Thursday, November 8, 2012

The North Shore™ Cash Machine

Grand Marais MN during high tourist season is like a funhouse Hall of Mirrors, where everything's distorted and little is as it first appears. 'Cept you'll pay way more at Grand Marais and mightn't have as much fun.

Superior's shore in northern Minnesota is a slopping, hard rock place. Government owns much of the land, with the State Parks and National Forests that today blanket the area being the major economic resource of the region, as it's those that draw visitors up from Duluth, down out of Ontario and from all points wherever beyond.

When folk visit all that natural splendor, it's only Grand Marais that exists to service their every need.

Heather & I first traveled there maybe 35 years ago and found the sleepy vestige of a once marginally prosperous community long since slipped in the direction of economic ruin, as so many villages along the lake were then and are still. As perverse as it seems to say, that was essentially its charm.

Very little intruded upon the quietude. Once you visited the tiny but outstanding Sivertson Gallery hard by the harbor, you had your choice of local diners or a couple more upscale restaurants for fresh fish. Then you could take an evening stroll past Coast Guard Station out to the old break wall on the lake and that was about it.

But even then, if you sniffed around a bit a certain attitude prevailed.

Once, having just traveled east to west across the Canadian shore of Superior and back into the States, I found myself amidst a few locals gathered early in the morning at a small establishment -- ordinarily an enlightening, often a pleasant experience. A lady commented about the weather "on the north shore".

Having just been there, I chimed in with fresh information about Ontario's weather.

Instantly, there fell a deep and pregnant pause. It was like being in a cartoon western saloon, where the piano suddenly stops and the whole place falls quiet when the villain walks in. Then this lady peered down her nose at me and with a gaze intended to wither the abject ignorance right out of my poor pitiful self she positively sniffed, "We are the North Shore".

Sure 'ya are, lady. And Marathon's to your south.

As I said, it's not like Grand Marais didn't have its pleasures. For instance, perhaps the finest walleye I've ever eaten was at the Birch Terrace -- a place of impeccable service offering hearty Northwoods cuisine and a great narrative besides. And therein lies a story to illustrate the split personality of Grand Marais.

Crafted of pine log as a private residence in 1898, the Birch Terrace is a stately old building with a rich history, built on a rise above the lake. An Indian burial ground is said to have been in what's now the front yard. Tales were told of the moose that'd swim out from the dock to greet  incoming boats and beg pouches of tobacco from travelers. The proclamation that created the fabled Gunflint Trail was signed by the Governor of Minnesota in the living room, where today meals are served.

When Heather & I first ate there, much was made of this history and that added immeasurably to the excellence of the overall experience. The richness of the place helped make for an evening of Northwoods romance that'll live on forever in our hearts because it was part of what helped make the Superior Basin our destination of choice.

In today's Birch Terrace, you'll find no mention of history. The menu is reduced to standard tourist fare. When there for old time's sake this past August, I've never seen a staff so overmatched, even with the place mostly empty. Orders were wrong. Meals arrived late or cold and then dispatched back to the kitchen for remedy. Apologies were flung like day old fish fritters.

You can still sit in the handsome old dining room but now the place sports a beer garden terrace too, where on a summer's eve you can listen to a mediocre singer cover old Jimmy Buffett tunes.

All the same, when I visited there in May just before the opening of "the Season", Grand Marais was quietly sublime. A whitefish dinner at the Angry Trout as the sun set over Superior was everything it ought to be and then some.

You could walk the town without brushing shoulders with a crowd. The lakefront past the break wall remains a great place for an evening's stroll. While there you'll see what might be the largest collection of balanced rock art to be found anywhere around the lake:

And I stayed in a fine, family run motel a few miles north from Grand Marais, for a good price.

But what you don't want to do is come off the road late on a Friday afternoon in August, as I did when running down from our trek to Pukaskwa and back. Then you'll find a town near to bursting and too proud of the fact by half.

You'll wait an hour & a half to get seated at the Angry Trout, where you can spend time in quiet observance of class distinctions thrown to high relief. Vacationing families, half-drunk hikers and plenty of patricians from who knows where decked out in positively unblemished high end outdoor gear jostle as they down free-flowing sedations of choice and all the while studiously avoiding direct eye contact with each other.

Then when you take that evening walk, you'll not have to worry about being alone:

And if you're really lucky, you'll have the pleasure of paying for the last room in the region as much or more than is charged most nights for a proper room in downtown Chicago -- where there're hundreds of fine restaurants, a veritable cornucopia of cultural choices and a splendid lakefront to boot, though admittedly not Superior.

Grand Marais prides itself on what it offers the contemporary traveler. But there's an awful lot of Superior shore away from it in all directions, including north.

So should you plan a trip to the area, go offseason and enjoy its many authentic pleasures. Or secure reservations well in advance at the Nanabijou Lodge, or some other family run establishment in the region, then head into town at your own discretion.

Otherwise, get your overpriced ticket to the carnival. Then grab a seat -- if you can find one -- and listen to the barkers sing...

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