Detroit Lakes: Discover Minnesota’s Mini-Mecca

(Story previously published in Winnipeg Free Press)

With the Canadian dollar at an all-time high, Manitobans love flocking to North Dakota for cross-border shopping. While bargains due south are worth the drive, the best kept shopping secret is one state to the east.

Minnesota offers all the amenities weekend shoppers seeks – malls, boutiques, and big-box stores. Four hours southeast of Winnipeg, Detroit Lakes has a population under 8,000. It may be little, but boasts everything a larger center has to offer, while maintaining small town hospitality.


Nature lovers will want to visit during Victoria Day weekend, when the 14th annual Festival of Birds celebrates the spring migration of more than 250 species of feathered friends. Many are returning home after wintering in the Gulf of Mexico. Bring your walking shoes and binoculars for embarking on various field trips.

During the first weekend in June, Street Faire features six blocks of art, music, entertainment and cuisine. It’s the first big outdoor event of the summer, with 125 juried artists displaying their paintings, pottery, sculptures and art along Washington Avenue. Musicians stroll the sidewalks and bands perform from the main stage, with classic folk and bluegrass sounds filling the air.

The last weekend in July is the annual event known as Arts & Crafts In The Park. More than 100 booths are set up under the shady trees, loaded with all sorts of treasures from jewellery and pottery to furniture and fabric goods. Mouth-watering festival fare includes corndogs, mini donuts, tacos, cheese curds, and hot roasted kettle corn.

Country music fans have most likely heard of WE Fest, taking place at Soo Pass Ranch just outside of Detroit Lakes. It’s the largest outdoor country music festival and campout in the Midwest, and it happens during the August long weekend. This year’s event features Sugarland, Brad Paisley and Rascal Flatts.


The Lodge on Lake Detroit is a must-stay on any trip to the region. The lakefront hotel and spa opened on Big Detroit Lake in May 2006. Earlier this year, it was awarded Explore Minnesota’s Sustainable Tourism Award in recognition of environmentally friendly practices.

All 55 of the lodge’s guestrooms and suites are lakefront, each one finished with thoughtful detail like its own piece of unique mosaic artwork positioned under a spotlight, depicting the sunset over Big Detroit Lake using tiny glass tiles. Free amenities include in-room coffee, daily hot breakfast bar, 24-hour fitness centre, wireless high speed internet, and local phone calls. They also offer consecutive night deals, jazz concerts, ‘murder mystery’ stays, wine-tasting weekends, girls’ getaways, and other special packages.

Sunset truly is a magical experience at the lodge, and the best time to relax with a glass of organic wine in the fireside lobby while listening to the grand piano serenade. Reflect on the day from your private balcony, or from the aromatherapy whirlpool in your spacious renewal spa suite. For a nostalgic activity under the stars, request a ‘smores’ making kit from the front desk, spark up a lakeside fire, and treat yourself to decadent dark chocolate and gooey marshmallows melted between graham crackers.

Be sure to pamper yourself at The Spa Within. The experience begins in the change room, where spa guests are treated to steam showers and organic lotions before slipping into cozy robes and comfy slippers for unwinding in the relaxation room. Enjoy a beverage while indulging in a variety of treatments for men and women. We chose his-and-her pedicures before returning upstairs for the ultimate in rejuvenation – the in-room couples’ massage complete with crackling fireplace and soothing spa music.


You’ll find bargains galore in the downtown district of Detroit Lakes. Washington Avenue is a short but sweet street, lined with department stores like J.C. Penney and Norby’s. Having never visited either, I was pleasantly surprised at the deals to be had, especially on runners and hiking boots.

Lakes Sport Shop has a great selection of sporting attire, including the funkiest Nike golf shoes I’d ever laid eyes on. They were plaid and black with white soles, and built-in spikes. As luck would have it, they had one pair left – in my exact size.

If you like ‘big-box’ stores like Payless Shoes and K-Mart, then Highway 10 West is your playground. At the Wal-Mart Supercentre, we loaded our cart with unbelievably low-priced goods we had no intention of buying in the first place. For the first time in my life, I understood the lure of cross-border shopping.


If you like great food, then Detroit Lakes will impress. For a meal with a view, the Fireside offers fine dining on the shores of Lake Detroit. This area icon serves up classic and inventive fare, much of it cooked on the open-air charcoal grill stationed in the middle of the restaurant.

There are more than 200 bottles of wine to choose from, many of which are from the region. We enjoyed the complimentary cheese and pickle tray to start, and thought the ‘from scratch’ clam chowder soup was delicious.

The best dining experience of all was an unassuming place called El Metate. We heard they had Mexican food, so we decided to try it out. What we didn’t know what that it’s actually owned and operated by transplanted Mexicans who came to Minnesota to find work, and ended up opening their own restaurant. While our server admitted the location was a little “too cold” for his liking, he did enjoy the affordable lifestyle in one of America’s northern-most states.

The food at El Metate was absolutely authentic and as tasty as Mexican cuisine gets. The tortilla chips were homemade, the salsa had just the right kick, and the guacamole was to die for. Of course we ate too many chips, and by the time our sizzling fajitas arrived we were too full to eat. We left with a doggie bag large enough to enjoy a second meal the next day.

El Metate also makes the best Bloody Caesars south of the border – and they didn’t even ask for a list of ingredients. They knew exactly how to make them, with just the right amount of spiciness, and extra lime. So the next time you find yourself craving real Mexican food combined with Canada’s favourite cocktail, take a four-hour drive to Minnesota. It’s definitely worth the trip.

HOW TO GET THERE:  Depart Winnipeg by driving south on Lagimodiere Boulevard – which turns into Highway 59 – and keep on going. Cross over the Canada-US border just south of the Manitoba town of Tolstoi, and north of the Minnesota town of Lancaster. Continue following Highway 59 south and east, through Thief River Falls, all the way to Detroit Lakes. The drive is just over 400 kilometers from Winnipeg. 

TAXES YOU PAY:  Minnesota state sales tax is 6.875% – BUT the state does not charge sales tax on clothing. For adults or kids, clothing purchases are tax-free. 

ALLOWABLE SHOPPING:  The amount of duty-free goods each person can bring back to Canada depends on how long you’ve been away. For a 24-hour trip, the personal exemption amount is $50 Canadian. For a 48-hour trip, you can bring back $400 Canadian. A 7-day trip will allow up to $750 Canadian.