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Luxury yacht provides new affordable way to experience Gull Lake

The captain's open bridge area lets passengers view the electronics involved in piloting the North Star. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch.2 / 9
Destiny Cruises co-owners Reid Porter (left) and Jerry Johnson, along with Liz Diedrich, were hands-on during recent cruises on Gull Lakes as the luxury yacht settles into its first summer. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch.3 / 9
Passengers prepare to embark on early evening cruise of Gull Lake aboard Destiny Cruises $1.8 million North Star yacht from the dock by Ernie's on Gull in East Gull Lake. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch4 / 9
Liz Diedrich, Destiny Cruises co-president, said she thought concept for a luxury yacht was a great opportunity and put a deal together with her two business partners. 5 / 9
An LED light system gives the Destiny Cruises North Star yacht a signature look after dark. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch6 / 9
The glass-enclosed main deck handles 70 guess for a seated dinner. The upper deck patio can seat 36. The cruise company reports there are three flat screen TVs and a projector with screen to watch sporting events and presentations. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch7 / 9
An enclosed main deck provides a dining cabin and view of Gull Lake protected from the elements. Renee Richardson/Brainerd Dispatch.8 / 9
Cruises offer a view of Gull Lake from the water, including a lakeside look at luxury homes and historic resorts. 9 / 9

EAST GULL LAKE - Lit up for the Fourth of July this week, Destiny Cruises' North Star yacht is giving residents and visitors alike another way to experience summer in the lakes area.

Liz Diedrich, owner of Twin Cities-based research and marketing firm Diedrich RPM, first looked into the idea of a luxury motor yacht while putting together research for a client.

After all, the boats are a familiar sight on Lake Minnetonka. But that isn't where Diedrich wanted to be. Looking at population numbers of residents both year-round, seasonal and tourists, Diedrich said Gull Lake came up as a great opportunity.

"So I got interested myself," Diedrich said. She put together a business plan and with partners Jerry Johnson and Reid Porter.

Their creation, Destiny Cruises, brought the North Star yacht to its port of call at Ernie's on Gull dock in East Gull Lake.

Getting the $1.8 million vessel to Gull Lake from its manufacturer at SkipperLiner in La Crosse, Wis., was challenged by a long winter and longer lasting road restrictions. The 65-foot-long yacht weighs 73 tons.

Getting the yacht to Gull Lake proved to be a bigger task than they imagined. Even as they started the open water season later than they expected, the partners expressed confidence about a long-term future on Gull Lake. They were hands-on owners at recent inaugural cruises. Diedrich said they sold 30 percent of their charters before the yacht's first cruise in June.

Gull Lake, which stretches across Cass and Crow Wing counties, covers 15.54 square miles and is nearly 15 miles long. It is home to a majority of the lakes area's large legacy resorts.

"The resorts have been terrific," Diedrich said, along with Ernie's restaurant and marina and the community. "People have gone out of their way to help us. It's been amazing to see. It's a great community."

Diedrich has experience in the industry. She was director of marketing for a cruise line in Florida. But Gull Lake has a specific significance for her.

"I met my husband on this lake 22 years ago," she said.

Bringing the business venture here seemed destined to happen.

The business plan is for two-thirds of the North Star's cruises to be charter events. On a recent cruise, a young couple was getting an up-close look at the yacht their wedding party and guests will enjoy in August. Another charter is for an 80th birthday party for a group out of Texas.

Besides the charters, there are public cruises with catered meals for morning, afternoon, evening and night cruises on the lake. The vessel's capacity is 120 passengers plus the crew of three.

A top deck provides an elevated and expansive lake view, bar area and open air seating. The upper deck includes the captain's station and room for seating 36, although it has capacity for more passengers who may want to comfortably catch the view standing at the rail. In the glass-enclosed seating area on the main deck, there is room for 70 guests, a bar, a buffet serving area, galley - and roomy restroom. With a beam of 22 feet the yacht has a cruising speed of 10 to 12 knots.

In addition to the charters, the owners said they wanted to have the public two-hour cruises to provide a lake experience everyone could afford. The morning brunch and sunset/moonlight cruises are available for adults at about $25 with children age 5-12 about $20 and youngsters age 4 and younger are free. The lunch cruise is nearly $30 for adults, children at $20 and the dinner cruise is nearly $56 for adults with children about $25.

Wedding packages range from $69 to $165 per person. With the yacht's sound system, private charters are able to bring their own song selections or even a live band or disc jockey.

Other two-hour private cruises need a minimum of 20 adults and have a charter fee of $1,800. An online calendar lets potential passengers know which dates are available for booking. Three flat-screen TVs and a projector with screen mean passengers on either deck have the ability to watch sporting events while on the water or special presentations.

Johnson was making a mental list of things to tweak after one of the inaugural cruises. While he thinks they prepared and did most things right, Johnson said they are looking at ways to make the experience even better.

"To make sure we get better, we'll be out here a lot," he said. "We want to make sure it's special."

Diedrich said it was Johnson's genius that led to a lighting scheme that was the first of its kind.

The North Star is the first Coast Guard-certified vessel with underwater lighting in the nation.

The boat has LED lights throughout, allowing it to create the mood, such as the red, white and blue lights for the Fourth of July.

Johnson said there was never a thought of putting the vessel in the Twin Cities.

"We wanted to be somewhere we are unique, especially being new," he said.

Johnson was familiar with Gull Lake from golfing excursions but had not been on the water much before the business venture.

"It's a great lake for this," Johnson said.

Deidrich said she has always thought of the Brainerd lakes area as the Orlando of Minnesota and she wants the North Star to be one more great amenity here.

Passenger Gene Haverkamp noted number of residents, perhaps more than people realize, work and live in the lakes area but rarely get a chance to get out on the water, particularly Gull Lake, unless they know a resident or are staying at one of the resorts. Destiny Cruises, Haverkamp said, gives the lakes area a way to enjoy the natural beauty from the water, a perspective they may not have had the opportunity to enjoy.

Passenger Renae Peterson liked the boat's size, which was bigger than she expected.

"I love it that the upstairs deck is so accessible even if the weather is marginal," Peterson said. "We just don't have anything like this here."

The North Star will be open for public cruises through mid-October.

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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