Sweet Retreats

Whether you want to stay in a treehouse or a farmhouse, you don’t have to travel far to experience another world.

Red Barn Retreats
Photo Courtesy Red Barn Retreats
The bucolic Red Barn in Garden City sleeps 10 and specializes in hosting retreats.

As a kid tromping around Linden Hills, I liked looking at my neighbors’ houses and imagining myself living an alternate existence inside. Who would I be if I lived there? I’d wonder as I cast some hologram of myself into homes and apartments that looked intriguing.

As I grew up and traveled—to Kansas, California, Paris, Florence, Australia, Burkina Faso—this habit flourished and sometimes overwhelmed me. How could anyone choose one place to settle down, I thought, when there are millions of windows to the world, each with a wholly different view?

I eventually did choose. I came home to the Twin Cities and satisfied my desire to slip into other skins by becoming an actor. But my taste for travel—and for sending imaginary versions of myself down dramatically different life paths—endures. Which is why I was thrilled to discover Airbnb.

Launched in 2008 when a couple of enterprising young men in San Francisco inflated three air mattresses in their apartment and offered them to attendees of a conference that had sold out all the local hotel rooms, Airbnb has grown to include accommodations that are a lot more enticing than air mattresses. With more than 600,000 listings worldwide, it’s become a prime example of the so-called sharing economy, which has us riding NiceRide bikes and getting rides from strangers via Lyft.

On (and lesser-known vacation rental sites like, which stands for Vacation Rentals by Owner), you can find anything from a futon in a living room to an entire house to rent. And unlike hotels, which remind you with every walk past the registration desk that you’re just another nameless visitor, these lodgings offer a more personal travel experience: one that meets you on the curb, hands you the keys, ushers you into someone else’s space, and tells you to make yourself right at home.

What’s the difference between this and a traditional bed and breakfast? Technology has made finding and booking lodgings easier. And the variety is stunning. You can play house in a Tokyo high-rise, a villa in the Italian countryside, or a houseboat in Seattle. I just stayed in a converted 1948 school bus in the high desert mesas north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, followed by a few nights on an organic garlic farm outside Taos. The accommodations provided the best of being both a houseguest (local hosts, home-cooked food) and a paying customer (privacy and freedom).

But you don’t have to travel to New Mexico, Paris, or Bolivia to play out a few days of a fantasy life. Here are 10 of the most enticing, unique, offbeat, and luxurious Airbnb lodgings within driving distance of the Twin Cities.

Airbnb Treehouse in Schaumburg, Illinois

1. Romantic Treehouse

This treehouse in Schaumburg, Illinois, is just a six-hour drive (not too far from Chicago), but the koi pond, outdoor shower, and waterfall will have you feeling like you’re in the tropics. And you don’t have to embrace the stark lifestyle of Julia “Butterfly” Hill to enjoy life in the branches with the squirrels and the birds. This treehouse has a fireplace, kitchenette, Bose iPod dock, private deck, and a fireman’s pole, which you can take straight down to the bubbling cedar hot tub below.

2. Private Lakeshore Cottage

The dream comes hardwired into every Minnesotan at birth: a remote cabin on a lake in the northern woods, a humble fishing boat, a campfire pit, and a three-season porch stocked with books and board games. Those of us who weren’t born with cabin keys in our hands can now have 40 wooded acres and 400 feet of private shoreline by booking this three-bedroom cottage situated on a chain of 11 loon- and fish-filled lakes in Akeley, three hours north of the Twin Cities.

3. Madeline Island Home

Madeline Island Airbnb

How many North Shore vacation rentals can boast of having been featured on the Discovery Channel and in Martha Stewart Weddings? This stunning home on 18 acres of private lakeshore on Madeline Island in Lake Superior is built from the wood of a disassembled 200-year-old hay barn in Vermont. With its gourmet kitchen, giant bathtub, beautiful deck with sunset views, five bedrooms, and two bathrooms, this home five hours away would be a magical setting for anything from a girls’ weekend to a honeymoon.

4. Small-Town Creamery

Leave the iPhone at home and drive two hours to a brick home in the town of Fertile, Iowa (population 370). The owner (who lives in the downstairs bedroom) has fixed up this creamery built on the Winnebago River in 1900. Guests have access to the spacious upstairs bedrooms, private bathroom, porch, kitchen, eclectic library of books, and several nooks in which to curl up to read them. Outside there’s a nearby dam, waterfall, old mill, and country roads to explore.

5. Organic Farm

Katydid Ranch, a 40-acre organic farm 90 minutes from the Twin Cities, offers guests “a landing point for short trips or a destination vacation for spiritual and physical renewal.” Host Whitney offers guided meditation and can schedule practitioners of Reiki, deep-tissue massage, or acupuncture to come to the farm for special sessions with her guests. Pluck your own fresh produce, herbs, and eggs right from the ranch and have a glass of wine while you enjoy sunset from the porch. Animal lovers in particular will feel right at home among Whitney’s menagerie of horses, chickens, dogs, and cats. 

6. Big Red Barn

Twenty minutes from Mankato, Red Barn Retreats accommodates up to 10 people and is the picture of wholesome Minnesota fun, from quilting in the large craft room to taking in a movie on the large screen projector to hiking the nearby Sakatah trail or antique shopping in Garden City and Mankato. Scrapbooking retreat, anyone? 

7. Chicago High-rise

This is it, kittens. Grab your significant other and a couple of friends and head six hours to the Windy City for a few nights of luxurious urban living in this well-appointed two-bedroom apartment, right between State Street and Michigan Avenue. Climb up to the rooftop deck for views of Lake Michigan and a soak in the hot tub, then whoosh by the 24-hour doorman on your way out to paint the town at some of the Midwest’s finest restaurants, bars, theaters, and clubs. Save a buck or two by cooking a meal in the gorgeous modern kitchen and sleep late into the morning in one of the two luscious king-size beds. Purr.

8. Grain Elevator

Grain Elevator in South Dakota

This renovated tin shed offers five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and no shortage of rustic charm, connected to an antique wooden grain elevator that rises above the surrounding South Dakota prairie. Built in 1907, the grain elevator is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The primary entertainment in Herrick, South Dakota, about six hours southwest of the Twin Cities, consists of thunderstorms, rainbows, and stars, which fill the sky with dramatic displays. Guests are also welcome to partake of, according to one reviewer, a library of “more movies than you could watch in a year.”

9. Hardware Store

Once part of a hardware store, this 1,500-square-foot loft about four hours away and just south of Madison, Wisconsin, boasts such features as a 1930s Ben Hur freezer converted to a kitchen island stove, well-curated vintage signs and knickknacks, easy access to The House on the Rock and historic Mineral Point, and five bicycles with which to explore the biking trails of the Driftless area. One reviewer described it as the ultimate man cave; another appreciated its proximity to New Glarus Brewery.