Ludlow’s Island Resort
Inside a North Woods bubble, where going nowhere gets you far
By Tim Gihring
THE FIRST THING TO KNOW, upon arriving at Ludlow’s Island Resort, is that you won’t be leaving. Not for food or friends or even more s’mores fixings. Oh, you’re free to come and go. But you won’t. It’s too risky: Missed sunsets over the lake, lost opportunities for dockside naps, bypassed chances to ride these gizmos called hydrobikes. The island cat, Marina, briefly went ashore last year and came back pregnant. Leave and, well, you take your chances.
But mostly, the reason you never depart Ludlow’s until you have to is just that—you don’t have to.
The resort occupies the island’s entire five acres, with a small administrative lodge fronting the dock and 21 neat, inconspicuous cabins lining the shore, tucked amid the trees. It’s an oasis of casual civilization, ringed by the moat of Lake Vermilion. The boat ride to the resort (after you’ve summoned the valet from an antique phone on shore) takes only two minutes. Yet the island, one of 365 swimming in this 40,000-acre lake, feels epochs away from modern life. Littered with house-size boulders fringed by dainty ferns, it looks like someplace primeval. The resort might be an upscale Ewok village.
Islands are about trust: It’s just you and everyone else with a reason to be here. And so, when you arrive at Ludlow’s, you leave your car keys in a communal basket at the front desk and your wallet in your suitcase. Money never changes hands for boats, bait, or anything else until checkout. Kids are immediately untethered. Teens, when not crowded around the cell-phone booster, sign up for seaplane rides and nature hikes. Little ones scramble around a beached 34-foot cruiser-turned-playground.
As for food, you’re on your own—mostly: The resort store, operating on the honor system, stocks enough staples alongside lures and bobbers for a couple to live on for a while (and fancy stuff like capers, bruschetta, and polenta). A whole row of kitchen contraptions is yours to plunder: woks, waffle irons, ice-cream makers—the kind of appliances you’d never bother to use except while on vacation.
Which explains why my girlfriend and I are walking through the woods with a flashlight and a salad spinner. We didn’t want to leave the island to eat, so we’re making dinner—making do, actually, by checking out a few pantry items and hauling them back to our cabin kitchen. Our cabin appears rustic, decorated with old jugs, an antique saw the size of a shark (with teeth to match), and an ancient slab of buckskin above the fireplace, painted with an American Indian’s portrait. But the amenities are more Woodbury than woodsy. Croissants and a newspaper arrive each morning, and David Sedaris’s Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and other literary reads line the bookshelf. And so we feast—pasta with wine and jazz CDs—even as we’re half-expecting, given the five photographs of moose on the walls, that a pair of antlers will soon appear in the window.
The next day, Mark Ludlow, the resort owner, shows us around the lake in his vintage wooden speedboat, which seems at home in this old-fashioned cabin country. Only half of the rocky, pine-lined shoreline is developed, and you’d never know that some of the hidden hideaways are owned by the Naegeles (of the billboard biz) and other prominent families. There are 286 loons on the lake at last count—about the same as on Lake Minnetonka, only these are the feathered kind, the most on any lake in the country, which makes for an ideal boater-to-bird ratio.
Ludlow, retired but rarely far from the resort that his son Paul now manages, taught entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota for 20 years while building his eponymous island into a prosperous haven, even as a half-dozen other resorts on the lake began to sell out to lake-home developers. Mark’s grandfather was similarly ambitious: He and a partner bought up 36 of the lake’s islands. But he found them hard to re-sell, so he gifted some of the islands to his children and sold the rest back to the government. In the 1940s, National Geographic magazine declared Lake Vermilion one of the 10 most beautiful in the country, but only miners and Indians seemed to care about the area back then. Now Governor Tim Pawlenty is interested, having proposed a new state park along five miles of Lake Vermilion’s shore.
One afternoon, we break our own rule: We leave, for the sake of exploring. Ely, that near-mythical gateway to the Boundary Waters wilderness, beckons about 50 minutes away. Tourism has been a boon to this so-called “end of the road” town, though some locals haven’t always seen it that way. Not when the government was confiscating their Boundary Waters cabins in the ’60s and ’70s to make way for tents and canoes. A couple months before we arrive, six drunken men frighten off wilderness campers by firing pistols and an AK-47 into the air.
As we wander through Ely, the shop windows are filled with photographic portraits of town residents along with declarations of why they love living here, a community pride campaign that could be seen as either introducing visitors to the friendlier local citizenry or a reminder that this is their land, stakes to a claim.
We’re driving past mukluk stores and outfitters when my girlfriend spots her first wild moose. Unfortunately, it’s sprawled on a trailer with men and boys in orange hats standing around. It’s dead. And no amount of root beer at the Chocolate Moose Music Café will make us feel better about this.
Back on the island, we relax into some 1950s-era Life magazines (tellingly, the lodge also stocks Forbes), restoring our innocence. We’re the only guests on the island tonight—it’s late in the season. The last to leave were a woman and her angler husband, a gregarious guy whose hat declared “Bite me,” who supposedly caught his limit of walleye in 15 minutes. But we’re not here to fish or even boat. We’re here to stay put, to sit on these five acres and revel in their single-minded purpose of putting some distance between us and everything else.
Tim Gihring is a senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.
Destination: Southeast Minnesota
Think southeast Minnesota is best known for the Mayo Clinic? You should try some of the area’s waffles and river trips. Here are a few of the things we love most about the region.
Sweet Lou’s Waffle Bar
For most of history, waffles have been confined to the breakfast table. No longer. Sweet Lou’s Waffles in Northfield serves up sweet or savory waffles any time of day. Gobble up the Waffle Suzette with orange sauce for breakfast, then stick around for the Minnesito Burrito (cheddar, salsa, sour cream) for lunch. Or choose from more than 25 other toppings. Thanks to Lou’s, now you really can have three squares a day. 303 Division St., Northfield, 507-650-7592, sweetlouswaffles.com
Root River Outfitters
If you’ve got an extra $12 in your pocket, you could spend it on a ticket to a summer blockbuster and a box of Raisinettes. But what you should do is this: Head to Lanesboro, where that same $12 will get you an inner tube and a couple hours of floating on the Root River. You can bake yourself to a crisp, and perhaps even spot a few fish. When you arrive at your destination, a van will shuttle you back to where you started. 109 Parkway Ave. S., Lanesboro, 507-467-3663, riversideontheroot.com
Garvin Heights Park
Scenic views? Check. Hiking trails? Check. Wildflowers? Check. Winona’s Garvin Heights Park rises more than 500 feet from the river, boasting panoramic views of the Mississippi River Valley and Wisconsin bluffs. On a clear day, you’ll have a view for a good 25 miles or more. Tuck a blanket and a few snacks into your bag and enjoy some post-constitutional refreshments while enjoying the view from above. Just off of Hwy. 61 on Garvin Heights Road, Winona
Pottery Place Historic Mall
If the word “mall” makes you think of vast ugly spaces, it’s time to upgrade your experience. First stop in Red Wing: Pottery Place Historic Mall. More than a dozen unique shops offering pottery, antiques, and specialty items fill the city’s old pottery factory, a brick building with plenty of character. After you’ve finished your shopping, get some ice cream at the locally owned scoop shop Just Chillin’. 2000 W. Main St., Red Wing, rwpotteryplace.com
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
Stout’s Island Lodge
This lumber baron’s retreat has hardly changed in a century
By Rachel Hutton
THE UNGLACIATED REGION of western Wisconsin is one of the most beautiful places in the Midwest—though I wouldn’t know it. A mere car window separates me from rolling hills, winding streams, and pastoral farmsteads, yet I see nothing but blacktop as I floor the accelerator.
My friend and I had planned to catch a 4 o’clock ferry to Stout’s Island Lodge, but we’ve been waylaid by a slice of pecan cream-cheese pie at the Norske Nook in Rice Lake. “Are you looking for signs?” I bark as the car’s clock flashes 3:57. Not the best way to begin a relaxing island getaway.
We peel into the gravel parking lot just as two other guests are boarding Stout’s aging pontoon. Five minutes later, we are docking at a vintage log boathouse. We follow the couple to the top of the hill, where there’s a grand, grassy lawn and a sprawling log lodge with moss-covered shingles. It looks like someplace Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn might have escaped to.
When we enter the lodge, a few moments behind the couple, it appears to be empty, save for an eerily staring elk head on the wall. Sure, it’s off-season, but where is everyone? We head back to the boathouse to check with the captain, only to look over the hill and see the pontoon sputtering away. Do we have the island all to ourselves?
Chicago lumberman Frank D. Stout likely experienced the same sense of solitude when he purchased the 12-acre island on Red Cedar Lake nearly a century ago. His father’s lumber firm, Knapp, Stout, & Company, was the largest in the country, and the fortune allowed Stout to spend more than $1.5 million (in 1915 dollars) on the 10-building estate, including a main lodge, guest house, children’s cabins, servants’ quarters, a schoolhouse, and recreation hall. The current lodge was built in 1912, using cedar logs imported from Idaho, and modeled after rustic-style camps in the Adirondacks. The “Island of Happy Days,” as Stout dubbed it, served as the family’s summer retreat from 1903 to 1927. Stout loved the island so much, the story goes, that when he knew he was dying, he hired a race-car driver to speed him to the island in the hopes that he might pass away there.
Today, the lodge is owned by a partnership and some of the cabins have been purchased by individuals, who rent them out to guests. A few Stout family artifacts remain on display in the lodge’s great room: county-fair ribbons won by Frank’s Guernsey cattle, a black-and-white photo of a pioneering wakeboarder clad in a dress, tights, and bonnet. After checking in at the office (which we finally discover, tucked into the back of the main lodge), we relax in the great room, pulling books off the shelves and combing through a stack of board games. The lodge’s massive timber beams make regular log cabins look like they’re made of Tinkertoys. On our way to dinner, I trace my fingers over a message carved in the wall—“So share what bounties fortune sends, all here that’s mine, is yours, my friend.” I hope we can experience all of it.
While the dining room’s dark wood and massive fireplace make it feel like ancient Bavaria (in fact, the carvings were imported from Germany), the cuisine is decidedly contemporary. The menu is sprinkled with foodie lingo, like EVOO—extra virgin olive oil, if you have to ask—and the red-and-gold beet salad dressed with goat cheese and microgreens is as haute a dish as you’d find in a downtown boîte. At this late hour, views of the lake are veiled in dusk, so we sit by the fire with a couple of beers—stouts, natch—until logs burn to embers burn to ash.
Accommodations on the island fall into two categories: those constructed pre-1930s, and those built mid-1990s. The new cabins are certainly comfortable, with their knotty-pine walls, log furniture, and gas fireplaces, yet they feel a tad generic. It seems a shame to visit such a place so unique and wake up not knowing if you’ve spent the night at a Brainerd hotel or Lutsen ski lodge. I booked a room in one of the original buildings, the upper unit of Allison’s Cabin, which was built for the Stouts’ youngest son. It’s a tree-house-like perch that appeals to the child within, with windows on three sides and a view of the lake. There’s no phone, television, or air conditioning. The door doesn’t even have a key.
The best room on the island is probably the one directly below our own. It’s almost always booked, for good reason: The wood floors, walls, and ceiling make the room feel cozy as a nutshell, but it also has a spacious bathroom, with a clawfoot tub, and a porch with two twin beds. If I were visiting Stout’s in a group, I’d book Harry’s Cabin, which accommodates six, or a few rooms in the lodge, many of which are furnished with canopy beds and dressing tables.
The next morning, after a continental breakfast in the lodge, we set off to explore the island. There are all sorts of activities to keep guests occupied: fishing, croquet, canoes and campfires; hydro bikes, badminton and bocce ball. If the weather is foul, there’s time for table tennis, spa services, or playing the piano. Each picturesque spot we discover—a bridge overlook, a swimming dock—is graced with a pair of Adirondack chairs, as if to punctuate its romanticism.
Stout’s property is technically two islands connected by a footbridge, a gift from Andrew Carnegie’s family. The smaller island is a narrow, uninhabited isthmus, barely wider than its hiking path. After a 10-minute walk, we arrive at the trail’s end, where, of course, there are two Adirondack chairs. On the far shore, a few homes and cabins peek through the trees, but aside from the occasional boat motor or industrious squirrel, we are able to sit in silence. Aspen branches span out like Calder mobiles, leaves rustling like muffled applause. It’s as if they’re trying to congratulate us.
Rachel Hutton is a former editor with Minnesota Monthly.
Destination: Northeast Minnesota
Northeast Minnesota is filled with placid lakes, rushing rivers, lush forests, and even small mountains, creating the perfect place to escape everyday life.
Grand Portage State Park
Travel far enough up Highway 61 and you’ll reach the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, home to Grand Portage’s High Falls on the Pigeon River, the state’s largest waterfall. Each minute, thousands of gallons of water free-fall 120 feet and crash into the rapids below. But don’t miss the area’s real treasure: Two wayside rest stops within the final stretch of the highway offer unparalleled views of the rugged North Shore. 9393 E. Hwy. 61, Grand Portage, 218-475-2360
For nearly five decades, this family-owned restaurant has been serving up tasty food in Cloquet. With 32 different flavors and tons of toppings possibilities, this old-fashioned ice-cream parlor can dial up the right combination for just about any sweet-tooth craving. Take coffee in your ice cream? Try a Columbian Freeze: 100 percent Columbian espresso blended with either frozen yogurt or ice cream. 415 Sunnyside Dr., Cloquet, 218-879-6125
Sugarbrooke Golf Course
Near Grand Rapids, this 18-hole has helped make Northeast Minnesota a hot spot for golf. Carved out of 400 acres of pristine woodlands, Sugarbrooke combines the challenge of a top-tier course with the relaxed atmosphere of a north-woods resort. The course ranks with the best of ’em, thanks to its tight fairways and tough hole locations. The 444-yard 16th is long and straight, with hazards on the left and trees all around. Sugar Lake Lodge, 37584 Otis Ln., Cohasset, 800-450-4555
Soudan Underground Mine
Minnesota’s first iron-ore mine, Soudan now offers visitors the chance to don their hard hats and travel back in time to the early days of the mining industry. The shaft goes a half a mile down. A train ride takes you into the deepest part of the mine to see firsthand how early miners excavated iron ore and transported it out of the mine—all by hand. Daily tours of the underground physics laboratory at Soudan are also available. 1379 Stuntz Bay Rd., Soudan, 218-753-2245