COOK, Minn. — From the screened porch of my cabin, I hear a speedboat jumping across the water before it roars past, sparkling in the sun like a sudden burst of summer joy. The sound fades, replaced by waves splashing onto the shore, the trill of birdsong and the brush-crunching of squirrels. Then more scampering: My daughter and her friend bound into the kitchen to sneak cookies, leaving a wake of giggles, the scent of sunscreen, and the creak and slap of the screen door as they head out into the sun once again.In front of me, a coffee cup sits half-empty on the table. Inside, wet beach towels drape the furniture, accenting a lakeside summer retreat with all the charms. Granite stones frame the fireplace. Knotty-pine paneling wraps the walls. A row of windows looks onto a tangle of trees crowned by pines and an expanse of dark blue water.I felt as though the old place had been in my family for 50 years.The reality: one day.The weathered old beauty called Sun Up sits shrouded by trees on an island in Lake Vermilion, and my family was merely borrowing it, for a price, from its true owners and the people who built it in 1947: the Ludlow family of Ludlow’s Island Resort.Of course, if Sun Up were my cabin, I wouldn’t be able to schedule a massage in a clapboard building just down a gravel path, or lounge in a chair overlooking the beach where children play. Or have my luggage and groceries delivered via boat by chipper teenagers. Or send the girls to a pizza and movie night, designed as much to entertain them as to give parents a few hours alone.Clearly, renting has its privileges.Home searchLast June, I was searching for a lake place I could call my own, if only for a week. I wanted a cabin that felt alone in the woods even if it was part of a resort, where “rustic” referenced its timbered charm without sacrificing modern comforts, a place where I could canoe or swim or maybe do nothing more than gaze at the lake in peace.When I pulled into the driveway of Ludlow’s, in Cook, Minn., and saw a shaded waiting area hung with red geraniums above a boat dock, I knew my research had paid off.As I’d been instructed by Ludlow’s before my arrival, I turned the crank of an old-fashioned phone. A bell rang on its counterpart across the water and within minutes, I saw someone on the island hop into a boat and roar toward us.The driver was manager Paul Ludlow, son of longtime owners Mark and Sally Ludlow, and he had a quick smile, the faintly sunburned face that comes with resort life and a friendly sidekick named Kirby, a yellow Lab. And that boat? A vintage wooden Chris-Craft.Given the antique trappings and personal welcome, I soon felt lost in time. Paul gave us a tour of the island once we docked. Here was a pantry, where guests mark their purchases on a pad using something as quaint as the cabins themselves: the honor system. Here, hydrobikes and canoes; there, a game room and a lodge with cushy sofas, fireplace and gift shop. He said something about Wi-Fi throughout the island. Wi-what? I was already unplugged.The cabins of Ludlow’s Island Resort are scattered across three pieces of land, the centerpiece of which is a 5-acre island on Minnesota’s sprawling, pristine Lake Vermilion, named after the red color of its sunsets. So circuitous is Vermilion’s 1,000-plus miles of shoreline and 365 islands that on a map, it looks more like a ragtag collection of ponds and lakes than a single body of water. That shape works to the benefit of Ludlow’s, whose two stretches of mainland bend in toward each other, hugging the island that lies smack dab between them.All three of those landholdings, plus a tiny additional island used for overnight camping, are so close to each other that they feel almost connected. In a sense they are, by virtue of Ludlow’s and the young boathouse attendants who will zoom guests from shore to shore at a moment’s notice, or the crank of an antique phone.“I’m one of a few people in the country who knows how to repair a Magneto phone,” Mark Ludlow later told me.Back in 1907, when the only access to the area was by boat from Tower, Joseph Burr Ludlow encountered the tree-covered island punctuated by granite outcroppings, fell hard and bought what came to be known as Ludlow’s Island.Joseph’s son, Hod, built the first cabin there in 1933. By 1939, some of Hod’s friends had discovered its unique appeal and asked if they could rent it for the summer to use as a fishing camp. Hod obliged, moving his wife and young children to a tent on the far end of the island for the summer, and began scheming to build another cabin. Eventually his son Mark and daughter-in-law Sally bought the resort, and now Paul and his wife, Kelly, are taking over daily operations.Slowly, the family handcrafted other cabins, making sure none sat too close to another. The pathway that rings the island runs behind the cabins rather than along the shoreline. The result is a sense of solitude in each distinct abode.A place for everyoneToday, 20 cabins line the island and the north and south shores, including Coffeetime, the five-bedroom where Mark grew up; Sundown, a two-bedroom charmer on the approximate site of Hod’s family tent; and the Dreamcatcher, the newest addition to the island. To lend spaciousness without a big footprint, SALA architect Dale Mulfinger created a dwelling that goes straight up, resulting in views among the treetops.In all those years of owning a resort, the family has perfected the art of hospitality.On Monday morning, the first of my visit, I awoke to find a newspaper delivered to the door, along with a printout from the Ludlow’s staff with what I considered the truly relevant news of the day: the weather forecast and a list of events available during the week.I would skip the 8 a.m. yoga class (this was vacation, after all), but the children clamored to attend s’mores on the beach. We’d forgo the fishing contest, preferring to focus our efforts above the water, tooling around on hydrobikes. No sense in taking a floatplane ride to tour the area (an experience I would find nerve-wracking) when I could instead spend my cash on a massage in a pretty building with a fireplace and aromatherapy, though the scent of pine outside soothed me all day long.I spent most of my time lounging by the water or reading a book in the cabin, even with the scheduled events run by the capable staff. The children played in the water, scaling the floating inflatable iceberg, and wandering the island alone — which I allowed them to do since only guests of Ludlow’s get on the island, and we’d become friendly with most of them.One sunny day, we hopped on a pontoon for a tour of the islands. Paul led the way, showing us particularly fruitful fishing spots and motoring us around to view other wild shorelines. We spied an eagle high in a treetop, and Paul passed binoculars all around. I’d never seen an eagle in the wild so close-up. After a few minutes, he flew away, returning to his nest, I suppose.When Paul powered up the motor to head back to Ludlow’s Island, I felt I was returning to my summer nest, too.
A cabin of one’s own
Don’t own your own cabin? These resorts will make you feel as though you do.
Throughout Minnesota, lakeside resorts that rent housekeeping cabins offer a sense of ownership without the upkeep and taxes — for a week or as long as the checkbook and vacation time allow. Here are some of our favorites, including Ludlow’s.
Ludlow’s Island Resort
To do: Fish, swim in the lake, rent a boat, hike, play tennis or racquetball, get a massage, or just sit on the porch and enjoy the view. The resort has extensive kids’ programs, fishing guides and other activities, such as rides in its Amphicar.
Details: Near Cook, Minn., on Lake Vermilion. The 20 cabins, scattered among the mainland south shore, the island and the far north shore, all have well-equipped kitchens. There’s a pantry on the island for supplies, but the nearest restaurants are by car or boat. High-season rates range from $2,750 weekly for a one-bedroom cabin to $4,325 for a five-bedroom.
At Burntside Lodge, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, many cabins date to the 1920s and 1930s. Because of its numerous well-preserved log resort buildings, Burntside is on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
To do: Swim at two small sandy beaches; sit in a sauna; or rent fishing or pontoon boats, canoes, kayaks and hydrobikes. The resort has kids’ activities, naturalist programs and guided tours of Burntside Lake and Listening Point, the cabin of naturalist and author Sigurd Olson.
Details: In Ely, on Burntside Lake. There are 22 rustic-chic cabins scattered across 21 acres; most have kitchens equipped with the basics. The lodge building has a bar, dining room, gift shop, coffee bar and separate library. Breakfast and dinner are served daily; the coffee bar has homemade pastries such as scones, muffins and cookies. High-season rates range from $1,306 to $3,227 weekly.
Camp Van Vac
Rustic log and stone cottages look like they grew out of the wild landscape in the Superior National Forest. The oldest dates to 1917, and the resort tries to keep that old-time feeling alive (though in a nod to modern times, it has a turned one cabin into a communal Wi-Fi center).
To do: Fish, swim at the sandy beach, sit in a sauna, play ping-pong in the recreation yurt, encounter wildlife on hikes or via canoe or kayak, or just relax in your shaded cottage or on one of the sunny docks.
Details: Near Ely, on Burntside Lake. The 25 cabins have running well water but no bathrooms, so bring a flashlight for nighttime trips to the restrooms. Kitchens are equipped with small gas cookstoves, refrigerators, dishes and utensils. Beds are furnished with fresh linens; bring kitchen and bath towels. High-season rates from $500 weekly.
Crow Wing Crest Lodge
At this delightfully quirky mom-and-pop, a Thursday-night potluck luau, an owner who is also a reflexologist (think foot massage), another who is an aromatherapist (class offered each week) and a congenial atmosphere make for a devoted following.
To do: Activities range from drum circles and yoga to Norwegian volleyball and craft hours for kids. Try a stand-up paddleboard, kayak, canoe, fish, water ski, eat ice cream or pizza in the century-old lodge, swim from the beach to the floating raft, and sit in a lakeside sauna. A playground and small antique carousel (rides for a quarter) entertain the kids.
Details: In Akeley, on 11th Crow Wing Lake. There are 19 cabins equipped with kitchen essentials, but bring kitchen and bath towels and soap. High-season rates range from $395 weekly for a two-person sleeping cottage (walk to the bathroom in the lodge; no stove) to $2,878 for a spacious, modern four-bedroom cabin.
Northern Pine Lodge
Rocking chairs line the expansive porch of the 100-year-old lodge and a covered deck overlooks the sandy beach at this old-school lake resort.
To do: Play miniature golf, basketball, shuffleboard, tennis on a clay court and a handful of other games. Swim, kayak, paddleboard, fish, compete in a sand castle contest or hang out at the lodge, the heart of the resort with a library. Wi-Fi is available, along with daily programming.
Details: Near Park Rapids, on Potato Lake. The 21 units, including cheerful green clapboard cottages and large log cabins with stone fireplaces and cathedral ceilings, line the lake around a private peninsula. High-season rates range from $825 to $2,595 weekly.
Sugar Beach Resort
Peace and quiet — except for the crashing waves of Lake Superior — prevail at this North Shore getaway.
To do: Climb around the resort’s 1,000 feet of rugged, rocky shoreline; roast marshmallows at a campfire on the rocks; hike many nearby trails; head a few miles north on Minnesota 61 to Lutsen’s Alpine Slide; or keep going until you hit Grand Marais.
Details: In Tofte, on Lake Superior. Most of the 14 cottages have fireplaces; all have fully equipped kitchens. Rates range from $66 nightly for Evergreen, a small cottage on the entry road, to $249 a night for a two-bedroom (plus loft) log cabin on the shore. All but Evergreen require a two-night stay.