

Looking up at the 500-foot vertical drop, you’d find it hard to believe that these trails were originally handcut by hardy residents. In the mid-’80s, the state took over Giants Ridge to host World Cup and Olympic tryouts. Now the area has morphed into a family destination offering every type of winter fun, from snowmobiling to snow-shoeing to ice fishing.

The mountain runs five lifts servicing 35 trails with a shapely 31/44/25 figure. That’s 31 percent basic trails and 44 percent intermediate terrain and gladed runs, leaving the remainder as entertainment for advanced skiers. What the resort lacks in expert trails, however, it makes up for in well-groomed snow, says winter event director John Filander: “We take a lot of pride in our product.”

The ski area is also proud of its strong snowboard culture. Giants Ridge has long hosted national competitions in its terrain park—the snow version of a skateboard playground. There boarders can slide the rails, gib off the box, and run the step ups—or watch the pros do it at the USASA Snowboard Race Weekend, February 20–21. Boarders are encouraged to post their glory videos on the website.

Fortunately, the mountain is plenty big enough for the traditionalists, too. Nordic skiers will find 60 kilometers of groomed trails once used to train the U.S. Ski Team. The tracks take skiers within the scenic Superior National Forest with lighted portions for night outings. The serious cross-country skier may access the more challenging trails via chair lifts. And for lovers of the great indoors, there’s an Aveda spa located in the lodge.


Giants Ridge Golf & Ski Resort, 800-688-7669, giantsridge.com


We might not have any mountains handy, but we do have a destination favored by world champions: Buck Hill in Burnsville. Olympians Lindsey Vonn, a St. Paul native, and Kristina Koznick, of Apple Valley, both trained under Erich Sailer at the Burnsville ski hill. If you hope to follow in their tracks—or you simply like a good deal—check out the Sunday Night Special, and ski Buck Hill’s 16 runs for just $15 (from 7:30 p.m. to close). Regular day rates start under $40; snowboarding and snow tubing runs are also on-site.


Buck Hill, 1500 Buck Hill Rd., Burnsville, 952-435-7174, buckhill.com

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