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Hit the Upper Midwest for these ski vacation destinations

by Tribune News Service | January 2, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
A skier descends the Bridge Run at Lutsen Mountains, past the entrance to a condo at Eagle Ridge Resort. (Simon Peter Groebner/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

For novice skiers, the best part of a ski vacation isn't the fresh powder and the black diamond runs. It's the lodge.

After all, winter nights are long. Skiing is exhausting, so we need a hot tub, with or without a time machine. Indeed, we want the nostalgic lodge atmosphere of a 1980s ski movie -- or at least the bittersweet Alpine romance of Wham!'s video for "Last Christmas."

At the same time, the serious skiers in our party want a place to stay that thrusts you right into the downhill action -- a true "ski-in, ski-out" experience.

Does the Upper Midwest have all that? Not all in one spot, we found out when we checked in at three of Minnesota's biggest ski resorts as the 2021-22 season was getting underway. But the midrange rentals we surveyed were impressive.

The hokey but charming log cabin decor of North Woods resorts was mostly a thing of the past at these beloved destinations. All had fully modern and fully equipped kitchens, quality beds, electric fireplaces, working Wi-Fi, smart TVs (with one exception) and comfortable new furniture. All had some form of hot tub.

In the delta-cum-omicron era, skiing remains a generally safe outdoor activity. But once indoors, we also need amenities that are safe and uncrowded. Here's the best we sampled at the three resorts, along with some things they could do better. (In general, look for ski-and-stay packages, midweek offers and multi-night deals to get the best rates, especially later in the season.)

Giants Ridge: Lodge at Giants Ridge

The state-owned, privately run Giants Ridge near Biwabik boasts top-rated golf courses in the summer but turns its attention to skiing in the winter. The "crown jewel of the Iron Range" features 35 runs across 165 acres, with 500 feet of vertical drop. Giants Ridge has also added a suite of downhill fat-biking trails, serviced by the same chairlifts. There's even a snow-tubing park.

At the heart of the complex is the privately owned Lodge at Giants Ridge: a three-story, 67-suite, arc-shaped hotel at the base of the slopes. From the bed in a one-bedroom "hillside premium" suite, you can watch the skiers coming right at you from the ambling Cat Track run.

The interior-corridor lodge is not strictly ski-in/ski-out, but you could fairly call it "ski right up to the building." It's also a starting point for an extensive network of Nordic ski and snowshoe trails.

The vaulted lobby pays tribute to classic park lodges of the early 20th century, with an adjacent 1980s-style game room and bike parking room. Our suite (we paid $201 on a Thursday) featured 12-foot ceilings, a small fireplace, two basic TVs, an induction cooktop in the kitchen and the requisite pine furniture, but a promised whirlpool was missing. It wasn't worth complaining about, but we wondered if we had been downgraded. The front desk did grant a one-hour late checkout upon request.

The communal hot tub, meanwhile, offers that same great view of the ski hill, but it was mobbed with 12-15 people at night (despite a posted COVID-era capacity of five), plus many fully clothed guests lounging around the pool area. Earlier in the pandemic, the lodge was taking reservations for the pool, but it currently is not. Tip: Strategize on shared amenities with an early or midday visit.

The Burnt Onion restaurant in the chalet next door serves craft brews and northern comfort food (think walleye, burgers and more walleye, plus walleye tacos) to skiers and snowmobilers in a spacious, luxe dining room. Despite evidence of a small bar/restaurant in the lodge itself, however, there's no breakfast served at Giants Ridge -- or at any of the resorts we visited. We settled for Pop Tarts from the sundry shop.

The lodge is worth it for anyone who wants to be in the middle of the action at Giants Ridge. It was plenty cozy, but ultimately, this place is designed to make you go outside, not stay in.

Lutsen Mountains: Eagle Ridge Resort

With 95 ski runs across 1,000 acres on four mountains, plus sprawling views of Lake Superior and up to 1,088 feet of vertical drop, Lutsen Mountains is enormous by Minnesota ski standards -- and an expansion is reportedly in the works. But the skiing is intimate for guests of Eagle Ridge, one of two lodging options inside the Nordic- flavored ski area (the other being Caribou Highlands Lodge).

All 75 units are ski-in/ski-out -- some more convenient than others. Skiers on the popular Bridge Run take an overpass across Ski Hill Road, then carve a turn around Building A of the Eagle Ridge compound. One chairlift even ascends right through the middle of the mountainside condo village. You could almost reach up with a ski pole and touch a snowboard (but please don't).

Our one-bedroom "Superior condo," in Building D, sleeps four and starts at $189 with a two-night minimum (we paid $493 for two weekend nights with a holiday special, which included a two-day lift ticket). The private ground-level balcony off the living room was nestled in the woods, with Moose Mountain and a pinch of Lake Superior visible through the bare aspens. The bedroom near the entrance had no view. Second-floor condos and "mountain view" studios promise a more elevated vista, but our lower position in the heart of the bustling ski area felt like a cozy secret.

Creature comforts included stone countertops and a large Roku TV. You can unwind in the resort's big outdoor hot tub -- which feels safer in the open air -- and watch dusk descend over daunting Moose Mountain, which you may or may not have just conquered. For dinner, nearby Papa Charlie's Saloon & Grill is the go-to, with your choice of the barroom or an intimate dining room, plus pizzas, burgers, and local beers and ciders. There's sporadic live music of the singer-songwriter variety on the bar's broad stage.

We had to check out -- which is done via smartphone app -- 15 hours early, ironically because of a blizzard that could have made it impossible to drive home. But we would happily have been forced to hide out, work and play for a few more days from our Eagle Ridge abode.

Spirit Mountain: Mountain Villas

Duluth's underrated Spirit Mountain is an urban oasis of winter and summer adventure, with 22 ski runs and a 700-foot descent. While the adjacent Mountain Villas are not an official part of the resort, they are the only major lodging option on the big hill.

They're perched at one of the singular locations in Minnesota: where upland plains collide with the deep St. Louis River Valley, beginning a steep descent to Lake Superior. This is where the Superior Hiking Trail, the scenic Skyline Parkway and the Willard Munger state bike trail all converge.

All 14 Mountain Villas are hexagonal structures on pedestals, resembling a cross between a toadstool ring and an Ewok tree village. They're an architectural fever dream of the 1970s, which also makes them so very Duluth. Villas 5, 6, 7 and 8 have direct hike or ski access to the top of the ski area and the Skyline Chalet. Villas 9 and 10 overlook the chairlifts and the action on the Powder Monkey run.

The villas are all privately owned vacation homes, so each has been remodeled individually. We scrutinized online photos of the available units, and stopped looking when we got to villa 3, the Ridgewood, with an image of a queen bed opposite a floor-to-ceiling window with a panoramic view. Villas 1 through 4 are a short additional skate to the ski park.

The two-bedroom Ridgewood was the right call, with a surprising amount of fresh updates: granite countertops, leather furniture and a newer one-person jacuzzi in the larger of two bathrooms. A wraparound six- person balcony with high Adirondack chairs would make the unit heavenly in the summer, as well. Check-in and check-out was via lockbox and we never encountered any staff, the norm for vacation rentals these days. We booked it at $190 midweek, but were charged only $152.

We fell asleep gazing across the Duluth Harbor at the distant lights of Park Point and the Aerial Lift Bridge beyond. We were awoken, in turn, by a searing Superior sunrise.

High winds at night led to a screeching sound from somewhere above the ceiling, but it was easy to overlook because the rest of the experience was so damn comfortable.

And to think that our idea of good lodging around here used to be the old Red Roof Inn on Interstate 35. Skiing or not, Mountain Villas are among the best places to stay in Duluth, period. (9525 W. Skyline Pkwy., Duluth; 1-218-624-5784 or mtvillas.com)

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