Seeking an outdoor hot tub
It's just the thing on a cold winter day, but only a few resorts and inns have one.
© National Forest Lodge
Skiers at National Forest Lodge in northeast Minnesota love the outdoor hot tub, overlooking Lake Gegoka.
In winter, there's nothing better than relaxing in a hot tub after a day outdoors.
Hot tubs are a dime a dozen — inside B&Bs and hotels. But the ones outside? Much harder to find.
I love the hot tub at Maplelag cross-country ski resort in western Minnesota. We ski all day, then collapse into its giant tub — the largest in the state — and chat with fellow skiers until the warmth and steam lull us into a happy stupor.
When Maplelag built its new lodge, it put a retractable roof over the tub and sliding-glass doors on the sides. Luckily, bathers still can catch a breeze and get snowflakes in their eyelashes.
People love outdoor hot tubs, but they're hard to find because they're such a pain to maintain. Andy Fisher, who bought the National Forest Lodge in northeast Minnesota with his wife, Lura Wilson, in 2008, had to take a certification course to continue operating the communal hot tub.
But he says he didn't mind that, or continually checking pH balance, chlorine levels and the filtration system, a process that discourages many resort owners.
"People just love to soak in there after a day of skiing and snowshoeing,'' he says. "It's a fantastic thing to stare up at the white pine trees, and see the stars and the snowflakes drifting down and melting as they approach the water. Sure, it's expensive and a little bit of a hassle, but so what?"
Farther up the North Shore near Grand Portage, the hot tub on the rocky shore outside Rick Anderson's Sweetgrass Cove Guest House has practical uses.
"It's therapy,'' says Anderson, a certified massage therapist. "Most of my guests are from the Twin Cities, and after five hours of driving, that's the first place they go.''
He explains that the jets are there for a reason: "Hydrotherapy with any kind of percussive motion does relax you, just like a massage does,'' he says. "The heat takes away pain in some cases, stretches out muscles and increases circulation.''
It's not that easy to find an outdoor hot tub these days. The one at Wisconsin's High Point Village resort, where I soaked gratefully after nearly getting lost on the Ice Age National Trail, is gone.
© Lauren Gagner
Guests use one of the hot tubs at Cottages at Serenity Lake.
And the outdoor tub is gone at Thayers Inn in Annandale, Minn., where I once did a post-mortem on that evening's murder-mystery dinner with the murder victim and his wife.
Maplelag in northwest Minnesota, north of Detroit Lakes. This top-notch cross-country ski resort has a large, mostly open hot tub as well as a sauna and steam room in its main lodge.
For more, see Happy days at Maplelag.
National Forest Lodge near Isabella, between Minnesota's North Shore and Ely. Built in the 1920s, it's been a cross-country ski resort since the 1970s and grooms 30 kilometers of national-forest trails that start from the door. Often, it has snow when the North Shore doesn't.
There's a large outdoor hot tub as well as wood-fired sauna. Guests stay in 10 cabins and a modern log home, and meals in the lodge are included in the rate.
For more, see Gliding in the pines.
Heartwood Conference Center & Retreat (formerly the Schwan Center), Minong, Wis.: This attractive resort, about 40 minutes west of Hayward, has a 10-person hot tub that it keeps open in winter (except when the temperature drops below zero).
It has a swimming beach and trails for mountain biking and cross-country skiing. It also offers canoe or kayak trips on the Namekagon River.
Lodgings are in a hotel, cottages and duplexes that sleep up to 14 each and have kitchens and fireplaces. Meals are available for groups.
Larsmont Cottages between Duluth and Two Harbors. This newly built townhouse/cottage complex is off Scenic 61, on the shore of Lake Superior. There's a four-season outdoor whirlpool and also a wood-fired Finnish sauna and fire pits.
Sweetgrass Cove Guest House and Body Work Studio near Grand Portage, Minn. Not far from the Canadian border, Rick Anderson rents a three-room wing of his inn on the shore of Lake Superior to one party at a time. There's also a wood-fired Finnish sauna.
Bluefin Bay resort in Tofte on Minnesota's North Shore. This popular resort on Lake Superior has a hot tub that's outdoors but protected from wind by a glass wall. You can't beat the view — it's right on the lake.
At Maplelag ski resort in northwest Minnesota, glass panels open to the outdoors.
McCormick House in Hayward, Wis. The proprietor of this 1887 Victorian bed-and-breakfast in northwest Wisconsin lakes country didn't want to put whirlpools into his elegant rooms, so he installed an outdoor spa, overlooking formal English gardens and a reflecting pool.
Lake L'Homme Dieu B&B in Alexandria, Minn. This newer cedar-and-brick inn on a lake has an outdoor hot tub and also hot tubs in its four rooms.
Water parks with indoor-outdoor hot tubs: Just duck under a plastic curtain, and you're outside. In Wisconsin, you'll find them at Wilderness Resort in Wisconsin Dells, Timber Ridge Lodge at Grand Geneva in Lake Geneva and at the Waters of Minocqua resort in Minocqua.
In Minnesota's Brainerd-Baxter area, the Lodge at Brainerd Lakes and Rapid River Lodge have them.
Rental cabins and houses
It's easier to find outdoor hot tubs at private rentals. You can find them on city, regional and state web sites (see Renting a vacation house).
Many people rent directly from owners through such worldwide services as VRBO, Vacation Rentals by Owner, which has a huge number of properties in the region, and HomeAway, whose web site has an advanced-search function that makes it easier to find a property.
Near Black River Falls, Wis., the four Cottages on Serendipity Lake each has an outdoor hot tub with lake views.
For more, see Adventures in renting.
Last updated on January 30, 2013