Grand Marais, Minn.
Nestled on the shore of Lake Superior 40 miles from Canada, Grand Marais might not seem like an obvious choice for a beach vacation: The lake is frigid, and the shore is rock-strewn and wild. But what Grand Marais lacks in sand and cabanas, it more than makes up for with awe-inspiring beauty — there are few things as beautiful as a glittering Lake Superior sunrise, especially from Artists’ Point. The town is situated on the harbor, which provides the main access to the water and includes a pebbled shoreline that is often full of kids skipping stones and blissed-out parents watching the waves roll in. Make sure to stop in to Drury Lane Books or the North House Folk School, where you can take classes in anything from boat building to basket weaving.
Who goes there: The main road into town can be busy on weekends, as crowds flock from the Twin Cities.
Must Eat: For the love of God, visit World’s Best Donuts. PETER GEYE
Sometimes drolly referred to as the “Iowa Great Lakes,” Okoboji, a resort region made up of a chain of lakes and a handful of towns near the state’s northern border, offers the perfect antidote to the “Midwestern work ethic.” The action is on West Okoboji Lake, where you can stroll past shops and restaurants, grab a tavern sandwich and onion rings and visit the vintage Arnolds Park Amusement Park, complete with a wooden roller coaster, the Legend, which opened in 1930. The park’s free beach is small but well loved, full of toddlers, high schoolers and grandparents wading, strutting or strolling in the sand. I’ve been returning to Okoboji since I was a kid, and now I take my own kids here — there’s a reassuring delight in returning to waters you’ll never grow out of.
Who goes there: Farm kids, suburban families, boaters and other landlocked Midwesterners from Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and South Dakota.
Classic souvenir: Gear emblazoned with the logo of the (fictional) University of Okoboji.
Must eat: The signature chocolate-dipped, peanut-encrusted ice-cream pop from the Nutty Bar Stand, open since 1945. ANNA BAHNEY
Sister Bay, Wisc.
Door County, which juts out into Lake Michigan like a finger, still retains a strong vibe of the low-key artists’ retreat that it was in the 1960s, when my grandparents first visited and began a family tradition of spending summers there. Sister Bay, on the west side of the peninsula, feels like a healthy mix of the midcentury and the new. The beach, in the heart of the village, is pocket-size (600 feet of shoreline), with a retro floating dock for diving into the bracing waters of Green Bay. Steps away is a nautical-themed playground, an outdoor band shell and a wood-fired pizza place, Wild Tomato. Get a pizza margherita to go, a bottle of sparkling rosé from the Door County Creamery and have a B.Y.O.B. feast at one of the picnic tables by the water. (This is Wisconsin. Outdoor drinking is absolutely fine.)
Who goes there: Families with young children driving up from places like Madison and Chicago; day-trippers from Green Bay; retired locals who can deal with crowds.