Charmed Life on Lake Minnetonka

We’d been in Minnesota for only five hours, and already I was fantasizing about moving there. But not just anywhere in Minnesota, to Minnetonka Beach, an idyllic enclave along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, where we were staying for the weekend with our friends, Ann and Harris. Developed at the turn of the century as a summer resort for rich Southerners, the “City of the Village of Minnetonka Beach” is now an affluent, year-round residential community of some 230 homes, located within an easy commute of downtown Minneapolis.

Our friends’ house, a cedar-shingled Cape Cod named “Summer Hill,” sits at the top of a gentle slope, separated from the lake by nothing more than a perfectly manicured lawn and a road quiet enough for kids to play in. Built in 1902, it is one of the neighborhood’s original homes, complete with a brick ice house where blocks of ice cut from the lake were used to keep food cold back in the days before refrigeration.

It was a warm summer night, as we dined outside on Summer Hill’s tree-shaded patio, chatting and admiring the view of the lake. Boasting a waterside fire pit perfect for roasting marshmallows in the comfort of sturdy Adirondack chairs and a long wooden pier stocked with all manner of motorized and non-motorized water toys, this was Midwest summer-living at its best. Even the friendly neighbors who stopped by, cocktails in hand, to say hello while out for a walk with their dogs at dusk, made me feel like I had been transported into the pages of a Frontgate catalog. As we watched our daughters and our friends’ son run down to the lake for one last swim, I silently contemplated cashing out on our house in San Francisco and finding a similar slice of heaven somewhere nearby.

The next day, Ann and Harris offered to take us on a tour of the lake in their boat, “Charmed Life.” With 125 miles of shoreline, Lake Minnetonka is actually a collection of many small, glacier-formed lakes, connected by marshlands and channels in an irregular, amoeba-like shape. Flat and glassy in the morning hours, the lake would become increasingly choppy as the day progressed, whipped into a frenzy by the heavy boat traffic of a typical summer Saturday.

As we motored around, Ann and Harris told us about the various sites, beginning with Big Island, a leafy, 56-acre nature preserve located directly opposite their house. Accessible only by boat in the summer and by snow-shoe in the winter (the lake freezes over most years), it featured an amusement park from 1906 to 1911 and is now a favorite spot for boaters, who spend long, summer days socializing and lazing about in the sun while moored off its undeveloped banks.

Other points of interest included the yacht club where our hosts’ son takes sailing lessons and a 1906 steamboat called the ‘”Minnehaha,” which was rescued in 1980 from a fifty-year exile at the bottom of the lake and is now used to ferry tourists between Minnetonka’s two main towns, Excelsior and Wayzata.

There were also plenty of impressive houses to gawk at — both stately, old historic homes and colossal McMansions — many of which are owned by wealthy executives from the numerous Fortune 500 companies located in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area. The Twin Cities region, I was surprised to learn, has more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any other metropolitan region in the United States, and as a result, a lot of wealth and much pricier real estate than I had expected. So much for my dream of moving into a huge and inexpensive lakeside estate; well, I consoled myself, I probably couldn’t handle the winters anyway.

For lunch, we headed over to Excelsior, docking the boat at a bustling lakeside restaurant called Maynard’s. It took a few minutes and a bit of hovering to find a free table outside in the busy “Wharf” area, but once we did, the service was surprisingly swift and the food quite good. The Walleye Sandwich, notwithstanding the unappetizing name of this common Minnesota lake fish, was delicious and the local Excelsior Big Island Blonde Ale also hit the spot.

As far as our daughters were concerned, however, the best part of our weekend in Minnesota was tubing off the back of Ann and Harris’ boat, something none of us had ever done before. After several wild rides, the girls reluctantly climbed back into the boat, their elbows rubbed raw from bouncing back and forth through the wake, but exhilarated and happy. Taking full advantage of everything the lake had to offer, we later tried out the kayaks and did some swimming and paddle boarding off the pier until it was time to get ready for our next meal.

When we returned home to San Francisco late Sunday night, it was as foggy, damp and cold as ever. Yet this was home and it nevertheless felt good to be back. While summer was warmer and sunnier and the grass greener in Minnetonka Beach, that didn’t make it better. Just different. The world is full of beautiful places, and while I will never stop seeking them out, it’s important to recognize and appreciate the beauty that is there, wherever we may be, whether at home or abroad. And that, I believe, is one of the secrets to leading a truly charmed life.

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  • Wow, so beautiful! Every time we go to Minnesota for hockey (in the spring or summer-haven’t been in winter!) I say I want to live there! Its such a beautiful place!

  • Spent many great events at the Lord Fletcher wharf on Lake Minnetonka over the years.
    This was during the years when many of Control Data training classes had their social parties at the wharf.
    Those were the days ..