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Lake Getaways Without The Crowds

Three Midwest lakes in Minnesota, Indiana and Missouri offer all the allure of more popular destinations without the traffic.

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Lake Vermilion, Minnesota: North Woods trip

Mornings start simply over northern Minnesota's Lake Vermilion. Motorboats putter across 40,000 acres of open water as deer graze at the edge of thick pine forests. The blue water ripples ever so slightly. Somewhere in the distance, a loon calls. And just down the road from Pehrson Lodge, the town of Cook (population: 500) is waking up. Valerie Ohotto pours coffee at the Montana Cafe as men in baseball caps and blue jeans tuck into sausage patties as big as their hands.

Pictured: Walleye, northern and smallmouth bass draw anglers to Lake Vermilion.

Lake Vermilion: A sense of discovery

A proud mining history defines this Iron Range region, which stands 90 miles north of Duluth. Huge mining trucks on display at Mineview in the Sky and the Minnesota Museum of Mining pay tribute to the Slovenians, Poles and Finns who settled the region. On weekends, their descendants munch on 24-inch pizzas at the Vermilion Club in Tower between morning and afternoon rounds of muskie fishing. Most sports bars and restaurants here feel pretty blue collar, and that rep keeps some people away.

Perhaps that's just as well. Roadside strawberry patches, a little farmers market and a restored movie theater in Cook all feel like discoveries—just like the undisturbed coves where you can drop anchor and listen for wildlife. Burntside Lodge, an upscale resort on a smaller lake a few miles east of Lake Vermilion, begs for a visit (as well as a stay).

Cabins built at the turn of the 20th century boast beautiful knotty pine walls, comfortable furniture and views of the fiery sunsets. In the main dining room, well-dressed young couples end long days on the lake with blueberry mojitos, mole-rubbed duck and grilled zucchini with roasted cauliflower sauce. The northern lights streak across the sky, signaling it's time to return to simple lakeside cabins that feel pulled from postcards of quintessential Up North lake vacations.

Pictured: Families flock to Pehrson Lodge for laid-back getaways.

Trip guide to Lake Vermilion begins on slide 8.

Patoka Lake, Indiana: A sound all its own

As twilight settles over the seven floating cabins at Patoka Lake Marina, cicadas buzz in the woodlands ringing this southern Indiana reservoir, and boats in the no-wake zone ripple the water with itty-bitty waves. The cabins barely move, but the creaking sounds like 100 grandmas on porch rockers. 

That hot summer night symphony breeds peace out here, one hour west of Louisville, Kentucky. Each morning, families push wheelbarrows full of towels, coolers and inner tubes to pontoons for a day on the water.

Pictured: Patoka is Indiana's second-largest lake.

Patoka Lake: Quiet pleasures

Breakfast time means sitting with a cup of coffee and the local weekly paper at the Patoka Lake Cafe while you wait for thick blueberry pancakes. Cute shops ring nearby Jasper's historic square. A new history museum and the cathedrallike West Baden Springs Hotel stand 15 minutes north of the lake. But not a single home lines Patoka's forested shoreline, where ospreys waddle before taking flight. A wide, pebble-flecked beach lures swimmers, and little ones can wade all the way out to the ropes with their heads still bobbing above water. 

Pictured: Patoka Lake Marina sells fishing rods for kids and adults.

Trip guide to Patoka Lake begins on slide 11.

Table Rock, Missouri: A different kind of busy

Thick clouds blanket the sky over Missouri's Table Rock Lake, casting a gray light over Still Waters Resort. But no one seems to notice. Teens clinging to inner tubes holler as they skitter past 800 serpentine miles of shoreline. On shore, parents lounge over summer reads while their little ones "Zoom the Flume," whooshing down a green water slide into a swimming pool. A family pitches horseshoes under a canopy of trees near the playground. The blare of nearby Branson fades to a hum on this quiet peninsula, where Chris and Tricia Boucher of Imperial, Missouri, have rented a one-bedroom condo for five nights to unwind. "It's like—you plan a trip to Branson, but you're not really in Branson. It's there when you want the attractions, but you're out in the lake relaxing for the rest of the trip," Tricia says.

Pictured: Guests use kayaks and pedal boats for free at Still Waters Resort.

Table Rock: Ozark fun

Across the road at The Village at Indian Point, luxe condos feature cabin-chic decor. Couples take their morning coffee onto covered porches and watch the sun rise over Table Rock. Two miles away at Silver Dollar City, bakers clad in 19th-century garb roll out cinnamon rolls as guests wander among the crafts shops and rides in the hilly, leafy amusement park.

By midday, the lake and the pools on Indian Point tempt travelers back to their refuge. A waterfall tumbles into a Still Waters pool while jets rumble in a nearby hot tub. When it's time to make plans for the evening, guests ponder their choices. Dinner at Fall Creek Steak and Catfish House or at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede? A Liverpool Legends show, or an Imax movie about the Ozarks' history? Or just grill out and spend the evening on the patio? At Table Rock Lake, how busy you want to be is all up to you.

Pictured: Table Rock Lake offers peaceful vistas.

Trip guide to Table Rock begins on slide 14.

Lake Vermilion trip guide: What to do

For more information or to plan your trip, contact the Lake Vermilion Chamber of Commerce. (218) 753-2301; lakevermilioncommerce.com

Comet Theater, Mercantile and Exchange A coffee shop, clothing store, live-music venue and Minnesota's longest-running movie theater all cram into this single space. (218) 666-5814; comettheater.com

Cook Area Farmers Market Sustainably raised pork and lamb, homemade bread, handmade goods and lots of local produce fill a row of tents in Cook on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. (218) 666-0354

Mesabi Trail You'll enjoy the views, small towns and wildlife along the 100-mile-long smooth paved trail. A three-day pass costs $5, and towns on the route offer places to stop and rest. (877) 637-2241; mesabitrail.com

Mineview in the Sky The Mineview in the Sky hits all the right notes for an educational display: It's fast, it's fun and it's free. See amazing panoramas and cool pieces of mining equipment, all along US-53. (218) 741-2717; ironrange.org

Minnesota Museum of Mining Learn about this part of the region's history as you climb aboard mining equipment and tour replicas of an underground mine and mining town in historic downtown Chisholm. (218) 254-5543; mnmuseumofmining.org

Pictured: Mineview in the Sky offers a panorama of surrounding cities and man-made lake.

 

Lake Vermilion trip guide: Where to eat

Burntside Lodge Fine dining meets stunning scenery along Burntside Lake, where well-heeled guests dine on seasonally inspired dishes like pan-seared duck breast with a blueberry miso glaze and sake-marinated fruit. (218) 365-3894; burntside.com

Italian Bakery A longtime family-owned bakery turns honey, butter, eggs, walnuts and brown sugar into amazing multilayered potica (pronounced po-TEE-sah). Fans also can order it online. (877) 747-3464; potica.com

Mary's Morsels and Catering Adorable teddy bears and hanging plants outside give a homey feel to this bistro, which specializes in Iron Range favorites like pasties and sarmas. (218) 744-3323

Montana Cafe It's the only sit-down restaurant in Cook, and luckily this little cash- or check-only cafe has good diner food, prices and service. (218) 666-2074

Vermilion Club Burgers, wings, 24-inch pizzas and cold beer define a slightly seedy sports bar along the lake; hot, chewy, rich popovers accompany delicious barbecue ribs. (218) 753-6277; restaurantpizzabar.com

 

Lake Vermilion trip guide: Where to stay

Burntside Lodge The oldest remaining guest lodge in the area has some simple knotty pine cabins that date to the early 1900s. The service is exceptional; the setting inspires countless photographs. (218) 365-3894; burntside.com

Pehrson Lodge (pictured) Comfortable beds, nice furniture and Minnesota accents, like lamps with metal pinecones or loon carvings, furnish clean lakeside cabins. A swimming beach with free kayaks, a busy roster of kids' activities, and an on-site bait and tackle shop serve guests ready to get in—and out on—Lake Vermilion. (800) 543-9937; pehrsonlodge.com

 

Patoka Lake trip guide: What to do

For more information or to plan your trip, contact Visit Dubois County. (800) 968-4578; visitduboiscounty.com

French Lick Resort Golf courses designed by Hoosier native Pete Dye, big-name concerts and a spa offer upscale places to play 16 miles northeast of Patoka Lake. (888) 936-9360; frenchlick.com

French Lick West Baden Museum Photographs, letters and artwork reveal the towns' history. The museum, which opened in 2011 but is slated to move this summer, also has a huge diorama depicting a 1920s circus down to the smallest detail. (812) 936-3592

Hinshaw Rock 'n Gems Southeast of French Lick, a humble showroom houses handmade jewelry crafted with stunning polished stones and silver. (812) 936-7255; hinshawrockngems.com

Huntingburg A cute downtown holds more than a dozen boutiques and restaurants in carefully preserved historical buildings, 25 miles southwest of Patoka Lake. (888) 491-3875; visitduboiscounty.com

Jasper (pictured) A historic courthouse anchors a town square that bustles during Strassenfest, a summertime German heritage festival. In between bands, beers, brats and pretzels, stop into Just Whimsy for cute handbags, accessories and fashions; Indigo Roots for upcycled home decor and artwork; Finishing Touches for classy scarves and gifts; and Chocolate Bliss for truffles and Tell City Pretzels. (888) 491-3875; visitduboiscounty.com

Marengo Cave Fascinating tours wind through gorgeous underground rock formations daily (22 miles east of Patoka Lake). (888) 702-2837; marengocave.com

Patoka Lake Marina Rent pontoons and houseboats to get out on the water, or just pack a picnic and head to the sandy beach at Patoka Lake State Recreation Area for great swimming. (888) 819-6916; patokalakemarina.com

 

Patoka Lake: Where to eat

French Lick Winery Salads, breads and dips, pizzas, and pastas complement the wines made here in West Baden Springs. Try the roasted red pepper rigatoni served with marinara or Alfredo. (812) 936-2293; frenchlickwinery.com

Patoka Lake Cafe (pictured) In an old general store just up the road from the lake, the cafe serves fluffy blueberry pancakes, a breakfast wrap and the Jimbo, two open-faced biscuits topped with sausage, eggs and gravy. (812) 685-2508

Schwartz Family Restaurant In nearby Eckerty, this cafeteria-style dining room offers up baked chicken, meat loaf, lasagna, chicken and dumplings, plus plenty of sides and pie. (812) 338-9000; schwartzrestaurant.com

Sinclair's Restaurant Located at the West Baden Springs Hotel, Sinclair's exudes European class and showcases Indiana farmers. The pricey but beautifully executed, seasonally inspired dishes include barbecued pork served with red cabbage slaw and scallops atop Indiana sweet corn and asparagus. (888) 936-9360; frenchlick.com

 

 

Patoka Lake: Where to stay

Patoka Lake Marina (pictured) Floating cabins offer a welcome gentle rock but stay firmly tethered to the dock. (888) 819-6916; patokalakemarina.com

West Baden Springs Hotel Once you're done gawking at the huge domed atrium, settle into luxurious rooms featuring pillow-top mattresses, granite counters, European furnishings and spacious baths. (888) 936-9360; frenchlick.com

 

Table Rock Lake: What to do

For more information: Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 328-4105; explorebranson.com

Shows More than 100 shows take place daily in Branson. A few standouts: Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, Liverpool Legends and the biblical-theme shows at Sight and Sound Theatres. Many hotels and restaurants sell discounted tickets, so ask before you buy. (800) 214-3661; explorebranson.com

Showboat Branson Belle A remodeled ship and new show invite travelers to spend the evening on an authentic paddle wheeler as it glides on Table Rock Lake. (800) 831-4386; showboatbransonbelle.com

Silver Dollar City (pictured) Ozark craftspeople make and sell their wares in this wooded amusement park. The rides, including the newer Tom and Huck's River Blast, are fun, and the restaurants serve some of the best food in the area. Admission charged. (800) 831-4386; silverdollarcity.com

Titanic Museum Interactive exhibits, memorabilia and a replica of the ship's Grand Staircase engage visitors. (800) 381-7670; titanicbranson.com

 

Table Rock Lake: Where to eat

Billygail's Cafe The pancakes at this popular breakfast and lunch spot are huge and delicious. (417) 338-8883

Devil's Pool Restaurant (pictured) At Big Cedar Lodge, Ozark dishes like fried catfish and blackberry cobbler star in a dining room filled with antique furnishings. (417) 335-5141; bigcedar.com

Fall Creek Steak and Catfish House Servers toss piping-hot rolls throughout the massive, memorabilia-decked dining room. The menu lists steaks, burgers and barbecue. (417) 336-5060; bransonsbestrestaurant.com

Level 2 Steakhouse in the Hilton Follow up a perfectly aged grass-fed beef steak with the chef's butter cake and vanilla ice cream. (417) 243-3433; level2steakhouse.com

 

Table Rock Lake: Where to stay

Big Cedar Lodge Attention to detail has made this historic Ozark lakeside resort the area's premier place to stay. Antiques fill hotel rooms, and a roster of daily activities include fishing, boating, horseback riding and singing around a campfire. (417) 335-5141; bigcedar.com

Still Waters Resort (pictured) A marina and easy access to Silver Dollar City attract families and boaters; you can reserve lodge rooms or condos. (800) 777-2320; stillwatersresort.com

The Village at Indian Point Chic condos draw couples eager for quiet getaways. (800) 984-7847; thevillageatindianpoint.com

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® July/August 2012.)

 

Video: Lake getaways we love

Learn what we love most about three of our favorite lakes: Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri; Patoka Lake in Patoka Lake, Indiana; and Lake Vermilion in Minnesota's North Woods.

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