Photos by David Bowman
Dreamcatcher Cabin at Ludlow's Island Resort
The “Dreamcatcher” cabin on Ludlow’s Island.
The most popular resident at Ludlow’s Island Resort wears a collar that says, “Hi, my name is Kirby. Please don’t feed me.” It’s not a joke. In his younger days, the yellow lab charmed guests out of their steak and bacon, essentially living the canine version of John Lennon’s lost weekend in L.A. But even a champion hedonist like Lennon could only endure so many nights at the Troubadour with Harry Nilsson. Kirby’s bender came to a spectacularly messy climax when he discovered an unattended grill pan filled with meat drippings.
Yet for a sinner in a shame collar, the old dog doesn’t seem too bent out of shape. His fat tail is a wiper blade that’s always on, and if you pat his head, his mouth curls into a manic grin. Kirby has reason to be happy. He has full run of a five-acre wooded island on the very large, very craggy, and very pristine Lake Vermilion, way up in mining country. Life is sweet here. Especially in summer, when the air smells like pinesap and minerals, and the water shifts from blue to rusty crimson as day turns to night (the Ojibwe name for the lake is Nee-Man-Nee, which translates to “the evening sun tinting the water a reddish color;” “Vermilion” makes sense once you’ve seen this transformation take place).
Ludlow's Island Resort - Chris-Craft boats and bench swing
Dock hands hanging out on Ludlow’s vintage wooden Chris-Craft; the island boasts sweet little lookouts like this swing on the rocks.
A good way to know the north is to slow down and let it happen to you. Ludlow’s is a fine home base for such surrender. Tucked into the narrows at the west end of the lake, the resort has 23 cabins, 13 of which ring its namesake island. The rest line the north and south shores, but you want to stay on the island. It’s the nucleus of the operation, home to the main lodge and that friendly yellow lab. Thanks to his new knees—courtesy of the top orthopedic veterinarian in the country—Kirby can saunter down from the lodge to the swimming beach, where kids scratch his ears and pour sand on him. Often, he’ll hop onto the adjacent dock and hitch a ride on the vintage wooden Chris-Craft that shuttles guests to and from the mainland.
Kirby technically belongs to the resort’s managers, Paul and Kelly Ludlow, but he’s also a mascot for a subset of leisure class that pays big money to rough it in style. You could call them the “rustic rich,” and they’ve flocked to this side of the lake since the early 1900s, when everyone from oil barons to the guy who patented the flushing toilet came up to kick back.
Joseph Ludlow, a banker and developer from southern Minnesota, loved the area so much he bought 36 islands on the lake to sell to his fellow men of industry. When there weren’t enough buyers, he let most of his land go to the county for auction. He did keep three islands, and later gave the one called Ludlow’s to his son Hod—a handy, hearty gent who built a cabin on the island’s south shore and moved there full-time with his wife Lil and their newborn daughter in 1937. Ludlow’s went commercial two years later, when the Hoerner Box Company rented the couple’s home for the summer. Ever the accommodating hosts, Hod and family spent the season in a tent on the other side of the island.
Nearly eight decades later, customer service remains Ludlow’s secret sauce. Which isn’t to undersell unique accommodations like “Dreamcatcher”—a towering Northwoods skyscraper designed by Minneapolis-based SALA Architects—or older pine dwellings that evoke WPA-era camper cabins. The resort also offers a spa and Finnish sauna, and sweet little touches like an honor system bait shop, a game room that’s straight out of summer camp, and an antique phone that you dial for a ride to the island.
But ask regulars why they love the place, and they’ll fall off their Adirondacks praising Ludlow’s understated, there-when-you-need-it service. The kind where your bags are delivered by boat and dropped outside your door so as not to spoil those magical first moments in your cabin. The kind that delivers the Star Tribune and fresh croissants each morning. The kind where the resort’s owner, Mark Ludlow (Hod and Lil’s son; Paul’s dad), will pour you a glass of expensive grape juice and tell you all about the rustic rich that keep him in business. Heart surgeons, corporate farmers, the Murray’s Steakhouse clan—they all make annual pilgrimages to Ludlow’s.
It sounds trite, but only a ma-and-pa outfit could pull off hospitality this personable. Which makes Kirby a service dog of sorts. He’ll greet you when you arrive and nuzzle you when you leave. Just don’t feed him.
At a glance: Ludlow’s Island Resort
8166 Ludlow Rd., Cook, 218-666-5407, ludlowsresort.com
- Founders: Hod and Lil Ludlow
- Established: Depends on how you look at it. The first paying guests stayed on the island in 1939, but the lodge wasn’t built until 1948.
- Season: May to October (high season is June 24 to August 18)
- Pricing: Rates vary, but the weekly price for two during high season is $3,100 to $5,200.
- Activities: Tennis, yoga, spa/sauna, boat rental, fishing, hiking, sailing, a water slide for kids, swimming beach