As soon as we turned off the highway into Nisswa, my childrens heads began to swivel.
"Souvenirs . . . Gift Shop . . . Moccasins, read my daughter Madeleine. "And look Candy Store.
"This is a cute town, said my son Peter, noticing the covered sidewalks. "Its like a cowboy town.
To hear resort owners in the north woods tell it, Brainerd is the Times Square of Minnesota.
"It's crazy down there," they say, shaking their heads. "It's a zoo. We don't want to be like Brainerd."
In Wisconsin, people talk the same way about Door County. Those places are busy, all right. They're busy because plenty of people like that kind of atmosphere the restaurants, the golf, the shopping, the fancy condo resorts.
In winter, the famous Brainerd Lakes freeze over, ice houses replace pontoon boats and skiers and snowmobilers ply the forests.
That makes it a good time to find a deal. We got one and didn't feel too deprived by the lack of snow.
We hiked under bright-blue skies in a frosted forest, crossing bogs and watching for wildlife. And because we had time, we finally discovered something we'd bypassed dozens of times.
Out in the countryside, fall is a good time to go hunting.
There's so much to scout out autumn colors, new trails, interesting shops. Lots of people head for the river valleys, to orchards on the St. Croix and towns along the Mississippi.
But one October, two girlfriends and I headed north instead. And in an overlooked part of the state, between Brainerd and Mille Lacs, we found a rich vein of fun.
It was a warm, sunny fall day in the heart of Minnesota. The woods were aglow with color, and there were many ways to wallow in it on trails for hiking, paved paths for biking, lakes for boating.
But something was missing. Where were all the people?
Apparently, they were on the North Shore, fighting for space amid crowds that arrive as reliably as spawning salmon.
It's as wide as seven axhandles and a plug of tobacco, and as smooth as a flapjack griddle.
It unfurls over a landscape dotted with lakes created, according to north-woods legend, by the tracks of a giant lumberjack and his faithful blue ox.
It's the Paul Bunyan State Trail, and it links Minnesota's main Bunyan shrines.
North of moneyed Gull Lake, the Brainerd Lakes area starts to look more like traditional Minnesota resort country.
There's still plenty of money and big boats, especially on the Whitefish Chain. But this also is a place where vacationing families gather to race ducks (Fridays at 1 p.m., Pine River) and eat beans (Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, July 8-9 in 2014).
In summer, the crowds pour into the Brainerd Lakes, the Minnesota vacation land that's been stomping grounds for millionaires and middle managers alike since the loggers finished up and headed west.
What's it known for? Lakes, of course. And golf.
It's not so known for its restaurants, but that may be because only locals know the best places.
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.
As adults, we sometimes forget how great it is to be a kid.
People give you toys to play with. They show you new games and explain things in interesting ways. They feed you freshly baked cookies and s'mores.
Kids take it for granted. But I didn't one January, when I got to stay at Deep Portage Learning Center, in the woods north of Brainerd.
Its hard to tell where it started, this love affair we tundra dwellers have with the game of golf. Maybe we just love being surrounded by acres of perfect green grass, since much of the year the ground is white or brown.
When the big golf tournaments come to town, a TV announcer always says, You know that Minnesota leads the nation in active golfers per capita, and the response always is Huh!
Golf and golf-related travel spending in Minnesota exceeds a billion dollars a year, making it one of the states largest industries and yet the season is on the short side of six months.
The days when the Brainerd area was best known for lakes are long gone.
Today, it has more golf holes than fishing holes and there are 465 lakes within 25 miles of Brainerd, a railroad town that lends its name to a swath of north-central Minnesota that includes the lakeside villages of Nisswa, Breezy Point, Crosslake and Deerwood.
Golf Digest has ranked the Brainerd Lakes one of the Top 50 golf destinations in the world, which is pretty good for real estate that spends most of the year under snow.