2011 Midwest Vacation Guide

After shoveling out all winter and patiently waiting for the spring thaw (didn’t this winter seem to go on forever?!), it’s prime vacation season in the Midwest. Turn off the computer and alarm clock and forget about deadlines and meetings and crossing items off that annoyingly never-ending “to-do” list. You deserve to go on a trip. Here are 18 hot spots for cool getaways.

COVER Photos courtesy of visitmilwaukee.org,
Visit Winona, and The Lutsen-Tofte Area



« North Shore

« Northern

« Central

« Southern

« Wisconsin

« South Dakota

« Iowa


North Shore

1. With the hills of San Francisco, the beaches of Florida, the nature of the finest national forests, and warm Midwest hospitality, Duluth should be on everyone’s “must visit” list, if only for a day. About a 2.5-hour drive from the Twin Cities metro, home of the world-class Grandma’s Marathon (set this year June 18) this pretty city is overflowing with outdoorsy activities, quaint restaurants and shops, and gorgeous mansions built by lumber and iron ore barons (Glensheen, the Historic Congdon Estate, is open to the public). Maybe one of the most unique aspects of this busy port town is watching the Aerial Lift Bridge and the massive oceangoing freighters coming into port on Lake Superior, the biggest expanse of fresh water in the entire world.

2. Head another 90 minutes north of Duluth to the Lutsen-Tofte area, well-known in winter for Lutsen Mountains but so much more than a ski destination. When the snow melts, there are great opportunities for outdoor recreation—charter fishing on Lake Superior, a “backyard” wilderness crisscrossed with hiking and mountain biking trails, the 26-mile paved Gitchi Gami state biking trail (one spur of the trail even leads to Split Rock Lighthouse), or golfing at the 27-hole Superior National Golf Course.

At Lutsen Resort, the name of the game is relaxation. Whether it’s the clean North Shore air or simply being on vacation, guests staying at the Scandinavian-style lodge de-stress and unwind by lounging in Adirondack chairs on the beach, gathering around evening campfires, enjoying candlelit dinners in the lakeside dining room, and scheduling spa services at the WatersMeet Massage and Wellness Center, just up the hill. Activities directors offer free sea kayak lessons and tours, fly-fishing classes, and guided hikes. Also available is an itinerary of kids’ activities, a disc golf course, shuffleboard, and an indoor pool.

Stay at Lutsen Resort during the weekend of April 15-17 for the Waterfall Photograph Workshop with local professional photographer Bryan Hansel.

3. If your ideal vacation includes spectacular views of Lake Superior, breezy summer evenings, beach-front bonfires, romantic candlelit dinners, and family-friendly activities, then Bluefin Bay on Lake Superior— winner of the Minnesota Lodging Association’s coveted “2007 Best Resort of the Year” title—is the place for you.  As once guest said, “The view that we had of Lake Superior is like nothing we have ever experienced. We felt as if we were on top of the water, that is how close you are to the water.”

Guests can enjoy organized activities led by experienced activities directors, an outdoor hot tub (shielded from wind by a glass wall), an  indoor pool complex, the Superior Waters Spa and Wellness Center, and the popular Bluefin Grille and more casual Coho Cafe.

4. Guests are treated to peace and solitude at Cove Point Lodge in Beaver Bay, about a half hour’s drive from Lutsen. The secluded Scandinavian-style lodge is surrounded by 150 acres of woods and rocks, with all rooms facing Lake Superior—the ideal setting for a romantic getaway.

5. Grand Marais, a harbor village on the shore of Lake Superior, is the only North Shore community whose downtown is right on the lake. Walk out to the lighthouse at Artists’ Point, go on a guided kayaking or canoeing trip, hike along the Superior Hiking Trail, take an art class at the North House Folk School or Grand Marais Art Colony, or watch a performance at the Grand Marais Playhouse. Grand Marais also marks the start of the Gunflint Trail, an old logging route that now offers access to camping and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Enjoy a daily dose of the beautiful from Best Western Plus Superior Inn & Suites, where all of the rooms are lakefront. Stay in a new Renewal Steam Suite featuring a walk-in steam shower, fireplace, hydrotherapy whirlpool, and wet bar. The hotel is within walking distance of many unique restaurants, shops, and art galleries.

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6. Hard to believe that a city known for wildlife, forests, and pristine lakes and rivers is also a cultural mecca, but it’s true of Bemidji, located 226 miles north of the Twin Cities.

One of Bemidji’s claims to fame is that it is the first city along the 2,552-mile Mississippi River, and you can celebrate this fact by walking across the headwaters at Itasca State Park (where else can you walk across the Mighty Mississippi?) Other well-known aspects of the city include the 18-foot-tall Paul Bunyan statue and his faithful companion, Babe the Blue Ox (two of the most photographed fiberglass statues in the country), excellent fishing in the area’s 400+ lakes (located within a 25-mile radius), miles of paved biking trails, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse summer theatre, one of the longest running summer stock theaters in the country.

Nature lovers will appreciate that the city is surrounded by more than five forests, including the 1.5 million-acre Chippewa National Forest, fashionistas and bargain hunters will appreciate the quaint shops, outlet stores and boutiques downtown, and art enthusiasts will be happy to learn that Bemidji has as many artists per capita as the Twin Cities metro.

See a show, game, or concert at the new Sanford Center, a 185,000-square-foot multipurpose sports and entertainment facility located on the shore of Lake Bemidji.


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7. While visiting Alexandria, two hours northwest of the Twin Cities metro, stay in a lodge room, suite with a lakefront view, or luxurious four-bedroom townhome at Arrowwood Resort on the shores of Lake Darling.

Play a round on Arrowwood’s scenic 18-hole course, unleash your inner cowgirl/boy on a horseback riding adventure, warm up or roast marshmallows by an evening bonfire. Bring the kids to the Big Splash Indoor Waterpark or Camp Arrowwood while you rejuvenate at Arrowwood’s Darling Reflections Spa. Downtown Alexandria (referred to by locals as “Alec”) offers excellent shopping and dining.

8. If you polled the regulars who book a vacation every year at Madden’s on Gull Lake, two hours from the Twin Cities in Brainerd, the answers as to why the return again and again would be as varied as a seven-day forecast in April. Some come for the golf (63 holes, including The Classic at Madden’s), some for the lake recreation like fishing, swimming, and waterskiing, others for the top-notch accommodations. The Spalon Montage Spa, on the shore of Gull Lake, offers all the relaxation services you’d expect from a luxury resort, and then some. Start a tradition of staying at Madden’s over Memorial Day weekend for the Annual Parent-Child Golf Tourney (May 29), the Food and Wine Event Aug. 26-28, or the Murder Mystery Weekend Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

9. Located on the sandy beaches of Big Detroit Lake and easy to find on Highway 10, Detroit Lake’s newest resort—The Lodge on Lake Detroit—is an eco-friendly hotel (recently recognized by the state with a “Sustainable Tourism Award” ), offering 55 rooms and suites, all facing Big Detroit Lake.

Reconnect with loved ones in the fireside lobby and enjoy daily grand piano sunset serenades; rejuvenate in the Renewal Spa Suites featuring aromatherapy whirlpool tubs and fireplaces; and relax with a massage at The Spa Within.

If you should decide to explore the area, shops, restaurants, three golf courses, and biking and hiking trails are all within a few minutes drive.

In addition to daily Sunset Serenades, The Lodge regularly hosts live music and entertainment and fun themed weekends, like the Murder Mystery Dinner Theater “Murder in Margarita-land” April 2, a wine-tasting dinner Mother’s Day weekend, and “Murder at the Prom”  May 14.

arrowwoodresort.commaddens.com thelodgeonlakedetroit.com  

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10. Southern Minnesota is dotted with small towns and intriguing historic sites, fields of prairies and rolling countryside, and the diverse landscapes of river bluffs.

Not far from the Twin Cities is Northfield, a charming city, home to Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, beautiful scenery, abundant outdoor recreation, and a rich legacy involving the infamous Jesse James bank robbery, acknowledged in the self-guided Outlaw Trail Tour and Defeat of Jesse James Days. Ease into a sunny, summer weekend at the Riverwalk Market Fair and take in the sights, tastes, and sounds through fine art, organic produce, artisan foods, and local music. Saturdays, June through October.

11. Winona, 120 miles south of the cities, is home to a large and fascinating collection of regional and local historic exhibits (many kid-friendly) at the Winona County Historical Museum, more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Great River Shakespeare Festival (professional Shakespearean theater), Garvin Heights Vineyard, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, located along the Mississippi.

The museum has an extensive collection of marine art, folk art, and historical displays ranging from traveling exhibits to a permanent gallery featuring Picasso, Van Gogh, O’Keeffe, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. This spring, the museum will be unveiling substantial additions to its collections and is currently working with Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis on the museum’s first two-gallery exhibition featuring accomplished regional artists.

Visit Winona during the Midwest Music Fest April 15-16 and see more than 100 bands (headliners include Heiruspecs, Charlie Parr, and Pert Near Sandstone), or head down to Winona in June or July for the popular Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

12. Minnesota’s German heritage is alive and well in New Ulm, described by one happy visitor as “small town America at its best.” There is no shortage of scenic beauty (it’s in the Minnesota River Valley, after all), and historical tidbits, like the town’s role in the U.S. Dakota War of 1862.

Spend time touring the August Schell Brewery, swimming in the sand-bottomed pool at Flandrau State Park, learning about the area’s history at the Brown County Historical Museum, playing mini golf at Putting Green Environmental Adventure Park, biking along the family-friendly New Ulm Bike Trail, or visiting the 1870s-era Harkin General Store.

You can also dance your lederhosen off at the town’s many festivals, including Barefoot Bob’s Hot Boat Drags and the Bavarian Blast.


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13. Intrigued by the natural beauty of rolling hills, dense forests and beautiful lakes and rivers, people have flocked to Wisconsin since the late 1800s. Today the area continues to attract visitors for fishing and boating, and features some of the country’s top hiking and biking trail systems.

Located about two hours east of the Twin Cities, in Chetek, Wis. is Canoe Bay, a tranquil retreat on 280 woodsy acres. There is no noise, and visitors have no obligations other than to rest and relax. The resort is the only Relais & Chateaux property in the Midwest; a designation given to hotels and restaurants for their charm, prestige and high culinary standards. It is elegant, romantic, and offers an impressive wine list and new chef’s menu each night (dinner jacket is appropriate but not required).

14. Thanks to Madeline Island, it is possible to have an island vacation without booking a flight to Hawaii. Madeline Island, a ferry ride from Bayfield to LaPointe, Wis. is one of 22 Apostle Islands and the only island not part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, meaning it is the only developed island of the bunch. What that means for you, dear reader, is opportunities to golf, visit museums, charter a sport fishing boat, sailboat, sea kayak, or canoe, and plenty of shopping, dining, and lodging options. The Madeline Island ferry line provides daily transportation to and from the island every 30 minutes during the summer.

15. Charming millions of visitors every year, Milwaukee, Wis.—about a five hour drive from Minneapolis/St. Paul—plays host to guests looking for a fun getaway as well as those in town to get deals done. But regardless of why you visit, you’ll soon realize that Milwaukee knows how to have a good time!

Attractions include the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Miller Brewery, Miller Park, Milwaukee Public Museum, the Safe House (a fun spy-themed restaurant), Milwaukee County Zoo, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Captain Fredrick Pabst Mansion, America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Cathedral Square Park, Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, and Discovery World (among many others).


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South Dakota

16. Most people, when thinking of South Dakota, think only of Mount Rushmore—and while that national memorial is truly awesome, there’s so much more to see in this great state.

Southeast South Dakota, about five hours from the metro, is as diverse in activities as it is in natural beauty, from fishing to rock climbing, and rolling prairie to jagged rock spires. If you’re more interested in sipping vino than scaling rock walls, there are seven wineries along the Wine Trail (seven!) that offer a fantastic wine travel experience. Area attractions in this portion of the state include Lewis and Clark Lake, Palisades State Park, Gavin’s Point Dam, and the Oyate Trail in Garretson, a Native American and pioneer trail route across the state.

Visit May 27-29 for the South Dakota Kayak Challenge in Yankton, Schmeckfest April 1-2 (a celebration of ethnic food, crafts, and traditions), the Czech Days Celebration in Tabor June 16-18, and the Bash to the Colonies Sailboat Regatta Aug. 27-18.

17. A family vacation in Rapid City, South Dakota is all about waterparks, interactive museums, wildlife parks, hiking, golfing, mountain biking, shopping, dining, and fun festivals like the Black Hills Bluegrass Festival, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Central States Fair and Rodeo, and West Boulevard Summer Festival. Rapid City is about nine hours from the Twin Cities, in the western part of South Dakota.

Enjoy an inclusive Black Hills National Parks and Monument Package staring at just $135/person with accommodations and admission to major Black Hills attractions.


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18. The Iowa Great Lakes area—made up of Arnolds Park, Okoboji, West Okoboji, Spirit Lake, Milford, and Wahpeton, commonly referred to as the Okoboji area, is a fun, affordable, close-to-home place to escape. This beautiful chain of lakes area, just a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, covers 15,000 acres and has been a family vacation destination for generations.

West Lake Okoboji is one of only three clear blue lakes in the world  (the other two are Lake Geneva in Switzerland and Lake Louise in Canada) and water recreation is one of the main draws here. On any given nice summer day, the lake is alive with activity.

Area attractions include the Historic Arnolds Park amusement park, Emerald Hills Golf Club, an off-road go-kart track, 52 miles of bike routes, Preservation Plaza, the beach at Gull Point State Park, Pearson Lakes Art Center, museums, Okoboji Summer Theatre, Treasure Village Children’s Theatre, the Queen II excursion boat, great boutique shopping and dining, and some of the best nightlife around.


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