By Ellen Burkhardt, Katie Dohman, Tim Gihring, and Gregory J. Scott
Northern Exposure: Ely
Ely is more than just an outfitters’ town. Budget Travel named it one of the “coolest small towns in America,” and the burg even scored a spot on National Geographic Traveler’s list of “50 places you must see.” The E in Ely stands for everything: breathtaking lake views, satisfying food, and relaxing spa treatments.
Get the morning started on a sweet note with a kolacky at Plum Bun Bakery and a steaming cup of locally brewed Gene Hicks coffee at the Chocolate Moose. Before the heat of the day hits, hike the five-mile Trezona trail overlooking Miner’s Lake or the six-mile Bass Lake Trail, full of unique rocks and plants. If you’re recovering from a hard paddle (or get blisters just thinking of canoeing), indulge at The Pebble Spa Company with a lemongrass hand rub or a wild-rice-and-spice scrub. And don’t miss the shopping treasures along Sheridan Street, from Piragis to Steger Mukluks to Mealey’s. Get up close to wildlife at the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. For a special experience, call for a tour of Listening Point—the writing shack and cabin once belonged to ecologist and author Sigurd Olson, the man who basically made the Boundary Waters.
For happy hour, nurse a pint of Joel Carlson’s microbrew beer at Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant. For dinner, tuck into the wild-rice-and-walleye cakes at Rockwood Bar and Grill. Finish your meal with a shot of Pelinkovac, an Eastern European wormwood-based digestif that Ely old-timers swear by.
More Than Just Muskie: Walker
Walker is an angler’s paradise. It’s so close to Leech Lake that Main Street is practically a dock, and a billboard-sized welcome sign declares without a hint of doubt that the town is the “Muskie Capital of the Nation.” But you don’t have to fish to have fun. In fact, Walker’s downtown is so distractingly diverse that travelers with any number of interests could pass a whole day or two here without ever casting a line.
For the Girly Girl
The Aveda-sanctioned Beehive Salon offers a full menu of pampering, from pedicures and massages to paraffin hand dips. Across the street, in a pastel-painted former church, The Cabin Up North imports women’s summer styles from southern California. Shop for scented candles at the grandmotherly Christmas Point Wild Rice Co., and then nose through a few romance novels at Little Apple Bookstore.
For the Beer Snob
No joke, one of the state’s newest microbreweries is located in a teeny metal shed hidden in a clearing in the woods just outside Walker. Three times a week, Leech Lake Brewing Company opens its miniature taproom to sell 64-ounce growlers and offer samples of its six brews, including the Loch Leech Monster, a popular Scottish ale. Of course, you can always grab a Grain Belt at macho sports bar Benson’s.
For the Art Lover
Walker is a haven for woodworking, and the specialty of the town’s galleries is the “lake carving”: a layered, three-dimensional model, cut with a scroll saw, that depicts the depth of a local body of water. Check out Tory Kaupang’s masterpieces at the Artist Mall of Walker, or peruse a whole wall’s worth—plus a fleet of hand carved, basswood birds—at Carol and Jeff Groth’s Whittle Shop.
For the R&R Seeker
Unwinding is at its most elegant at Chase on the Lake resort, where you can melt into a chakra massage at The Copper Door spa, kick back with a craft cocktail on the lakeside patio of 502 restaurant, or even bowl a few frames at the private, onsite bowling facility, Chaser’s Alley. For a dinner out, treat yourself to some finer-than-fine-dining at white-tablecloth steakhouse The Boulders.
3On the Prairie: Luverne
Forget hokey antique shops and faux roadside diners. When it comes to genuine Americana, Luverne is the real deal. Just ask Ken Burns: when the legendary filmmaker sought out four “quintessentially American towns” for his common-man oeuvre, the 2007 World War II documentary The War, Luverne topped the list. Four years later, this idyllic Mayberry still seems poised for movie-star treatment.
A visit starts at the Brandenburg Gallery, the official showroom for one of the world’s top nature photographers, Luverne native and National Geographic veteran Jim Brandenburg. Inside a quartzite-clad former jail, visitors can peruse more than 100 photos, from famous shots of arctic wolves to sweeping, prairie-land vistas captured at nearby Blue Mounds State Park and Touch the Sky Prairie.
On Main Street, tour the Palace Theater, the historic 1915 vaudeville playhouse where The War had its world premiere. The venue dazzles with antiquated, art-deco elegance, from the original projection screen to the still-functioning Geneva organ in the orchestra pit. Prefer your films al fresco? Hit up the 1950s-era Verne Drive-In Theater at dusk.
For lunch, it’s The Coffey Haus, a sunny bistro that pairs urbane tastes (espresso, gourmet sodas, Tuscan chicken panini) with small-town comfort. If it’s kitsch you’re craving—or maybe just a burger topped with a fried egg—try Vinnie’s Dang Fine Dine, just south of town, a zany micro-diner packed into a pastel-striped tin shed.
Tucker the kids out at the City Park, one of the state’s largest civic playgrounds. Or head north to Prairie Heights ranch. Schoolteacher-turned-bison-wrangler Jeanne Bowron takes cartloads of kids out to the prairie, where they can hand-feed molasses plugs to a herd of friendly beasts.
Undercover Art Town: New London
At first glance, New London has the same quaint traits as many a small town: historic buildings, warm-hearted residents, a postcard-like setting. But beneath its Leave It to Beaver exterior, the City on the Pond buzzes with enough creative energy to power all of central Minnesota, if not the entire state. You just have to know where to get plugged in.
Start your artistic adventure at Kaleidoscope Gallery. Browse the array of pottery, paintings, baskets, and jewelry, and say hello to whichever of the artists happens to be manning the front desk that day. For more pottery, head up the hill to Mayor Bill Gossman’s studio, an intimate nook housing his wood-fired porcelain and stoneware gems. Be sure to take a peek at the massive three-chamber, wood-burning kiln he built in his backyard.
Avoid an art overload and duck into Heritage Falls Market. There, enjoy a free cup of locally roasted coffee and pay heed to your heritage by browsing the huge cache of Scandinavian goods. At Quilted 4 You, watch custom-designed quilts be made, then wander across the hall to Dancing Goat Studio, where Kim Wendlandt sells her recycled-book purses.
Get back on the art track at Pottery Workshop, where New London’s established and aspiring potters sell their creations. Tote your new ceramic wares to The Happy Sol, a women’s apparel and gift boutique. Mix and match accessory options at Bead Jam, which boasts more beads than a Girl Scout swap meet. More browsing can be found at Mill Pond Mercantile, the region’s queen bee of home décor, gifts, baking goods, and more. Refuel with an espresso drink from Java on Main, then head to McKale’s Family Restaurant for the daily lunch special and a slice of homemade pie.
If you’re there on a Friday, stay for the Little Crow Ski Team show at 7:30 p.m. in Neer Park. The team, which has won multiple national and regional championships, includes barefoot skiers, jumpers, and members talented (and crazy) enough to build a 22-person pyramid—on the water.
Call Your Bluff: Lanesboro
To get to little Lanesboro, population 754, you go up then down, up then down until you bottom out in a bowl of limestone. Where are you? You’ve gone deep, man, well-tucked into what locals call bluff country and geologists call the driftless area, spared by the last glaciers to become a kind of Midwestern Appalachia of steep ridges, narrow valleys, and organic ice cream.
To explore it, pluck a rental bike from the rafters of Little River General Store and pedal into the countryside on the Root River State Trail, or rent a kayak from Root River Outfitters and hit the water. Back in town, grab some lunch at Pedal Pushers Café, where owners Angie and Scott Taylor have elevated the burgers-and-beer concept with grass-fed beef. Or savor the sausages next door at Das Wurst Haus, where Arv Fabian makes the brats, the mustard to slather on them, and the root beer to wash it all down, even as he escapes from the kitchen to play his concertina (don’t call it an accordion!).
Walk off the weight by browsing the work of regional artists at the smartly curated Lanesboro Art Center or the vintage hats and natural-fiber women’s wear at the new Bittersweet Boutique. Take some fresh produce home from the new Lanesboro Local Marketplace (the town claims to be Minnesota’s rhubarb capital) or, if it’s Saturday, from the farmers’ market in Sylvan Park (for fantastic jam, look for the Amish buggies).
In the evening, try the Scandinavian small-plate smorgasbord at Kari’s—the Taylors’ other, more upscale restaurant—which connects directly to the Commonweal Theatre, an unusually ambitious community troupe. Have a nightcap on the patio of Riverside on the Root, then retire to the berth of your choosing. Want privacy? Try Belle Rive, a house of your own right up against the bluff and bike trail. Or get the full Victorian, breakfast-big-as-a-boulder experience at Anna V’s, where you’re liable to become driftless yourself.