The Call of the North

At first glance, Grand Marais looks like your average small town. It’s not.

Everyone’s reaction to my maiden voyage to Grand Marais was the same: You get to go to Grand Marais? Lucky! You’re going to love it!

And yet, as I made my first pass through town, I was confused. Yes, it was beautiful (the majestic Lake Superior made certain of that). Yes, it was full of colorful shops. But for some reason, the Grand Marais I’d spent the five-plus-hour drive imagining didn’t line up with the Grand Marais I was currently exploring.

Despite the unusually warm spring weather, many of the restaurants in walking distance were closed for the season. The receptionist at my hotel recommended I try Gun Flint Tavern, so once I finished my loop around town I headed there for dinner.

This was no ordinary small-town restaurant: this place had flair. Exposed-brick walls and kitschy décor gave it a sarcastic, urban appeal, and the comprehensive tap-beer list read like the sort you’d find at a big-city joint. Glancing over the menu, I even noticed an emphasis on local, organic ingredients. Slowly, the glimmer of Grand Marais began to emerge.

But it wasn’t until my second walk around town the next morning that it finally clicked: Grand Marais is the amethyst of the North Shore—unremarkable and just like every other rock on the outside, but sparkling and surprising when cracked open. Take the Ben Franklin, for instance. If you’ve seen one Ben Franklin, you’ve seen them all, right? Not so. Here, the aisles weren’t packed with penny candy and plastic toys, but Pendleton wool blankets and Minnetonka moccasins—even books written by local authors. And so it was store after store, gallery after gallery, each a source of unique, locally made wares.

By the time I’d pieced together a picnic lunch at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op (they have a co-op!) and settled onto a bench overlooking the harbor, I knew I’d been converted. The charm of Grand Marais doesn’t come from a flashy downtown or some flamboyant monument. It comes from the quiet elegance of the place; the peaceful knowledge that something special is going on here.

Which is why you can bet the next time someone says they’re making the trip up the North Shore, I’ll be the one saying, “Grand Marais? Lucky! You’re going to love it!”

MNMO’S Guide to Grand Marais


The spacious, chic rooms at East Bay Suites, ranging in size from cozy business suites to three-bedroom condos, work well for solo travelers and big groups alike. Aveda products, B&B-like features (DVD library, community yoga), and the lakeside location make it feel like a true retreat. From $99,


Wash down a jalapeño-bacon-topped burger with a micro-brew at Gun Flint Tavern (, find food as fresh as the lake itself at Angry Trout Café (, and see how high-class cuisine can feel comfortable at Chez Jude ( Pack a picnic with organic goodies from Cook County Whole Foods Co-op (


After exploring Grand Marais, drive 25 minutes north on highway 61 to Judge C.R. Magney State Park. There, hike the mile-long trail to Devil’s Kettle waterfall, where a giant boulder splits the rushing water into two halves: one continues downstream, the other disappears into a mysteriously deep and eerily ominous hole.