In the Upper Midwest, there's nothing better than a week at the lake.
But summer or vacation, anyway doesn't last long. And while there's nothing better than a week, a few days can be almost as good.
My favorite escape is to Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji. Like many of its guests, I first went after dropping off my son at the nearby Concordia Language Villages.
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.
In 1920, northern Wisconsin already was a playground for people from Chicago.
And when Prohibition flung open the door to organized crime, its remote lakes and forests became even more attractive to a certain kind of Chicagoan.
Al Capone had a fortified summer home on a lake near Hayward, to which hydroplanes flew whiskey from Canada.
After many years of traveling around this region, I can answer nearly every travel question except one: Can you give me the name of a good lake resort?
No, I cant. Only you and your therapist know what you consider a good lake resort.
Staying at a north-woods lake resort is not like staying at a Marriott. There may be chipmunks living under your cabin, and fish that nibble your legs when you wade. Squealing children may run past your window while youre trying to read.
In the north woods, only the passage of time creates a classic.
There's nothing like the feel of a vintage lodge. Whatever it comes from the burnished logs hewed by ax, the hearths made of stones picked from local fields, the faint fragrance of aged pine and cedar it can't be ordered from the local furniture store.
Jim Kerkow and Craig Mason know, because they own a furnishings business and they love old lodges. They were building a cabin near Hayward, Wis., and staying at nearby Spider Lake Lodge when its owner pointed out the obvious.
In a blizzard, nothing is better than holing up with an expert cook, a bottomless cookie jar, a steam room, a big hot tub and one of the best ski-trail groomers in the Midwest.
One January, the stars aligned in the heavens and I found myself in the best possible place to be during a blizzard: Maplelag.
This ski resort in northwest Minnesota is renowned for many things all-you-can-eat meals, personable owners, hundreds of stained-glass windows and signs from defunct train depots but its most famous for its ability to conjure a bit of snow into world-class ski tracks when the rest of Minnesota is bare.
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.
Ever since there's been a Minnesota, people have wanted to see its abundant waters.
The first curious tourists came up the Mississippi in the 1820s with the first steamboats, to see St. Anthony Falls and nearby tepees and to dine on buffalo, elk and sturgeon.
By the 1850s, city folk in the East already were pining for the unspoiled wilderness; one of them, Israel Garrard, was on a hunting trip from his home near Cincinnati when he saw a point on Lake Pepin, a widening in the Mississippi, and settled there.
When people have been beating a path to your door for more than 130 years, youre probably doing something right.
Swedish immigrants C.A.A. and Anna Nelson were accidental hosts in 1886, when they began putting up travelers in their new home at the mouth of the Poplar River, chosen because it was C.A.A.s favorite fishing spot.
More people came, and their Lutzen House became Lutsen Resort. Their children and grandchildren added a gabled lodge, ski hill, pool and townhomes. Then came log cabins, luxury condos, a golf course, a gourmet chef and a spa.
In winter, not everyone wants to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Many people would rather enjoy down comforters, hot toddies and a massage. Many people don't even want to look at snow and ice.
And that's possible at many inns and resorts. Some include a spa or dinner theater, others shops and restaurants, and a few
offer a whole weekend's worth of entertainment under one roof.
At the turn of the last century, as Wisconsins pineries were vanishing into sawmills, the vast fortunes they produced fell to the heirs of the Knapp, Stout lumber company.
Operating in the Red Cedar River valley, it was for a time the largest in the world, and Menomonie was the company town. The heirs gave it schools, churches, an auditorium; James Stout, son of the president, endowed the institute that became the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
His brother Frank found a different use for his money. He plowed $1.5 million in 1915 money into a 26-acre island estate near the town of Rice Lake, on Red Cedar Lake.
If youre a bargain-hunter and most Midwesterners are the best weeks of summer are in August.
By the second week, football and band practice has started at schools, and back-to-school sales are in progress. In Minnesota, everyone wants to go to the State Fair.
Not many people are thinking about vacation which is precisely why its a great time to take one. The weather is still warm and sunny, the crowds are gone and, best of all, prices drop, usually on the second or third Sunday.
When snow is sparse on Minnesota's North Shore and even when it isn't skiers head for the hills.
Over the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into Superior National Forest, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails gather up the snow, arrange it prettily atop boughs and wait for cross-country skiers to come ooh and aah.
The perpetually snow-flocked pines never fail to amaze people who come to stay and ski at the National Forest Lodge.
During the heady days of the Roaring Twenties, a group of Duluth businessmen conceived a plan.
They would buy 3,300 acres of land along Lake Superior and on both sides of the Arrowhead River, encompassing beach, waterfalls and rocky gorges. Theyd buy another 8,000 acres inland, where caribou still roamed and lakes were thick with fish and fowl.
Theyd build a clubhouse, with tennis courts and golf course and swimming pool. And theyd name the whole thing for Naniboujou, the powerful but benevolent Ojibwe spirit who claimed this northern wilderness as his own.
What becomes a legend most? In the case of Telemark Resort in northwest Wisconsin, solvency.
The once-busy ski lodge closed in 1998, reopened in 1999, closed again in 2010, and reopened in January 2011.
The lodge, which polite guests call "a diamond in the rough,'' desperately needs updating.
At the Gunflint Lodge, every new luxury burnishes the legend of the rough-hewn outdoorswoman who made them possible.
Justine Kerfoot was a 22-year-old college student when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family lost their Illinois home and lake cottage, so she gave up medical school and moved to the family fish camp at the edge of the Boundary Waters.
"We were green people who came in from the outside and didn't know anything about anything,'' she said in a 1997 interview. "I just bulled it through.''
Up north, there's a lake cabin with my name on it.
I don't own it, and I never will. But for a week in August, it's mine.
Only a generation ago, most middle-class folks in this area could think of nothing better than renting a little housekeeping cabin on a lake.
In my family, we take care of ourselves. In fact, my ancestors not only didnt have servants, they were servants.
So when I finally went to a full-service lake resort one summer, I felt a little like an imposter.
Luckily, that only lasted about 10 minutes.