MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Cabins & cottages

A roof in the woods

In state and county parks and forests, visitors love their camper cabins.

For people who love the outdoors, luxury is in the eye of the beholder.

Is it a Jacuzzi or a latrine? A four-course breakfast or a fire ring?

The answer is not so obvious. If the choice also includes starry skies, silence and snow-laden pines, many folks would take a camper cabin over a fancy inn, even if they have to use vault toilets and cook over a fire.

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Michigan's great lake cabins

In the only state that borders three Great Lakes, the best places to stay are in state parks.

On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.

When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.

But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.

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Staying in a state park

Don't like to camp? Cabins and guesthouses are cushy, but still in the middle of nature.

When you stay in a state park, you can't expect a lot of nightlife.

Unless you count all of the stars. And the candlelight skiing. And the hot-cocoa cocktails.

There's a lot to do in a state park, night and day. When friends and I rented a guesthouse in St. Croix State Park, we became part of an exclusive club — people who get to stay in relative luxury while being right in the middle of the action.

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Where to stay in Door County

This tourist playground has a dizzying array of resorts, cottages, motels and inns — everything but chains.

If you think it’s expensive to stay in Wisconsin's Door County, you haven’t looked very hard.

In June, rates can be almost ludicrously low, cheaper than a Super 8. And even on weekends in July and August, it’s not hard to find a decent place for less than $100.

The Door Peninsula's breezy beaches are the place to be when the rest of the region is sweltering. During one early June heat wave, temperatures there were 20 to 40 degrees lower, and lodging rates were low, too — I paid $147.50 not for one night at a motel, but for three.

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Where to stay on Minnesota's North Shore

Everyone wants a place on the big lake, and here's a guide to the best.

In summer and fall, don't rely on luck to get a reservation on Minnesota's North Shore.

In the heat of summer, everyone wants to bask in Lake Superior's cooling breezes. In fall, everyone wants to see the fall colors. On winter weekends, skiers flock in.

Below are a few of the many places to stay; reserve as far in advance as possible for popular dates, especially Minnesota's school break in October.

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Snug on the St. Croix

In Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a guesthouse lets guests dwell in comfort amid 7,000 acres of beauty.

In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a ski’s length from 35 miles of groomed trails and a 10-minute trek from the St. Croix River, sits a cozy little house surrounded by forest.

For one winter night, the two-bedroom, carpeted house, a private residence built not long before the park was established in 1978, belonged to me and my children.

We arrived at dusk, and my children swarmed over it as only children can do, giving a running commentary: "Boy, this is a nice cabin,’’ said my son Peter. "Wow, a nice shower. Isn’t this great? And oh, look’’ — he peered out the window at a big thermometer — "you can tell the temperature.’’

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Ensconced in Ely

A guesthouse overlooking Bear Head Lake is just one of the hideaways in Minnesota state parks.

In Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, there are three places to spend the night: a tent, one of five rustic camper cabins and a modern split-level.

On a subzero day in winter, one is better than the others.

Minnesota's state parks are sprinkled with guesthouses and cabins that can be rented. Some are marvelously atmospheric, such as the log cabins built in Itasca for the tourist trade.

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Lodgings in Minnesota state parks

Surrounded by nature, a lucky few sleep in relative luxury.

If you don't have a cabin of your own, Minnesota has one you can borrow.

Some really are cabins, but others are houses, complete with two-car garages, like the one at Bear Head Lake State Park, previously occupied by the park manager. Some were private houses that have been renovated, like the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park.

There's something for everyone in Itasca  State Park: rooms in a historic lodge, classic cabins, motel-style rooms and new suites with computer access. It doesn't have camper cabins, but you'll find those at 22 other Minnesota state parks.

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From yurt to B&B on the Gunflint Trail

In a snowy Minnesota wilderness, guests get the best of two worlds.

When it’s 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.

It’s more like a cold day in Mongolia.

Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.

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20 perfect cabins

They're in the woods, with views, vintage charm and modern luxuries (but maybe not all together).

It's not easy to find the cabin of your dreams. My friend Ellen knows, because she's been looking for years.

“I want a cabin with a big stone fireplace, a pine floor and an old-fashioned bed, nestled in the woods with really tall pines or near a lake where you can go out skiing during the day,'' she says. "Not at a big resort with a ton of things to do, necessarily, but with some ice skating, can you picture that?

“Something like “Little House in the Woods,'' you know, with a braided rug. It doesn’t have to be all fussy and brand-new. So many cabins are so modern, kind of like a hotel. I like rustic.''

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Cabins for a crowd

When groups travel, they divide costs and multiply benefits.

Contrary to common wisdom, the best deals in travel aren’t too good to be true.

The key is to travel with a group. Gather 20 people, and you can bring per-person costs way, way down — we're talking $20, $10, even $5 for an overnight stay.

Where? State-park lodges, environmental-learning centers, church retreats and youth camps.

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A cabin in Iowa

Spectacular scenery lies at guests’ feet in Backbone State Park.

What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.

“It’s like hiking on the North Shore,’’ my husband said.

But it wasn’t Lake Superior’s North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.

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Heirs to a hideaway

Above Minnesota's North Shore, historic cabins of Tettegouche are coveted.

Every week, a few dozen people join an exclusive club high above Minnesota's North Shore.

To get there, they lug all their food and gear 1¾ miles up and down a steep hill. They draw their own water and make their own fires. They clean and then lug their garbage over the same hill.

And they consider themselves lucky.

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A cottage of one's own

If you like privacy and want to treat yourself, consider these spots.

It’s not every inn that makes a guest feel like a Rockefeller.

But when my husband and I walked into the Wilson Schoolhouse Inn, we figured we’d really risen in the world.

“Hey, for once I feel like a millionaire,’’ Torsten said, bounding around the restored Prairie-style school. “This is unbelievably cool.’’

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Renting a vacation house

If you have pets, small children or teens to feed, try making someone else's home your castle.

My niece loves a large Rottweiler named Rza, so her travel opportunities are limited.

But one October, I rented a lake house near Cable, Wis., that allowed dogs, and both of them came. And we all had a great time: When Rza's happy, everyone's happy.

"This is probably the best weekend of her life,'' said my niece, after we’d spent the day romping on the lawn and in the nearby forest.

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Finding a cozy cabin

If you want, stay toasty warm and enjoy winter from a distance.

This may sound strange, but I've heard that some people aren't that wild about winter.

Go figure — they'd rather burrow into a cozy cabin with a good book and a glass of wine than go skiing or snowshoeing in freezing temperatures.

I do get it, because we rented a cabin on the North Shore for Thanksgiving. And though we did spend most of our days playing outside (see our Facebook album), we could just as easily have spent the whole weekend staring into the fire in our fieldstone fireplace and at Lake Superior, right outside our window.

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Cabin on a waterfall

On Minnesota's North Shore, a state-park guesthouse is a prized hideaway.

In Minnesota’s state parks, the goodies go way beyond hiking trails, picnic sites and fishing piers.

Minnesota parks house their visitors, too, not only in campgrounds but in suites and cabins and lodges and even a few split-level homes. Of course, they're very popular.

But the most popular place of all is the Illgen Falls Cabin in Tettegouche State Park, especially in summer.

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Seeking an outdoor hot tub

It's just the thing on a cold winter day, but only a few resorts and inns have one.

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.

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Adventures in renting

Thanks to VRBO, a no-frills group lives beyond its means on a trip up north.

If you’ve always wanted a second home – or a third, or a fourth – now is the time to acquire one, at least for a weekend.

People who snapped up beach houses and country retreats during the real-estate boom now are renting them out, trying to pay the mortgage.

But renting a vacation house straight from the owner was popular even before the bust: Why not see how the other half lives?

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What to bring to a rented cabin

Some places are well-equipped and some aren't; here's a packing list.

There’s a surefire rule that applies to rented houses: Anything you really need but don’t bring is exactly what the house won’t have.

Virtually every house has coffee filters. But the house I rented on a lake in Cable, Wis., didn’t, and I was reduced to straining coffee — unsuccessfully — through paper bags and toilet paper.

It also didn’t have paper towels, a cutting board, a corkscrew or kindling.

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