Weekend Guide: Nisswa for Holiday Fun

Tips for celebrating the holiday season in the Brainerd Lakes area

A toasty family outing at Cragun's Resort.
A toasty family outing at Cragun’s Resort

photo by kenneth petersen

If you are planning a little holiday season escape, I highly recommend embracing the bold north with a visit to Nisswa. In a time when we hear about the demise of many small towns in America, my recent trip confirms that this community seems to be flourishing, growing, and bringing vibrancy to the Brainerd Lakes area.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities to north-central Minnesota is an easy voyage, allowing just enough time for the fast-paced life of the city to subside.

As I entered Main Street, I couldn’t help but notice the scent of roasting coffee beans and a line of folks waiting for their brew at StoneHouse Coffee. Bingo. I joined the queue for a cup of their internationally distributed, fresh-brewed Black Pearl coffee. Doing a little eavesdropping while waiting in line, I learned that leaving without one of their famous scones was simply not acceptable. My new friends clued me in that this little gem serves close to 500 scones a day during busy summer weekends. I left with the cherry-almond-raspberry scone and now understand the obsession.

On Black Friday, November 23, the light switch was turned on at exactly 5:30 p.m. to mark the beginning of Nisswa’s City of Lights Festival. Holiday lights adorn fashion boutiques and charming little spots with unique gifts on Main Street from one end to the other, creating an environment that I’m sure would meet jolly old St. Nick’s approval.

The exterior of Woodland Meadow gift shop.
The Woodland Meadow gift shop

photo by ackerman + gruber

The Chocolate Ox Sweets shop is always a highlight. Its owner, Rob Stoll, decorates the exterior of the shop in twinkling lights while the inside looks like a scene out of the film Elf, complete with decorated trees hanging upside down from the ceiling. The Woodland Meadow has been a favorite for the past 25 years, offering an array of gift ideas, from jewelry to home décor, and it’s a chance to give items created by local artists.

Don’t do your holiday shopping on an empty stomach. I always enjoy exploring local diners, and this time it was Ganley’s Restaurant downtown. Luke Ganley’s family has owned the restaurant for the past 35 years. I asked him to set me up with one of his house favorites. The pork tenderloin sandwich—battered, deep-fried pork tenderloin on white toast with pickles and a side of mayo—was something I would never have ordered on my own, but I am so glad I got it. He says the item originated at Happy Days restaurant in Minneapolis back in the ’50s and was a favorite of Luke’s father. Many city folks recall this favorite and say it’s a dead ringer for the original.

A dad and his daughter walking into Grandview Lodge.
Grand View Lodge

photo by ackerman + gruber

There are great resorts surrounding Nisswa and the Brainerd Lakes area. For your holiday visit, check out these options on Gull Lake: Madden’s, Cragun’s Resort, and the Grand View Lodge, which offers an all-inclusive holiday experience. Grand View is elegantly decorated throughout the season. Each cabin includes a real, decorated tree, and as a bonus for the children, Santa’s helpers pay a visit to the rooms to tuck them in on Christmas Eve. During the 12 days of activities for the entire family leading up to December 25, there are classes for crafts, ice fishing, baking, and more. For adults, a Christmas beer- and wine-tasting event takes place while the kiddos are entertained in the Norway Center’s indoor playground. On Christmas Day, an all-day buffet evolves from breakfast to brunch to dinner.

Finally, burn off all of the holiday feasting on the Pines Golf Course, converted to 15 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails with free equipment rentals for guests. If it’s not already clear, Christmas in Nisswa is, well, a big deal—I mean a really big deal.

Eat, Play, Stay in Nisswa

Ice fishing on Gull Lake.
Ice fishing on Gull Lake

photo by ackerman + gruber

Bar Harbor

Located on Gull Lake’s north shore, the elegant supper club Bar Harbor opened its doors in 1938. During the holidays, it’s a winter wonderland, where deer often cross the lake to the marvel of diners. Enjoy a classic Manhattan in front of the fireplace while listening to Tom Hunter tickle the ivories performing Frank Sinatra. For dinner, I recommend the Cabernet-braised short ribs with buttered mashed potatoes and baby carrots. Heavenly.

Paul Bunyan Trail

When in Nisswa, do as the locals do: Rent snowmobiles and head out on the Paul Bunyan Trail. The 120-mile trail is great for cycling in the summer but also perfect for snowshoeing, snowmobiling, hiking, and cross-country skiing this time of year.

Hit the Slopes

For skiing and snow tubing, Mount Ski Gull awaits.