Just last week, I escaped to the North Shore for a midweek getaway. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, a magical gap in my calendar, and a new-but-old accommodation destination that had a rare vacancy. I found a friend who could make the trip with me, sent the dog to camp, and pointed the Fiat north to Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior, which are found on “Scenic 61” which is the original, lakeside version of highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. Not to be confused with Breezy Point Resort on Pelican Lake in north central Minnesota, these cabins were built in the 1930s on a stunning rock perch on Lake Superior. Worlds away, but yet so close.
It surprises me how close Duluth and Lake Superior are to the Twin Cities. On a clear day with a good podcast to listen to, it seems like I just left St. Paul when suddenly I’m cresting the hill from which we can first see our beautiful Great Lake. That’s a golden moment of each trip. And it’s a trip that a number of people from the Twin Cities make at least on a yearly basis, to attend Duluth-Superior Pride each Labor Day Weekend, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. A number of people who belong to this community as members or allies live in Duluth all the way up through Cook County and into Grand Marais (also called “Gay Marais”) and they make this beautiful part of our state even more welcoming.
When I travel, I tend to go until I can’t. That means I get some coffee in me, I map out the day, I go, I see, I eat, and I finally stop. It’s a getaway, but a recreational one. Having a place of respite for the rest is crucial in order to achieve some kind of balance. And our three days/two nights of getting away was going to be chock full of get up, go, and stop. After I got the green light from my friend that he could take the time and accompany me, I had an itinerary set to go in a matter of minutes. I think I’m always in a state of being ready. Just give me a reason, some time, the means, and a direction and we’ll be off and running. Three days, two nights…it’s go time.
And off we went. Our first destination was the only reservation I made for the entire trip: New Scenic Cafe. It’s like visiting an old friend. Knotty pine walls are warm and bright, the colors are plentiful, and the food and drink are top-notch. Chef Scott Graden’s place, complete with a blue yurt on the property, is a North Shore jewel. The choice to eat there is never one I’ll regret, but having to narrow down my choices of appetizers and entrées is always something that takes some consideration. We started with an asparagus galette, which was a large square of puff pastry that framed what looked to be a landscape painting of stalks of asparagus over gruyere with a mound of prosciutto and a sun in the sky of a split soft-boiled egg. Absolutely divine in its salty-nuttiness. I thoroughly enjoyed my sandwich, a cochinita pibil, of pork shoulder, spices, avocado, and queso fresco with buttermilk creme fraiche, but the table’s entrée of the evening was the special, the Niçoise, of seared tuna, olives, tomatoes, green beans, and a light sauce, all of which was “Perfect, perfect, perfect.”
What I didn’t expect was that dessert could possible beat the thrice-announced perfection of the entrée. But it did. When I heard that there was huckleberry mousse on the dessert menu, I had to order it. And after I tasted it, I became angry, it was so good. No, that’s not the accurate emotion for the situation, but perhaps I was upset that I’d never had it before. Or might not have it again. Regardless, there was no getting around just how pleased we were by New Scenic Cafe. Again. As usual. And, alas, it was over.
The part I didn’t mention is that I made the dinner reservation for 5:30. There’s no getting around it, that’s an early dinner time. But I had good reason behind this planning. The days are getting shorter and the sunsets are getting earlier, and there’s no way I wanted to miss the sun setting on Lake Superior from our place on its shore. So, fed and happy, it was time to “get thee to Gitche Gumee.”
Upon checking in, I was sent off to the cabin with an armload of split logs, a kit of graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows for making s’mores, and plenty of kindling for building our own fire. The light was getting lower, the breeze was languid, the directions were given, and we took our place in the cabin next to the “one with the gal with the Subaru.” (I’m sure if I’d ever met her, I would have liked her.) We parked, moved into the cabin, and immediately built a fire at which I made sure to take a bunch of photos, videos, and selfies, because the setting was stunning and it needed to be shared with the world on Instagram.
Recently reopened in June by Odyssey Resorts, Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior have been revamped to keep the rustic charm where possible, with twists of modernity. Our cabin was the 12th of 12, on the northernmost end of the property. A “studio” cabin, it has a modern kitchenette, a king-sized bed, two lounge chairs, a fireplace, a two-person granite-topped bar table with stools as a dining area, a bathroom with a sizeable shower with subway tile walls, and not only its own deck but also its own firepit and seating area on the lawn above the lake. The decor is Pottery Barn-meets-Fair Isle and trapper blanket stripes. When lying on the bed, the windows and the cabin’s proximity to the lake make it seem like we’re on it, rather than next to it. And the sounds of the waves lapping the shore only assist and reinforce that daydream.
It was the perfect place to call home base for a few days along the lake. But, more than just a place to land, it was a location at which we could spend time. Time, being something that needs to be grabbed and hoarded and consumed wisely, is not squandered here. Any moment spent yields great returns in peaceful moments basking in the sun, feeling the breeze, smelling the water and pine needles and campfire smoke. Our nighttimes were for chatting by the fire as we watched the lake disappear into darkness. The mornings were for reading and drinking coffee, taking time to be present in this place.
But the days? The days were for going. And both of them started at Mocha Moose with a large miel, the honey-sweetened cinnamon-y latte that was obtained just across the highway from the cabins. The first day took us north to Two Harbors, where we drove through the historic district and saw the first lighthouse of the trip, followed by a quick hike at Gooseberry Falls State Park to the middle falls, accessible for free with a state park sticker on your vehicle and open at 8:30 in the morning. When given a limited amount of time, it’s prudent to skim the cream off the top and that meant a quick stop at the highlights, the next of which was Split Rock Lighthouse.
Though our actual destination for the day was Judge C.R. Magney State Park, about 20 minutes north of Grand Marais (and, therefore, 2 hours and 20 minutes north of our cabin), none of the state parks or scenic stops are terribly far off the beaten path of Highway 61, so they’re all doable on an abbreviated schedule. The one that may give you pause if you’re a person who’d like to get more bang from your buck could be Split Rock Lighthouse since, though it doesn’t require a State Park vehicle sticker, a vehicle sticker does not get you out of a $10 entry fee. We gladly paid our way to be some of the first people through the iconic and pristinely preserved landmark at 10:00, while taking a quick hike along the edge of the cliff for some photo opportunities. Climbing up into the lighthouse and seeing both the view of the lake as well as the lens and mechanism up close was something I don’t recall doing in my earlier years and is, literally, worth the price of admission.
Hopping in the car and heading further north, we ended up passing on some rather irresistible stops, like Tettegouche River State Park, Temperance River State Park, Palisade Head, and Cascade River State Park, but our destination egged us onward and upward. Before our afternoon of hiking, we required lunch, and I chose the perfect spot for it. Pretty much across the street from Judge C.R. Magney State Park, where we’d spend the first half of the afternoon, is Naniboujou Lodge, which had been on my list of places to go for some time. And, since going there last week, it was published in the Star Tribune that the lodge is up for sale. So, while I joked with friends about checking out real estate north of Grand Marais (I was referring to Croftville along the lake), I do not have a spare $3.295 million lying around for this healthy dose of artful history. I did have $11 for lunch, though. And it was delicious, though the dining room is the showstopper for this destination.
Naniboujou is the Cree god of outdoors. Opened in 1929 as an exclusive lodge, Naniboujou Lodge has been a retreat place for respite and recreation for many travelers and diners. The centerpiece of the property is the dining room, a tall and colorful space that has a 20-foot high domed ceiling, reminiscent of a canoe, and colorful Cree designs painted on the surfaces of the 20-by-80-foot room, which is crowned by a 200-ton stone fireplace, the largest in the state of Minnesota. The lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to the public from the third week in May through the third week in October, but is also open for special events during the winter months when renovation and preservation take priority. After taking a number of photos, we finally sat down to take a look at the menu and were delighted to have what seemed to be a bit of a throwback of a meal for lunch, suitable for such a place steeped in the olden days. We enjoyed a chicken salad, some carrot soup, a superb sandwich called Kara’s Grilled Turkey and Swiss that also featured pear and honey mustard with orange raisin bread and a side of Babe’s Bean Salad that had a stunning and subtle cumin vinaigrette. It was an absolutely delectable sandwich and a nice hearty foundation for the hardy hike ahead of us.
Speaking of hikes, our afternoon plan to hike in to Devil’s Kettle along the Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park was not a lofty one. My pro tip is to make sure you’ve got water as well as have visited the restroom before heading to the park because there are no such facilities there. What’s somewhere between a 2- and 2.25-mile hike to the falls and back is a bit deceptive. Sure, it’s less of a jaunt than walking around Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, but it’s all hills with very little level ground and 175 stairs to climb both up and down. Years ago, I’d gone to the park to do the same hike with friends and had just plain given up on it. So, it was my dragon to slay. Or my white whale. Or just a really challenging hike that I wasn’t going to let get the better of me this time. And I’m so glad I didn’t. As it so happens, there are plenty of people who take the jaunt up and down the stairs and the hills with questionable footing quite easily. There are also plenty of people who aren’t accustomed to being active in such a way, but are doing it anyway, and the sense of camaraderie and goodwill is pretty palpable. In the stretch that is one long and steep stairway, there are a few places to step aside and sit on benches built into the wooden stair system, thank goodness, which means pacing is key. And the payoff is not only seeing some sights that few people get to behold, but also witnessing the mystery of a waterfall whose cauldron drains somewhere only the devil knows. Kind of like a toilet flushing to nowhere. Fascinating nature. See it for yourself.
After swapping out some sweaty clothes for clean ones, we went south again and grabbed the largest cold press coffee at Java Moose before romping around Grand Marais for the rest of the afternoon. Unfortunately, we got there just after World’s Best Donuts had closed (it opens at 6:30 in the morning and closes when it sells out), so heed my usual life advice and always eat the donuts first; we should have nabbed some on our way through town the first time. But, as it so happened, our timing served us well for not only being able to take a leisurely stroll and scramble out on the rocks of Artists’ Point, but also get an early table at the Angry Trout Cafe, something which is in such demand during the summer season that I considered this feat and victory to be akin to defeating Devil’s Kettle. It was a banner afternoon, to say the least. Artists’ Point looks to be an island just past the Coast Guard station at the harbor, but it’s actually a tombolo, which is an island connected to shore via a gravel bar. Also past the Coast Guard station is a rocky route out to the Grand Marais Lighthouse, which always gives us incomparable views of both Lake Superior and the little town that is so lovely.
Seated on the deck looking out on the harbor at Angry Trout Cafe, the skies were blue and the breeze was light. The sun was shining, but not beating down upon us. The day of hikes and scrambles was catching up as I sank into my chair and just looked out at Lake Superior. We’d done enough talking so that silence was just as suiting, he with a glass of sauvignon blanc, me with a glass of maple cream (a cream soda made with maple syrup). Known for its dishes made with fish that’s pulled straight from the lake that day, the Angry Trout’s menu was brimming with options that are healthy not only for our bodies, but also for our consciences. They were also a feast for the eyes with my maple barbecue grilled chicken breast entrée that came with a side of wild rice pilaf and a colorful salad that included fresh wild blueberries, carrot and beet shreds, cheese, onions, sweet corn, and an edible flower. Luscious and gorgeous. We lingered and shared a piece of avocado cheesecake before taking the sunset trip down the shore back to Breezy Point Cabins to enjoy the rest of the evening by the fire and the lake.
We hit the hay that night, me more tired than usual, with the windows open. I thought I’d sleep like death after a day of fresh air, sunshine, activity, and food, but Lake Superior pulled one of its tricks on us and the gentle lull of waves lapping the shore turned into a dull roar as the wind picked up during the night causing water to crash against the shores, relentlessly. Wide awake, I smiled at the lake and its mischief, but refused to close the windows to the roar. After all, I sleep to the sounds of the light rail transit system at home. If I could bring the lake with me as my soundtrack instead, I would. It was just one more reason to treasure the experience of that cabin on that lake at that spot at that time. Perfect.
In the morning we checked out of our cabin after spending some time reading and basking in the early sun, the waves loudly heralding our departure. The plan was to spend half the day in Duluth before driving back to the Twin Cities. If I were to do one thing differently on this trip, it’d be to schedule a third night to have a full day in Duluth to be able to get a bit more than just a taste of that fine town. But, as it was, the taste was still sweet, no matter how short.
I’ve heard for some time that the place to go for excellent food, that’s not found where the rest of the tourists are, is At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe in the Chester Park Neighborhood. We were hankering for a good and wholesome brunch, and we were not disappointed. In a prime corner location with plenty of parking and both indoor and outdoor dining spaces, owners Barbara Neubert and her wife Carla Blumberg have been making people happy with their brand of “creative cuisine with a conscience” since 2002 (be sure to read up on the “conscience” aspect of their business on their website in the blog entries full of insightful thoughts about food and the times we live in). The menu is brimming with choices for people who identify as vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or omnivorous (like me) with a preference for local and ethically sourced food. I had a difficult time deciding between the sweet and savory crepes, but eventually went with the savory, filled with Canadian bacon, raclette cheese, caramelized apples, and tarragon, while my friend was quite happy with the “Hippy Farm Breakfast” of basted eggs, sautéed vegetables, garlic, monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, sliced almonds, potatoes, and toast with raspberry jam. We were fed and fortified, ready to hit the waterfront.
I take Duluth’s waterfront for granted. It was the first vacation my family ever took, my parents had to make sure my brother and I wouldn’t kill each other if they took us in a car for a trip any longer than an hour. As it just so happens, we still haven’t killed each other over 30 years later and Duluth still holds a place in my heart and memories. In the short half day that was full of sunshine and blue skies, we ventured out across the lift bridge to Park Point Beach and wandered in the sand a bit. Then, we parked the car in Canal Park and went shopping for both art and activewear at Siiviis, a smaller gallery by the same people of Sivertson Gallery in Grand Marais, and the Duluth Pack retail store, a place that is so very Minnesota. Canal Park and its walkability makes for easy decisions and destinations. We just follow our feet and suddenly we’re at one of the lighthouses or in the Dewitt-Seitz building ordering sandwiches to go from Northern Waters Smokehaus. And, just before we left town, we made sure to hit Vikre Distillery when it opened at 2:00 p.m.
I’m not sure if we appeared a bit sad or just plain dedicated to be waiting on the sidewalk for a distillery to open; I’m not sure if I care, either. We were glad to walk into the historic building holding Vikre Distillery which has been refurbed for making and tasting spirits that are crafted from our northern surroundings. Cedar, juniper, and other botanicals from the watershed give the spirits their flavors. As said so poetically, Vikre is all about “a town still hiding rumrunners tunnels from prohibition. A lake so compelling that people tattoo its outline on their bodies. A Norwegian girl who dreams in flavors. And an American boy who can distill dreams into reality.” We bellied up to the bar, got friendly with the bartender, Ellen, and learned and tasted all we could about the various offerings of the distillery, from a meat and cheese plate that included caramelized caraway sweets to a flight of Boreal Gin for him to a lingonberry-lime soda for me. It was a shame we couldn’t stay for the daily tour at 5:30, but a flight of booze and some witty repartee was the most fitting way to end our flying trip to see our Great Lake and I give Vikre thanks for that.
Then, as quickly as we got to the North Shore, we were back in the Twin Cities. I dropped off my friend, picked up my dog, and sat in my loft on the light rail line thinking about the trip as I scarfed down a Big Dipper sandwich from Northern Waters Smokehaus, trying to extend the mini-vacation a little longer. As I savored the unctuous handheld porketta feast, I thought about the last 56 hours. These are the times when I want to repeat an experience like the one I just had. Immediately. For the rest of my life. I get an urge to own. And, if all my stars aligned, I actually could own a piece of Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior through the concept of “fractional ownership.” Or, do what is more accessible to more people and rent it. However it happens, I plan to be back for a longer stay. That’s for sure. And I can’t wait for the next “go time.”
Breezy Point Cabins on Lake Superior
New Scenic Cafe
Gooseberry Falls State Park
Split Rock Lighthouse
Devil’s Kettle at Judge C.R. Magney State Park
Angry Trout Cafe
At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe
Duluth – Canal Park, Park Point Beach
Northern Waters Smokehaus