RITZ of the North. Venerable Minaki Lodge brings back the rustic elegance of a more leisurely era

If I tell you I journeyed all the way to the vast Ontario lake country north of Minnesota and never saw the northern lights or heard the cry of the loon more than once, you'd assume it was a wasted trip, right? Wrong. I can explain. One, my days were so well spent in the invigorating piney air, I couldn't stay awake through the protracted twilight to wait for a show of aurora borealis. Two, the resident loons must have been too content that week to let out their lugubrious cry.

Things are obviously picking up in the Kenora district on the edge of that watery wilderness, and the loons aren't the only beneficiaries. The struggling little resort town of Minaki seems headed out of a long slump, and the venerable Minaki Lodge -- closed down for seven years -- is back in business. These are not unrelated events, as a Minaki man explained one shining evening as we ate grilled walleye on the lawn of the lodge.

Minaki, barely more than a crossroads settlement about a three-hour drive east of Winnipeg, grew up around the old lodge, which itself has had a checkered career from the start. Built by Canadian National Railways in an era of castellated wilderness hotels, the Minaki burned down just before its opening in 1925. The building you approach today at the end of a long curving drive opened in 1927. It was known as the Ritz of the North, and guests came by private rail car and dined in black tie. Nothing about the construction of this splendid building, which I like to call North Woods Tudor, was modest. The logwork was done by Swedish logrollers, the stonework by Scottish masons. Timbers were cut locally, but the big struts that support the vaulted lobby came from British Columbia.

By World War II the good life had declined at Minaki Lodge. Canadian National sold out in 1955, and a series of private owners tried to keep afloat until a poisoning of the surrounding waters in the 1970s put a crimp in the tourist industry and forced the sagging lodge to close down in 1976. Then the Ontario government stepped in, funneling a massive and sometimes controversial amount of funds into a restoration project. In 1983, the hotel reopened with a new 120-room wing, the operation managed by the Radisson Hotels of Minneapolis.

All is shining and new today, as if it were 1927 again. The main lodge somehow does not reveal its true size until you are inside and looking up at the huge teepee-like rotunda, hung with five massive wrought-iron chandeliers, crisscrossed with those British Columbia struts, and studded with little fans swirling high in the rafters.

At times I found the willing young help not totally able and the food service a bit lagging, but the lodge is clearly on its feet again and so, I hope, is the summer resort business. If you can't find enough to do around the lodge, you don't belong in loon country. Although I came in a rental car from Winnipeg International (trains also serve Minaki three times a week), you hardly need wheels. People get around by outboard motor in this watery confluence of the Winnipeg River System and Lake of the Woods.

Fishing is the big lure, but there are many other ways to pass a long summer's day. Minaki Lodge has, in addition to its sporty golf course, three tennis courts, an indoor pool, a lot of sandy lakefront, canoeing, windsurfing. Or you can hop in an outboard, with or without a guide, and get the lay of the lake.

Minaki Lodge is by no means the only place to stay. Some fishing camps and small resorts are set amid the pines and white birches beside the ever-blue water. Probably the choicest is Birch Island, a five-acre islet that puts up 24 guests in an old-fashioned elegance suggesting the between-the-wars era. You stay either in a 1920s cottage of stone and timber once used as a summer retreat by a director of the Eaton Department Store Company, or in an old restored boathouse which leans out over the water and is full of white wicker furniture. If you don't go off to fish, you can stay around the private island and canoe, water-ski, or simply sit in a gazebo and read a book.

One of the most relaxed fishing camps in the area is the Sunset Inn, a rambling white frame lake cottage with blue trim that sits on a piney point just across the water from Minaki. You can rent the 6-bedroom house for about $600 a week and use the whole resort.

One hears about the mysterious cry of the loon at dusk, and so I made a point of waiting and listening for the event. Dusk of course takes its sweet time in the northland. I sat on the lawn of the lodge after dinner, slapping mosquitoes and watching the sky turn pink and then orange. When I finally turned in at 10:30, it was still light -- and not a peep. Of course I missed the northern lights. In the morning I went for a jog on the one-mile, wood-chip trail around the golf course when suddenly I heard the unmistakable, whooping cry. Then silence. And no encore. All the more reason to go back someday soon to the Ritz of the North. Practical Information:

For more information on Minaki Lodge call (807) 224-4000 or contact the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, Queen's Park, Toronto, Canada, 2E5 or call (416) 965-4354.

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