Lutsen enthusiasm: Big northern ski resort is worth a second trip
In my 17 years as a skier, I have slid down mountains and berms from Illinois to Oregon, risked trespassing tickets to ski trees within the Rochester city limits and spent more full seasons in Minnesota than I care to number. Somehow, in all that time, I never made it to Lutsen, the biggest ski area in the state.
When my girlfriend, Renaux, a reluctant skier but connoisseur of fireplaces, literature and hot cocoa, asked if I wanted to take a mini-holiday there over Martin Luther King Day weekend, I said yes without hesitation.
We packed the car on Thursday night and departed Rochester around 11 on Friday morning, since Renaux had a few hours worth of business in Duluth that evening. While she was busy, I stopped into the Ski Hut for a brick of ski wax and a couple sticks of P-Tex, then wandered into the Electric Fetus where I unearthed some Tom Petty, 2Pac and Sade in the used CD section. After wolfing down a Subway breakfast sandwich, I picked up Renaux and we drove the hour and a half from Duluth to Lutsen in the dark.
We pulled off the road and onto Lutsen resort property at around midnight. The lodge is so close to Lake Superior that, on my way in to pick up our key cards, I mistook the sound of waves against the shore for tree branches in the wind. The ornately carved wood bordering the large stone fireplace gives the lobby a classic ski lodge feel — like a scaled-down version of Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood.
The drive from the lodge to our unit in the Poplar Condo was mercifully short. Inside the spacious condo, the massive bed and Superior-facing windows lent an immediate sense of calm to our sore eyes and backs. I unloaded some supplies into the small refrigerator and made myself a drink while Renaux drifted off to sleep.
I woke up around 10 the next morning and threw open the shades. Snow was falling. I tossed a pair of snow pants onto my sleeping girlfriend and we readied ourselves for the 11 o'clock shuttle over to the mountain we'd scheduled the night before. The driver showed up at 11 on the dot and brought us to the mountain, where we sat down with director of sales and marketing Jim Vick.
Vick, now a 30-year Lutsen local, is no stranger to Rochester; he used to help organize school ski clubs for Mount Frontenac. He explained to us that the ski area is divided into four mountains — Eagle Mountain, Moose Mountain, Mystery Mountain, and Ullr Mountain. That terrain is set to expand, as Lutsen is working on obtaining a special use permit from the National Forest Service that would nearly double the skiable acreage on Moose mountain.
We bought some coffee and a muffin and booted up in the main chalet. Renaux's eye drifted nervously over to the steep runs on Eagle Mountain, but we were headed to Ullr Mountain, where Lutsen's beginner runs are.
While I played around in the fresh snowfall on the side of the trail, Renaux reached new heights of comfort on her skis thanks to the the spacious, mellow runs like Big Bunny on Ullr. She even stuck her first tricks on the flat and rainbow boxes in the beginner's park, Karen's Corner.
Once our ski legs were firmly beneath us, we caught a ride on the gondola, which whisks you from the main chalet to Moose Mountain. Its cars seat four people at a time and can haul 300 people per hour. This summer, Lutsen will install a new gondola with room for eight and the capacity to haul 2,400 people per hour. The ride carries you over a massive valley, up a steep rock face and spits you out at a second chalet, where we took a spicy cheese curd and beverage break on the patio with views of both skiers and the lake.
We played around on the green runs on that side of the mountain, and then, after an exhausting trek back to the main side of the resort via Moose Return, we took a few more runs on Ullr and called it a day. We joined the throng of people lined up for shuttles and soon found ourselves dropped off at our front door. We had intended to spend the afternoon inspecting the lodge's hot tub, pool and shower facilities, but were instead captivated by the personal whirlpool tub in our condo. We lounged the end of the afternoon away sipping cocktails and playing 2Pac's "Me Against the World" on the alarm clock.
By the time we were ready to eat, the Lakeside Dining Room, Lutsen's fine dining option, had closed. We wound up in the Poplar River Pub, where we both ordered the prime rib grilled cheese, which tasted as good as it sounds. Renaux paired hers with a glass of mulled cider, while I chased bites down with a pint of Castle Danger.
After our meal, we explored the lodge. While admiring the chandeliers, Renaux turned a corner and gasped when she came face to face with the snarling maw of a long-dead 1,200 pound Alaskan polar bear that had been stuffed and put on display near the game room. She recovered her nerves in time to crush me in a game of checkers on the oversized board by the fireplace, though. After a night walk and quick stop at a bonfire on the snowy beach, we headed back to the mountain.
At 11 p.m., Minnesota hip-hop luminary Dessa (you may remember her set from Thursdays on First last summer) rocked a sizable crowd at Papa Charlie's, the main après-ski establishment. Papa Charlie's is located at the ski area and is where Lutsen's guests and regulars go to party. In addition to big weekend shows, Mondays and Wednesdays feature songwriter sessions with a politely-enforced hushed-audience policy that run until April.
When we made it back to the condo, we hooked up a laptop to the TV's HDMI port, but were too exhausted to finish the full episode of "The Sopranos" we'd queued up.
On Sunday morning, my eyes opened 30 minutes ahead of my alarm. I packed my bags, loaded our car, threw on my outerwear and caught the 8:50 shuttle I'd scheduled for myself the night before, leaving Renaux to sleep in and enjoy a day free of skiing.
I got up to the hill in time to catch the second chair. I headed for the closest run to the lift, which turned out to be George's. I made a few frown-meltingly lonely laps there, soaking up the freshly dusted ridges of corduroy and uninterrupted carves to the bottom. As the rest of the day's rippers appeared in the parking lot, chairlift and my way, I pointed my skis toward Moose Mountain.
I mostly rode Bull Chair, since the high-speed six-seater, Caribou Express, which whisks you up the hill in 3-1/2 minutes, was occupied by a horde of ski racers and hangers-on. I rode it a few times because of how exciting the initial take-off is, then returned to the tranquility of Bull Chair. Lynx, Line of Bull and Moose Drop were out-of-control fun. The deeper snow on the side stayed mostly untouched through the day and, though coverage wasn't ideal, I had faith in my freshly P-Texed bases and found plenty of stuff to jump off under the chair. According to Jim, there are abundant tree runs and cliff drops later on in the season, when the snow gets deeper.
Cost not mountainous
Jim contends that Lutsen is an ideal vacation spot because it provides a mountain-like experience at a fraction of the cost it would take to schlep a family across the country and into the real mountains of the West. After my afternoon of exploration, I had to agree — though I hit every part of the mountain, I felt like I had barely scratched the surface of the hill's potential.
I rode the singles line all day and shared chairs with friendly people from the Twin Cities, Canada and Duluth, but the only one to hand me a beer was a guy from Rochester on a trip with his friends. My beer-wielding chairlift pal and his crew of friends were staying in Grand Marais, while other people I rode with were staying in condos or the on-hill ski-in ski-out condos. I didn't meet a single local rider, though I had been prepared for that by Jim, who told me that roughly 95 percent of the guests at Lutsen are there on vacation. The appeal doesn't stop when the snow melts, either, as August is Lutsen's biggest lodging month.
After a few fun runs down the lift line of Mystery Mountain, I finished the day where I'd started, on George's. Renaux met me at the bottom and took me back to the lodge so I could make use of the hot tub and pool facility while she looked for rocks on the Superior shore. The pool is located in a long hall bedecked by windows facing the lake with the hot tub at the far end. After a much-needed soak, I hopped back into the car for a detour to Grand Marais, where Renaux, a "foodie," insisted we eat at The Crooked Spoon before returning south.
We arrived in Grand Marais about 40 minutes before the restaurant opened and killed some time exploring the views from Artists' Point, a striking peninsula that juts out into the rocky shore of Superior. We snapped a few selfies and explored the woods, then waited around outside the door of The Crooked Spoon until it opened. Our wait was rewarded with some of the finest food that has ever passed my lips. Their cream of broccolini soup was out of control, as was the Amish seared chicken, carrots and mashed potatoes. Renaux was similarly enthused by her port-wine poached pear salad.
Bellies full and hearts content, we started back for Rochester around 6 p.m. A stop at Big Bear casino helped break the dark monotony of the car ride home, as did our overnight stay in Minneapolis with a hospitable friend. Back in Rochester, we both expressed thoughts of moving to Lutsen. Renaux knows how beautiful the non-snowy months can be, but my mind is fixed on the skiing. Luckily, the season at Lutsen lasts into May, so I have some time for a return visit and one last ride on the old gondola.