The Crooked Spoon Cafe has closed, but no one rushes to leave. At one table, singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac celebrates her performance that evening at Unplugged, an annual festival at the North House Folk School. She and a friend burst into an impromptu rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia,” and soon, everyone in the restaurant joins her, voices raised in laughing song.
You could blame the wine—or you could credit Grand Marais, a one-stoplight oasis of great food and culture 110 miles northeast of Duluth. The town (population: 1,350) brings out the joie de vivre in anyone, especially in fall. Summer crowds thin, and with them go the insects, replaced by bald eagles, burnished foliage and bracing, pine-scented air. And for the past 12 years, the season kicks off with Unplugged, a growing event that’s still small enough to make you feel like part of the Grand Marais family.
What to do
North House Folk School Classes cover basket making, blacksmithing and more, and the school’s schooner sails daily. Unplugged features concerts and workshops. (888) 387-9762; northhouse.org 
Artists’ Point An almost magical serenity hangs over this rocky spit jutting out into Lake Superior.
Lutsen Mountains ski resort Race down Moose Mountain on the alpine slide (like a sled with no snow) or ride up in a windowed gondola for sweeping views in all directions and pleasant hiking. (218) 663-7281; lutsen.com 
Shopping Our favorite downtown stops: Betsy Bowen Studio, Drury Lane Books, Dockside Fish Market and Birchbark Gallery.
State parks Top-notch parks line the entire North Shore. Easy trails lead to waterfalls in Cascade River State Park. (218) 387-3053; www.dnr.state.mn.us 
Where to eat
Angry Trout Cafe This sunny favorite is local to the core: Lake Superior fish and artisan-made decor. (218) 387-1265; angrytroutcafe.com 
Crooked Spoon Cafe Treat yourself to eclectic dishes like grilled pork chop with balsamic fig marmalade. (218) 387-2779; crookedspooncafe.com 
Gunflint Tavern Follow the crowds here for a craft beer and tasty appetizers. (218) 387-1563; gunflinttavern.com 
The Pie Place Cafe Bear cutouts garnish pies at this warm breakfast-through-dinner spot. (218) 387-1513; thepieplacecafe.com 
Where to stay
East Bay Suites A posh renovation has updated a more than 100-year-old downtown hotel along the Lake Superior shore. From $179. (800) 414-2807; eastbaysuites.com 
Lutsen Resort A historical lodge anchors this large resort in Lutsen (19 miles southwest of Grand Marais). Activities such as guided sea-kayak trips are complimentary. From $119. (800) 258-8736; lutsenresort.com 
For more information: Cook County Visitors Bureau (888) 922-5000; visitcookcounty.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2013. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)