COOK, Minn. — From the screened porch of my cabin, I hear a speedboat jumping across the water before it roars past, sparkling in the sun like a sudden burst of summer joy. The sound fades, replaced by waves splashing onto the shore, the trill of birdsong and the brush-crunching of squirrels. Then more scampering: My daughter and her friend bound into the kitchen to sneak cookies, leaving a wake of giggles, the scent of sunscreen, and the creak and slap of the screen door as they head out into the sun once again.
In front of me, a coffee cup sits half-empty on the table. Inside, wet beach towels drape the furniture, accenting a lakeside summer retreat with all the charms. Granite stones frame the fireplace. Knotty pine paneling wraps the walls. A row of windows looks onto a tangle of trees crowned by pines and an expanse of dark blue water.
I felt as though the old place had been in my family for 50 years.
The reality: one day.
The weathered old beauty called Sun Up sits shrouded by trees on an island in Lake Vermilion, and my family was merely borrowing it, for a price, from its true owners and the people who built it in 1947: the Ludlow family of Ludlow’s Island Resort.
Of course, if Sun Up were my cabin, I wouldn’t be able to schedule a massage in a clapboard building just down a gravel path, or lounge in a chair overlooking the beach where children play. Or have my luggage and groceries delivered via boat by chipper teenagers. Or send the girls to a pizza and movie night, designed as much to entertain them as to give parents a few hours alone.
Clearly, renting has its privileges.
Last June, I was searching for a lake place I could call my own, if only for a week. I wanted a cabin that felt alone in the woods even if it was part of a resort, where “rustic” referenced its timbered charm without sacrificing modern comforts, a place where I could canoe or swim or maybe do nothing more than gaze at the lake in peace.
When I pulled into the driveway of Ludlow’s, in Cook, Minn., and saw a shaded waiting area hung with red geraniums above a boat dock, I knew my research had paid off.
As I’d been instructed by Ludlow’s before my arrival, I turned the crank of an old-fashioned phone. A bell rang on its counterpart across the water and within minutes, I saw someone on the island hop into a boat and roar toward us.
The driver was manager Paul Ludlow, son of longtime owners Mark and Sally Ludlow, and he had a quick smile, the faintly sunburned face that comes with resort life and a friendly sidekick named Kirby, a yellow lab. And that boat? A vintage wooden Chris-Craft.
Given the antique trappings and personal welcome, I soon felt lost in time. Paul gave us a tour of the island once we landed. Here was a pantry, where guests mark their purchases on a pad using something as quaint as the cabins themselves: the honor system. Here, hydrobikes and canoes; there, a game room and a lodge with cushy sofas, fireplace and gift shop. He said something about Wi-Fi throughout the island. Wi-what? I was already unplugged.
The cabins of Ludlow’s Island Resort are scattered across three pieces of land, the centerpiece of which is a 5-acre island on Minnesota’s sprawling, pristine Lake Vermilion, named after the red color of its sunsets. So circuitous is Vermilion’s 1,000-plus miles of shoreline and 365 islands that on a map, it looks more like a ragtag collection of ponds and lakes than a single body of water. That shape works to the benefit of Ludlow’s, whose two stretches of mainland bend in toward each other, hugging the island that lies smack dab between them.
All three of those landholdings, plus a tiny additional island used for overnight camping, are so close to one another that they feel almost connected. In a sense they are, by virtue of Ludlow’s and the young boathouse attendants who will zoom guests from shore to shore at a moment’s notice, or the crank of an antique phone.
“I’m one of a few people in the country who knows how to repair a Magneto phone,” Mark Ludlow later told me.
Back in 1907, when the only access to the area was by boat from Tower, Joseph Burr Ludlow encountered the tree-covered island punctuated by granite outcroppings, fell hard, and bought what came to be known as Ludlow’s Island.
Joseph’s son, Hod, built the first cabin there in 1933. By 1939, some of Hod’s friends had discovered its unique appeal and asked if they could rent it for the summer to use as a fishing camp. Hod obliged, moving his wife and young children to a tent on the far end of the island for the summer, and began scheming to build another cabin. Eventually his son Mark and daughter-in-law Sally bought the resort, and now Paul and his wife, Kelly, are taking over daily operations.
Slowly, the family handcrafted other cabins, making sure none sat too close to another. The pathway that rings the island runs behind the cabins rather than along the shoreline. The result is a sense of solitude from each distinct abode.
Today, 21 cabins line the island and the north and south shores, including Coffeetime, the five-bedroom where Mark grew up; Sundown, a two-bedroom charmer on the approximate site of Hod’s family tent; and the Dreamcatcher, the newest addition to the island. To lend spaciousness without a big footprint, SALA architect Dale Mulfinger created a dwelling that goes straight up, resulting in views among the treetops.
In all those years of owning a resort, the family has perfected the art of hospitality.
On Monday morning, the first of my visit, I awoke to find a newspaper delivered to the door, along with a printout from Ludlow’s staff with what I considered the truly relevant news of the day: the weather forecast and a list of events available during the week.
I would skip the 8 a.m. yoga class (this was vacation, after all), but the children clamored to attend s’mores on the beach. We’d forgo the fishing contest, preferring to focus our efforts above the water, tooling around on hydrobikes. No sense in taking a floatplane ride to tour the area (an experience I would find nerve-racking) when I could instead spend my cash on a massage in a pretty building with a fireplace and aromatherapy, though the scent of pine outside soothed me all day long.
I spent most of my time lounging by the water or reading a book in the cabin, even with the scheduled events run by Ludlow’s capable staff. The children played in the water, scaling the floating inflatable iceberg, and wandering the island alone — which I allowed them to do since only Ludlow’s guests get on the island, and we’d become friendly with most of them.
One sunny day, we hopped on a pontoon for a tour of the islands. Paul led the way, showing us particularly fruitful fishing spots and motoring us around to view other wild shorelines. We spied an eagle high in a treetop, and Paul passed binoculars all around. I’d never seen an eagle in the wild so close-up. After a few minutes he flew away, returning to his nest, I suppose.
When Paul powered up the motor to head back to Ludlow’s Island, I felt I was returning to my summer nest, too.