Shopping & Dining in Vacationland


The family cabin.  Through blood and good relations, I am fortunate enough to have a cabin in the family.  Built by my great grandparents in the 1950s on a small lake near Brainerd, the descendants share our inheritance between the great-grandparents’ three children, meaning the Liens get it every third week of the non-winter seasons.  And, now that I can get wifi up there with my phone (I know…gasp…it’s sacrilege), I try to get up there as often as possible.

I have memories both of time spent at the cabin as well as time spent roaming around the Brainerd Lakes area.  We’d go see Paul Bunyan.  We’d visit Deer Land.  We’d romp around the best flea market I’ve ever been to that used to be held every weekend in Nisswa.  Grandma and Grandpa would always go and be looking for something…farm implements, Skelly memorabilia, books.  We’d have breakfast at Sportland or Ganley’s.  Often, there would be evening drives to Crosslake or Gull Lake, many times finding a Supper Club for cocktails and dinner.  I’d order orange roughy or shrimp and Grandpa would tell me I’d grow monkey ears from eating the shrimp tails.  So, I’d eat more of them, hoping he was telling the truth.  Afternoons would be spent swimming, sometimes golfing.  The cabin meant leisure and this was a Vacation Wonderland.  Vacationland, even just for a weekend at a time.

As I’ve gotten older and come up here either with friends, family, or alone, I’ve challenged myself to find the places from my childhood memories.  I was thrilled when I stumbled upon Howard’s Barn, a place where my grandparents would golf.  One year, I recall that because I didn’t want to go golfing, they bought me a Tiger Beat magazine, instead.  It was one afternoon, ages ago.  To find it was more than a figment of my imagination last year by seeing it in person, I felt validated.  So, I go exploring.  I see if I can do like they did and I just start driving and see where I end up.  Or, I have a planned route and make it happen. Both scenarios are equally satisfying.

Recently, friend Aisha was up for a visit and we did a loop that took us over to Nisswa, up through Pequot Lakes, over to Breezy Point, up through Ideal Corners, and over to Crosslake…before coming back down to the cabin which is near Merrifield.  Did you get that?   It’s over, up, over, up, over, and down.  Easy.

It was an off-day, which is something I call the days when Vacationland isn’t swarming with people.  Off-days are not Saturdays.  They’re not Fridays or holidays, even.  They’re the midweek days or Sundays when everyone is heading back to the Cities.  Off-days are the best days to go adventuring in Vacationland.

Nisswa is a town that I lovingly remember for its souvenir traps.  Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to them as a child–like my niece and nephew are drawn to them now.  I swear, the Totem Pole on Main Street shines like a beacon to all children within a 10-mile radius of Nisswa.  It was–and is–full of a lot of novelty.  Knowing exactly what’s in there, I now choose to skip it unless I’ve got the kids with me.  It used to be where I’d start, but now it’s where I walk past with a smile on my lips.

Instead of novelty, I start with Adirondack Coffee.  That belies my age, for sure.

Adirondack Coffee has a wonderful aesthetic to it–well, it’s an Adirondack aesthetic and they pull it off well with the furnishings and the construction materials.  As we ordered our coffee drinks, I scanned the bakery case and decided to get an almond-encrusted croissant.  Their pastries are baked at Adirondack daily, which surprised me, and the croissant was delicious, which delighted me.

Not only was it encrusted in almonds, but there was a channel of almond paste within.  Lovely.  Adirondack sells its own coffee, some of it named after local landmarks like “Hole In The Day Lake” which is located just outside of town.

Adirondack is attached to a lovely store called Carriage House which was closed this off-day afternoon.  Unfortunately.  What once was a bastion of knick-knacks and Americana has matured into a gallery-style boutique.  It is classy and sophisticated.  I left a nose smudge on its closed door.

Walking into Buffalo Plaid (named for the Woolrich wool pattern, I presume), I could see that it wasn’t one of the usual stores on the street.  Many of them are more pleasing to the feminine eye, this one was much more masculine.  As the gentleman who was arranging items said, its merchandise is that of a more Craftsman style toward the front of the store…and more traditional toward the back.  Yes, it would appear that way with its retro items that were both playful as well as substantial.  What I couldn’t help but think was how deliberate the staging was, that each vignette seemed carefully collected and curated.  I loved it.

There were so many nice, classic items in Buffalo Plaid.  None of them cried out “CABIN!” as so many of the other stores seem to stock and I appreciate that.  There is still an air of whimsy without embracing the full-on kitsch.

Next, Zaiser’s.  This is the hit of the street.  It’s the belle of the ball.  When I was little, it was where we’d pop in and I’d hope to get snorkels or flippers or nets or other cheap fun toys.  It might’ve even been something of a hardware store, I can’t recall.  It certainly wasn’t the Zaiser’s that’s there today.  For the folks from the Cities, you could kind of compare it to a Patina or a Bibelot. Eclectic, hip, and good-looking.  At the front, there are kitchen wares; both food and food implements.  Interspersed are some novelty items.  All are higher-end, smart goods.

Everything is appealing.  There is a large toy area for kids, but I didn’t go in the section or take any photos since I didn’t have the kids with me.  Also on the way toward the back of the store, there are shoes–both Keen active shoes and fancy dress shoes for women.  The pair that Aisha picked up to admire had a price tag of $220.  I decided not to photograph any of those, either, since there weren’t any there big enough for the drag queens and me.  So, I play favorites.  Instead, I went for the striking and funny items.  The ones that made me smile.  Gag gifts and jewelry and canny decor, again…smart wares.

As we left Zaiser’s, we didn’t realize that it was 3:57…three minutes before The Chocolate Ox closed that day.  We waltzed in just in time–Shakira was blaring and the place was still packed with people getting their sugar on.

I love me a candy store that looks like a candy store.  Bright colors, big displays, tons of candy.  A fudge counter, Jelly Belly Jelly Bean Bar, and baskets of bulk–The Chocolate Ox is a candy Mecca.  And small.  But, still.  It’s packed.

Noting the time, I marched back to the hand-dipped ice cream cone counter and tried to read the kinds of ice cream on the case through peoples’ hips.  Not knowing what their specialty is, I asked.  And, I’ll tell you, the time to ask a disinterested teenager who’s apathetic on a GOOD DAY is not 2 minutes before closing.  I got curt and cursory for responses.  She sang along to the song when I thought she was answering my question.  Don’t worry; I’m not mad.  I found out between verses that I could split my single scoop into two flavors and I chose from the descriptions that her deadpan face told me were written on the freezer case after I figured out that maybe I shouldn’t have asked her to rattle off the ingredients when they were so plainly written right there and she was so obviously singing along to a song.  Whoa.  Anyhow.  So, I chose the White Swan with pistachio and white chocolate and the blueberry cheesecake.  It was a happy ending.  The ice cream was heavenly and cheap–only $3.00.  And, she’s a lovely girl who’ll grow up to marry rich.  No worries.

I found Aisha over by the chocolate.  Atta girl.  She ordered sea salt caramels and I got some Praline Nut fudge.  The very nice salespeople behind the chocolate counter redeemed my faith in young girls in the retail industry and, really, the world.  They were helpful and pleasant, despite the fact that it was after closing time on one of the most idyllic days so far that season.

Armed with ice cream and chocolates, we left Nisswa.  Yes, there is so much more to it than this.  But, this is what you get on a roadtrip that is hand-picked by me on a random day in June.

We raced up to Pequot Lakes and chose not to stop.  I was itching to hit the open road and had used up all my will to shuffle for the day.  Instead, the Pandora station was playing Moby, the top on the Jeep was back, and we had some exploring to do.

And explore, we did.  I drove “over” from Pequot Lakes to Breezy Point.  Knowing that my favorite radio station, KLKS, comes out of Breezy Point and that many a timeshare is reserved there, I wanted to see what it was all about.  We drove in and around the resort and saw what there was to see and headed back to our loop, not really over- or underwhelmed.  It’s one of those places that probably attracts people based on what you would do while you’re there rather than what you see when you drive around the grounds.  If I were a tennis player or a golfer or a boater, I’m sure I would’ve been much more interested.  As it was, I was hungry.

So, since we were dressed casually and it was a gorgeous day, I had The Wharf in Crosslake in mind for deck dining and boat watching.  My family likes to go to The Wharf if and only if there is outdoor seating available.  Inside, it’s really quite dark.  Not dark in a bad way, but the architecture does not leave much for natural light streaming in the windows.  And, in Vacationland, windows and natural lighting are must-haves.  Luckily, it was an off-day and, again, there was no mob scene to be found.  We had our choice of almost any table on the lower deck and were able to situate ourselves for some good bar food and boat-viewing.

Located near a bridge, the boats that pass The Wharf must slow down in the no-wake zone. And, as they do, we get to do some great people watching, not to mention see some beautiful boats.  I’m not talking about the fancy, I’m-overcompensating boats…I’m talking about the restored wooden boats.  The antiques.  The floating, flying works of art.

We ordered some cheese curds and burgers–she got The Wharf burger and I got the Crosslake burger with onion rings.  The fare was perfectly fine.  The curds hit the spot and the burgers were gooey and oozey, which was exactly what they should have been.

I guess that it should’ve been expected that the lack of people doing things out and about would also carry over to the boat traffic, but I was worried that I wouldn’t get to see any of antique beauties as we dined.  But, I can gladly say I didn’t go home disappointed.  Just before we got our tab, a lovely wooden boat by the name of “Irish Ayes” paraded past.  Ahh.  A feast for the eyes that followed a feast for the belly.

And we went back to the cabin, happy to enjoy our desserts of sea salt caramels and Praline Nut fudge as the sunset shone red across the lake, promising us a gorgeous day to follow.

For more of Vacationland, see video:

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