Photo by Mike Miley
Sunset on a lake in Brainerd, Minnesota
Brainerd Beyond Bunyanland
Growing up, summer vacation meant one thing in my family: Brainerd. Each year, my parents would schlep my brother, sister, and me to some resort on Gull Lake, where we would swim, play minigolf, and create new and exciting ways to annoy one another.
Cherished as they are, those memories also had a side effect. For years now, my sense of Brainerd has been frozen in a sort of mid-’80s time warp. And now that I pass for an adult, it seemed time to figure out what I’d been missing: Was it possible to have a grown-up getaway in a place I had so long associated with teen angst, parachute pants, and the musical stylings of Mr. Mister?
It didn’t take much work to figure out how outdated my knotty-pine-and-Formica-tinged memories were. From the cottages at Kavanaugh’s to the villas at Madden’s, the accommodations in the area, for one thing, had come a long way. We ended up staying at Grand View Lodge, in a cabin that featured hardwood floors, an expansive modern kitchen, and a shower the size of a bus garage.
Still, my test for a vacation comes down to two factors: whether I’m required to plan anything and whether I can get a good meal. And that’s when I realized how much I’d been missing. Turns out I had the ability to do anything I could possibly want to—bike, golf, fish, paddleboard—within minutes and (importantly) without much forethought. And when it came to food, I could choose from greasy spoons, farm-to-table bistros, and fine dining spots.
It turns out that while I wasn’t looking, Brainerd had become something of the perfect escape—if only I could get those Mr. Mister songs out of my head.
Our essential guide to your Brainerd getaway, from the pit stop to take half-way through to the cabins you'll want to move into and the eats (from dive bar to fine dining) to wow you every night.