Northern Splendor

Relish the views and flavors of Grand Marais

By Ann Imig

My mom owned a cottage in Grand Marais, Minnesota, for 17 years. When people asked why in the world she chose a vacation destination requiring an eight-hour car ride north, she’d respond, “Because that’s where Grand Marais is.”

Grand Marais kisses the shore of the incomparable Lake Superior, greatest of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater lake in the world, by surface area, at 31,700 square miles.

Beholding Lake Superior rivals the majesty of any ocean view. Set a tiny, picturesque town on the edge of that Lake Superior splendor—a town full of arts, culture, galleries, shopping, and all the vacation recreation and culinary delights a heart and mouth desire—and truly, nothing compares. Bonus: Grand Marais is not typically overrun by tourists.

You can easily stay a week and never run out of things to do, considering the sheer number of delicious eateries (even a natural food co-op), the proximity of the Gunflint Trail, the Boundary Waters and all manner of waterfalls, hikes and streams to ford, plus the variety of boating rental/tours and swimming holes.

Even when the weather doesn’t cooperate, you and your kids can burn energy in the pool or gym at the local YMCA, enjoy the library or lakeside bookstore Drury Lane Books, or spend the day gallery-hopping to see the wares of renowned local artists, photographers and makers.

My ideal Grand Marais vacation day begins with a “café con Lake Superior”—coffee with a view from one of the many rental cabins on Croftville Road. A brisk walk or run up the 1.5-mile lakefront road and back (a popular walking destination for locals) followed by a freezing cold and lightning fast “dip” (often only a toe-dip considering the lake’s chill even in summer, when it rarely goes above 60 degrees) jump-starts my metabolism for the delicious damage to come. Next, into town for World’s Best Donuts—which absolutely live up to their moniker—followed by a family jaunt on Artist’s Point. My kids love to jump over the crags, climb the boulders, splash in the wave pools, investigate the cairns (rock totems) and zig-zag over the path out to the lighthouse and down the massive rock slabs jutting into Lake Superior herself.

After that strenuous play, obviously we need refreshments. Perhaps a cappuccino or steamer from Java Moose to fuel some rock-skipping, followed by a quick browse of Lake Superior Trading Post or the old-fashioned five-and-dime Joynes Ben Franklin. For lunch, we might pick up some fresh smoked fish from Dockside Fish Market to enjoy back at the cabin before a siesta, or spend a lazy lunch savoring organic pub fare and a microbrew at the Gun Flint Tavern. Not ready to go inside? Grab some woodfired pizza perfection and frozen custard on Sydney’s rooftop deck. Prepare to work it off biking, hiking, kayaking or skipping Lake Superior’s famously smooth stones in the afternoon.

With so many superb hikes nearby it’s worth researching your options (accessibility and trail difficulty) before you go. Wear hats and layers not only for changing weather, but also to ward off ticks, mosquitoes and biting flies. A few of my favorite hikes are Cascade River Falls, Kadunce River wayside, Pincushion Mountain and Temperance River State Park.

For dinner, no question: The Angry Trout Café, a small indoor/outdoor restaurant sidled up to the edge of Grand Marais Harbor. Where an exquisite view meets exquisite cuisine, the menu utilizes locally-grown produce, hand-harvested wild rice and fresh Lake Superior fish all sourced organically. Angry Trout meals count among the best meals of my life. And, they have delectable pasta, non-seafood and veggie options.

Ready for some downtime?  Escape your family and savor a little alone time or couples time with a visit to Sweet Grass Cove, a spa bed and breakfast 30 minutes north of Grand Marais on protected Bad River tribal land. Use the outdoor sauna and whirlpool, and enjoy a massage set among an unparalleled view. Or, take the family on a Sunday drive to The Naniboujou Lodge to feast on its scrumptious Sunday brunch buffet, and stroll off your seconds and thirds on the hotel’s pristine beachfront.

For those who like a little night life, Grand Marais boasts plenty of talented local performers, musicians and festivals. For the rest of us, maybe a family game night, a campfire and some stargazing before we greet tomorrow’s Grand Marais donuts— sorry, day—anew.