Photos by David Bowman
Madden's on Gull Lake
The private cove facing the racquet club house is a great jumping-off point for a boat ride to the lake.
If you ever watched Dirty Dancing and found yourself more attracted to the Houseman’s fantastic vacation resort than to either Baby or Johnny, Madden’s is for you. It’s a real-life Kellerman’s, complete with a long wooden foot bridge perfect for practicing your dance moves, that manages to keep a foot in old-time resort traditions while still delivering a summer filled with modern fun.
It all started at the turn of the 20th century, when city slickers would hoof it (literally, they rode horse-drawn buggies) up to the beautiful Pine Beach Peninsula on Gull Lake. The golf club and resort fought to stay afloat during the Great Depression, when caddies were paid 25 cents a round, and during WWII when brother Jim reported for active duty. Jack and Peg Madden kept the resort running. Such is their dedication. After the war, they expanded both the lodging and the golf facilities to great success. But in 1964 a major fire wiped out the historic golf course clubhouse. A true testament to their commitment to hospitality, they were open for business the next day, a moment that Jim Madden described as one of the highlights of his hospitality career. Jim and Jack are long gone, but their family still owns and runs the resort, and their influence lives on.
Madden’s long-standing pledge to hospitality rings a bit anachronistic in these fast-paced, drive-through times. Much of the summer staff are college-aged kids from all over the country (and around the world), but they carry off service with ease and aplomb. Ask for directions to the spa, or for help with where to haul your clubs, and you’ll be met with an open smile and gracious attitude. From opening day to the last weekend, those kids adhere to the Madden’s ethos. And while we Minnesotans tend to apologize before even asking for something (“Sorry, can I have a beer?”), you’ll ease out of that habit within a few hours of your stay.
Madden's on Gull Lake cabins
Single-family cabins dot the resort
The thing that makes it most like you’d imagine Kellerman’s is the 1,000-acre campus of the resort. Sprawled as it is, with bridges, paths, and hills surrounded by Gull Lake, it’s ultimately conducive to long, meandering strolls and random activities that should make up an ideal summer for any part of your family, whether you hang together or seek to find your own jam. On this peninsula that juts into the cold blue lake, you’ll find packs of new best friends playing on beaches and then making a run up the hill for Chrissy’s Ice Cream Shop. At the country club–like setting in the center of the grounds, clutches of teens alternate between signing for slices at Parfecto Pizza and playing ironic badminton in the sand courts, before vanquishing themselves to the far Wilson Bay beach for a bonfire with s’mores. Ladies fresh from the spa slip into the small and rather hidden O’Madden Pub for drinks and a fiery round of karaoke among the worn dark-wood tables and benches. Groups of bachelor party golfers happily light stogies on the deck outside the 19th hole and recall the battles of the day. Some couples play cards, others shoot trap. At some point during the stay, all will come together, tanned and tired, for a fine meal in the historic old lodge that sits stately on the point—the grand dame of the grounds. Here, guests recount the day’s adventures while admiring the lapping lake that surrounds the lodge. You can see Gull through every pane of glass while enjoying great food and service as crisp as the night air.
Like Kellerman’s, a movie set resort that never was, Madden’s seems like a too-good-to-be-true escape from reality. It’s a magical place of water sports and trap shooting, birdies and baked goods, historic lodges and new friends who book their same rooms for the same time next year while checking out at the end of their latest stay.
As Madden’s opens for its 88th season this year, they’re still looking forward with an eye on the past. After investing $13 million in renovations after the 2015 storm that took out a golf course, an event facility, and many rooms, they’ve spent the winter investing an additional $1.6 million in the property. One of the projects includes a restoration of Jim Madden’s old house, which will soon be available to rent. And if you know Madden’s, you would bet that nothing would make him happier.
At a glance: Madden’s on Gull Lake
11266 Pine Beach Peninsula, Brainerd, 218-829-2811, maddens.com
- Founders: Jack andTom Madden
- Season: Mid-April to late October
- Activities: Golf, standup paddleboarding, spa, tennis, croquet, trap shooting, pontoon boats, water activities, shuffleboard, bonfires, pickle ball, lawn bowling, horseshoe, sand volleyball, swimming pools, hot tubs, biking, horseback riding,and more
- Pricing: Package rates start around $120.