Reuniting in the Upper Midwest by Jeffrey P. Wallman

Imagine how I felt. I was on assignment for Reunions magazine, attending the Wolf family reunion. Nothing unusual about that. A reunion like any other except for one small thing; the wolves were real. I wasn’t prepared for this. Needless to say, when I attended the Bear family reunion the next day, I was even more surprised when thirty black bear arrived! This was all part of my assignment to evaluate reunion sites in the Upper Midwest.

For two years we’ve visited a number of vacation areas to develop a feature about reunion locations. We will introduce five great locations; Lake Geneva and Door County in Wisconsin, Ely and Brainerd Lakes in Minnesota, and Galena in Northern Illinois. Each area features extensive lodging facilities, from campgrounds to resorts and a variety of family activities.

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Just an hour from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Lake Geneva is a tiny town that turns into a tourist mecca every weekend during summer. Long the summer home for many of Chicago’s wealthiest families, it’s full of cute shops and restaurants.

While a reunion at high season can be expensive, with planning you can save thousands during midweek or in the off season. A number of area properties do a great job for families.

The Grand Geneva

Most of their business is corporate. That’s no surprise considering its extensive meeting facilities and two championship golf courses. However, the property is loaded with amenities that appeal to families: a full spa, lap pool, snowboarding hill, petting farm, hiking trails, and more. In addition, with three restaurants the Grand Geneva can please nearly every palette.

If you wish to dine in Lake Geneva, there are a number of options. For casual family and small group dining, the Lake Aire Restaurant provides good basic fare. Nick’s Restaurant on the outskirts of town serves a great steak and Greek salad and can comfortably accommodate larger parties.

Door County, Wisconsin

Located four hours north of Chicago, the Door County peninsula is one of the most interesting reunion sites you can find. Driving along the peninsula is a pleasant adventure, evoking memories of New England lighthouses, sand beaches, limestone bluffs, and farms. However, this is not New England, as any Door County resident will tell you. Door County has more miles of shoreline than any county in the United States. The most state parks, too. And lighthouses? The most.

Summer is high season. It starts late and ends early. Weekends can be crowded. However, from October to May there are fewer people and prices are lower. A number of resorts in the area cater to larger groups; The Landmark, Bailey’s Harbor Yacht Club, and The Alpine are examples.

The Landmark Resort offers a number of amenities. It’s a complete resort with swimming, hiking and golf. It’s a very comfortable resort with a tasteful, contemporary decor. One, two and three bedroom units are available; each unit contains a living room, dining room, and kitchen.

The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek has just five rooms, each sleeping two adults. Each room is different and prices vary from around $100 – $150 per night. All five rooms can be rented for about $724 per night. The price is the same year round. But with a two-night stay in the off-season the room includes two breakfasts and one dinner in their famous restaurant.

Ely, Minnesota

Every family should visit Ely, Minnesota at least once. Located four hours from Minneapolis, Ely features a number of beautiful lakes. It’s a little wild. Ely is home to the International Wolf Foundation, the geographical center for the largest wolf population in the United States. Nature, not man, holds claim to this land. Overall, Ely is one of the most peaceful places on earth, except perhaps in the middle of the night, when you are likely to hear wolves howling in the distance – evidence of nature’s claim.

However, in the town of Ely there are many signs of civilization, such as Pizza Hut and Subway. There are about a dozen outfitters who will arrange the details for your wilderness journey. There is a lot of lodging available, particularly during the off-peak fishing season. Most of the lodges are small, family places.

The Timber Trail Lodge is located just outside Ely, on Farm Lake. The Lodge features a variety of modest cabins. The mostly family staff is very friendly. They have expertise in setting up fishing and canoeing expeditions into the Boundary Waters area. Canoeing and fishing are fantastic.

Timber Trail features large cabins appropriate for groups. One cabin sleeps eleven for $1,055 per week. Another sleeps fifteen comfortably for $1,380 per week. These prices are restricted to certain times, so call for details.

The Burntside Lodge is a little more expensive, but features more amenities. Some people rough it elsewhere for a few days first, then check in at the Burntside for a little vacation within a vacation.

There are a number of interesting things for groups to do. The International Wolf Foundation in Ely is fascinating. A small number of wolves actually live on the foundation grounds or take a short drive to Vince Shute Wildlife Refuge and see dozens of bears in their own environment.

A variety of dining options are available in Ely including a few national chains. Among local restaurants The Chocolate Moose accommodates small groups.

Galena, Illinois

This tiny mining town is a charming reminder of days gone by. President Grant lived there. Lincoln visited. In fact, he stayed at the DeSoto House Hotel, which has been renovated to its original splendor. If you don’t stay at the DeSoto House drop by anyway, if for no other reason than to get a sense of what Galena looked like in its early days.

The town is filled with numerous examples of classical 19th century architecture. Its hilly streets provide a walking history lesson for young and old. Unsurprisingly, Galena is loaded with beautiful bed and breakfast hotels, which are perfect for small groups.

For large groups, however, other properties are available. Eagle Ridge Resort, for example, is one of the premier resort locations in the upper midwest. Located in the beautiful Mississippi River valley, the resort features spectacular views, great hiking, lots of wildlife and, of course, world class golf. It’s also a great place for in-line skating. However, be forewarned. Only an experienced skater with good brakes can negotiate the severe slopes of Eagle Ridge.

On our first trip to the resort, we had a deer feeding station directly outside our room. We saw over forty deer. Since then the herd has been thinned somewhat. However there are still plenty to see. On our next trip we saw a flock of wild turkeys, right on the golf course. These majestic birds are far more beautiful and intelligent than their domesticated cousins. No wonder Ben Franklin suggested the wild turkey as our national bird.

Eagle Ridge has a variety of accommodations, ranging from single rooms in the main lodge to condominiums for large groups. The rooms are tastefully decorated and very comfortable. The food at Eagle Ridge is also very good. The main restaurant features a broad menu with something for everyone. Finally, the resort has a number of special events each year, particularly during the off-season, so check the event calendar when planning your stay.

Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota

I first visited Brainerd after seeing Fargo, a murder movie in which actors spoke with thick Minnesota accents. The film is set in Brainerd, just west of Minneapolis. We kept expecting to hear an accented voice saying, “Sooo, all for a little money, huh?”

Just two hours west of Minneapolis, this vacation area has a lot to offer. With numerous lakes, the Pillsbury State Forest and the Paul Bunyon Trail, the Brainerd Lakes area has many reminders of the timber days of American folklore. Where else could you have an amusement park called Lumbertown?

However, the area has changed. Timber is no longer king. Lumbertown is closed.
What remains is a wonderful family area, loaded with resorts. Among the most well-known is Madden’s. Located on Gull Lake, Madden’s has a full range of resort amenities such as swimming and boating, and some things you wouldn’t expect, like a brand new award winning golf course.

Madden’s has extensive holdings in the vicinity of Gull Lake. Each building is well designed and the decor is tasteful. They have a number of family packages. In addition, two large homes are available for family reunions, Lake House and Strawberry Ridge. When pricing, be aware that Madden’s has a seasonal price list that varies weekly. In addition, an American Plan, Modified American Plan, and European Plan are available, so pay attention to the details when getting estimates.

Brainerd Lakes is very affordable overall. But remember to stock up on a few necessities before you arrive because you’ll pay the resort keeper a premium for everything he sells. I expect this, and frankly, am happy to pay for the convenience a resort offers. But many people may not be prepared. In fact, on getaway day, my family and I overheard a woman complaining to a store clerk about the price of cigarettes. “Why so high?” she asked. “Well,” the sheepish clerk answered, “basically…it’s for the money.” “Soooo,” the woman shot back in a heavy Minnesota accent, “All for a little money, huh?” At that point, we knew our trip was complete.