To hear resort owners in the north woods tell it, Brainerd is the Times Square of Minnesota.
Its crazy down there, they say, shaking their heads. Its a zoo. We dont want to be like Brainerd.
In Wisconsin, people talk the same way about Door County. Those places are busy, all right. Theyre busy because plenty of people like that kind of atmosphere the restaurants, the golf, the shopping, the fancy condo resorts.
In Clear Lake, the spirit of the 1950s didn't die with Buddy Holly.
This northern Iowa lake town, midway between the Twin Cities and Des Moines, swells with vacationers in summer but retains the laid-back, carefree air of decades past.
On the shores of the lake, classic cars cruise around pocket-sized City Park, fuzzy pink dice dangling from mirrors. Every Saturday and Sunday, the municipal band plays in the bandshell. The Lions Club grills chicken and sweet corn, and a paddlewheeler takes tourists on cruises.
In the middle of Wisconsin, the village of Rural is just far enough off the beaten path.
Founded by Yankees in the 1850s, it was the halfway point on the Stevens Point-Berlin trade route and once had a mill, an inn and a dry goods store.
But when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1870, the village eased into a slow, genteel decline.
In northern Minnesota, the logging town of Grand Rapids has produced many legends: prize lumberjacks, such as Gunnysack Pete and Tamarack Joe, but also an adorable little girl who became famous for her ruby slippers.
Loggers came first, and that era is re-created on the edge of town, on the wooded grounds of Forest History Center. On a summer day there, it may feel 80 degrees and sunny, but really it's a freezing day in December 1900.
Miss Minnie the "cookee,'' or cook's assistant, is showing us around the logging camp under the baleful glare of her boss, Miss Rebecca. We walk by a giant rut cutter, used to make grooves in the ice roads for the logging sleighs.
In its entire 150-year history as a resort town, Elkhart Lake rarely has been a sedate place.
The early resort owners loved entertainment and built opera houses, dance halls and theaters. Then they put in casinos, and gambling became so commonplace that placing a bet was like buying an ice-cream cone; everybody did it.
The town was a little bit Catskills, a little bit Vegas and a lot of Chicago.
In a quiet corner of Wisconsin lake country, Ojibwe culture lives and breathes.
The French called this place Lac du Flambeau, lake of the torches.'' To the Ojibwe it was Wa-Swa-Goning, the place where they spear fish by torchlight.
Violent protests shattered its north-woods serenity in the 1980s, when the courts upheld spear-fishing treaty rights. The backlash traumatized the community, but also strengthened its commitment to tradition.
There are thousands of lakes in the north woods, but the most famous one is a stone's throw from Illinois.
Lake Geneva has been the favorite retreat of Chicago folks for 150 years, and everybody who was anybody had a place there: the Wrigleys, Maytags and Schwinns, but also cartoonists, actors, brewers and bottle-cap makers.
Geneva will seem citified to people who vacation on woodland lakes. There's a good reason to go there, though: It's entertaining to gawk at extreme wealth, and there's no better place to do it than Lake Geneva.
In northeast Wisconsin, Minocqua is all things to all tourists.
It's been a boating destination for more than a century because it's on a chain of lakes and nearly surrounded by Lake Minocqua. In fact, it's Nature's Original Water Park, and the town has the trademark to prove it.
But summer is short, and these days, tourists like to keep busy. That's why you'll also find water-ski shows, lumberjack shows, boat tours, wildlife parks, bicycle trails, city-style shopping, golf and, in the middle of downtown, mini-golf.
In a little village in northern Wisconsin, muskie probably is still king.
Back in 1971, city boosters got the U.S. Patent Office to make Boulder Junction the official Musky Capital of the World. After all, the surrounding two counties have the world's densest concentration of lakes, and they still yield 4-foot fish.
But times change. Now, this former logging town deep in the middle of state forest has gained fame as a playground for another kind of trophy hunter.
In Bemidji, three faces tell much of the town's story.
Chief Bemidji stands facing the lake the Ojibwe called Bemidgegumaug, or "river flowing crosswise. His real name was Shaynowishkung, and he fed the white people who settled on the lake's shores in 1888.
Their settlement became the first town on the Mississippi, which starts 35 miles away in Itasca State Park, winds north to Bemidji, flows through its lake and heads east before finally turning south.
Once, Bemidji was one of the roughest towns in Minnesota. Now, it's one of the coolest.
This is the north-woods logging town that produced the original Paul Bunyan and Babe in 1937, and even today, these figures on Lake Bemidji are rarely without a cluster of tourists at their feet.
Look beyond this iconic but corny duo, as the visitors bureau fervently hopes you do, and you'll find everything else a tourist heart could desire a gorgeous state park, a paved bicycle trail, a professional playhouse, fine restaurants and shops.
There are many colossal lumberjacks, voyageurs and Indian chiefs scattered around Minnesota, all paying tribute to a colorful past.
But there's only one Big Ole.
He stands at the end of Alexandria's Broadway Street, 28 feet of glowering Viking, brandishing a spear and clutching a glistening silver shield that reads "Alexandria, Birthplace of America.''
Sister Bay is all about the water. And Swedish pancakes. And goats.
It's a tourist town, with one of its biggest draws the goats grazing on the roof of Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, placed there after a 1969 National Geographic story drew a flood of vacationers.
But Sister Bay also is where the locals go, because not only can you get ice cream and T-shirts there, but also groceries and socks.
For most tourists, Egg Harbor is the first village on the Door Peninsula.
After crossing the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, they drive 17 miles past orchards and fields before they get another glimpse of water.
Now, visitors see something else first: giant eggs. Artist-decorated eggs line roads and adorn parks to mark a village anniversary and give tourists something to look at.
Its a radical idea, but here goes: In Minnesota, you can go up to the lake by heading west.
These lakes not only are out west, theyre less than two hours from the Twin Cities, in a pocket of the state many overlook.
It was a secret to me, said Michele Stillinger, a former Twin Citian working as a naturalist at Sibley State Park. I thought I wouldnt find anything out here; I was very surprised.
In 1896, a St. Paul man named J.A. Berkey came to Minnesota's Leech Lake, threw out his line and reeled in a whole new industry.
"He set up white tents for some men from Kansas City, who fished their guts out and said, 'Were going back and telling everyone, said Renee Geving, director of the Cass County Museum.
The hook was set. Over the years, Leech Lakes reputation as a fishing hole grew as big as its muskies, which can be huge.
On the western fringes of the Twin Cities, the wealthy have staked out Lake Minnetonka.
Nearly all of its 125 miles of shoreline are privately owned, and the summer cottages built by vacationing flour millers and businessmen Pillsbury,
Northrop, Bell, Loring, Peavey have morphed into mansions.
But on the southeast corner of the sprawling lake, one town retains vestiges of the Victorian age, when steamboats ferried vacationers around the lake and day-trippers arrived on electric streetcars.
Every big city has skyscrapers. Every big city has museums and monuments. But no other city has as many beautiful lakes and parks Minneapolis does.
Early in the city's history, when its lakes still were considered swampy boondocks, city fathers decided to make their shores public property.
Today, the most expensive homes in the city face the lakes, but the public in-line skaters, bicyclists, dog-walkers owns the shorelines.
Ever since it was settled, Park Rapids has been a crossroads for tourists.
The trains that hauled out white pine at the turn of the century brought in summer guests, who were met at the depot by resort owners and taken to the lakes in wagons.
When highways were built, Park Rapids became the gateway to Itasca State Park, 20 miles to the north. After the rail line was abandoned, it became the western trailhead of the Heartland State Trail, one of the nation's first paved bicycle trails.
Big Mille Lacs is up north, but it isn't a wilderness lake. It's more like a big pond, its vast surfaces dotted with powerboats, its depths thoroughly probed.
A highway rings its 100 miles of shore, the better for boat access. Its air is laced with the perfume of gasoline, minnows and frying oil; the lake wouldn't be known as the Walleye Factory if it weren't.
But fishermen arrived only
recently. Woodland tribes were the first to thrive on its shores.
In June, racing season moves into full throttle in resort towns around Minnesota.
Speeding turtles begin their weekly sprints in Nisswa and Longville. In Perham, the "International'' Turtle Races the town says they've attracted competitors and spectators from Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East begin the week after Memorial Day.
Pelican Rapids holds weekly minnow races.
In summer, there's no better vacation than a week at the lake. Lazy afternoons on the beach, boat rides, marshmallow roasts, catching a string of sunnies these are memories families savor for decades.
But if you don't have a family cabin, where do you go?
Wisconsin has more than 15,000 lakes, about the same number as Minnesota, plus shoreline on two Great Lakes.
In Minnesota, its devilishly hard to find the lake resort thats right for you.
Everyone wants the best resort. But asking the state tourism folks to tell you which one is best is like asking a baker to pick out his best pastry: Theyre all, of course, the best.
You cant ask your friends. They can tell you only which resort they go to, and that one may be too luxurious/too rustic or not kid-friendly/too family-oriented for you.
At the top of Minnesota, there's a spectacular national park half water and all scenery.
Not only is it beautiful, but it's also the only national park we have, which you'd think would impress most people. But not, apparently, some of the locals.
My husband and I found that out two minutes after we'd arrived on Rainy Lake and were chatting with the friendly young woman checking us into our B&B.