To the uninitiated, the Great Lakes represent little more than the web of water that spawned hardscrabble cities like Detroit and Chicago. But these five lakes, which together form the largest network of freshwater in the world, have some incredible beach towns. "This is the best-kept secret in America," says Jerry Dennis, a Traverse City resident and the author of The Living Great Lakes. "Our beaches are better than most saltwater beaches – they're cleaner, they're bigger, and they're less populated." Out on the lakes, there's deepwater fishing for 30-pound muskie, world-class kitesurfing, and hundreds of miles of open water to paddle or sail. But what might be even more surprising is that the food and culture scenes on the northern shores – dominated by fresh-catch cuisine, craft breweries, local wineries, and an influx of musicians and artists – are booming as well.
Minnesota's Northern Shore
At the edge of Minnesota's Superior National Forest, on the north shore of frigid-yet-refreshing Lake Superior, Grand Marais has long been a port of call for solitude-seeking outdoors enthusiasts. The Gunflint Trail, a winding backwoods road that travels into the park, teems with moose, deer, foxes, black bears, and timber wolves. Along the lake, there is a series of trailheads from which you can hike to historic lighthouses or begin a portage across the inland waterways.
At the same time, the nightlife downtown can get rocking. The Gunflint Tavern, with an extensive list of Midwestern craft beers, has live music every night, and the Angry Trout Café across the street serves up the day's freshest catch. Both host big crowds throughout the week. Mark Spinler, who's owned Superior North Outdoor Center since 1986, says, "It feels like half the people in the state want to live here."
Stay: Once host to Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, the Naniboujou Lodge offers rooms. [From $94 a night; naniboujou.com]
Do: Take a portage trip with Bear Track Outfitting Co., which has all-inclusive packages. [From $290; bear-track.com]
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