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.
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.
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.
If you think its expensive to stay in Wisconsin's Door County, you havent looked very hard.
In June, rates can be almost ludicrously low, cheaper than a Super 8. And even on weekends in July and August, its 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.
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.
In the middle of Minnesota's Wild River State Park, a skis 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. Isnt this great? And oh, look he peered out the window at a big thermometer "you can tell the temperature.
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.
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.
When its 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.
Its 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.
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 doesnt have to be all fussy and brand-new. So many cabins are so modern, kind of like a hotel. I like rustic.''
Contrary to common wisdom, the best deals in travel arent 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.
What a way to spend a weekend: hiking up and down ravines, clambering on rock, admiring views of water from ridgelines.
Its like hiking on the North Shore, my husband said.
But it wasnt Lake Superiors North Shore. It was Iowa. And everyone knows Iowa is one big, flat cornfield.
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.
Its 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 wed 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.
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 wed spent the day romping on the lawn and in the nearby forest.
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.
In Minnesotas 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.
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.
If youve 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?
Theres a surefire rule that applies to rented houses: Anything you really need but dont bring is exactly what the house wont have.
Virtually every house has coffee filters. But the house I rented on a lake in Cable, Wis., didnt, and I was reduced to straining coffee unsuccessfully through paper bags and toilet paper.
It also didnt have paper towels, a cutting board, a corkscrew or kindling.