Sunday, October 10, 2004

Canoe Bay among Midwest's
best little resorts

By Betsa Marsh
Enquirer contributor

Canoe Bay: Hogback Road, Chetek, Wis. (800) 568-1995; Rooms start at $290.

Splurge: The new Edgewood cottage, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's student John Rattenbury of Taliesin Architects, is the dream home of Canoe Bay, with a floor-to-ceiling view of the prairie and lake and a wrap-around deck that takes you into the wildflowers. Two couples can share the home, with its sitting room, kitchen and dining room. Both bedrooms have larger-than-king beds, topped with Egyptian cotton linens custom-made in London. The house is $1,500-$1,700 a night.

After a few days at Canoe Bay, it seems that travel rating systems should add another judging criterion to the mix. I'd like to suggest points for sheer improbability, with extra credit for sentiment.

If so, Canoe Bay would sweep the competition. What other forlorn church camp has been reimagined it into a luxury resort?

Dan Dobrowolski, a Chicago broadcaster, was drawn to the faded waterside buildings by memories of boyhood trips to the Wisconsin woods to visit his grandfather and fish in Lake Wahdoon. Stanley Dobrowolski had emigrated from East Prussia to buy 80 acres in the North Woods next door to what is now Canoe Bay, and with his wife he reared 11 children outside the hamlet of Chetek.

This is farm and fish country, with prosperous dairy and beef operations and dozens of lakes and bait shops. So how would Canoe Bay's new owners convince anyone to drive six hours from Chicago, or even 21/2 from Minneapolis to their place on Hogback Road?

Each year, the convincing became easier, especially once Paris' Relais & Chateaux invited Canoe Bay into the fold. Canoe Bay is the Midwest's only member of the prestigious global network of 450 small, independent luxury inns and gourmet restaurants.

For 2004, Wine Spectator magazine bestowed its Award of Excellence on Dan's 10,000-bottle cellar, and Exxon Mobil Travel Guides granted the resort four of its coveted stars.

Canoe Bay, a name the Dan and his wife Lisa spotted on an old map, does have an out-of-time, out-of-space disconnect to it. Once you're down that half-mile private lane, waking to a loon call, paddling a kayak, sinking into a library sofa or eating Yukon River salmon flown in from Alaska, the world of DayRunners and deadlines fades fast.

"After two or three days, people start to look different," Dan said. "Our raison d'etre is bringing peace to people's lives."

And what price peace? With a starting point of $290 for a fireplace room up to $1,700 a night for the Edgewood cottage, Canoe Bay is an investment in privacy and serenity. But because this is the Midwest, the seclusion is less expensive than its posh equals on either coast.

The price includes a fresh-baked continental breakfast delivered to your door in a little wooden carrier built by Mennonites. Scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese are tucked inside a heavy earthenware dish and cover that were thrown by Willem Gebben in his nearby pottery. The organic eggs are probably from Sweetland Farm, and the 3-year-old cheddar likely is from Green Pastures Dairy.

At Canoe Bay, service is designed to be efficient and largely invisible. Like high school kids, we communicate by notes: When would we like breakfast? Do we want snacks or ice? How about a picnic? We leave our answers by the door and supplies and services magically appear, as if we're in luxe quarantine.

This level of privacy is perfect for honeymooners and anniversary couples - anyone with a romantic pulse beating somewhere under the frenzied tattoo of modern life.

The wildlife seems to pick up the andante rhythm, too. One evening, at our little table for two with the lake view, we enjoy a morel mushroom tart and Alaskan halibut with lobster risotto, accompanied by sips of Domaine Font De Michelle and followed by a warm cinnamon-scented chocolate cake with local cherry ice cream.

So it seems only fair for one of the resident deer to be chomping away on the hedge outside the inn as we leave. She barely pauses to look up at us, clearly unthreatened.

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