My fiancé and I booked a quick overnight trip to Canoe Bay because it sounded relaxing. We didn’t know how much we needed it until we arrived.
After a hectic morning spent answering urgent client e-mails, helping a child pack for an overnight camp, and barely delivering that child on time to the bus, I threw my bag in the car and we made the two-hour drive to Chetek, Wisconsin. The stress finally began to fade as we drove up the private tree-lined road toward the reception building and stepped out of the car to the sounds of the soothing waterfall at the front door.
We were greeted warmly, told our room was ready even though we were early, offered a lunch menu, and assured our order would be delivered within a half-hour. A worker driving a golf cart led us to Lookout, a duplex cabin on a hill. As we got settled, we watched a canoe gliding across the calm bay through the picture window and checked out the deck, which faced a forest of pine and maple, oak and aspen. A gentle, constant breeze made the treetops sway, and we made a plan to sip wine in the spot later in the day.
The frozen lake at sunrise
Lunch arrived as promised. Shortly after, hotel owner Lisa Dobrowolski stopped by to take us on a tour. She and her husband, Dan, purchased the property in 1992. Dan’s father grew up in the area, so he remembers his father and grandfather taking him fishing on the lake when he was a child. The farmer who owned the land sold it to his church in 1964. Not long after, the church turned it into a summer camp, which operated until 1979 and then was essentially abandoned.
One of the naturally elegant rooms
The Dobrowolskis bought it in 1992 and transformed Canoe Bay into a retreat for couples who want to be left alone, together. The mess hall that fed 200 campers a day now boasts an elegant dining room perched above the lake. Dotted with an inn, a library, and private cottages, the resort is designed for romance. Cabins are situated to avoid proximity to neighbors. Every room has a fireplace, a double whirlpool (some also have a double shower), plus really excellent bedding that invites you to linger between the sheets. No children are allowed.
A Whirpool Romance
When they opened in 1993, the Dobrowolskis weren’t sure what type of experience they wanted to offer. Their focus emerged one weekend, when they hosted a large family group with lots of kids and lots of activity.
To see all ages in action made Lisa think through everything from design to liability. “Materials need to be indestructible, and fabrics and carpet need to be stain-proof. Also, there was the lake and the fear that a small child might wander there,” she says. They decided to focus on adults and, as newlyweds themselves, on romance.
That meant boosting privacy and adding opportunities for relaxation. “It was the ’90s, and whirlpools were all the rage,” Lisa says with a laugh, “so we added them in every room.” They renovated first the lodge and then one cottage at a time, learning and adding as they went. They incorporated their interest in architecture, art, books, and the environment. They bought works from local artists and potters. They planted a garden and an old orchard to provide fresh, organic produce for the kitchen. They created a prairie restoration area near the lake. And they hired well-known architect John Rattenbury, who apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, to situate and design cottages for them, emphasizing natural materials and efficient use of space and light.
In 1997, they received their first star rating. In 1998, they were invited to join the Relais & Chateaux association, which regularly inspects resorts to ensure they’re meeting standards of excellence. During our tour, Lisa embodied the push for perfection. She reflexively straightened and smoothed linens in every accommodation we entered. She spotted a tiny cobweb and dusted it away. She stopped a maintenance man to tell him a creaky door needed oil and that she’d spotted a wasp and wanted him to make sure no nest was near a cabin.