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Dog-friendly Gull Lake and Nisswa, MN: Two Dachshunds on the Quarterdeck

This article is made possible by Quarterdeck Resort on Gull Lake, announcing its new “Quarterdeck Loves Pets” program that makes sure the furry family enjoys going to the lake as much as you do.

Paul Bunyan couldn’t swing an axe around Brainerd, Minn. without hitting a rough-hewn resort made of timber. The Quarterdeck Resort is not one of them. This boutique resort sits on 27 acres overlooking the western shore of Gull Lake, about a half-hour drive northwest of Brainerd. The main lodge and cottages are bright and newly remodeled; think a chic coastal vibe in a palette of blue, white and gray. More critically, for some family members, there’s a new “Quarterdeck Resort Loves Pets” program. Franz and Enzo’s ears just pricked up. That’s right, boys. You are coming WITH, because it’s not a vacation otherwise.

Quarterdeck’s pet program offers all kinds of perks to four-legged guests: Luxury in-room dog beds. (Why is it with these two, the other brother’s bed is always better?) Elevated dog bowls, a first for my low-slung lads. A welcome wagon’s worth of treats. At the lodge, there’s a Pet Pantry where you can purchase more food, treats and essentials. Give the front desk notice before you arrive, and you can arrange fee–based pet sitting and walking. Pretty much everything you could possibly need for a truly pet-friendly stay.

Our suite at the end of the property opened onto a plush lawn that induced much dachshund rolling. And that view of Gull Lake. Sitting on our patio, we watched the occasional boat go by. I raised my arm and waved to the folks. I put my arm back down. Relaxation was seeping in unawares.

Never ones to just loll on the lawn, though, the boys sniffed out some dog-friendly adventures in town. Nisswa is only 8 miles from Quarterdeck Resort. On Main Street, you’ll find loads of outdoor patios that welcome pets. For local beer lovers, a big red axe marks the spot. At Big Axe Brewing Company, pups can soak up the sun on the deck while you sample the selection of craft beers. Naturally, we recommend the “Axe Handle Hound” red ale. Food is available also, and the day’s special, shredded pork tacos, were a big hit.

Besides canines, there’s another species dear to Nisswa. Turtles. Terrapins adorn everything from t-shirts to statues around here. That’s because turtle racing is Nisswa’s thing; they’ve been doing it for 56 summers to lure tourists downtown. Spoiler alert: It works. There’s even a monument (relatively speaking) to “Stella,” a favorite racer, to remind visitors it’s always turtle time around here.

Now listen as I tell the story of a tall, tall trail. The Paul Bunyan Trail can be accessed in Nisswa, and you can walk, bike, skate or ski it. At 120 miles, stretching from Brainerd to Bemidji, it’s the longest trail in Minnesota. Which makes it a dachshund favorite.

All that activity in Nisswa had everyone pretty puppered out. Back at the resort, Franz and Enzo toasted by the fireplace. Totally relaxed, times two. The next morning I kayaked Gull Lake while the rest of the pack sunbathed on the patio. I caught sight of a loon, the low sun glinting off its back. I stopped paddling and just…watched. Then I reached for my camera and it was gone.

Good to know when bringing pets to Quarterdeck: There is a one-time fee of $75 due at registration, plus a $25 fee per pet, per night. A maximum of two pets are allowed per room. Find out more here.

Nova Scotia Road Trip: Part One, the Best of Halifax

A friend and I decided to meet in Halifax, then head up to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A girls’ road trip that promised to unspool scenery over the 185-mile Cabot Trail. It’s on many a traveler’s “scenic highways” bucket list. And I was pretty sure our friendship could withstand my driving and her navigating.

Theresa, my college roomie, and I planned a five-night trip around Cape Breton, starting out from Halifax. (Turns out, the natives are not “Halifaxians,” they are “Haligonians” which is even better.) On the waterfront boardwalk, we caught up over dinner at The Bicycle Thief restaurant.

Lobster rolls and shellfish. The Bicycle Thief is one of dozens of eateries and pubs downtown with very fresh, relatively cheap, local seafood. This is not a bad reason to visit in itself. And of course you’ll find poutine on most every menu, if a Canadian coagulation of cheese curds, fries and gravy is your thing. Wash it down with a very smooth Alexander Keith ale, at the original brewery or on tap around town. The Scottish immigrant started brewing back in 1820, making Alexander Keith one of the oldest breweries in North America.

By the way, the Halifax waterfront isn’t just eats and drinks–it’s a busy, working port. Swing in hammocks and watch the ships come in. Enjoy the relaxed Canuck-yet-cosmo atmosphere. Wonder to yourself if the plural of “leaf” isn’t in fact “leafs.”

If you visit one museum, let the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic lure you in with cool artifacts and horrific history. After more than 100 years, the Titanic disaster still haunts Halifax. The closest city to the maritime disaster, Halifax was the first to send aid. A deck chair and china saved from the Titanic are among the artifacts on display. The museum also explains another deeply scarring episode in Halifax history, the harbor explosion of 1917.

And then there’s a small display on what has to be the most out-there Canadian park. Crescent-shaped Sable Island National Park Reserve is located 190 miles southeast of Halifax, waaaay out in the Atlantic Ocean. It is a 13-square mile sandbar, home to about 500 wild horses and a few park employees. Sable Island looks far-flung and fantastic.

For breakfast in Halifax, the best tip I got was from a fellow traveler: Enjoy light breakfast, coffee and snacks on the rooftop garden at the Halifax Central Library. Plop down with a book, a gorgeous view and not too many people. (At the Halifax airport, there’s even a vending-machine type lending “branch” of the library, for readers on the go.)

Then, walk back the years at the Victorian-era Halifax Public Gardens. Fortify yourself with a baked good from the historic coffee shop on the grounds, like say, a Nanaimo Bar. Chocolatey and cheesecake-y, the bars are a classic, no-bake confection that originated in Nanaimo, British Columbia. And then, carbs in hand, you stroll. There’s really no other word for it, the layout of the garden practically forces you to slow down, breathe deeply, and take it in. While we strolled, a group in the bandstand sawed out “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” a song that is now neatly stitched into the soundtrack of my Halifax visit.

Next time, in part two, Theresa and I hit the Cabot Trail. Stops include trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Black Brook Beach, Ingonish Beach, Baddeck and lots of gas stations for Nestle “Aero” bars and Cadbury “Wunderbars.” (Oh, Canada, I salute your candy.)

Tour Pennsylvania’s “Snack Belt” in 5 classic PA treats

Recently, I learned a part of Pennsylvania I grew up near is now called the “Snack Belt.” Seeing this in print was like seeing the results of a DNA test, affirming something I already knew about myself: I love snacks. I leave crumbs. I am snack people.

Look, if the “snack belt” fits, wear it. York and Lancaster Counties, just west of Philadelphia, ARE blessed with a disproportionate number of pretzel and potato chip makers. Dozens of ’em. Hanover, home to bestselling pretzel maker Snyder’s, just flexes: “Snack Food Capital of the World.”

So, on a trip back home to Bethlehem, I snacked my way around PA. I revisited tastes of childhood, discovering history in every bite. I crunched on tours, left a light salty coating on the rental car, melted chocolate into the seat of my only pants. I did the research and submit: my top five classic eastern PA snacks: Pretzels, chips, shoo-fly pie, Josh Early Candy, Yocco dog.

Let’s start with pretzels. Appropriate, because hard pretzels are the original Pennsylvania Dutch food. German-speaking settlers brought their recipes and twisting techniques to the area in the 1700s, putting the first notch in the “snack belt.” I loved the brand with the “little Amish boy” logo growing up, so a pilgrimage to the original Tom Sturgis Pretzels was in order. Julius Sturgis opened America’s first commercial pretzel bakery in Lititz in 1861. Later, grandson Tom took over; you’ll see both names on products.

Test out your own twisting abilities on a snappy, 30-minute tour. Fun fact from the guide: In the early days, “rotten straw water” was doused on the pretzels, a vomit-inducing baste that burned off in the baking process.

Potato chips are equally well represented in the Snack Belt. Again, the reason is rooted in history. The best types of “chipping” potatoes grow well in this part of PA, plus–and I can’t stress this enough–there was lard. Frying in lard produces an extra crispy chip, and the snack belt had plenty of it from its pork products. Lots of solid chip games in PA, but Utz does have that classic Pennsylvania Dutch name. Take a factory tours at the plant in–where else–Hanover. And besides those, we have Herr’s, in Nottingham, PA. So, you might ask any of the tour guides, what DOES make a good “chipping” potato? Starch. High starch content in a spud makes for fluffy, dry chips after cooking.

Lancaster Central Market could be considered PA’s first snack emporium. The country’s oldest, continuously running public farmers’ market started in 1730. The beautiful red brick Market House building in downtown Lancaster is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There are more than 60 vendors, many of them Amish and Mennonite, selling meat, cheese, produce and…shoo-fly pie. Now we’re talking Amish. It’s an acquired taste, this cloyingly sweet, molasses-based dessert. You can get it with a “dry bottom,” which has a cake-like consistency throughout, or with a gooey “wet bottom.” I’m going to be honest here. Shoo-fly pie makes the list as a legacy entry.

Unlike shoo-fly pie, handmade chocolates require no break-in time. Especially Josh Early Candies. I know because I’ve introduced many people to the wonder of my hometown chocolatier. Josh Early was the only chocolate in my family’s Easter baskets, Christmas stockings, red cardboard Valentine’s Day boxes. Foil-covered milk chocolate balls, sugar-shedding nonpareils, mint melt-a-ways, cashew turtles, caramels, peanut butter cups, it’s all good. I know I can order online. But nothing beats that smell when I enter the mothership–it takes me right back to childhood. Plus the store decor looks same as it ever was, kinda like the time warp of grammy’s house. There’s one Josh Early in Allentown, one in Bethlehem. Technically, we’re north of the “snack belt” here, but there is a connection: the Earlys started their chocolate biz in Reading in the early 1900s. Their descendants taunt me with some of those same recipes today.

One last stop in the Lehigh Valley for a Yocco dog. Chicagoans will groan but hear me out: I have a case to make for this classic wiener. Yocco’s hot dogs are made with local Hatfield meats and a “secret recipe chili sauce.” They’ve been a Lehigh Valley staple since 1922. There is simply no better dog, nor King Weenie logo, in all of hot dogdom. Youse guys may disagree, but youse cannot argue with the memories of a nostalgic, displaced Pennsylvanian.

Stevens Point, WI: One Weekend of Arts, Dairy, Bike Trails and Beer

The sun was out, the line was short and before I knew it, I was biting into sweet geodes of crystallized root beer and vanilla. All root beer floats will now be measured against that transcendent cup at Belt’s Soft Serve in Steven’s Point, WI.

Welcome to “America’s Dairyland.” It says so right on the Sconnie license plate and California’s cow numbers will never convince me otherwise. In Wisconsin you are never far from premium, locally-sourced ice cream, or better yet–her denser cousin custard. Not to mention cheese, cheese curds, beer and meats.

Stevens Point is known as a college town, home to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. But the Point is also gaining a well-deserved reputation for its art- and bike-friendliness. It’s about a three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, an hour-and-a-half drive from Green Bay, WI. Which makes it a great weekend or day trip with lots of nature and bike paths, culture and creameries, but little in the way of crowds.

For art, start at Stevens Point Sculpture Park, just north of downtown. See the work of local and national artists in an outdoor setting. Take your time strolling the paths in this city park; a wooded trail leads you by roughly 30 installations.

Entry to this 20-acre art park is free and the trails are accessible. Just southeast of the sculpture park is Schmeeckle Reserve. This 280-acre natural land area is located on the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. It’s not dog-friendly, but you can explore miles of hiking trails and a lake.

The ribbon connecting all of these trails and more is the Green Circle Trail. The 27-mile scenic hiking and biking trail is a real treasure, winding along the river front, through woodlands, wetlands and parks. Stevens Point takes its hiking/biking infrastructure seriously, and that means you can get most anywhere by bike.

There’s usually something going on in downtown Stevens Point on the weekends, but visiting still feels like stepping back in time. There are newer restaurants aimed at diners who want to eat local, like the “Wicked Willow.” Then again, you can walk down to the public square on 2nd Street and belly up to any number of bars like you just got off second shift. A cluster of olde style beer signs bespeak a time when guys with basic names drank basic beer.

Speaking of a time before craft beer, here’s the Point. Steven’s Point Brewery has been around since 1857. To put it in perspective, it’s the third oldest, continuously-running, privately owned brewery in the U.S. The Point Special Lager is a classic American-style lager they’ve been brewing from the get-go.

The beer was even served to troops in the Civil War, but that was a time before the cans came to become called “Blue Bullets.” Tours last a bit longer than an hour and require reservations.

Belts’ Soft Serve is a belt-loosening experience, and besides that it’s an institution. I’ve read that Belts fanatics camp out in all kinds of weather for the spring opener to get their mittens on that first malt, sundae or most likely–flurry–of the season. Belts inspires that kind of loyalty. True enough, one visit has made me a Belts root beer float evangelist. Their stuff’s not fancy, not expensive, and without peer in custard country. Expect lines at peak times.

That squeak heard ’round Wisconsin, that’s the sound of impossibly fresh cheese curds. Mullins Cheese in Mosinee is a must-stop. Family owned and operated for 40 years, Mullins deep fries molten curds on the spot. Bite, stretch, repeat. Grab a few bags of chilled curds from the case to take with. Of course, cheese is available in literally any Wisconsin-themed shape or form you could imagine.

The dairy hangover was in full effect as I headed back to MN. Thankfully, the radio provided the perfect soundtrack for perking back up: WDEZ’s “Polka Jamboree,” Sundays, noon to 6 pm. A cool mix of old and new polka, and a fitting reminder that when in ‘Wisco, you better wear your party pants. Preferably expandable, like an accordion.

RIP Grumpy Cat, Unlikely Feminist Icon

It was one of those 90-degree “Great MN Sweat Together” days at the State Fair. The swampy air outside the Swine Barn was redolent with the non-oinking ends of many pigs. “Two minutes to air,” I heard in my earpiece. I wondered if I’d melt right there on the pavement, waiting to do a live TV interview with Grumpy Cat. While I mopped my forehead, the A-lister was chilling (literally, with AC) in a long black limousine until the last possible moment. Grumpy Cat was promoting the popular “Cat Video Festival” at the Fair that year. But she sure as hell wasn’t traveling in a kitty carrier.

“That’s one cool cat,” I thought. The most famous feline in the world shows up promptly for an interview, with a complete entourage, trailing memes and a world-wide fan club behind her.

I bet no one ever did this.

In my experience, Grumpy Cat, nee Tardar Sauce, was the consummate professional.  Kept her paws to herself. Focused those gorgeous blue eyes on me, not the camera. Didn’t try to take over the interview. Posed uncomplainingly for a photo with yet another clown trying to imitate her frown. That famous frown, her iconic look of disgruntlement. Blasé distain. Distaste. All the dis- words. It’s not easy for a female to get away with–let alone BUILD A CAREER ON–a grumpy visage.  I happen to know this from personal experience.

I worked in midtown Manhattan in the 1980s. It was an era of walking to lunch and getting cat-called (no disrespect to cats) by men. My least favorite comment I never sought out was “What’s wrong? Why don’t you smile? You’d look so much prettier.” I could go on about all the ways this is wrong or even how I have “resting bitch face,” but suffice it to say, everyone deserves zero input on how they present their faces to the public.

Of course, true to her species, Grumpy Cat could not give one flying hairball about peoples’ perceptions. Finally, a gal who felt no pressure to smile. And you know what? It wouldn’t have made her prettier. Here’s a gal who wore a purr-fect pout while finding the blackest lining of any cloud. She pissed over everything with her pessimism and we all got a great laugh out of it.

So ladies, I present to you for your consideration, Grumpy Cat, feminist icon. Every woman out there who’s had to plaster a fake smile on her face and pretend everything’s great, JUST GREAT, when it’s not–raise your lady paw in solidarity. Who could turn the world on with her scowl? Grumpy Cat. And we should all try putting on a sour puss in her memory.

Twin Cities day trip: Hunting wildflowers in Nerstrand Big Woods, antiques in Northfield.

I don’t roll out the term “carpeted” lightly.

But it’s hard to argue with the amount of wildflowers I just saw–now appearing for a limited time only!–at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

From late April through early May, the Hidden Falls trail is in fact carpeted with False Rue Anemone, dime-sized blooms that look like what you’d draw if someone said make a “flower.” Both Yellow and Blue Violets plus White Trout Lilies representing. I see you, hyper-hyphenate Jack-in-the-Pulpit, popping through brown leaves.

Now I can’t be sure if I saw the rare and endangered Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily, more on that later. But I thought the name “Dutchman’s Breeches” was a real kick in the pants and I decided THAT wildflower would be my holy grail. I fixed the image of a pants-like flower in my mind and headed out.

But first–only part of Nerstrand is open right now. At the time of my visit (5/15/19) ALL of the trails on the south side of Hwy 29 were closed until further notice. They are too wet and need maintenance. This portion of Nerstrand Big Woods contains the “Big Woods” trail. When it’s open, you’ll find part of Minnesota’s past here: one of the last remnants of the large forested area that covered Minnesota before Europeans arrived.

Back to the north side, and back to the Hidden Falls Trail. This easy one-mile loop leads to the most pleasant, play-ready waterfall. This trail is prime for spring wildflower peeping. A boardwalk leads you through the forest with rope barriers on the side to protect the wildflowers. In particular, the Minnesota Dwarf Trout Lily.

Here’s the thing about this lily. It only grows here. I mean RIGHT here, in Minnesota’s Rice, Steele and Goodhue Counties and nowhere else on earth. The wee flower has been considered federally endangered since 1986. It’s so important for visitors to mind the barriers because foot traffic compacts the soil and damages the plant’s delicate underground “runners.”

I’m guessing the droopy-headed bloom I saw was a White Trout Lily, NOT the rare dwarf trout lily. The dwarf lily was probably blooming somewhere behind the barrier. It’s hard to say. They both have spotted leaves and are nearly indistinguishable except for size, so this can be an easy case of mistaken identity.

You can add a bit of challenge to your hike by tacking on the 1.7- mile Fawn Trail and I’m glad I did. I stopped to grab a slurp of water, let my eyes wander and then I saw it: a Jack-in-the-Pulpit which is truly one of the greatest names ever.

Unless you’re counting “Dutchman’s Breeches.” Now there’s a name. Catchy and descriptive. On the park’s info board, the blooms do look like bloomers, little pantaloons on a stem. Not particularly rare, but if we’re playing wildflower bingo, I got particular delight in checking off the Dutchman’s Breeches box.

Driving just 20 minutes northwest from Nerstrand, you hit charming Northfield. This is such a college town, at Hogan Brothers hoagie shop, there are three tip pitchers. Each has its own label and loyalties: St. Olaf, Carleton and Townies. It may be small—the population is about 20,000–but Northfield packs a lot in.

I would have loved a post-hike beer on the patio at Imminent Brewing, but it was my misfortune to be there on a Wednesday. (It’s open Thursday through Sunday.) The Norstralian Sparkling Ale sounds like a real continent-bending thirst quencher. Next time!

It’s hard to miss the centrally located Archer House River Inn, a grand little red brick hotel. Built in 1877, it must have been quite the swanky joint at the time. No two of the 36 guest rooms are the same. It overlooks the Cannon River and all the other bars and restaurants lining the quaint riverwalk.

With wildflower hunting behind me, the antique hunt was on. And there are dozens of antique, vintage and thrift shops in the area. For the sheer “wowza” of it, stop into Antiques of Northfield right on Division St. Carole Christensen is a vendor, but also a collector and curator. She started collecting 1950s ceramic TV lamps as a kid–you know how this story goes–and now displays more than a thousand of them in her TV lamp museum. The history of these lamps is quite interesting, if misdirected. In the 1950s, when televisions started appearing in homes across America, the conventional wisdom was that watching in low light damaged your eyes. So thousands of TV lamps were designed–Matadors! Poodles! Panthers! A dachshund Carole won’t sell me! I bought a lime ceramic log planter from Gilner California Pottery and left before I could do more damage.

The Big Woods and a ceramic log all in one day! Heading home, feeling fully woodsy, the foliage along the highway seemed greener than when I passed it 24 hours earlier. I thought about the wildflowers I’d seen at Nerstrand; spring ephemerals, many of them. That means all the parts of the plant that are above ground will disappear by the time the forest canopy fully develops in June. Such a great reminder of the fleeting nature of spring in Minnesota and the wildflowers you feel so lucky to see.