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The other Detroit

Minnesota lakes region scenic, relaxing

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Go the extra mile!

Not often taken literally, it sure has meaning if you're driving south into the Detroit Lakes district this summer.

Thousands of Manitobans will add to the burgeoned population of the area in August as they descend on the grounds of WE Fest, one of the largest country music festivals in America.

With a lineup that includes Steve Martin and his banjo, Alabama, Sawyer Brown and many of the other top-rated stars of the genre, it is no wonder there will be a provincial stream of traffic during the first weekend in August.

But there is much more to enjoy than music.

Our first trip to the region was in September of last year when we felt a need to get away for a few days. The fall colours were beginning to change the shade of the trees and shoulder season bargains made it an easy destination decision to make.

I had heard about Detroit Lakes for years. When my parents talked about going there I was quite certain they meant the Motor City. Only later did I realize the area was one of Minnesota's prime attractions for travellers who love the outdoors and the beauty of relatively untouched nature.

There are more than 1.4 million angling licences issued in Minnesota every year. Every morning it seemed there were a goodly percentage of them on the water taking advantage of the fall fishing bonanzas of walleye, muskie, largemouth bass, crappie and several other species.

Detroit Lakes is about 75 kilometres east of Fargo, N.D.

There are more than 400 lakes within 30 kilometres of Detroit Lakes and there is an accommodation style for everyone. Drive along any highway and the resort signs pop up every few minutes, targeting campers, RV vacationers, and overnight or weekly visitors.

It was on one of our unchartered drives that we made our most exciting discovery. Heading in no particular direction at the time we ended up consuming our extra miles travelling east from Detroit Lakes on Highway 34. Sixty kilometres later, passing though some of the most beautiful parkland in the state we found ourselves in the picturesque town of Park Rapids.

From the number of gift shops, restaurants and activity options, apparently tens of thousands of visitors have made the Park Rapids lakes a significant tourist destination.

It's the gateway to the Mississippi River headwaters, is close to scenic Itasca State Park, where hundreds per day walk through the heartland trail.

All this might lead one to a conclusion that Park Rapids is strictly for the outdoor-oriented traveller. But it's much more than that.

The community exudes a quiet peacefulness. It speaks of an America that blends modernization with tradition. Its wide main street, perhaps the widest I have ever seen, creates an uncrowded space that invites you to take your time shopping or dining without feeling you are intruding on a 'buy and leave' atmosphere.

There are many art and homemade handicraft stores. There are a number of golf courses close to Park Rapids, with the 6,600 yard Headwaters golf Club situated at the edge of the community. You are likely to walk next to docile deer as you move from tee to green on this tree-lined track.

Our first trip was a day of discovery. We liked it so much we returned to Park Rapids on a later day to complete the buying process, since we had done such a good job of surveying on day one.

Several kilometres out of town along Rose lake, there's a restaurant with the unlikely name of Spanky's Stone Hearth.

The sun had already set as we found ourselves driving along narrow winding roads. After driving for what seemed like an interminably long time, watching closely for any sign of life, we finally entered a small town.

"You gone too far" the burly voice responded to my request for directions.

We were about to give up and return to the hotel when out of the corner of my eye I spied a sign set back and away from the road. I could see no cars! This does not seem like a good omen, I thought.

Up the little hill and around a corner we were greeted by dozens of vehicles and an imposing structure that was Spanky's.

Built in 1946 with its huge stone hearth as its focal point, an impressive log addition to the original structure was completed in 1997.

It was a comforting environment in which to dine. From the first taste of the unique garlic bacon sauerkraut mashed potatoes and rare charcoal-grilled steak, I understood why the restaurant was packed. This is a treat not to be missed.

Had we left our hotel earlier, the restaurant would have been easy to find in the light of day. It turned out to be the perfect ending to an exceptional journey.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 D1

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