Winter What To Do – WHERE: Lutsen, Minnesota

Ski Near Here? Go North

Itching to get out into the snow here in Minnesota?  Want to get some wind as you ski down the tallest mountain in the largest ski area in the Midwest?  You need to aim for Lutsen on the North Shore of Lake Superior.  If you’re like me and grew up in Minnesota hearing about “Lutsen this” and “Lutsen that,” it’s a whole lot more than just skiing up there, too.  Each time I’d pass Lutsen on the way to the Boundary Waters or Gunflint Trail or Grand Marais, I’d wonder–and now I know–what I’ve been missing by not stopping to enjoy what’s up and along Lake Superior between Tofte and Grand Marais.

Where to Go:

If you want to downhill ski, you’re going to go to the Lutsen Mountains, of which there are four: Moose Mountain, Mystery Mountain, Eagle Mountain, and Ullr Mountain.  In a tight area that bustles with activity, the chairlifts and gondola move people up so that they can ski down…but there are also multiple restaurants and bars to enjoy while on either direction of your vertical journey.  Most notably, Papa Charlie’s is a well-known bar and music venue that gets some national names on the calendar.  A great apres-ski option for those interested in ending a day on the slopes with a night of tunes.

Grand Marais is the hub of activity in Cook County with its shops, art, waterfront, and access to the start of the Gunflint Trail.  In the winter, it’s a whole different town than when it swarms with tourists in the warmer months.  I pretty much loved it, being able to wander and park wherever I wanted to.  Still warm enough to get out to amble on the rocks by the lighthouse before they iced over, the warmth of Lake Superior belied the snow that was falling further offshore where the Nordic skiing and dogsledding are popular activities.

Oh, the winter activities.  What to do?  Exactly.  So much.

My biggest piece of advice for what to do is: ask.  Get thee to Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais (next to the GLBT-friendly East Bay Suites).  An attractive, newly redesigned building along the shore, Stone Harbor should be considered not only an outfitter, but a concierge.  Sitting down with owner, Jack Stone, and employee Jan Lemke, it was obvious that the people are the most valuable resource in Grand Marais.  Stone Harbor can sell you equipment and clothing for winter activities, or you can rent it there…you know, in case you don’t need an amazingly warm and weatherproof anorak for your dayjob downtown.  Want to go dogsledding?  Talk to them, they’ll set it up.  Cross-country skiing? Absolutely. Snowshoeing? Certainly. Ice fishing?  Sure. Ice climbing?  NEVER IN MY LIFE.  But…you can. You more adventurous and nimble souls can contact Stone Harbor to get set up to climb frozen waterfalls.  And, more importantly, Jack and Jan not only speak to the winter activities in Grand Marais, but the GLBT culture in Cook County.  Jack, a strong ally, sees it as pretty much a non-issue in the area.  Jan, whose partner works in an art gallery in town, jokes about how they’ve talked of organizing and having a little parade in what they could rename “Gay Marais,” there is such a large and welcoming community there. Comfort is key when we travel, as is community…whether indoors or out.

Not interested in being outdoors?  The North House Folk School may have all your answers.  Looking like a little fishing village of yore, the colorful compound of buildings in Grand Marais that houses North House beckons to anyone interested in learning “traditional northern crafts” like basketry, woodcarving, fiber arts, timber frames, wooden boats, rosemaling, knitting, and more.  Look at the extensive catalog online for more information–you may want to stay a while.

Where to Stay:

There was no question in my mind, the piece de resistance to staying in Lutsen is the iconic Lutsen Resort.  Depending upon how important proximity-to-ski is, you may choose to look at some of the accommodations on the mountains, but Lutsen Resort sang its siren song of Lake Superior to me.  The resort has a free shuttle up the mountain for skiers (which is so very convenient), so why not stay where the view is the largest freshwater lake in the world?  In buildings that were constructed before setback requirements were so strict, I slept to the sounds of waves crashing.  Being able to choose from different accommodation options is an important feature at Lutsen Resort.

Lutsen Resort is Minnesota’s oldest resort, established in 1885. The Lodge, itself, was built in the mid-1950s and is the quintessential lumber-and-stone structure that keeps the fireplaces glowing.  There are condominiums that are new and modern; particularly accommodating for couples in search of a romantic getaway. As someone who wasn’t bringing romance, but instead brought a dog, I chose the Sea Villa Townhomes, which are a bit south of the rest of the resort, and would recommend them to anyone in a heartbeat.  Each with private owners but managed by Lutsen Resort, the Sea Villas hug the shore of Lake Superior and can accommodate both small and large groups.  Dog-friendly, our Villa had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a loft…as well as wifi, cable, a gorgeously appointed granite, glass-tile, and stainless kitchen, and a view to die for.  And, the dog walks in the snow were breathtaking.

Waking up on the shore of Lake Superior is relaxing, but getting a massage while overlooking Lake Superior is almost gluttonous.  Lutsen Resort hosts WatersMeet Spa & Wellness Center, an Aveda spa.  Pulling up to the building, I parked the Jeep next to a truck for sled dogs with an HRC bumper sticker on it and knew I’d be comfortable for the next stretch of hours.  My massage therapist, Di Higgins, actually relaxed my shoulders to the point that they’re down where they should be, instead of up by my ears.  And, Nancy Lang, the owner of sled dogs, the truck with the VOTE NO and HRC bumper stickers, and also an EMT in the area, not only helped my friend in terms of massage and relaxation, but also talked to us for a great while about the welcoming and open culture in Cook County for members of the GLBT community.  Now THAT’S relaxing.

Where to Eat/Drink:

One of the most popular packages at Lutsen Resort is the Bed & Breakfast package in which breakfast at the lodge is included in the stay.  We enjoyed eggs benedict and the somewhat-famous buffet in the Scandinavian surroundings of the lodge, with bottomless cups of coffee.  It was comfortable, as was the food.

Venturing out from the resort, there are a ridiculous number of dining options in the summertime, but the winter has a pared down list.  It’s best to check websites and ask around before getting set on a place you may have eaten at or heard about before.

All along Highway 61 in Cook County are attractions and stops, not to mention places to eat.  The Bluefin Grille at Bluefin Bay in Tofte, just south of Lutsen, is a respected and solid destination for a decadent evening of drinks and dinner.  Chef David Grimsley sends out culinary combinations that are seasonal and somewhat surprising.  The Salametti and Pratost of cured Italian sausage, mild swedish cheese, on hearty freshly baked whole wheat toast, was topped with light mango.  The coolish-to-room-temperature Pumpkin and Quinoa Salad was the hit of the meal, with feta and onions all covered in an orange vinaigrette.  The fish of the day was a tasty Monkfish, enjoyed by my friend, while I devoured the Roasted Chicken that was so savory and salty, swimming in a somewhat sweet marscapone and lingonberry cream (be still, my Swedish heart).  We capped the evening with the signature dessert of Bluefin Grille: the luscious, crispy-yet-gooey chocolate chip cookie served in a mini-cast iron skillet a la mode.

Grand Marais, to the north of Lutsen, will see an increase in restaurants reopening now that we’re into 2013.  I was pleased to get to try a new restaurant that had just been open a little over a month in the former Chez Jude space, The Harbor House Grille.  Chef Ed Straub and his wife, Cindy, were lovely hosts to a lunch of woodfire oven Blue Fungi (mushrooms, caramelized onions, and blue cheese) Pizza, a Grand Grilled Cheese (with roasted onion jam, Wisconsin cheddar, and Canadian bacon), and the yummiest French Onion Soup in recent memory.

For those craving sweets in the colder months, don’t go looking for the donuts of summer, but flock to The Pie Place.  A cute restaurant right by the water, we chose to take our slices to go and enjoyed them later in the evening in the warmth and cozyness of the Sea Villa.  Must-haves? The Chocolate Cream Pie is like a pots de creme in a crust.  The Maple Pecan Pie will make you never want to go back to “just pecan” ever again.  And, there are so many Apple Pies on the menu, I have no idea which one I had…but, judging from the crumbly topped goodness of that one, they’re all worth nabbing.

Looking for dinner, drinks, and live music?  The Gun Flint Tavern was our answer to a cold night in need of warming up from the inside out.  With an extensive menu, our choices for dinner were ones that didn’t scream “North Shore” but, instead, were closer to the Equator.  When you see Jalapeno Popper Quesadilla on the menu but then read that it includes pineapple, don’t shy away: ORDER IT.  Even this Swede with what I call the “beige palate” could handle this heat–creamy, sweet, and kicky, I almost wanted to order a second one.  The Cuban was a worthy sandwich with shredded barbacoa pork, swiss cheese, pickles, and aioli…but the Tavern Burger with its jalapeno bacon, melty swiss, and–get this–coffee onions was divine.  Complete with live music, the Tavern was a warm port on a cold night.

Where to Go Online:

Lutsen Skiing/Papa Charlie’s

Lutsen Resort

WatersMeet Spa & Wellness Center

Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply

Harbor House Grille

Bluefin Grille

The Gun Flint Tavern

North House Craft School

The Pie Place Cafe

Cook County (Tofte, Lutsen, Grand Marais, Gunflint Trail, Grand Portage)