MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Break on the lake

A week at a full-service, family-run resort is a Minnesota tradition.

Driftwood Resort near Pine River, Minn.

© Beth Gauper

Near Pine River, family-run Driftwood Resort was one of the last of its kind.

In my family, we take care of ourselves. In fact, my ancestors not only didn’t 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.

After spending many years at what quaintly is called a “self-catering’’ resort, my children and I tried something different — a vacation on Minnesota's Upper Whitefish Lake, near Pine River.

When Driftwood Resort opened for business in 1902, all resorts provided meals as well as other services for their guests, many of whom came from distant states and were quite affluent. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when middle-class families could head north in their new automobiles, that housekeeping cabins began to sprout all over the state.

Today, only a handful of full-service, all-inclusive resorts are left in the north woods, and even fewer are family-owned and -operated. Even among those, Driftwood was an anomaly, especially for the Brainerd area: It offered all the amenities the big resorts do — pool, golf course, meals, supervised children’s activities — but remained medium-sized.

We had a great time, despite weather that was too chilly for swimming. The kids went on the pony rides, entered the  pingpong tournament and played capture-the-flag with other kids. My son Peter and I went up to the tennis courts, where the pro fed us balls for an hour and half as part of her ingenious drills.

It’s in bad weather that a full-service resort shows its value — any lake resort is a fun place on a warm, sunny day, but one with lots for kids to do on a bad day is a godsend for parents.

Owned and run by the Leagjeld family since 1959, it retained an old-fashioned family atmosphere that is increasingly rare. Unfortunately, Driftwood closed after the 2008 season.

The oldest family-owned resort in the state is Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge, founded in 1898 by Joe and Josie Ruttger and passed on to their son Alec and his wife Myrle, their grandson Jack and his wife Ann, and now to their great-grandson Chris, the general manager.

“I’ve grown up here and learned from my parents, and I know they did the same,’’ said Chris Ruttger, who vividly remembers the “great big open smile’’ his grandfather used while shaking hands with guests.

Now, however, Bay Lake Lodge has joined the ranks of the biggest resorts, with a championship golf course to allow it to compete with the big resorts in nearby Brainerd. Now professionals are in charge — a food and beverage expert, a personnel director, a retired teacher for the children’s program.

“We kind of have to bring in that expertise,’’ Ruttger said. “The trick is to do all that and still keep it personal.”

Up on quiet Crane Lake, near Voyageurs National Park, Goldie Pohlman has three children running her resort, founded by her parents John and Millie Nelson in 1931: Jay; Jerry and his wife, Brenda; and Jacque Eggen and her husband, Butch.

Nelson’s Resort is one of the last old-time fishing resorts in the state but has survived, said Jerry Pohlman, because it anticipated modern trends with excellent food, impeccable cleanliness and a family atmosphere.

“When my grandma and grandpa started the resort, they charged $3 a day, or maybe it was $5 a day, per person, and everyone told them they were nuts, they’d never get that, it was too expensive and they’d never make it,’’ he said. “So we were different right from the beginning.’’

But, he said, the family still has had to adjust to guest demands over the years, most recently keeping the dining room open from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. to accommodate fishermen.

“This world is full of choices now,’’ he saids. “If we don’t give it to them, they’ll go elsewhere.’’

Chris Ruttger, who is part of a Minnesota resort dynasty — his cousin Fred Bobich runs Ruttger’s Sugar Lake Lodge in Grand Rapids, and his cousin Randy Ruttger and his wife, Tina, run Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge in Bemidji — is well aware of escalating expectations.

“Ever since Disney World opened, people expect a more professional atmosphere,’’ he said. “The whole world is becoming more corporate. So we’re always trying not to lose sight of our personality.’’

Trip Tips: Full-service resorts in Minnesota

In peak season, rates for a family of four vary from $3,000 to $4,000 or more per week, including one or more meals and activities. Most offer cabin-only rates, and rates are cheaper in May, early June and late August and September. Ask about packages, midweek specials and partial weeks.

Driftwood Resort:  If you need suggestions for other nearby resorts, or want to express condolences, contact the Leagjelds at ponyride@tds.net.

Ruttger's Bay Lake Lodge near Lake Mille Lacs: It's large, with villas, condos and cottages on lake and fairways, but has a more traditional feel. Activities include pontoon cruises, wine tastings and water skiing. 800-450-4545.

Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge in Bemidji: Run by Randy and Tina Ruttger, this resort on the shore of Lake Bemidji is unique in that it's so close to city amenities: You can see a musical at the professional theater, go to an arts show or shop downtown, a short bike ride away.

It has many amenities of its own: a restaurant, an indoor pool and spa complex, tennis courts, a children's program and bicycles to use on the Paul Bunyan State Trail. It also has one of the best sand beaches in Minnesota and is an excellent value. 888-788-8437.

Nelson’s Resort on Crane Lake: The resort on Crane Lake offers proximity to Voyageurs State Park and a variety of packages. 800-433-0743.

Other family-run, all-inclusive resorts: Fair Hills Resort near Detroit Lakes is run by Dave, Dan and Steve Kaldahl, the brother and nephews of Driftwood’s Sue Leagjeld. It has a championship golf course, the Wildflower, and its rates, which are a little lower than the big Brainerd-area resorts, include evening entertainment, golf on a nine-hole executive course, fishing boats and the use of sailboats and windsurfers, as well as instruction. 800-323-2849.

Lost Lake Lodge, near Nisswa, is a small, quiet boutique resort known for its fine food. 800-450-2681.

On Gull Lake, Cragun's, 800-272-4867, and Madden's, 800- 642-5363, are large, golf-oriented resorts. In Grand Rapids, Ruttger's Sugar Lake Lodge is a newer resort, 800-450-4555.

Other all-inclusive resorts: In Nisswa, Grand View Lodge, 800-432-3788. Near Nisswa, Breezy Point, 800-432-3777. In Alexandria, Arrowwood, 866-386-5263.

Last updated on November 3, 2009