The Arrowhead town of Grand Marais, Minn., population 1,300, has had more personas than Madonna. Originally a Native American settlement, it has been a European immigrants' fishing camp, a fur trading post and a shipping hub before its current iteration as a tourist destination and the seat of Cook County.
Nestled amid a snaggletooth mountain range and Lake Superior, it also happens to be home to some of the most magnificent scenery in the region. Make no mistake: This is truly "up north." Chilly breezes off Lake Superior can provoke goosebumps even in the height of summer. Warm clothes are a must - even if you think you won't need them. Many shops and restaurants close for the winter or operate at reduced hours, so keep that in mind when planning a trip.
1. Fill your tank
The World's Best Donuts (10 W. Wisconsin St.) inspires rhapsodic reviews. "Awesome, fresh" pastries come from this shop, said Jeff Kern, a Grand Marais resident who is a source in our Public Insight Network (PIN). "If you're going to spoil your diet, this is the place for a sinful bite."
World's Best, known for its cinnamon sugar cake donuts, is owned and operated by family members of the late Merieta Altrichter, who started the business in 1969. It closes for the season in late October.
The perennially popular Angry Trout Cafe (408 W. Highway 61) is the go-to spot for fish, wild rice dishes and creative salads. Best bets include "the salad with fresh fish of the day and a crock of chowder," said Carrie Menk of Kenyon, Minn., a repeat visitor with her sister, Kitty Higinbotham of St. Paul, and other relatives on "girls only" trips. (The restaurant was dubbed "the Mad Fish" by their grandmother one summer - now an inside joke for the family.)
My Sister's Place (401 E. Highway 61) is known for its thin-crust pizza, variety of burgers and celebrity connections -- Minnesota's own Andrew Zimmern, the host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel, stopped here for the chicken gizzards and the Goober (a hamburger with peanut butter and mayo).
Menk is also a fan of the food and the craft beer at the Gunflint Tavern (111 W. Wisconsin St.), a welcoming watering hole, restaurant and live music venue on the main drag.
Nearby, the Crooked Spoon Cafe (17 W. Wisconsin St.) offers inventive entrees and top-drawer service in an intimate setting. Recent specials included rack of alpaca and fresh whitefish.
2. Get a load of that great big lake: Part 1 - activity
This is an outdoors mecca, and the water beckons.
"My sister and I have been kayaking up in GM several times," Menk said. On Lake Superior, "looking 30 feet down through clear water to see huge cube-like boulders on the bottom was a great experience."
Or go on foot. For Higinbotham and Menk, one landmark lures them back again and again: "My sister and I manage to take a walk out to the lighthouse at Grand Marais nearly every trip," Higinbotham said, adding that she made the get-together a priority even while living in northern Alberta, Canada - a 14-hour trip each way.
Take a short stroll from the center of town, past the Coast Guard station, and drink in the lake views along a rocky beach. Then, head a bit farther to Artists' Point for a spectacular view. Nearby, walk along the navigational breakwall, where you can see the lighthouse and listen to the waves and the squawking seagulls. It's a peaceful, scenic spot that gives you an idea of the strength and vastness of Lake Superior.
At the other end of town, a hike along Sweethearts' Bluff offers a rough-hewn lake view - find the trail at the western edge of the Grand Marais RV Park and Campground. The spot is almost a hidden secret, says Suzanne Weber of Grand Marais, another source in the Public Insight Network. Weber, who works for the Cook County Visitors Bureau, also emphasizes the skiing, canoeing and biking in the area.
3. Dust off your wallet
Shop for souvenirs (or blizzard-proof clothing) at the Lake Superior Trading Post (10 S. First Ave.), a rustic department store.
Or head to the iconic Joynes Ben Franklin store (105 W. Wisconsin St.), which always seems to have exactly what you need (rain boots, sugar maple candy, knitting supplies, jigsaw puzzles, you name it).
Drury Lane Books (12 E. Wisconsin St.), a jewel box of a shop, fits the "less is more" aesthetic -- it's a tightly curated store that even has a tiny children's aisle.
At Dockside Fish Market (418 W. Highway 61) pick up an edible souvenir of the delicious, habit-forming smoked salmon or smoked trout.
4. Nurture your artistic side
Grand Marais has an engaging arts community. "Beneath the billboards and tourism stuff," Kern said, the "evidence of cultural richness" here includes art galleries like the Betsy Bowen Studio (301 W. First Ave.), which is housed in a restored Lutheran church and offers stylized, outdoors-themed wood-block prints and books. It's a place that "feeds the art viewing soul," said Paulette Anholm of Grand Marais, another PIN source.
Other popular spots include the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery (115 W. Wisconsin St.), operated by the Cook County Historical Society, and the Sivertson Gallery (14 W. Wisconsin St.). "We always like to look at the jewelry at Sivertson's, as well as the artwork," Menk said. "Usually it's just something small, but someone inevitably comes away with a great find," she said, adding that she bought "beautifully designed wooden jewelry boxes about 10 years ago that I used as bridesmaid gifts at my wedding."
For a hands-on creative experience, a course at the North House Folk School (500 W. Highway 61) might do the trick. Kay Costello, the registrar at the school, said popular options include woodcarving; traditional Norwegian painting known as rosemaling; food courses, including instruction in building and baking in a wood-fired brick oven; and boatbuilding. A gosh-darn practical, gothic-sounding woodworking course called Build Your Own Casket "gets a lot of attention," Costello said with a laugh. The school is planning an intergenerational "family learning weekend" during the Oct. 18-21 school break, and the Winterer's Gathering & Arctic Film Festival from Nov. 15 to 18, 2012.
5. Make merry
Any tourist spot worth its salt is going to have a few popular festivals, and Grand Marais is no exception. The best known is the annual Fishermans Picnic (known locally as "Fish Pic"), next scheduled for Aug. 1-4, 2013.
Other notable events, according to Weber:
- the Arts Festival, which is entering its 23rd year and draws local and regional artists;
- the Dragon Boat Festival;
- back-to-back September weekends of music events, sponsored by North Shore Community Radio (WTIP) and the North House Folk School;
- the "family-friendly" Moose Madness Festival (Oct. 19-21, 2012);
- and Winter Tracks, which in 2012 offered showshoeing, sleigh rides, dogsledding and more - there's "something for everyone," Weber said. (Next edition, Feb. 1-10, 2013).
6. Get a load of that great big lake: Part 2 - tranquility
The town is set among the Sawtooth Mountains, a jagged stretch of low peaks in the Arrowhead. To get to higher ground, drive about two miles up the Gunflint Trail and stop at the Pincushion Mountain Overlook for breathtaking, panoramic views of Lake Superior and the town below. This is a spot to contemplate what makes Grand Marais tick.
"At its heart is a small town with a relatively small year-round population," Anholm said, adding that it can be a challenge to find affordable housing and year-round work. "But the natural gifts of water and woods are something to be appreciated daily."