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.


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,


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,


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,


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,



I’m not sure why but I’ve never been able to get enthused about the popular sport known as antiquing. I have a degree in art history, a passion for visiting museums, and a general interest in artifacts, but, truth be told, I really hate sorting through dusty junk.
For years, however, I’ve heard hunt-and-gather types rave about Stillwater. The picturesque city on the St. Croix River, widely known as the birthplace of Minnesota, is also touted as a first-rate antiques destination. Recently, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to spend the weekend there.

I hop in the car and head east from my Minneapolis home. Forty minutes later, I’m in downtown Stillwater, marveling at the city’s charms—its church steeples, its quaint Main Street, and the ample availability of parking. I’m going to take a 48-hour break from urban life, and see if I can figure out what this antiquing thing is all about.

My first stop is Main Street, and the retail scene is lively. The Midtown Antique Mall (301 Main St. S., 651-430-0808, is jam-packed with furnishings, jewelry, and home accessories, some dating back to the Victorian Era or earlier. It’s rare to find much of anything in Minnesota that predates the 1860s, however, and that proves true here. A few doors down, American Gothic Antiques (236 Main St. S., 651-439-7709) has not only loads of ’50s memorabilia but an interesting back story to boot: A relative of the original shopkeepers owned the Iowa house featured in Grant Wood’s iconic painting.

The St. Croix Antiquarian Booksellers (232 Main St. S., 651-430-0732, is filled with 19th-century architectural drawings, some displayed as an exhibit, along with a few model ships and used, rare, and out-of-print books. Pulp Fashion (102 Main St. N., 651-439-7148, carries a selection of locally produced Gartner Studios products with stationery and other papers so beautiful I want to pen a hundred belated thank-you notes on the spot. The high-tech outerwear in the window of 45 Degrees (209 Main St. S., 651-430-3609, tempts me to buy another layer, but I decided to warm up with some lunch instead.

I search out a spot recommended by a friend, The Kitchen (324 Main St. S., 651-342-1556, The shiny copper finishes and cushy booths are comfortable, and my crab cake Benedict is delicious, with a perfectly poached egg and a crispy beet salad on the side. Revived, I head down to the Chef’s Gallery (324 Main St. S., 651-351-1144,, where the array of culinary tools for purchase is almost dizzying.

A few hours and dozens of shops later, I find myself at Staples Mill Antiques (410 Main St., 651-430-1816). A former sawmill with creaky floors and exposed limestone walls, it is well stocked with Minnesota memorabilia, including Paul Bunyan fishing lures, an autographed 1960s photo of Walter Mondale, and a few Pillsbury Dough Boys. There are plenty of signed Trifari and Sarah Coventry brooches with $10 price tags.
In a room filled with glass items, I happen upon a lone glowing “Radiance” ruby creamer with a winged handle and raised sunbeams projecting from the bottom. The pattern was produced between 1936 and 1939 and is considered one of the most elegant Depression Era designs. The $12 price tag is impossible to resist (a discount, thanks to a barely noticeable chip), so I take it with me to the front of the store, where I notice a punch bowl and set of 12 glasses in the same pattern for $449. I can feel the pull of temptation.

I stick with the creamer. As I’m paying, the cashier gushes, “You must start collecting this.” Not today, I think to myself. But I might be back soon.



 For a rural college town, Northfield offers a surprisingly citified collection of shops. The central drag, Division Street, is lined with boutiques carrying everything from rare books and local art to designer jeans and high-end textiles. Digs (310 Division St., 507-664-9140, features unique gifts, cards, jewelry, and home goods, as well as gorgeous fabrics and yarns for craft projects. Just down the street, The Rare Pair (401 Division St., 507-645-4257,, a town staple since 1977, carries a name-brand selection of stylish yet practical shoes and clothing, including Keen, Dansko, Woolrich, and Dale of Norway.

For lunch, try the Indian buffet at Chapati (214 Division St., 507-645-2462), housed in the Archer House Hotel. Ten dollars buys an array of meat and veggie masalas and paneers, tandoori chicken, and pakora. After lunch, curl up with a classic at Monkey See, Monkey Read (425 Division, 507-645-6700, A treasure trove of new, used, out-of-print, and rare books, this gem is Northfield’s last-standing independent bookstore. Down the street, at Sisters Ugly (13 Bridge Square, 507-645-2376,, mother-daughter team Diane and Jenny Sinclair peddle Joe’s Jeans, Kensie dresses, and hard-to-find Tano handbags.



halfway to Winnipeg, Maplelag isn’t at all where you’d expect to find exciting cross-country skiing. But you’d be wrong to overlook it. Located just northeast of Detroit Lakes, Maplelag has nearly 40 miles of trails: There are long downhill glides, quick back-and-forths through the maple-basswood forest, roller-coaster ups-and-downs, and steep slopes like Kamikaze Hill. Many skiers consider it one of the top cross-country ski resorts in the Midwest.

“We never dreamed we’d be in lodging or the hospitality business,” says Jim Richards, who owns Maplelag with his wife, Mary, and their son and daughter-in-law. The resort began as a maple-syrup operation in the 1970s, but when a friend asked if he could rent the sugar house as lodging for a bunch of friends who were cross-country skiers, an idea was born. In 1988, Jim and Mary quit the sugar bush and focused on building Maplelag as a ski destination. In addition to lodging, the Richards offer three meals a day, and there’s unlimited use of the sauna, hot tub, and steam room. Ski lessons and ski-waxing services are available for a fee.

Maplelag’s trails are groomed with an expert’s touch. The Richards’ maintenance fleet includes snowmobiles, Yellowstone Track System groomers, and a Pisten Bully to keep trails in top condition. Most trails are double- tracked for classical stride, but many are also groomed for skate-skiing.

“When you can ski in good tracks, it’s a whole new world of experience,” says Richards. “We’re skiers ourselves. We know what’s good, what’s not good. We’ve been every place in North America.”

Maplelag is a great spot to learn to ski or brush up on your technique with skiing lessons and ski rental. There is also an ice-skating rink, a sliding hill, two ice houses for fishing, and massage therapy to help you recuperate from your time in the cold. You can rent snowshoes for use at the resort or surrounding areas such as nearby Tamarack National Wildlife Refuge. The hot tub and sauna are open for use anytime day or night.

The Richards have tried to create a retreat away from everyday intrusions. The guest buildings (including two furnished railroad cabooses) have no TVs, video games, or phones in the rooms. Instead, guests assemble jigsaw puzzles, raid several bottomless cookie jars, or participate in a weekend variety show and dance. In addition, Richards has assembled what he figures is the world’s largest collection of railroad depot signs.

But the biggest draw, beyond the groomed trail system, is the scratch cooking. The breakfast menu on a typical Saturday includes thin Norwegian pancakes, lingonberries, 11-grain hot cereal, and pure maple syrup, of course. Lunch is also hearty, with wild-rice soup, homemade cracked-wheat bread, salad, and double-fudge brownies. Dinner might be brisket, latkes, Greek salad, and a Russian dessert of sweet cream, sour cream, and raspberries. Sunday morning brings a Scandinavian smorgasbord with enough calories to keep you fueled for a full day of skiing.


Maplelag, Callaway, 800-654-7711,



Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area in Maple Grove has 18 kilometers of groomed ski trails that clamber over hills and wind around lakes. That alone makes it an attractive destination for a day of cross-country skiing in the metro. But the fact that it also lights 5.5 kilometers for nighttime skiing, and adds artificial snow as needed to 2.4 kilometers makes Elm Creek one of the best bets for skiing anytime during the winter.

The Winter Recreation Area is part of the 4,900-acre Elm Creek Park Reserve, the largest unit of the Three Rivers Park District. Much of the trail system is designed for intermediate skiers, though most of the lighted parts are ranked for beginners, so it’s a great spot to learn the sport. A few steep hills are meant for experts.

To cross-country ski, you’ll need a $4 daily pass or $50 season pass, available at the Elm Creek Chalet or online. (A second season pass is half-price.) The chalet sells coffee, hot chocolate, or soft drinks, as well as sandwiches, salads, burgers, chicken, fries, chips, and candy. Food is available anytime, but the grill is open only evenings and weekends. Call ahead to check the hours. The chalet also rents classic and skate-ski equipment.


Elm Creek Winter Recreation Area, 12400 James Deane Pkwy., Maple Grove, 763-694-7894,


The kids were sick of being in the car, so my husband and I did what any good Midwestern parents would do, we stopped at a McDonald’s with a giant Play Place. Happy Meals ordered, I slipped off the kids’ snow boots and watched my 1- and 3-year-old scramble up into the brightly colored play tubes.
But I felt like a fish out of water. As a restaurant critic, I hit a McDonald’s every few years so I can stay frosty on the taste of America, but generally I view fast-food chains as machines for turning factory-farmed animals and corn syrup into malnourished Americans. My husband, a musician who long ago abandoned burgers for fruit and yogurt, hadn’t set foot in a McDonald’s for 15 years. Today was our first visit as a family to McDonald’s. And why not? This was just the tip of the iceberg: We were on our way to Kalahari, Wisconsin’s largest water park resort under one roof.

Kalahari is kid-heaven. Its 752 rooms are attached to a heated space roughly the size of two football fields, containing a swimming pool, wave pool, swim basketball pool, water slide, water coaster, water fountain, indoor river, waterfall, water flume, and just about every other watery wonder you can imagine. Yet it’s named after an African desert! Decorative African spears ring some water slides’ summits; lamps designed to look like carefully balanced piles of rocks light the rooms; and depictions of African masks, lions on the hunt, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus are everywhere. Now, if you are the sort of person who can’t abide the idea of a waterpark named after a desert, we think alike. But my husband and I wanted a fun family weekend that wouldn’t break the bank. So we headed to the Wisconsin Dells.

The kids and I checked in, while Dad unpacked the car. “Co-co!” yelled my little girl, using her special word for cookies: There, in the lobby, was indeed a 6-foot-long table mounded high with sugar cookies shaped like African animals, accompanied by big tubs of Day-Glo icing in four colors with which to frost the cookies, all complimentary. A half-hour of cookie-mangling passed, then Dad called from the room to let us know it was safe to head his way. I handed my son a map of the compound that showed a bowling alley, an amusement park with six-story Ferris wheel, indoor go-karts, an indoor movie theater, multiple arcades, indoor mini-golf—and much more. The wing where we were staying was called the Sands and the room contained a full kitchen, a rollaway bed, a big mural of Africa, and a couch upholstered in faux ostrich leather.

We traded our parkas for swimsuits and toddled off barefoot to the water park. The 125,000-square-foot space is divided by vast rock-looking mountains into more than half a dozen zones that cater to babies, tots, and pre-teens respectively. There are different water-basketball courts, some featuring plastic-animal steppingstones. There’s an area for surfing in which massive sprays of water aim up a sloping hill and, if you fall off your board, you simply find yourself in 6 inches of water on a mat. There’s a river with an actual current that unites all the areas as it winds past various tropical waterfalls and under various bridges. There are hot tubs everywhere for when your kid starts to turn blue with cold.

But the highlight was watching my 3-year-old climb to the top of Leopard’s Lair, a castle of stairs and corridors bombarded by various squirts and drips and similar obstacles that are not exactly scary, but still require a certain amount of courage on the part of a 3-year old. The climb eventually leads to the top of a pair of 20-foot-high water slides. When he got to the top of the slide, my son would wait for a lifeguard to tell him when it was safe to descend and flash his little gap-toothed grin at me, standing in the ankle-deep pool at the bottom of the slide. I’d watch him descend the corkscrew, his posture rigid as a portrait, his face shining like a cartoon sun in a rainbow sky, till he got to the bottom, at which point I’d scoop him up and he’d exclaim: “I want to go again!” And he did, again and again, till the waterpark closed.

We got an ice cream, walked back to our room, and he was asleep before he was even dry from his final shower of the day. As I tucked him into the rollaway bed, I tried to etch his smile into my memory forever.

Later, as I clicked off a lamp like a neat pile of rocks, I realized this was one of the great gifts of parenthood, to find yourself somewhere completely unexpected and loving every minute of it. Sometimes, the silliest place you’ve ever been can make you as happy as you ever were.


Kalahari Resort, Wisconsin Dells, 877-525-2427,

Joel Hoekstra writes frequently about design and architecture for Midwest Home and has contributed to a wide range of publications, including This Old House, Metropolis, ASID Icon and Architecture Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis in a 1906 Dutch Colonial that is overdue for a full remodel—or at least a coat of fresh paint.