Grand Marais: America’s Coolest Small Town
Photo by Josh Lew
This past spring, Budget Travel named Grand Marais, Minnesota “America’s Coolest Small Town.” This “beach town” on the shores of Lake Superior is only an hour south of the Canadian border. It is quite common to see Ontario license plates when you are strolling around (especially when the Canadian Dollar is strong).
Marais is a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a network of lakes and other waterways that stretches across northernmost Minnesota. The state’s best ski area is located at nearby Lutsen Mountain.
Not just a pit stop
You will find a concentration of hotels and gas stations here because this is a major stop on Highway 61, the main coastal road along Minnesota's Superior shoreline. However, Grand Marais is an attraction in and of itself. There is definitely something behind Budget Travel’s choice to give a nod to this Minnesota town of 1,300 people.
Visitors will find some of the traits typical of Midwestern tourist towns: antique and brick-a-brac shops, diners, and stores where you can purchase souvenirs and print your own t-shirt. But these touristy features are overshadowed by a quaint port, numerous art galleries and a music scene that is surprisingly lively considering the town’s small population.
Fall is the best time to see Grand Marais for what it is. The road tripping families, bikers and hikers usually leave after Labor Day, and the skiers won’t be coming to town for a few more months. There are some leaf peepers seeking out the fall colors, but September and October is a slow season here. Yes, temps can dip below freezing at night, but daytime highs move into the bearable 40s and 50s.
Big city culture in a little package
Art and culture take center stage in Grand Marais during September and October. The painters and sculptors with studios and galleries in town are not based here because tourist dollars are easy to come by. Most of these creatives are somehow associated with the Grand Marais Art Colony, an organization that puts on events and shows and offers classes (many of which are taught by local artists).
The authentic arts scene gives Grand Marais an element of hipness that differentiates it from other small towns and tourist destinations along the lake. Music also plays a role in the creative vibe. Buskers are not uncommon along the lakefront. Most of these street musicians play folk-tinged tunes. The September and October calendar is full of more formal music festivals and concerts. On any given weekend, there will be several shows at the intimate venues scattered around town.
A modern take on the folk lifestyle
Of course, this is the Northwoods, and lots of people want a kind of rustic, back to nature experience when they come here. The North House Folk School offers courses in everything from basket making to sailing to foraging to woodcarving and furniture making. There are daylong options for tourists and weeklong courses for people who want to experience something a little bit more in depth.
The CBC radio program Superior Morning covered Grand Marais during a recent broadcast. The presenters highlighted the town’s coolness factor by talking about the artists and folk culture enthusiasts who are bringing energy to Grand Marais and giving it a city-like arts scene without taking away the pleasant quaintness that many people come here to seek out.
More by Josh Lew
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