Laid-Back Family Lake Resorts
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A week at the lake
Remember those magical escapes to the cabin when you were a kid? In a quiet pocket of the North Woods, that feeling lives on as families gather at towns and resorts that proudly keep it old-school.
Click ahead for vacation ideas in the Detroit Lakes area (including the Fair Hills Resort pictured at left), as well as suggestions for other Midwest old-school resorts.
Families seeking a remember-when mood find it thick as jack pines along the Lake Country Scenic Byway, an 88-mile run linking Walker, Park Rapids, Itasca State Park and Detroit Lakes (200 miles northwest of the Twin Cities). Huge resorts like those at Brainerd haven't come here. And although you'll find espresso and wireless web, mom-and-pop shops are everywhere, and many calendars seem to have never flipped past 1960.
Pictured: A quiet sunset on Lake Five, southeast of Detroit Lakes.
The ultimate throwback is Fair Hills Resort, located on a large bay of Pelican Lake, just south of Detroit Lakes. People invariably know this 84-year-old business as the "Dirty Dancing resort" for its similarities to the resort in the Patrick Swayze film. Fair Hills has a layout of old-school cabins around a central lodge and a program heavy on tennis mixers, a guest talent show and the staff's famous Hootenanny musical (pictured at left).
Fun -- and loyalty
At Fair Hills, everybody seems to know everybody, the cabins have no keys, and few guests bother to leave the property during the week.
"Our activity list from the 1970s looks a lot like it does today," says Beth Kaldahl Schupp, the fourth-generation owner. In fact, most customers discourage change, almost rioting when lasagna moved from Monday to Thursday. So things stay pretty much the same, cementing die-hard loyalty. Beth's mom, Barb, says, "If you come here 50 years, you get a free week. And we're giving out more of those all the time."
Pictured: A young guest hits top speed on the giant waterslide on Fair Hills' golf course.
Detroit Lakes area: What to do
Itasca State Park Most people come to walk the Mississippi headwaters in Minnesota's oldest state park (pictured at left), but the forest's massive pines, sparkling Lake Itasca and miles of hiking trails and paved bike trails might steal the show. (218) 699-7251; dnr.state.mn.us
Summerhill Farm Seven miles north of Park Rapids on the way to Itasca State Park, Summerhill Farm features several clothing and gift shops in old farm buildings connected by brick paths and white fences on a hillside. The Sun Porch restaurant features lunches. A big fall sale brings hundreds of carloads of shoppers. (218) 732-3865; summerhill-farm.com
The Trading Post This home of Park Rapids' famous cigar-store warrior has been selling loon whistles, shot glasses and other tourist souvenirs on Main Street since the 1920s. (218) 732-4509
For more information on the region, contact the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau (800) 542-3992, visitdetroitlakes.com, and the Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce (800) 247-0054, parkrapids.com.
Detroit Lakes area: Where to eat
Fireside Features both an upscale dining room and a casual pavilion with a wall of screened windows that provides open-air dining on the shore of Detroit Lake. Family-style Sunday brunch in the pavilion is served on white tablecloths, but it's perfect for people who bring kids and wear shorts. (218) 847-8192; firesidedl.com
The Good Life Cafe This new eatery focuses on local ingredients, bringing a stylish new flavor to the traditional menu offerings on Main Street in Park Rapids. (218) 237-4212; thegoodlifecafepr.com
Minnesoda Fountain The sundaes at this old-fashioned soda fountain (left) in downtown Park Rapids feature clever twists like the malt powder on the "Dusty Road"--and they're all big enough to share with your sweetie. (218) 732-3240
"Restaurant Capital of the World" Tiny Dorset sits just east of Park Rapids on Highway 226, which connects to the Lake Country Scenic Byway. The town makes the most of its tourism offerings by advertising itself with the restaurant capital tag. Stop here to browse three shops and eat at three restaurants. dorsetmn.com
Spanky's Stone Hearth In a vintage log building on the shores of Rose Lake near Vergas, chef/owner Josh Hanson delivers an ambitious wine list and upscale menu featuring entrees such as prime-grade, hand-cut steaks; duck; and seafood flown in fresh daily from Hawaii. (218) 334-3555; spankysstonehearth.com
Speakeasy Don't be fooled by the cheesy waitstaff fedoras, mafia-theme entree names and 1970s holdover decor. This large restaurant a few blocks from the Detroit Lake beach serves serious Italian dishes. (218) 844-1326.
Zorbaz on the Lake This famed pizza joint channels every beach bar you've ever known. The original is in Detroit Lakes, across from the lake, but there are lakefront locations throughout the Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids areas. (218) 847-5305; zorbaz.com
Detroit Lakes area: Where to stay
Fair Hills Resort Midsummer rates with all meals included start at $600 per adult per week and $180 per child per week at the resort. Rates include many activities and lessons, unlimited golf on the executive course and discounts on golf at Wildflower Golf Course across the road. (800) 323-2849; fairhillsresort.com
Five Lakes Resort Fair Hills' quieter sister resort on Lake 5 offers several rental homes on a lake that allows only electric motors. Summer rates start at $110 per night. (800) 323-2849; fivelakesresort.com
The Lodge on Lake Detroit Hotel-style lodging in a new facility on a Detroit Lake beach just outside town. On-site spa. Summer rates from $129. (800) 761-8439; thelodgeonlakedetroit.com
Pictured: Eight decades of family vacations come alive in antique photos in Fair Hills' lobby.
More old-school resorts
You'll typically find these classics in the Midwest's northern reaches, offering a mix of dining options and organized fun. One of our favorites: White Birch Lodge in Elk Rapids, Michigan. This water-centric resort with cabins, rooms and townhomes touts lessons in sailing, waterskiing and kayaking, along with three meals a day. College-age students lead kids' activities, so parents can relax. From $885/week per adult. (231) 264-8271; whitebirchlodge.org
Click ahead for two more suggestions for old-school resorts.
Wildcat Lodge in Wisconsin
You don't have to bait a hook to enjoy this 11-cabin resort in Boulder Junction. But when the walleye are biting, you'll want to try. Owners Tim and Jonelle France show you how to clean your fish and record your catch in the logbook (they might even put it on the dinner menu). At breakfast, Jim France (Tim's dad) is eager to hear whether you're planning to catch frogs, swim, paddle or do the scavenger hunt. Cabins from $1,275/week. (715) 385-2421; wildcatlodge.net
Fountain Point Resort in Michigan
This 121-year-old resort in Lake Leelanau is on the National Register of Historic Places. Maples shade 19 white cottages (with kitchens and updated baths). Bonfires, tennis and croquet reunite guests with old friends. Eight inn rooms from $90; cottages from $1,270/week. (231) 256-9800; fountainpointresort.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2010.)