Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Monday, January 25, 2010

Take a Minnesota dogsled ride: click video below


Travel to Minnesota's dogsledding destinations

Riding behind a dogsled team with brisk winter air rushing into your face should be on every Minnesotan's bucket list. You don't even have to spend much. For $10 a person, you can get a 10- or 15-minute dogsled ride around Gull Lake or across a golf course most snowy Saturdays at Cragun's Resort in Brainerd, Minnesota. All you need to do is bundle up and hang on for a winter vacation experience like few others.

Chaos, cacophony, quiet
Earplugs might help, too, especially if you're the first dogsled rider of the day. Be prepared for cacophony. A team of huskies jacked up for a run ranks at the same excitement and noise level of a classroom of ADHD boys with baseball bats, trampolines and pinatas. They are charged! The handlers have a major job trying to hook up dogs bouncing up and down, scrapping with each other and yelping and howling with joy.

Then you're bundled up in the dogsled, the leader yells "Gee!" and barking turns off like a switch. The dogs, in all shades of brown, black and cream, strain forward and quickly gain momentum. There's a beautiful shooooosh of movement and a magical silence barely touched by a few creaks from the wooden sled and whispered rhythm of running dogs.

Contagious exuberance
Sitting behind the Minnesota dogsled team, I wondered if their feet even touched the ground as they flew across snow, tongues flapping to the side of their mouths, mismatched eyes focused forward. It was a rush to recline into the sled and watch bare trees and thick pines spool past. On one ride, we hit a sharp corner and tipped into the shrubs. We laughed and got back on. The dogs' exuberance was contagious to the point of epidemic. After the ride was over, it was just as much fun to watch the canine team--barely winded--take off with more first-time riders in tow.
Where to have a dogsledding vacation
Cragun's Resort, Brainerd has the best deal I've found if you're short on time and money. Guests can sign up for a slot when they check in. It does sometimes book up, or need to be canceled depending on weather. Brainerd, Ely, Duluth, Lutsen-Tofte and Grand Marais are all good places to find dogsledding outfitters who will arrange a private half-day or full-day. Prices typically start at $90-$100 per person and go up from there depending on the length of the dogsled ride and whether meals are included.

Other good bets for a shorter sample: Plan ahead for Cook County's annual Volks Ski Fest. It hosted dogsledding in Tofte and at Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail last Saturday. The festival runs all this week, celebrating winter fun with sleigh rides, snowshoeing and the chance to try some of the area's 400 kilometers of groomed trails.

Further down the Gunflint Trail, historic Gunflint Lodge has three dogsledding weekends each winter with two left: Feb. 3-7 and March 3-7. Prices range from $345 per child for a three-night option (lodging/meals/activities) to $596/per adult for a four-night package.

Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely ranks as Minnesota's nationally known dogsled experience, with options ranging from $1200 all-inclusive, multi-day trips to affordable half-day trips starting at $100/person. They have one weekend a year devoted to a parent-daughter experience, with an emphasis on writing in addition to learning about dogsledding. The International Wolf Center in Ely has four spots left for its annual Mush with Dogs, Howl with Wolves program Feb. 19-21 ($470/night).

Finally, if you want to soak up the energy and excitement of the sport, travel to Duluth for next weekend's annual John Beargrease Dogsled Marathon, a prequalifier for Alaska's legendary Iditarod. There's a cutest puppy contest noon to 2 p.m. at the Fitger's complex Saturday, Jan. 30. The race begins Sunday, Jan. 31, and runs through Wednesday, Feb. 3.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bundle up for Minnesota's biggest ice fishing festival

Last January, the windchills were 20 below at the  Brainerd Jaycees' $150,000 ice-fishing extravaganza. That didn't seem to bother anyone except posers like me with hand- and toe-warmers and pajama bottoms augmenting long underwear and too-thin snowpants. Truly hearty Minnesotans brought portable heaters to thaw their beer. Bud slushie, anyone?

The sheer spectacle of this ice-fishing contest--10,000 people and 21,000 holes--is worth the grins that freeze to your face. Grab your gear or your camera to witness Brainerd, Minnesota's 2010 contest next Saturday.

Read my full feature, which includes Walker, Minnesota's, annual Eelpout Festival:

Cold noses, warm humor
How can you not laugh when:
  • Guys drive all the way from Wyoming for the event and joke it's for the good-looking women. (As if you could even tell women from the bundled-up men. This is no place for pretty pink parkas.)
  • The music being cranked out across the ice includes takes the classic "Rawhide" music ("Rollin', rollin', Rawhide!") to "Giddy-up, Waaaaaalllleeeyyyee!"
  • Locals use the home-court advantage and haul recliners to the ice--comfy and assuredly less frigid than a parade chair.
  • Flashbacks to the State Fair are triggered by cheese curd stands and the fact the people-watching is just as good.
  • You can shop for serious ice-fishing gear from Minnesota companies or opt for a more whimsical fur-lined horned helmet from Steinarr, "The Crazy Viking."

The Crazy Viking experience
You may have seen Steinarr at Minnesota Vikings games. He dresses like a Medieval marauder, but he also  reigns over the Nordic Inn Bed and Brew in Crosby, Minnesota, about 15 minutes away. It's one of the state's most unique places to stay in that it's part living history site, museum and dinner theater. Guests play interactive games, wear Viking attire, and have to be prepared for a bit of bawdy humor. Steinarr built the bed and breakfast in a renovated church with a Viking ship suspended from the ceiling. That's one of the places guests can sleep.

If you're looking for more unique escapes and ice-fishing contests, angle over to

Friday, January 8, 2010

Warm up at Minnesota's best water parks

In the middle of winter, few things feel as good as shedding all the bundled-up layers. Seriously. In the last brutal week of temperatures, I was wearing long underwear just to work at home. So be free! Grab the kids, dig out your suits, and enjoy a weekend at Minnesota's water parks. It may not be a real beach, but at least we'll are pasty white and not blinding any golden-boy Floridians.

Here are my top picks:

Best overall
Waterpark of America at the Radisson, Bloomington. Hands-down, the best option if you have teens. This park claims to be the biggest in Minnesota. As is often said, though, size doesn't matter. Here it's the variety and openess--a lack of claustrophia that plagues many water parks. I also love its Minnesota theme, especially the replica of Split Rock Lighthouse that serves as the centerpiece.

Waterpark of America has the state's only wave pool and surf simulator, plus a fantastic multi-story family raft ride. Be prepared for the 136 steps to reach the top. The slides also are translucent. You don't feel like you're dropping down a black hole.

Unless they're maxed out with guests (a possibility during long holiday weekends), they do take day visitors. That can help with the family budget.

 An obvious bonus: Shuttles to Mall of America. Unexpected bonus: Watching planes take off from the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport every few minutes. Watch from the water park's second-floor balcony.

Best pick for a vacation area:
Paul Bunyan Water Park, Baxter. You can find a water park on either side of Highway 371 just north of Brainerd-Baxter's commercial strip. The other one, a Holiday Inn Express with its Three Bears Lodge is fine, but I favor The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes. There are bright red hallways and cozy log-themed rooms with fun titles that will appeal to kids. I like the waterpark's Minnesota theme here, too. It has some playful touches, like Paul's giant socks hanging from a clothesline. For kids, the caveat will be the slides with programable holographic special effects. You can slip past butterflies, sharks or get the impression you're busting through a brick wall at the bottom. The onsite Rockwoods Grill and Backwater Bar also has good comfort food options, including Tater Tot hotdish, pot pie and rotisserie chicken.

Best for overall on-site activities:
Arrowwood Resort & Conference Center, Alexandria.
I'm going to be honest. The state's very first waterpark, The Big Splash, is looking faded and a bit tattered. That said, I'd still recommend Arrowwood. Why? It's the best place to enjoy both the fake tropics and have true winter fun. The resort offers snowmobiling, ice skating, ice-fishing and sledding right on site (they even provide sleds), plus other kid-friendly activities. If your kids are old enough for real swimming or in the been-there, done-that camp for waterpark amenities, there is a large indoor pool, too. (I'd have to say waterparks make me miss good old swimming.) Word of advice: Arrowwood's new townhomes are lovely, but you'll want to stay in the main resort rooms or suites for easy waterpark or pool access. You can opt for a full or partial kitchen, too, which is worth it when you have tired kids, wet hair, no make-up and can't stomach any more water park snack food.

Biggest, best waterparks
Crave someplace bigger with more bells and whistles? Check out the four best resorts in Wisconsin Dells.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Skating at The Depot in downtown Minneapolis

Give history a whirl
You know a place has full-blown charm when it lures an 88-year-old great-grandmother onto ice skates for the first time in decades. That would be my Grandma Cretia. She couldn't stand just watching while her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren had all the fun at The Depot's Minneapolis ice rink over the holidays.

It's easily one of the most popular places in the state to lace up your skates. Where else can you spin through a wide-open, yet sheltered former railroad shed? I remember when there were still trains crowded beneath its roof on Washington Avenue a block from the Mississippi River. The former station has been artfully transformed into historic hotel rooms with a cozy lobby and restaurant and hallways decorated in vintage train travel posters.

Life-size white statues of travelers, a sailor, a conductor and other characters throughout The Depot give a glimpse of the early 20th-century heydays of railroad travel. The spacious historic suites in particular make a memorable romantic retreat. Rooms in the adjoining Residence Inn have kitchens, which make it nice to truly retreat on cold days. Romance packages (promotional code XRP) start at $159/night with late checkout, champagne and breakfast.

Take the kids, make it a weekend
The Depot's even better for a family getaway. While the waterpark is relatively small at 15,000 square feet, it's great for younger children who love the caboose centerpiece, which includes slides, fountains and the sound of a steam whistle with chugging noises about every 10 minutes. There's a bigger slide and basketball area for older kids. You can easily fill a weekend with the water park, a scenic walk along the river, the skating rink, and a trip to the  Mill City Museum less than two blocks away where the modern museum rises from within historic mill ruins.

Guests get a 25-percent discount at the skating rink, but anyone can use it for $6-$8 per person. If you're like me--unable to squeeze into skates you've had since you were 14--it's $7 to rent skates. They also have walker-like braces to help first-timers keep their balance, which makes it an ideal place to introduce kids to the ice.

Most skaters, though, do as my grandma did: link arms with loved ones and go gliding around the depot. With the illuminated city skyline as a backdrop throughout the night, it's magical.

Call 612-339-2253 or check the website for rink hours, which fluctuate. It closes for the season Sunday, March 21.

More memorable skating rinks
St. Paul has its share of charm, too, with its seasonal Wells Fargo rink set up beneath the majestic, historic Landmark Center. It wins in the urban bargain category with free ice skating. Rental skates are only $2. It's also artificially chilled, which keeps conditions consistent. Hurry, though: It's only open through Jan. 31.

If you want a more natural place to skate, head to Minneapolis' beautiful Lake of the Isles. Some rental skates are available, along with a warming house and the option to figure skate or try a game of pond hockey. Call 612-370-4875 for more details. The city's rinks are usually open through mid-February.