Some day-hopping beachniks think swimming at famous Grand Beach, named by Playboy as one of the Top 10 beaches in the world, is the be-all and end-all of a visit.
Not so! No more splashing-and-dashing back to the Big Smoke, my friends. The glorious East and West Grand Beaches, located 80 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, combine with the tiny adjacent town of Grand Marais to offer funky clothes shopping, hiking, kiteboarding, watersliding, golf, arcade games, bakeries, golfing, sandcastle competitions, yoga on the beach and hiking trails.
After one week spent in a cottage there, here's my handy-dandy inside guide to fun activities for day visitors who want more than a dip on their trip:
TURTLE TIDE WATERSLIDES: To get to Grand Beach, you zip along Hwy. 59 (Lagimodiere Boulevard) 1.5 hours, turn left on little Hwy. 12 North and drive another five minutes. As you're closing in on town limits, check for the colourful sign on your right -- Turtle Tide (formerly Thunder Mountain) boasts "Manitoba's longest twister rides and Bullet Slide up to 75 kilometres per hour." Also, multi-person river raft rides down the wide left slide in an inflated boat! All ages use these slides and you're welcome to stay all day and picnic.
SPIRIT ROCK CAFE: Screech! Just braking for Grand Marais? Look right on Hwy. 12 (the main drag) right across from the Sandbar Motor Inn. Spirit Rock Caf© looks like a crazy San Francisco house, with its wrap-around verandas, hanging flower baskets and bicycle sign hoisted over the door. Outgoing owners Julie and Pat Hayden offer funky boutique shopping with racks of unique gladrags, jewelry and art pieces, plus a MexiCrafts hut outside crammed full of antiques. They also sell healthy-food lunches, teas, summer drinks and sinful desserts taken at cozy tables in the midst of the store. Julie and Pat travel three months of the winter to a string of places like Thailand, Bali, India and Julie's native Australia to bring home treasures. "I love to travel and grow and this is a good reason to do that. It just makes me happy," says Julie. Want to stay overnight? Upstairs is a group of Zen-like hotel rooms with air conditioning and another big balcony. Hubby Pat is also involved in the organization of the world-famous sandcastle-building contests, with world-class sand artists coming to do the giant sandcastles August long weekend, and then 15 fun groups competing in a sandcastle-building contest the following Saturday, Aug. 10; rain date Sunday.
SAND BAR MOTOR INN: Across the street, owner and chef Tyler Gray and his staff serve up a gourmet special every day of the week. Breakfasts are extra cozy in their caf© with in-house bakery. Saturday night's rack of ribs dinner is top-notch, and there's a full bar and patio with DJs, dancing, strippers and special activities, plus an ice cream palace. The motel units are a separate building away from the hotel noise, cleverly facing into the woods, with air conditioning for hot summer nights.
MOTEL-LENGTH CONVENIENCE STORES: Two very large rival convenience stores on this main drag - Grand Central Station and The Village Store - provide just about everything you can imagine in rooms that run into each other on a string, looking suspiciously like former motels. They just keep on going and provide between the two of them a frozen foods department produce department, liquor, gas bar, art supplies, hardware, movies, new and second-hand books, flip-flops and T-shirts. There area also community billboards outside. Ya gotta look!
OH, THE BEACH SHOPPING! As the sun-weary traveller hits the top of West Beach and sees that shining lake, five metal carton-style kiosks suddenly appear, spilling racks of stylish beach clothes, fashion and designer jewelry, not to mention custom T-shirts, shorts and bathing suits, reasonably priced. They fly like dancing mannequins in the lake breezes. Olivia's Beach Boutique is designed for people who forgot something, as in "Daaaaad, I forgot my baaaaathing suit!" Outside the cool kiosk, which is packed full of stuff, jewelry and wind chimes are cool clothes for kids and moms -- even brilliantly coloured silky balloon dresses that feel like parachutes. "Olivia is my 13-year-old daughter. She picks out most of the clothes," says proud dad Darrell Flett, an educational assistant working with autistic students at Garden City Collegiate. "That job is the best job in the world, but I also love to do this at the beach in the summer."
Over at Beachin It Wet, Colin Trygvason sells T-shirts with custom printing. "I've been here at Grand Beach 22 seasons," he says, pointing at his array of testosterone-inspired hats, towels, T-shirts and shorts. Tank tops are the hottest seller in July weather, which has been around 25 C and drier than Winnipeg. Newest custom slogans? "I'm just bringing back Howling at the Dunes and Grand Beast." Trygvason says he's read up on all the history of Grand Beach and longs for "more references to those historical times" when you could come up for dancing and midway rides. An old steam-engine billboard runs along the back of the kiosks, "but I'd like to see a real engine here."
Roger Batchelor specializes in sunglasses with his kiosk Peeps On Grand and his sister, Sandra Braden, has a little business called Sand on Grand where she sells fab designer bags and jewelry.
"This is my first season," says Geri Zalitach of a kiosk called Geriz. She's a home stager three seasons a year, but the buying shows she attends to decorate also yield great stuff for a beach shop. "l went to a big show in Toronto and came back with all this!" she says of her kiosk, painted aqua with a fancy mirror and striking silver jewelry and gifts that catch the eye.
KITEBOARDING: If you love thrills and chills, check out the sights on a sunny day in front of the dunes on East Grand Beach near the channel. When it's blowing 30 to 70 km/h strong-legged, daring people launch themselves as high as 12 metres into the air under a giant kite that can cost $2,000 to $3,000. They twirl and do tricks standing on boards that cost another grand. Or they hurl themselves forward and the kite carries them horizontally up to 30 metres down the water. Kiteboard builder/designer Jim Vallenduuk of www.duukboards.com is a passionate kiteboarder who started making the boards "because I couldn't afford them. Now my business partner, Ken Ruppenstein, and I have a really good product. We are sponsoring a kiteboarder in the Dominican Republic at Cabarete who rides our boards." A great way for these Canadians to get known. Vallenduuk admits the sports has its risks. Had any accidents? "Oh a few concussions; nothing serious!" He suggests people need to take lessons before they try, which are available through the Boost shop in Transcona.
YOGA ON THE BEACH: Want to Zen out by the big water? Then you're probably the type to be up early to catch the Saturday 9 a.m. yoga class held on the main West Beach. All you have to do is bring your city-weary soul, yoga mat, water bottle and towel, and reeee-lax.
GOTTA EAT! Doris Grocery is a landmark in Grand Marais; everybody stops in! The store is so well-stocked and reasonably priced people don't have to shop in the city. "I have a huge variety here and try to stock specialty foods such as oriental sauces, giant freezers and large fridges for meat and pizzas, fresh fruits and veggies and specialties." says Lorraine Easton, who owns and runs the store with her husband, Rob. "And everyone asks my staff, 'Are you Doris?' Some people even call Rob, Doris!" Actually, the store was bought by the Linklater family in 1961. They had a daughter called Doris. Lorraine's middle name happens to be Doris -- just a happy coincidence.
Then there's goldeye, and pickerel that has to come from their rival, Gimli, on the west side of the lake, better known as The Dark Side. "Some people won't buy it if it's from Gimli!" says Easton. People come to Doris' store for many reason's -- such as the 330 mailboxes. And some come for unexpected things, such as condoms and pregnancy tests. Cigarettes are under the counter. They have a few common medications too. Then there's the big attraction, wagging her tail behind the baby gate. "Roxy has been the store greeter since she was six weeks old; now she's eight. Sometimes there's a lineup to pet her!"
SUM STUFF: Next door to Doris' well-known grocery store is a lime-green hardware, beach gear and gift store called Sum Stuff, staffed by a bunch of characters who joke with customers, like college student "Colin" or 'Doc" who likes to tell city slickers he's a thoracic surgeon in training, to see if they'll bite. OK, I bit. Signs on boards bear quotes such as "I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it -- William Shakespeare." They sell fireworks, firewood, sandals, umbrellas, cottage deco stuff, movies, books, gifts and practical hardware. Hanging high in the middle of the room is a sign, Wayside Gospel Chapel, harkening back to the days when this little lime beach hut was a Mennonite church, brought in by flatbed from Steinbach half a century ago.
GRAND MARAIS INTERIOR: While "The Strip" inside the little town of Grand Marais, formerly composed of many playtime businesses, is shrinking as Hwy. 12 into Grand Beach builds up, some businesses are still lively! Lanky's burger and ice cream place is alive and well, bright orange with canopied picnic benches. Emil (pronounced Ay-mil) and Trish Seniuk own Lanky's ice cream and burger stand. This summer, they're offering a pig-out challenge. "If you can eat a 24-inch double hotdog, large fries and drink, you get a free T-shirt," says Trish. And dubious bragging rights as well! "We have about 588 kinds of soft ice cream cone combinations," says Emil proudly, plus chocolate and white twisters, blizzard-style treats with multiple toppings, perogies, burgers and fries. Life is good.
TROPICAL TRENDS is right next door with inexpensive beach shirts, shorts, dresses and crazy shirts and hats with smart-ass sayings to wear and get the parents going. T-BEACH, down the street in the multi-coloured hippy house, sells beautiful summer clothes, many of them tie-dyed and sewn in-house. And check out the Christmas stuff sold in the back cubby of the store. In the winter, it turns into a Christmas store.
POTENZA'S Italian Eatery and patio bar several blocks over on Grand Marais' best hill is always hopping at night, especially on a weekend, with live music on the patio.
SAND DUNES FUN & GAMES and BAKERY at the ARCADE: In the summertime, airport firefighter Ken Wegner follows another passion -- baking in the strangest place. On one side of his Grand Marais building, he bakes up a storm behind the counters. The rest of the room is cool and dark -- and filled with 20 neon arcade games. Big kids also sign up to play pool at two big tables in the middle. Wegner was taught everything by his father -- master baker Eckhart Wegner trained in Germany -- who owned Leo's Home Bakery on Notre Dame Avenue for many years. He goes wild with the variety of fancy baking he produces for the summer crowd besides fluffy breads and cheesy buns -- and there are lineups for it. His mom, Mary Wegner, often works the front counter and his son, Oliver, is learning to bake like dad; three generations now. Delicacies such as marzipan cake, Imperial cookies, lemon chewies, croissants and tortes are baked to the happy sounds of pool players and arcade kids going at the game machines. Adults often sit on cushy leather chairs and drink coffees and slushies with their baking, or buy the kids and grandkids gift cards for games to play as long as they'll last.
There's lots to do in Grand Beach / Grand Marais, and it's easy to rent a cabin or hotel room and stay for a few weeks. Just put up a sign on the many billboards in Grand Marais and right near the beach and ask people to call you! Worked for me! Cabins rent from about $300 to $800 a week, depending on how fancy you want to get and how long you're staying. Bon voyage! It's worth the trip to do more than dip. Explore the whole magical area.