Travel

The Best Winter Weekend Getaways from the Twin Cities

Take a break from it all.

Lutsen Resort
Lutsen Resort
Lutsen Resort

This time of year can be a little tough up north. With agreeable temperatures, fall colours and apple orchards and pumpkin patches behind us, the prospect of enjoyable activities can seem far away. How lucky, then, that there are such a plethora of places that provide an easy escape from cloistered residences and the winter doldrums. Whether you need a change of scenery from your work-from-home hamster wheel or are yearning to escape your cubicle, plan at least one weekend to check out some of these amazing spaces that are ready and waiting to whisk you away from shortened daylight hours and seasonal claustrophobia.

North Shore Scenic Railroad
North Shore Scenic Railroad
North Shore Scenic Railroad

The never-fails people pleaser: Duluth/North Shore

Going to the Duluth/North Shore area is like putting Prince on a party playlist: It’s fun, it’s sharp, and everyone has a great time. A top seller of this area is the gorgeous outdoor scenery, so make sure to hit up some of the best state parks in the area: Gooseberry Falls, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Jay Cooke. All three have a multitude of hiking and camping options in the summer and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. An important note: be sure to check each park’s web page for details of active hunting periods and trail detours during your stay. Jay Cooke offers heated cabin rentals and Gooseberry is particularly beautiful in the winter when the falls freeze over. If you’re all about the holidays, consider taking the Christmas City Express from November 26 – December 19.

If your preferred entertainment is warmer and indoors, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Duluth solo or on a romantic getaway. While you’re out and about, make sure to patronize some of the fabulous Duluth eateries. We recommend the farm-to-table menu at New Scenic Cafe, barbecue at OMC Smokehouse, or pitch-perfect Italian at Va Bene. If you’re staying the night, consider a bed and breakfast in one of the gorgeous historic mansions, or go for a lakefront view with walkable entertainment at Fitger’s Inn.
Distance: Three hours, 10 minutes

Chilkoot Cafe and Cyclery
Chilkoot Cafe and Cyclery
Chilkoot Cafe and Cyclery

Best foodie getaway: Stillwater

Just a short drive from the Cities, Stillwater along the St. Croix River is ideal for a weekend staycation or even just for dinner. With a slew of amazing restaurants spanning all kinds of cuisine, you’ll find something remarkable no matter the time of day or your tastebuds. If you’re looking for a bite in the morning, Chilkoot Cafe & Cyclery is both a bike and coffee shop with scratch pastries and house-roasted espresso. At lunch, you’ll find authentic Mexican cuisine at an affordable price at Nacho Mama’s.

Dinner time will force you into some hard decisions, but LoLo American Kitchen is rightfully popular with a gourmet take on street food and small plates. If you’re staying the night, try the historic Lowell Inn (make sure to schedule in a high tea!) or the romantic Water Street Inn.
Distance: 40 minutes

Lutsen Mountains
Lutsen Mountains
Lutsen Mountains

Best Ski Getaway: Lutsen Mountains

If you’re a hardcore skier or snowboarder, Lutsen Mountains north of Duluth is the largest ski area in the Midwest to show off your stuff. With 95 runs, four mountains, 1,000 acres, one of the steepest vertical drops, and a whopping 120 inches of snow per year, there’s a lot to brag about to your friends back home. If skiing and boarding aren’t your thing, there’s dog sledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and ice climbing. After a long day outside, sate your hunger by trying the bison, elk, and wild boar blend burger at Cascade Lodge Restaurant & Pub or a Hawaiian chicken sandwich at Moguls Grille and Tap Room. Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior is also a top place to stay, offering a classic Northwoods lodging experience, complete with in-room fireplaces.

For more leisurely pastures if you need a break from all that outdoor activity, there’s an amazing spa at Lutsen Resort, as well as other beautiful North Shore towns within driving distance. Tofte and Temperance River State Park’s scenic gorge are just 10 minutes south and Cascade River State Park’s waterfalls and Grand Marais are 20 minutes north. For food, try the Bluefin Grille in Tofte and snap some Insta pics at the spectacular Naniboujou Lodge & Restaurant-there’s also great shopping, especially in Grand Marais.
Distance: Four hours

COURTESY OF: T-MOBILE
COURTESY OF: T-MOBILE
COURTESY OF: T-MOBILE

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Scandinavian Inn Bed and Breakfast Lanesboro Minnesota
Scandinavian Inn Bed and Breakfast Lanesboro Minnesota
Scandinavian Inn Bed and Breakfast Lanesboro Minnesota

Best small-town getaway: Lanesboro

For those who love nostalgia and TCM, seize the opportunity to step back in the past. Lanesboro is the place for those who want to feel as if they’ve traveled back in time. Located southeast of Rochester with a population of just 800, the quaint town is known as the bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota and is on the National Register of Historic Places. As you drive down the main drag, you won’t see a single traffic light-but you may see a horse and buggy.

Bikers rave about the Root River State Trail that offers over 40 miles of stunning views including 300-foot limestone bluffs and frequent wild turkey sightings. If you’re lucky enough to catch their limited opening hours, stop at the Old Village Hall, a historic landmark-turned-restaurant built in the late 1800s, for some hearty grub. If you prefer the great indoors, window-shop along the charming main street or take a tour to visit the largest Amish community in Minnesota and buy authentic quilts, soaps, and candles. Great places to stay include the Historic Scanlan House and Stone Mill Hotel & Suites, circa 1885. Also, about 10 minutes outside of Lanesboro in Preston is the JailHouse Inn-a former county jail turned B&B. Snow permitting, don’t miss the opportunity to take a horse-drawn sleigh ride.
Distance: Two hours

Grand Ely Lodge
Grand Ely Lodge
Grand Ely Lodge

Best getaway for going off the grid: Ely

Believe it or not, there are still places you can go with no cellphone coverage-and the one million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is one of them. Ely, the small town western gateway near the BWCA, is a great place to launch your expedition. Named one of the best outdoor adventure towns in the world by National Geographic Magazine, Ely is a destination in and of itself with small-town ambience, great food (try Ely Steak House), and plenty of remote lodging options including yurts and “glamping” if real camping’s not your thing. Don’t be afraid to hit up some of the great hotel options either. Grand Ely Lodge has a heated pool and sauna, perfect for warming up after that chilly hike.

But, the majority of visitors to the BWCA are hardcore outdoor enthusiasts who come to hike, canoe, fish, and kayak the pristine wilderness. (If you don’t have equipment, there are outfitters in Ely who rent.) The BWCA is enormous, with more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes, dozens of hiking trails, and 1,000 lakes. This means you can completely disconnect and-other than your group or guide-may not see any other people during the trip. Whether you choose to paddle or walk, the solitude will make you feel like you’re in Into the Wild, minus the ending.
Distance: Four hours

Grand View Lodge
Grand View Lodge
Grand View Lodge

Best spa getaway: Brainerd Lakes Area

Sure, the Cities have lots of great spas, but if you’re looking for a change of scenery for a luxurious couple’s or girls’ weekend, try the often-underestimated Brainerd Lakes Area. Madden’s was built on a peninsula jutting out into gorgeous Gull Lake and offers the usual services-massages, facials, wraps, pedicures, manicures, waxing-as well as seasonal spa specials. Currently, you can get a kale and green tea infused facial, red velvet cupcake-inspired body wrap, or a honey glaze pedicure. If all that makes you hungry, the resort’s restaurant, The Classic Grill, serves up a locally inspired menu including the freshly caught fish of the week and weekly sushi specials.

Glacial Waters at Grand View Lodge is also a place for pampering and a perfect spot to cozy up as the snow falls. Surrounded by tall pines, the full-service spa offers nail and skin care, hydrotherapy, and body treatments. The most popular massage is the “Grand Relaxation,” with aromatherapy. Other treatments include a blueberry scrub and berry peel. If you’re looking to cap off your spa weekend with some fine dining, check out the lodge’s restaurant. Both Madden’s and Grand View Lodge are also great places to stay.
Distance: Two hours, 15 minutes

Paul Brady Photography/Shutterstock
Paul Brady Photography/Shutterstock
Paul Brady Photography/Shutterstock

Most underrated getaway: Des Moines

Probably didn’t know Des Moines is the fastest-growing metro in the Midwest, huh? While we’ve been sleeping, this oft-overlooked city has been busy developing new restaurants and breweries, more than 800 miles of recreational trails, and a reputation as an art destination.

You also may not have guessed that Des Moines’ dining scene is home to nearly a dozen James Beard-nominated chefs. Restaurants like modern European Aposto-located inside an 1880s mansion-and upscale American Alba offer imaginative, delicious dishes. If beers and appetizers are more your speed, Confluence Brewing’s fun taproom has unusual brews like a blue corn lager and Exile Brewing offers beers and bites in a former soap warehouse. To work off some calories, walk the city’s impressive High Trestle Trail, which features a 13-story bridge over the Des Moines River Valley.

And, if you’re looking to get cultured, the city has an awesome art scene. Your first stop should be the Des Moines Art Center, which is free and features modern art and well-known works by Georgia O’Keeffe and Henri Matisse. Next, visit the adjacent four-acre Pappajohn Sculpture Park to take some selfies and then head to the historic East Village to stop into art galleries and shops. When you’re finally wiped, check into the Des Lux Hotel or historic Renaissance Savery Hotel, which has hosted past presidents and celebrities.
Distance: Three hours, 35 minutes

Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau
Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau
Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau

Best family-friendly getaway: Wisconsin Dells

Sure, Wisconsin Dells has a reputation as a tourist trap, but if you can get past that, the area is naturally beautiful and offers tons of options for families-even during the winter months. Known as “the waterpark capital of the world,” its resorts are open year-round and offer huge indoor areas for entertaining kids. Try Chula Vista’s “water coaster,” Great Wolf Lodge’s six-story slide, or Kalahari’s 125,000 square foot play area, all without going outside.

But, if your crew needs a break from rides and slides and you head a little later in the season, Wisconsin Ducks tours operate from mid-March to mid-November. The tours, on military-esque vehicles that traverse both land and lake, show off the Dells’ natural rock formations and gorges. You can also see the Wisconsin River’s picturesque sandstone bluffs by strolling the River Walk downtown year-round. When it’s time to grab some grub, you can’t take your family to the Dells without taking them to Monk’s Bar and Grill. A local favourite for more than 70 years, the restaurant is known for its famous Monkburgers. The kids’ version even comes served inside a custom Frisbee.
Distance: Three hours, 10 minutes

The Inn on Madeline Island
The Inn on Madeline Island
The Inn on Madeline Island

Best ‘island’ getaway: Apostle Islands

No matter the weather, you can still hop on a boat to find the island life in Minnesota-in this case, the ferry to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands. First, head north to Bayfield, a charming town in its own right along Lake Superior, and the jumping-off point for The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. While you’re on the mainland, try the wheat vodka at local Copper Crow Distillery and grab a farm-to-table dinner at The Fat Radish.

Then, it’s just a 20 minute ferry ride to Madeline’s main town of La Pointe. (The ferries run until January-when they stop, a windsled is the only means of transportation to the mainland for the island’s 300 year-round residents.) Once in La Pointe, leave for a scenic hike at Big Bay State Park or rent a bike and cycle down Main Street, hitting The Beach Club for a beverage and Cafe Seiche for a dinner of local whitefish and a sunset view. There are many options for places to stay, including the aptly named Inn on Madeline Island.

If outdoor adventure is more your thing, sign up for a charter or water taxi to visit some of the other Apostle Islands (there are about 20) to kayak in the fall and cross-country ski, snowshoe, or ice fish in the winter. The National Lakeshore is known for its sea caves, sandstone cliffs, and old lighthouses for guaranteed dramatic vistas. Apostle Islands Cruises runs sightseeing trips from May to mid-October and charters and water taxis are available, weather dependent.
Distance: Four hours

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Jenna Bennett Williams is a writer for Thrillist who loves weekend getaways, particularly to Minnesota’s North Shore. You can catch her Instagramming @jennabennnettwilliams.

Becki Iverson is a Thrillist writer and an ardent lover of the Twin Cities. You can follow her wide-ranging passions on her blog, Compendium, or on social media on Instagram @beckiiverson or Facebook. When she’s not exploring the local food and arts scene, Becki can be found at her day job in marketing for the AEC industry at Faithful+Gould in downtown Minneapolis.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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