Great Escapes

30 Weekend Getaways for Every Kind of Traveler



The mall in Nisswa is called “Pretty Good Shopping.” That’s code for “Totally Amazing, Get-Here-Now Shopping,” as many Minnesotans already know. Nisswa’s main street is lined with as many shops as Minnesota is sprinkled with lakes—or at least it feels that way. Lodge at one of the nearby Gull Lake resorts (Cragun’s, Madden’s, etc.) and plan to leave fishing and hiking by the wayside for at least a day or two. Fuel up with espresso and a scone at StoneHouse Coffee and Roastery, then parade from boutique to boutique, each carrying its own special brand of handmade goods, art, crafts, and products with a Minnesota heritage (think Minnetonka Moccasins) or heritage in general (antiques). Lunch or a snack is never more than a storefront or two away, and if you don’t drop after all that shopping, head to downtown Brainerd or Pequot Lakes for an encore.  âž½

Photo by Todd Buchanan


I’m about four years old and i’m at bandana square in St. Paul, sandwiched between my mom and Grandma Marion. We are window-shopping and gossiping our way through the mall. One of my hands is wrapped around my mom’s hand, the other ensconced in Grandma’s. We are three glamorous ladies on the town, and it’s a good day: my grandma buys me some stickers.

Grandma died nearly 20 years ago, but my early memories of shopping with her, of her pinning me up as she sewed my Christmas dress (talk about couture!), and of her fashion critiques—“That rayon is junk”—have served me well as a style editor. In other words, as I drive to Northfield on a crisp, bright morning, I am priming myself with all of her shopping advice.

I pull onto Division Street, and fall immediately into a shopper’s high. I walk down the street and take in all the cute storefronts before I commence what I can already tell will be a spree of epic proportions. I start at Swag, and leave with holiday cards made by cult-fave Rifle Paper Co. (Grandma always saved cards in her dresser drawers.) I pore though Zum soaps and knickknacks at Monarch, remembering the Yardley London lavender soap on her bathroom sink. I giggle at the cute Japanese toys at the Sketchy Artist—pretty sure those would have been wrapped up under her aluminum tree. In each shop, I find cute accessories, charming gifts, practical fun—I’ve got a lot of bags in hand, but sorrowfully leave a lot behind, too.

I find myself missing Grandma a bit more than usual on my way home. She would have definitely liked Northfield, I decide. And so do I.  âž½

Des Moines

Head south on I-35 and eventually, rising out of the cornfields, is the remarkably hip Des Moines—chock-full of sweet, stylish boutiques. Check out the cheeky tees (“Des Moines: French for The Moines”), gifts, and clothing at Raygun; dig into handmade goodies for the home and accessories at Domestica; and make sure not to miss the impeccable West End Architectural Salvage—several floors of incredible finds (and with an in-house coffee shop, to boot). There are also several great art museums and live-music options. âž½

Red Wing

Book a stay at the St. James Hotel and browse the historic city all weekend long. Red Wing hangs its hat on namesake boots and pottery, but there are lots of cute shops and museums sprinkled throughout, plus lots of antiques stores to get lost in. Don’t miss the doughnuts at Hanisch Bakery. âž½


Viroqua is a charming outpost nestled in the Ocooch Mountains, or “driftless region” in Wisconsin. In May, catch the start of the farmers’ market and the Viroqua Art Festival. And don’t miss the antiques, Amish goods, and summer bluegrass and jazz festivals. âž½


Spider Lake
Photo courtesy of Spider
lake  Lodge,Max Hayes


Spider Lake

I’m the only guest at spider lake lodge on this bright winter morning. It’s early December, and just enough snow has fallen to make the pine trees sparkle. Snuggled up in one of the dining room’s well-worn armchairs, I take in my surroundings. The majority of lampshades and couch bottoms are bordered with fringe. Taxidermy adorns the walls. There are candelabras and pinecones, wicker tables and brass statuettes, embroidered pillows and patterned rugs. Normally, I’d think these things a little tacky and over-the-top, but here, they’re simply eccentric and comfortable.

This north-woods-meets-Oscar-Wilde vibe is no accident: it’s the vision of co-owners Craig Mason and Jim Kerkow. The two bought the lodge in 2000 and used their interior-design know-how to transform the 88-year-old building into an exclusive B&B. Each of the seven rooms has its own theme, rustic and romantic. I spent the night in the Moonahanis suite, a large wood-paneled room, punctuated with Native American décor, a woodstove, and, my favorite, a plush queen-size canopy bed.

The lodge was always meant to be a place of retreat and relaxation, first as a fishing camp in 1923, today as an unplugged haven. There’s no television or cell-phone reception here—that would be an awkward real-world intrusion to this north-woods getaway. I sink deeper into my chair and take another sip of my coffee. Less than 24 hours into my vacation, the fresh air and swaying pines have already wiped away my stress and slowed my pace. I’m away from it all: that’s all that matters.  âž½

Isle Royale
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Isle Royale

Floating in the eye of Lake Superior is Isle Royale National Park, a place where cars and bikes are forbidden and wildlife runs the show. Because the island is nearly 50 miles long and 8 miles wide, one of the best ways to get a feel for it is through Grand Portage Isle Royale Transportation Line’s day-long excursion. From the deck of the Sea Hunter III, you’ll see the Little Spirit Cedar Tree, a more than 400-year-old cedar the Chippewa once believed controlled Lake Superior; the sunken steamship America; and the Rock of Ages lighthouse. Upon arriving on the island, you can take a guided hike led by park staff, or you can explore on your own until the boat leaves for Grand Portage at 2 p.m. Of course, you can always plan your own visit, too, opting to camp out or stay at Rock Harbor Lodge. Regardless of how you get here or how long you stay, this wild isle is a glimpse of nature at its finest—a royal adventure.

Devils Lake, North Dakota

Pull on your long underwear and hop on the Perch Express to Devils Lake, North Dakota. There, six of the area’s top ice-fishing guides will show you exactly how and where to catch your fill of perch, walleye, and northern pike. All you need to do is reserve a spot and hang a “Gone Fishing” sign in the window.

The Great Lakes

Say “cruise” and people think tropical islands and third-degree sunburns. This is different. The MV Columbus cruise ship is specifically designed for the locks of the Great Lakes as well as the comfort of guests. Experience the lakes from a whole new perspective. Anchors aweigh. âž½

Mineral Point, Wisconsin

Pedal, eat, drink, repeat. That’s the gist of Wisconsin’s Swiss Cheese & Spotted Cows bicycle tour. Starting in Mineral Point, the tour includes such places as Frank Lloyd Wright’s House on the Rock, the New Glarus brewery, Monroe (the Swiss Cheese capital of America), and picturesque Galena, Illinois. âž½

Grand Marais
Photo courtesy of
North House Folk School


Grand Marais

After Grand Marais was settled by moose (then Native Americans, then lumberjacks), it was swarmed by artists. Not beret-wearing, oh-look-how-the-light-hits-that-daffodil artists, but survivalist artists—artists with hip waders, table saws, and hunting permits. And their legacy, along with the Grand Marais Art Colony, is the North House Folk School, a clutch of clean-lined, brightly painted buildings beside Lake Superior that, on my arrival, gave me the illusion of having landed on the Norwegian coast. But it’s just Minnesotans here—men in flannel and women in aprons (and often vice versa)—ready to teach me the practical stuff I never learned in school: how to build a boat, a kayak, a log home; how to make a wooden bowl and the Swedish potato sausage to put in it. If I were a little more practical, and a lot more comfortable with my mortality, I could even make my own coffin (many people do—it’s one of the school’s most popular classes). It’s easy to see, watching people stitch their own mukluks or bake fresh bread, why folkeshoskols like this have been common in Scandinavia since the 1840s and why more of them are sprouting in the Upper Midwest: the new Giants of the Earth folk school, in Spring Grove, Minnesota; the Driftless Folk School in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Algebra is handy—if you need to program the next moon landing. But mukluks? They’ll keep your feet from freezing off. Most classes take two to three days, which means you could keep going, acquiring one skill after another until you’ve built everything you need and, if the simple-life philosophy has soaked in, everything you really want.  âž½

Fountain City
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Fountain City, Wisconsin

Few are the guest houses that ask you to arrive “before evening milking time.” (That’s 4 p.m. for you desk jockeys.) And if you want to see those udders emptied—and you do—be at Room to Roam dairy farm, in western Wisconsin, on time and ready to go rural. Here in bluff country, a cow patty’s throw from the Mississippi River, you’re living la vida locavore with just you, the Holsteins, a few goats, and some chickens. There’s nobody in the three-bedroom farmhouse but you, with a swing out front, a piano in back, and a kitchen for cooking the freshest of fresh produce. You can bottle-feed a calf (or not). You can take a hayride (or not). And after a few days of rising with the sun and sleeping with the crickets, you’ll be ready for the city again (or not). 
âž½  For reservations, call 608-687-8575

Sisseton, South Dakota

Before there were dudes, there were dudes—wannabe cowboys. And at Prairie Sky Guest & Game Ranch, in northeastern South Dakota, you can be one. Not roping steers, exactly, but riding horses, hunting, eating breakfasts the size of Sioux Falls—dude stuff. You won’t earn your spurs, but with 2,000 acres to explore, you will get some perspective. âž½

Southeastern Minnesota

To see rare Prairie School architecture in its natural habitat, simply drive to Lanesboro, book a B&B, and day-trip west: to Wykoff, where the entire downtown is a historic district; to Spring Valley, where Laura Ingalls Wilder attended church; to Grand Meadow, where the Purcell-designed Prairie-style bank is topped only by the futuristic school of five domed buildings. âž½

Two Harbors

Your sunset pics are okay, but when you’re ready to photograph the outdoors with an artistry worthy of nature’s glory, call John Gregor’s ColdSnap studio in Two Harbors for specialized workshops in shooting waterfalls, wildflowers, and winter scenes. âž½


Photo courtesy of
Kohler Co., Used by Permission



“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” my husband said as we passed through the gates of the Village of Kohler. After four hours of rural Wisconsin landscape, peppered with little more than  farmhouses and gas stations, Kohler looked like a pop-up planet, sent to the Midwest by a very meticulous people. In fact, it sort of is. Created as a planned community in the early 1900s by the Kohler Company (they of plumbing and luxury-water fixtures) for family members and workers, the village still maintains a quaint and communal feel. The tree-lined streets, colonial homes, and pristine landscaping would rival any Ivy League campus. It’s so perfect, you may forget that there’s a crazy, busy, messy life beyond the village.

That’s the beauty of visiting Kohler: for a few days, everything else fades away—including reality. Particularly if you stay at the Carriage House, where you can spend an entire weekend in robe and slippers, padding to and from the spa. Some people dream of attending the Super Bowl or summiting Machu Picchu. I waited my whole adult life to lounge poolside at Kohler Waters Spa. Like everything else on the Kohler compound, it’s fashioned with an otherworldly level of luxury and detail: exotic water treatments featuring the company’s bath fixtures, sports massages for the serious golfer, and a glass-encased rooftop deck for surveying the village below, glass of champagne in hand. If I were Dorothy, this would be my Oz.  âž½

Glacial Waters
Photo courtesy of Grand View Lodge

Glacial Waters

A spa, by dictionary definition, is a resort with health-giving waters, baths, or showers. So it’s funny that we city folk have begun to call quickie nail salons such a thing. To deeply immerse yourself in those hallowed health-giving waters, call up Glacial Waters at Grand View Lodge. Just reading the menu, laced with Aveda and Eminence ingredients, feels therapeutic: revitalizing hydrotherapy massage, Vichy shower cascade, Italian Mandarin bath soak, Hungarian mud and sour-cherry body wrap. With each treatment, toxins are dissolved as readily as toxic thoughts. Stumble back to your room in a state of pure bliss. Don’t be tempted to do anything “productive,” unless it’s drinking wine and chatting with your girlfriends. And if you’re lucky, the weekend will move at a glacial pace, crushing all that city stress underneath it as it goes. âž½

Madeline Island

A weekend of asanas with breast-cancer survivor and yoga instructor Amy Annis on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island is as close to Eat, Pray, Love as it gets. Sign up for the yogic weekend, which can also include horseback riding, kayaking, art making, hiking, and biking. âž½

Sundara Spa

Do good for your body and the earth by booking a stay at Sundara Spa in Wisconsin Dells. Part of the Green Spa Network, Sundara makes some of its own products, based from local Cambrian sandstone. The large, tempting menu is split into themes: for example, Organic, for the healing properties of nature; and Ayurvedic, for chakra-level cleansing. Sundara, take us away. âž½

Clare’s Well

When your own well runs dry, go see about Clare. Franciscan sisters run this 40-acre farm, complete with garden, animals, and walking paths. Here, actions truly speak louder than words: the idea is to be silent, and to reflect, re-energize, and rejuvenate your spirit—regardless of your beliefs. Book a massage or energy therapy for an extra boost, and return home with a deeper well from which to draw. âž½

Bluefin Bay
Photo by Stephan Hoglund;
Courtesy of Bluefin Bay


Bluefin Bay

One of my favorite places in the entire world is the Hawaiian Islands. I know it’s kind of an obvious choice, what with the pikake-scented air, the stunning ocean-side vistas, and hibiscus blooms bigger than my head. But I got engaged and married there, so I’ve got sentimental reasons, too.

Unfortunately, return trips come with a hefty price tag and jet lag, so I’ve been looking for a way to get away that doesn’t require jetting to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and paying six dollars for a loaf of bread. I’m surprised to find myself feeling almost the same sense of Zen driving up Highway 61 right here in the tundra. (Tropical, the weather most certainly is not.) Winding up and up from the Twin Cities past Duluth, stopping only at Betty’s Pies in Two Harbors for a Great Lakes Crunch, I admire Lake Superior’s long, rocky shoreline, the endless water meeting the vast sky. I settle in at Bluefin Bay in Tofte, and start getting into the zone. Standing outside the Coho Café with my cup of chai tea, I inhale deeply. The scent of pine fills my nose and lungs, and just like that, my blood pressure drops a few points. Hiking through the rushing Cascade Falls, I’m in awe of the beauty hiding just hours outside the Cities. On the dinner menu is plump walleye. It’s not fresh-caught ahi, of course, but the fish is so tender and clean-tasting I barely notice. Before bed, I open the back door of my comfortable condo and an almost-full moon shines down brightly, making silhouettes of tree branches while waves hypnotically crash into the shore. I’m seeing the forest for the trees. I’ve got a chill, but it still feels like my very own private Waikiki.

Burntside Lodge
Photo by William Dohman

Burntside Lodge

Situated on the crystal-clear Burntside Lake, the century-old Burntside Lodge is the closest you can get to the Boundary Waters and still have electricity and indoor plumbing. Lou and Lonnie LaMontagne manage this quaint mainstay with a historian’s eye, and will gladly give you the history of your specific quarters, which has been kept as close to the original design as possible—plus some modern comforts. Although there’s no TV, and Wi-Fi only in the main lodge, you might feel like you’re starring in your own commercial when you paddle out onto the lake—a Hamm’s beer commercial was filmed here. Pretend you’re starring in your own version of Dirty Dancing as you dine at the lodge, then bike and hike to your heart’s content. And if you get bored—which is doubtful—there’s always downtown Ely, full of shops, spas, and tasty treats. But mostly, just take it in. There’s a reason Burntside made it into the travel book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. This truly is the best Minnesota has to offer. 

Naniboujou Lodge

What better place to tuck in when there’s a nip in the air than in front of the state’s largest stone fireplace? The lodge’s trippy Cree art and long, embattled, glamorous history (Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were founding members) make it a lodge not to be missed. âž½

Chestnut Mountain

Chestnut Mountain, just outside Galena, Illinois, offers 19 runs, 220 acres of rolling hills, and a 475-foot vertical drop. So when the powder’s on, you know where to go. Aprés ski, you can shop boutiques, tour historic mansions, and grab a pint at the Galena Brewing Company. âž½

Gunflint Lodge

Gunflint really understands the poetry of the north-woods seasons. As such, they have engaging activities year-round, from fishing and hiking to moose callings, wolf howlings, full-moon weekends, snowshoeing, dog sledding, and sleigh rides. It’s pet friendly and the owners are full of suggestions to keep busy—unless you want to just read a book in front of the fire. They get that, too. âž½


Photo courtesy of
The Waterpark of America



Denial, as you may have heard, is not just a river in Egypt. It is also a lazy river—and a wave pool, a raft ride, and water slides—in suburban Minneapolis. The Waterpark of America bills itself to tourists as the largest indoor water park in the nation. But it appeals to us Minnesotans, the seasonally affected and chronically wind-burned, as a land of delusion. Winter is treated as a preposterous fiction, a lie that an ogre dreamed up to scare us. The chemical, faux-August humidity; the woodland murals on the walls; the sky-replicating cloud banners suspended from the ceiling—yeah, it’s cheesy. But it’s also charming. And it helps staycationers dupe themselves out of the winter doldrums.

On a post-snowstorm Sunday, I am happy to be fooled. Swim trunks cinched, I wait in line at the park’s crown jewel of unreality: a surf simulator called the FlowRider. A three-inch sheet of water roars, at 30 miles an hour, over a foam ramp. Kids as young as seven are handed boogie-boards and then flop into the artificial rapids. The goal is simply to endure, to hover at a still equilibrium over the water. A few hotdogs make cuts and swerves. Some older boys even climb to their knees, striking strongman poses for their parents’ cameras. But most get yanked back up over the transom like a snapped rubber band.

“It’s essentially a humiliation machine,” says one weary dad. Sure enough, a twiggy kid in board shorts descends only to be plucked backward like a yo-yo. He leaves crying.

“You’re up.” The lifeguard hands me a boogie board. I don’t know how to boogie board. I never even learned how to skateboard. But, in the day’s spirit of self-deception, I stare down the rapids confidently. Then it’s one last cinch of the trunks and a reckless, belly-first plunge into denial.  âž½



Though founded in 1854 by a German—Joseph Spielman, whose difficult-to-spell last name begot the town’s current appellation—this tiny Iowa hamlet (population 400) quickly became a magnet for Czech settlers. Today, it’s a magnet for Czech appreciators, who swoon their way through the town’s preserved-in-amber, Old World streets. Tour St. Wenceslaus, the oldest Czech Catholic church in the United States, which features a pipe organ dating to 1876. Poke around the former summer home of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (who penned his famous “American Quartet” there in 1893). Or step back in time inside the St. Wenceslaus Old School, the oldest Czech parochial school in the nation. Be sure to take the kids to the Bily Clocks Museum. In this showroom of hand-carved, early-20th-century timepieces, cog-sprung characters dance out of the clocks every hour, with themes ranging from the 12 apostles to the flight of Charles Lindbergh.  âž½

Lake Okoboji

Spring-fed, glacier-carved, and blue, West Okoboji Lake is the crown jewel of the Iowa Great Lakes, one of only three blue-water lakes in the world. But the area also is home to dry-land attractions, including Iowa’s Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and the Higgins Museum, which boasts the largest collection of paper money in the nation. âž½

Gull Lake

Dad likes golf, Mom’s craving a massage, and little Susie has been clamoring for a pony. What to do? Take the family to Cragun’s, Brainerd’s year-round resort, perched on Gull Lake. The place offers up-north luxury: guided fishing tours, snowmobiling, a spa. But it also packs surprises, like a 45-hole chain of golf courses and a giant indoor sports facility. And yes, they arrange horseback rides. âž½

Grantsburg, Wisconsin

Mary and Dave Falk’s 200-acre sheep farm/wildlife refuge is a hiker’s dream—and also a foodie mecca, because LoveTree Farms produces nationally renowned cheeses, and they host “Pizza by the Pond,” where they bake up pies outdoors. âž½