The Wilds of Wisconsin

The Wilds of Wisconsin

Ericka McConnell
Ericka McConnell
At three lakeside lodges in the heart of the Midwest, the spirit of the grand old American resorts of the 1920's is alive and well.

To those who know it, the northwestern corner of Wisconsin is the kind of uncorrupted slice of America that's fast becoming hard to find. Just a couple of hours' drive from Minneapolis-St. Paul, it's a place of silent pine forests and crystal-clear lakes; of tidy white farmhouses and towering grain silos; of empty, perfectly straight roads that extend to the horizon. There's wildlife everywhere you look—bald eagles hovering in the sky, deer darting in and out of foliage, loons that rouse you in the morning with their haunting calls. When I was a child, my family spent two weeks up here each summer, pitching tents by the shore of a lake. This they still do, but in the years since, I've become more accustomed to creature comforts. On a recent visit I discovered some charming—and even luxurious—accommodations that bring the countryside to your doorstep without forcing you to heed the call of the wild.

Over the past 20 years, Wisconsin has seenthe gradual demise of its old resorts—early-20th-century lakeside retreats, many of them modeled after the "camps" of New York's Adirondacks—which have been carved up and sold off to vacation-home buyers from the Twin Cities. For the most part, this has been a sad development for visitors, who can no longer experience some of the state's most historic properties. Happily, Spider Lake Lodge, set on the edge of one of the area's prettiest lakes, turns the trend on its head.

When Minneapolis decorators Jim Kerkow and Craig Mason bought the lodge in 2001, hoping to transform it into a vehicle for potential clients to experience their work, the place was a long way from its glory days as the central meeting and dining area of Moody's Camp. The 14 surrounding cabins had all been sold to individual buyers in the 1980's, and the 1923 main lodge, which was limping along as a B&B, had fallen into disrepair.

Kerkow and Mason specialize in the "lodge look," and their triumphant restoration of Spider Lake shows off their amusing and urbane take on the style: mounted moose heads, antler chandeliers, and Hudson Bay blankets mingle with oversized nailhead leather club chairs, ropy-fringed sofas, and throw pillows in velvet and satin. Each of the seven guest rooms is done differently: The best, Moody's, has a lake-facing balcony and a fishing-camp theme; I also loved the Bear's Den, a cheeky homage to the Canadian Mountie (bearskin rug included) and definitely the most homoerotic room I've slept in, ever. None are especially large (two have private bathrooms directly across a hall), but all are comfortable. Whichever you choose, get ready for 101 Ways with Birchbark, fashioned here into night-lights, picture frames, switch plates—you name it.

For a B&B, Spider Lake feels a lot like a full-service resort. There's canoeing, fishing, and swimming in summer, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter. You can book an outdoor massage, or sweat it out in the new dry sauna, opening this month. A wide selection of books is on offer for reading in front of the fieldstone fireplaces or on the screened porch. And although Kerkow, Mason, and the staff don't impinge on your space, if you want something—a cup of tea, a snack, a brandy before bed—they're at the ready. About the only thing the lodge doesn't have is a restaurant, though that's no problem, since you can find some good ones not far off. And did I mention that the most expensive room costs $179 a night?
Hayward; 800/653-9472 or 715/462-3793;; doubles from $139.

One of the things that I most wanted to do in the vacationland of my youth this time around was try out Canoe Bay. Since its opening in 1993, I had been reading rave after rave about the property, the only Relais & Châteaux hotel in the Midwest. Most reviewers touted similar things: the beauty and tranquillity of the setting, the high level of comfort, the incredible attention to detail. Could this really exist in such an out-of-the-way spot?

Having finally spent a few nights at Canoe Bay, I can report that most of what I'd heard is true. A collection of cedar buildings, many of them constructed as a summer camp for Midwestern Seventh-Day Adventists in the 1960's, the property retains a vaguely barracks-like feel but occupies an unbeatable location, on a nearly private and undeveloped 50-acre lake surrounded by forest. There are few places so quiet, even up here, and that pays off in long hikes, easy canoe rides on the lake, and lazy mornings on your terrace.

With the possible exception of the American Club in Kohler, Canoe Bay is probably the most luxurious resort in Wisconsin. Rooms are done in nubby chenilles and lots of beige, with overstuffed sofas and Arts and Crafts-inspired furniture—a friendly, Pottery Barn kind of aesthetic—and they're easy to spend time in, offering plenty of space, gas fireplaces, and duvet-swaddled beds you can really sink into. Predictably, the newer and pricier rooms are the best: I recommend cottages over rooms (among the first tier of cottages, book one of the Dream variety), and especially the enormous, secluded, and expensive Frank Lloyd Wright-style Rattenbury Cottage.

When I checked into Canoe Bay, I was told, "We have everything all planned out for you," and, indeed, there's something wonderful about theway that, say, a breakfast basket seems to magically appear on your doorstep each morning. Staying at Canoe Bay is, in fact, a highly choreographed experience, and you'd better like the way the dance is supposed to go. Dinner is between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and consists of a single fixed menu. You can borrow CD's (no more than two at a time, please) and movies (three at a time). Breakfast arrives at 8, 8:30, or 9 (make your choice the day before), during which you indicate whether you'd like a picnic lunch (delivered at 12:30), the level of housekeeping you desire that day (from none to tidying and turndown), and if you want an afternoon cheese plate. Can't predict just yet?Try, because if you're in the mood for something at an off-hour—a glass of wine, for instance—it's difficult or impossible to get, especially after 4 p.m., when the main office closes and no staffers are to be found. (Most rooms do not have mini-bars.) And if you, like one guest I met, are suddenly struck with the urge for a martini and a cigar, forget about it: they don't serve hard liquor at Canoe Bay, and there's definitely no smoking. (Violators of this policy have been asked to leave.)

All this means that if you're someone who thinks several hundred dollars a night should buy you what you want, how and when you want it, this may not be the place for you. Ultimately, Canoe Bay is designed to allow those in search of relaxation and privacy the chance to be left alone. As the property's legions of fans can attest, that is one promise on which it really delivers.
Chetek; 715/924-4594;; doubles from $310.

If I didn't know how difficult it is to make money in the hotel business, I'd try to persuade Dan and Beth Graf to sell me Seven Pines, a 1903 Adirondack-style fishing camp set above a spring-fed trout stream in thestand of towering evergreens for which the lodge is named. I'd ratchet up the luxury quotient, redo some rooms in high Ralph Lauren style, and market it to those who like to do a little fly-fishing on their weekends in the country.

For the moment, though, I'm content to let Dan and Beth live out their own dream here. The young couple took over the property last year, and they plan to gradually improve the place while retaining its charm.

And boy is Seven Pines charming. Built as a private retreat by a Minneapolis grain broker named Charles Lewis, the lodge has remained largely intact over the past 100 years. Miraculously, the main building still has its creaky split-log staircase, original Frank Lloyd Wright fireplace, wide-plank floors, stained-glass windows, and exposed log walls that show off the intricate wooden pegs and dovetail joints crafted by two Norwegians who came in to work each day on skis. Their skis—along with Stickley-style furniture, a stuffed bison head given to Lewis by Teddy Roosevelt, and loads of old snowshoes, fishing creels, ice skates, and picnic baskets—are among the original 19th- and early-20th-century American furnishings that give Seven Pines its authentic feel.

Of the 12 guest rooms scattered among several buildings, only the five in the main lodge, as well as the Gatehouse Cabin, really convey this connection to the past. They're the ones to get. Best is the President's Room(named in honor of Calvin Coolidge, who stayed here in 1928), which has antique Mission furniture, photographs of "Cal," a terrace overlooking the stream, and a great old claw-foot bathtub. (The Royal Coachman, which has its own screened porch, is a good second bet, as long as you're comfortable sharing a toilet across the hall.) This is not a luxury hotel: the sheets and towels are well used, the upholstery worn and linen curtains yellowed, and hot water can take a few minutes to arrive in the morning. I found it all very shabby chic, but some would call this close to roughing it.

Once you get into the ethos of Seven Pines, it's easy to succumb to its rhythms. Spend the early evening fly-fishing with the lodge's excellent guide, Dan Brown; then amble into the bar for a gin and tonic before a languorous dinner on the screened porch overlooking the water: Al Jolson is playing on the stereo, an oil lamp is burning at your table, and there's fresh rainbow trout to eat. New chef Jorge Rosario was still finding his footing on my visit, but the evening was so idyllic that I didn't care. Morning brings orange juice served in Mason jars, hot pancakes with thick slab bacon, and the soft light of the sun peeking through the trees. What a way to wake up.
Frederic; 715/653-2323;; doubles from $125.

Not far from Spider Lake Lodge is a place to eat that's so unusual it's worth a trip. I will not begin to unravel for you exactly how a prominent Turkish family ended up opening a restaurant in this remote corner of Wisconsin. Suffice it to say that to dine at Turk's Inn is to step into a dizzying Orientalist fantasy straight out of the 1950's—gloriously florid and featuring a prodigious use of white vinyl—made touching by the addition of family photographs and an eclectic array of kitschy memorabilia. The menu, like the room, is a time capsule, and everything on it is delicious; my favorite dish is the lamb kebabs, which Marge, the tiny proprietor, wheels out from the kitchen on a cart and removes from three-foot skewers. It's a sight you won't soon forget. 11320 N. U.S. Hwy. 63, Hayward; 715/634-2597; dinner for two $60.

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