We’re sitting on a broad wooden patio at breezy point resort on Pelican Lake, north of Brainerd, waiting for burgers. It is indeed breezy here next to the beach, to the point where I don’t dare let go of anything lighter than a peppershaker. My husband, Mike, has given up trying to control the newspaper.
The bay in front of this sprawling resort—it has its own water tower and a faux log skyway—is awash in pontoon boats, Jet Skis, and every type of inflatable device imaginable. The beach is populated by children jacked on soda, men in golf wear, and bikini-clad women with Hawaiian Tropic sheens. It’s just past noon, and already the crowd is pie-eyed. Two guys pass our table dragging a leaden cooler. One glances over and smiles. “We’re locked and loaded,” he says, drawing a knowing chuckle from the friend bringing up the rear.
Breezy Point was built almost a century ago by wealthy publisher Wilfred Hamilton Fawcett, who founded a magazine called Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. Breezy Point’s interior is festooned with framed Whiz Bang covers and full-page cartoons. One shows a dancer who’s fallen in a nightclub, her skirt up over her knees. The caption reads, “A good floor show.”
The original lodge, which burned down in 1959, featured an enormous dining room and dance hall with two towering rock fireplaces and a stage for the in-house orchestra. Back then, the likes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Jack Dempsey stayed here. Vacationers can rent Captain Billy’s 10-bedroom log home, which has been preserved in all its rustic glory, otherwise there isn’t a lot the stars of yore would recognize about present-day Breezy Point.
Like many anchors of the Brainerd lakes area, the resort has super-sized and modernized, expanding both its physical footprint and its appeal to a wide swath of Minnesotans: golfers, business people, families, partiers. With two golf courses, four tennis courts, a convention center, three restaurants, a marina, an ice arena, and an Elvis impersonator on Saturday nights, today’s Breezy Point is less a debouched hideaway than an up-north Disneyland.
Brainerd’s iconic resorts, owned by dynastic families like the Kavanaughs, the Ruttgers, the Cotes, and the Craguns, have grown into self-contained small towns, often with their own real-estate offices. Privately-owned cabins have swelled right along with them, so that most built after 1980 resemble suburban homes or country estates. Yet even the biggest abodes tend to sport the requisite Brainerd touches: handmade signs bearing family names, decorative canoe paddles, and great expanses of what Mike calls “O.P.”— ostentatious pine.
Brainerd has never been a haven for fancy taste. People don’t come here to be stylish; they come here to escape the need to be stylish. They fight traffic all the way up from the Twin Cities to relax—to drink too much, eat too much, and forget the job for a while.
In the 1970s, my father—who wore Wrangler cutoffs and Holiday Station tennis shoes even as he listened to Chopin and sipped Liebfraumilch—owned a cabin on Round Lake, part of the Gull Lake chain. He himself was a force for modernization. He bought a quaint log cabin, intentionally burned it down, and with the insurance money built a much larger place with a Mansard roof and wall-to-wall carpeting.
As a kid, I spent most summers with Dad at the cabin. We canoed and swam in our shallow lake and frequented every amusement park, petting zoo, and miniature golf course within a 50-mile radius. We took long walks in the Pillsbury State Forest and feasted on prime rib and au gratin potatoes at the area’s best supper clubs. Usually Dad managed to polish off a carafe of Gallo with his meal. (This was when “white” or “red” were the choices.) On the way home, Dad would race his Cadillac DeVille over a series of paved bumps on County Road 77, trying to lift me out of my seat. Such is what passed for entertainment in Brainerd in the 1970s.
It’s no secret that the Brainerd lakes area has seen massive changes in recent decades. One need only view the palatial welcome center and rest stop on Highway 371, complete with flat-screen televisions framed in pine, to know that. Travelers who continue on through Baxter will encounter a daunting string of box stores and chain restaurants, a transformation locals refer to as “Baxterization.” I have to admit, these days, when Mike and I travel to our cabin near Bemidji, we almost always take the long way in order to avoid Brainerd and Baxter. For years, I have literally averted my eyes.
Yet now here we are in the heart of the beast, munching on giant hamburgers at Breezy Point. As I finish my last French fry, I wonder, is the summer escape of my youth still around here somewhere? Does a semblance of Brainerd’s old charm remain?
My questions are answered in the affirmative the moment we arrive at Samara Point Resort on Gull Lake. A peaceful throwback, the resort consists of eight cabins—most built of pine in the late 1950s—strung lightly along a forested stretch of sandy beach. Samara has been owned since 1975 by the Bombenger family, the patriarch, Bud, aka “Mr. Bubs,” and his daughters, Sue and Laura.
This may be Gull’s last holdout. There is no golf course or spa here, and wireless Internet is available only at the office. We’re greeted by fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and a hand-drawn chalkboard sign that reads, “Welcome home, Jennifer and Mike.” The attention to detail is impressive. It seems there isn’t much Bud can’t cobble from a coffee can or a hunk of wood, including several tables, a barbecue grill, and wall lamps in the living room and bedrooms.
Mike and I unpack into the cabin, which has a wood-burning fireplace and a screened porch facing the lake. Immediately, time loses speed and we are overcome by the desire to lounge. We empty our bags of books and magazines and settle in. Before long, I’m so relaxed, I’m nearly asleep. So I pull myself up like a good city person and set out to find one of my favorite summer spots of old: Ski Gull, near the Pillsbury Forest.
I haven’t been here for decades, but the terrain hasn’t changed. I walk a narrow gravel road, absolutely alone, the wind shushing through stands of paper birch, sugar maple, and red pine. That holy trinity, I realize, is the image that comes to my mind whenever someone utters “forest” or “woods.”
Finally, I’m atop Ski Gull, at the edge of a steep drop. I plant myself on a wooden platform under a row of limp blue lift chairs, next to a seasonally abandoned shelter strewn with beer bottles and benign graffiti, like “Bob was here” and “Kevin was too.”
From my perch, I can see for miles, across the entire Brainerd area. This is what draws people, I think—the crisp air and clumps of trees as thick as broccoli. It’s utterly peaceful, except for the occasional shotgun blast from the nearby Lakeshore Conservation Club.
Brainerd began as a railroad town, founded around 1870 by Northern Pacific Railway president John Gregory Smith, who named the city after his wife, Ann Eliza Brainerd Smith. At one time, Brainerd was home to a station that serviced trains for the whole Northern Pacific line. The railroad helped forward the local lumber industry and cleared the way for iron-ore mining.
If jobs first brought people here, the terrain and cool northern climate made them stay, especially in the days before air conditioning. Within 25 miles of Brainerd, once dubbed “the city of the pines,” there are more than 460 lakes. Crow Wing County’s tourism business brings in nearly $200 million annually.
This, spread before me, is the cradle of Minnesota’s cabin country.
Here’s something you can’t do just anywhere: boat to a restaurant. The Gull Lake chain is a series of eight connected lakes. Dip in any place on the chain, and you have water access to two counties and a host of restaurants and lounges.
Our cabin at Samara comes outfitted with a 14-foot aluminum Crestliner, built in the 1950s in Little Falls. It’s sans motor though, so Mike has brought one from home. In a great up-north moment, the resort staff doesn’t blink an eye when I reveal that we’ve lugged a 15-horsepower Johnson in the trunk of our Honda Civic. “Whatever you want to do is fine with us,” Laura says. “Do you need life jackets?”
By the standards of Gull Lake, cruising along in our low-power, low-profile Crestliner is a bit like racing a skateboard in the Indy 500. But it’s the perfect embodiment of our philosophy on this trip: we’re vacationing old style. No deck boats or Grady-Whites for us.
At 7 p.m., we tie up at one of the best restaurants in the area, The Narrows at Lost Lake Lodge. We’re seated in the new dining room, which overlooks birch trees and the Gull Lake Narrows. The room is decorated in simple, north-woods style, featuring broad swathes of Sheetrock and pine. The menu is built around courses with inventive wine pairings. I can’t help but think how surprised Dad would be to see his beloved prime rib and carafes of “white” supplanted by sea scallops and Sbragia Chardonnay.
One indisputable upside to the new Brainerd? Its improved dining options. Stay in a remote cabin on an unspoiled lake, and you either cook your own food or drive half an hour to the Friday night VFW fish fry. Here, in bustling cabin country, if you are lucky enough to find a hideaway like Samara Point, you can rusticate and eat well, too.
Case in point is StoneHouse Coffee in downtown Nisswa, which opened in 2001 and roasts its own beans and bakes its own pastries. StoneHouse serves a rich cup of joe and also the best mixed-berry scones I’ve ever tasted. (Seriously, I almost ate the bag they came in.)
Nisswa has become boutique-heavy. But, to my relief, it has maintained old standards, too, like the Totem Pole souvenir shop, which opened in 1947. The store is a time capsule, selling Minnetonka moccasins, fart powder, and faux American Indian head dresses. Out front, there is an actual totem pole, probably the only one in the world incorporating Paul Bunyan’s visage. There’s also a fortune-telling American Indian enclosed in glass. “Do you seek wisdom?” he asks. “Medicine man know ancient truth.”
Our waitress arrives with The Narrows’ signature bread basket. The restaurant doesn’t just bake its own bread and biscuits, it actually grinds the flour for said bread and biscuits. We’re treated to olive bread, French bread, Parmesan biscuits, and devilishly flaky spinach-and-artichoke palmiers.
The next hour is spent noshing walleye cakes, perfectly pan-seared California sea bass atop farfalle pasta, succulent duck breast marinated in sake-and-peach purée, and a slice of deftly tart Key lime pie. My husband and I ask for the remainder of the bread basket to go, a first for us.
Outside, menacing clouds have gathered and the wind has picked up, so we race across Gull to our cabin, arriving just ahead of the storm. We finish the evening with a glass of wine in the screened porch, a stunning sunset off our private dock, and a fire in the fireplace. We’re asleep by 10 p.m.
At 6 a.m., I wake to the barking of crows.
I pull a pillow over my head, but the caws still echo in my ears. So I get up and make coffee, which I enjoy with leftover bread from The Narrows.
Mike heads out fishing, and I set off on a field trip of my own to the newly christened 5,000-acre Cuyuna Country Recreation Area near Crosby. What used to be a series of denuded iron-ore mines—more than 100 million tons were shipped from Cuyuna between 1904 and 1984—has been transformed into a wooded wonderland, no ATVs allowed.
The 15 mine lakes, some with telltale square edges, are deep and clear and surrounded by hills of discarded rock now densely forested. The lakes are popular with paddlers, scuba divers, and fishermen, because they are stocked with trout. A 22-mile, single-track mountain biking trail is scheduled to open here soon. In some ways, Cuyuna looks more like the Boundary Waters than Brainerd, except that most of the puddles along my path are tinted burnt orange, a reminder of what lies beneath the pine needles. Walking through the park, I find myself thinking: This area is so much more beautiful than it used to be.
I’m drawn up a winding gravel road by a sign promising a “scenic overlook.” Along the way, I pass a pair of young mountain bikers and a middle-aged couple in a pickup truck; the husband declares, “Isn’t this place something!” The view from the overlook is nothing short of spectacular. As I sit on a boulder, a hawk flies overhead.
Hiking has made me hungry, and I regret having passed on the extravagant Sunday brunch buffet at Grand View Lodge, just down the road from Samara. Built in 1919 of Norway pine, the resort’s main lodge is one of the most luxurious buildings on Gull Lake, which is why Paul Newman stayed there when racing at Brainerd International Raceway.
I stopped in at 10 that morning and found a male staffer raking seaweed from a beach meticulously arranged with white deck chairs, James Taylor wafting from the nearby ice-cream parlor. Men and women with sweaters tied jauntily about their necks motored about on golf carts. A man and his teenaged daughter stood engrossed in a game of shuffleboard. I kid you not.
Inside the stately lodge, with its log walls, antler chandeliers, and stone fireplace surveilled by a stuffed moose head, was the buffet. There were shining platters of eggs Benedict, bacon, beef tips, fruit, and waffles as far as the eye could see. It seemed too perfect to eat. Or so I thought at the time.
Seeking lunch, I drive to Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge. Established in 1898, it was one of the first resorts in the Brainerd area and is still family-run. I find a table on the wooden deck facing the lake and order lemonade and homemade vegetable-beef soup, which turns out to be just the thing, hearty and perfectly salty.
Ruttger’s feels more down home than Grand View, though it too has grown large, offering condos and villas in addition to the original cabins. In the lobby, two teenagers drink soda and play chess while an old couple sits glued to a television. The staff arranges silverware in Ruby’s Dining Room, canopied by a tremendous vaulted pine ceiling. The cozy scene makes me wish I was staying for dinner, but Mike and I have other plans.
It’s a perfect 75 degrees outside, but once again the wind is howling and the white caps test the limits of our diminutive Crestliner. An armada of pleasure craft, each bigger than the next, is being funneled into the narrow channel that leads to Bar Harbor supper club, a longtime Brainerd fixture and favorite of Dad’s.
A Bayliner loaded with sunburned hooligans roars up on our starboard side, competing to enter the channel first. The captain hits the throttle, throwing a treacherous wake and an incredulous look our way. My steely husband opens up our Johnson, and somehow we hold the lead and win the race. Mike, of course, is thrilled.
At Bar Harbor, we park next to a speedboat that’s as smooth and shapely as a modern electric razor. Two pre-teen dock boys approach and grab the ropes to tie us up. They show no revulsion toward our Tin Lizzie, so I tip them well.
I’m embarking on a treacherous endeavor: revisiting a childhood memory. Boating here with Dad after a day in the sun was magical. This was where I first experienced the deeply adult atmosphere of the supper club in all its liberated mystery, where dinner lasts all night, phone numbers are scribbled on the backs of matchbooks, and nefarious dealings are toasted with vodka on the rocks.
This is the third Bar Harbor to grace this spot. Originally opened in 1938, it once had a dance floor mounted on piers in the lake; Duke Ellington played here. Nowadays, with plastic Budweiser pennants flapping in the wind, the restaurant has shed a bit of its glamour. Judging by the “horny goat weed” available in the men’s room, however, it’s still the place for those seeking good times. Mike and I find a table on the patio, and I order a gin and tonic from a waitress who claims to know nothing about gin because she’s underage. As if that ever stopped anybody.
The setting sun spreads diamonds across the water as three leather-clad, inebriated racing fans stumble from the patio toward their boat. This is a big weekend for motor enthusiasts, as the National Hot Rod Association holds drag races at Brainerd International Raceway.
The NHRA nationals typically draw close to 100,000 people, and I think how strange it is that I haven’t encountered more fans. Then it occurs to me that Brainerd, with its hundreds of lakes and ample forests, is expansive enough to accommodate a wide range of desires and designs. It’s all at once a quiet escape, a golfing mecca, a natural paradise, a culinary wonderland, and a hot-rod haven.
With a warm gin buzz, we set out for dinner at Sherwood Forest, on nearby Lake Margaret. The lodge, a national historic site, was built in the 1920s of logs originally scheduled to be pier pilings in Duluth. It looks virtually unchanged from when Dad and I used to come here for hot chocolate. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have changed much since it was constructed, when the two 50-foot center beams were placed by block and tackle.
Mike and I are seated next to a stone fireplace with built-in stairs that lead to a piano loft. It’s a romantic setting, if a bit quiet. These days Sherwood Forest is owned by Grand View, so it’s no surprise when our filet mignon with béarnaise sauce and battered halibut with dill remoulade arrive studiously prepared.
By the time we’re back in the boat, the wind has reached gale force, but we’ve got one more stop before heading back to Samara. As we float through the small channel that connects Gull Lake to Round Lake, the swimming pool of my youth, I’m thinking how nostalgia and reverie underpin most good cabin trips. We skirt the shore until finally we reach it: Dad’s old cabin, Mansard roof and all.
I take a long look. It appears much the same—same chimney, same deck—except it’s been painted tan. The lawn is mowed, and the day lilies are gone. I think I recognize the maple trees I planted as a kid. The cabin next door has been replaced by a suburban rambler that makes Dad’s stab at modernization appear old-fashioned.
And then I see it, a small red sign. The cabin is for sale. A new round of change is in store.
One of my last missions in brainerd is to find Paul Bunyan. In 2003, the 27-foot-tall talking statue was removed from its longtime dais at the intersection of highways 371 and 210, where it watched over vacationers and served as the area’s de facto Lincoln Memorial.
Bunyan, along with the rest of the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center, was carted away to clear the deck for a Kohl’s, which commemorates Bunyan with two large footprints in the parking lot. As I near the new Paul Bunyan Land, located east of Brainerd, I fully expect to be disappointed, even outraged.
I enter the park behind two young children. As soon as they pass the entrance, the teenage girl manning the register whispers a couple of names into a microphone, “Julia and Gordon.” She’s talking to the man upstairs, the voice of Bunyan. I smile knowingly at the girl, recalling my own experience as tyke, terrified when the statue bellowed, “Hello there, Jennifer!”
The girl smiles back and says, “Tricky, right?”
This is an old Brainerd ritual, parents dragging their mystified, delighted, or wary children to be greeted by one of the largest animated statues in the world.
Paul looks just as I remember, sitting on his custom-made throne. He’s got the same blinking eyes, the same turning head, the same synthetic-fur chest hair, the same size 40 hat. He looks good, as though his face has been recently painted. He greets Julia and Gordon in the usual manner, and they are thrilled. When the family finally pulls away, Julia screams from her stroller, “Bye!”
More kids come and go. Some sit on Paul’s boot—“Hey, don’t tickle my feet,” he says—on the way to the Dodgem cars and the Ferris wheel, all from the original amusement center and looking worse for wear.
I sit at a nearby picnic table, watching. I can’t take my eyes off Paul. Finally, he blinks in my direction and speaks. “Taking notes, huh?”
“Yep,” I say to the statue, rather than to the mirrored window where the man impersonating Paul Bunyan sits. I want to ask what he thinks of all the changes in Brainerd. I want to find out if he’s disappointed by his new digs. But it seems like poor sportsmanship to bring up either topic to this stalwart force for cheer.
Paul looks at me, utterly benign. “When you’re running a whole lumber camp,” he says, “you don’t have time for things like taking notes.”
Just then, a young boy darts for Paul’s boot. “Hey buddy, how you doin’?” Paul asks.
I’m glad to find that some things in Brainerd haven’t changed. And as for the things that have, if Paul Bunyan can take it, so can I.
The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes
Large lodge featuring the Paul Bunyan Water Park. Ideal for families with kids. 218-822-5634, lodgehotelsbrainerd.com
Shady Hollow Resort
Camping and cabins, both rustic and new, tucked into a wooded neighborhood a few miles off Highway 371. 218-828-9308, shadyhollowresort.com
Black Bear Lodge and Saloon
Hearty log-cabin style restaurant offering prime rib, walleye, steaks, pasta, a burger bar, and sandwiches. 218-828-8400, blackbearlodgemn.com
Prairie Bay Grill and Catering
Upscale and creative, this candlelit restaurant features fresh local ingredients and sushi night on Tuesdays. 218-824-6444, prairiebay.com
Whiteley Creek Bed and Breakfast
Staying at this B&B is like traveling back in time. Bees and chickens are raised on the grounds, gardens surround the house, and handmade quilts add a homey touch. 218-829-0654. whiteleycreek.com
Classic family-owned restaurant serving three square meals daily. 218-829-1551, northwindgrille.com
Coco Moon Coffee Bar & Gift
A full-service coffee bar with a giftshop, artwork, and free Wi-Fi. 218-825-7955
A quintessential diner offering homemade food, bottomless cups of coffee, and the friendliest service in town. Don’t leave without sampling a slice of pie: it’s heavenl . 218-829-9297
Made-from-scratch chocolates and fudge, bulk candy, and specialty gifts. 218-828-7844, chocolateetc.lbu.com
Great for families with kids, this cozy corner joint offers standard diner fare and excellent breakfast items, available all day. 218-829-5444
Lake Ridge Resort
A gorgeous lodge with world-class golfing, boating, fishing, and other outdoor activities. 218-692-2246, whitefish-lodge.com
Manhattan Beach Lodge
Located on Big Trout Lake, the lodge provides everything from food to recreation, leaving nothing for you to do but enjoy a your vacation. 218-692-3381, mblodge.com
Ox Lake Tavern
Hand-patted burgers, a lakeside deck, and a large selection of beer (or bring your own liquor—Ox Lake provides the mixers). 218-692-3423, oxlaketavern.com
Tie up your boat to one of Moonlite Bay’s 50 dock slips and treat yourself to live music and good food on the restaurant’s expansive outdoor patio. 218-692-3575, moonlitebay.com
Never mind its odd shape. The Wharf offers lots of classic American fare, three outdoor decks, and a large lawn patio. 218-692-3454, thewharfcrosslake.com
Cragun’s Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake
Sprawling lakeside resort with two restaurants, water activities, bonfires, golfing, spa, meeting rooms, and more. 800-272-4867, craguns.com
Madden’s on Gull Lake
One of the staple resorts of the Brainerd area. Lots of options for dining, lodging, and activities. 218-829-2811, maddens.com
Gull Lake Resort
Great for families and fans of fishing. Gull Lake offers a variety of cabin options and is close to golf courses and biking trails. 218-829-1344, gulllake.com
Iven’s on the Bay
Fresh and creative food to go with a well-stocked wine list, specialty martinis, and home-grown herbs. In short: great dining. 218-829-9872, ivensonthebay.com
Ernie’s on Gull Lake
A staple of the area, Ernie’s offers a full-service bar, restaurant, and banquet facility. 218-829-3918, erniesongull.com
The Classic Grill at Madden’s
Located within Madden’s resort, this is the ultimate spot for a romantic dinner for two, with nightly specials and an extensive wine list. 218-829-2811, maddens.com
Grand View Lodge
One of Gull Lake’s swankiest resorts, offering both cute and upscale lodging and dining options, along with golfing, a waterpark, and the area’s poshest spa. 866-801-2951, grandviewlodge.com
Lost Lake Lodge
Newer, upscale cabins and fine dining in an intimate setting. 218-963-2681, lostlake.com
Good Ol’ Days Resort
Completely renovated four-season resort featuring 10 new cottages and an 8-unit lodge. 800-227-4501, goodoldaysresort.com
Samara Point Resort
A meticulously preserved lodge and rustic pine cabins on Gull Lake. 218-963-2615, samarapoint.com
Brand new, small plate, fine-dining restaurant with a truly exquisite wine cellar. Duck and Mourvèdre Rosé after a day of walleye fishing? Yes! At Grand View Lodge. 866-801-2951, grandviewlodge.com
Stone House Coffee
Savory scones and a great coffee brewed from fresh-roasted beans. 218-961-2326, stonehousecoffee.com
Quarterdeck Resort & Restaurant
Known for its award-winning Sunday brunch and prime rib and crab-leg buffet. 218-963-2482, quarterdeckresort.com
Black Pine Beach Resort
Idyllic resort located on Whitefish Lake, offering 13 deluxe lake cottages. 218-543-4714, blackpinebeach.com
Local favorite for lunch and dinner. Casual fare with a full bar and extensive wine list. 218-568-4177, maysonsgrille.com
Adored since 1948 for home-smoked ribs and chicken, as well as handmade barbecue sauce. Motto: “The only thing we
overlook is Kimble Lake.” 218-543-6136, norwayridge.com
Salads, sandwiches, wraps, smoothies, and desserts, all freshly prepared and served with a fun Caribbean twist. Located inside the stretch of shops on Main Street. 218-568-8489