Photos courtesy of Canoe Bay/Steve Niedorf
Suite Life: Every room has a fireplace, a double whirlpool, and the kind of luxurious bedding that invites you to linger.
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.
Having a stickler for detail in charge means guests don’t have to worry about a thing. Your comfort and happiness are all that matter here. You can order an in-room massage from a pre-vetted masseuse. You can sign up for a romantic sleigh ride. You can go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on private trails just outside your door. Or you can visit the library, borrow a book, and get lost in reading in a cozy second-floor nook.
We were there during the summer, so we borrowed a canoe from the boathouse and paddled the bay, stalking a loon who preened, dove, and then floated in front of us for a good 10 minutes. Then we relaxed on the beach, took a short hike, and explored the amazing garden with its rows of raised vegetable and flower beds. Lisa had told us it’s “a world within a world,” and she was right. We spotted a deer eyeing an apple tree from the other side of the fence, so we picked up a fallen apple and tossed it over. The deer ran, but we suspect it returned later for the treat.
The main event for us was the food. Breakfast and lunch arrive at your doorstep in a wooden box with handles—hot muffins or breads and fruit in the morning (included) and whatever you order for lunch (an à la carte charge).
Dinner is served in the inn’s main dining room, or you can reserve a chef-side table or the wine cellar table. We opted for the wine cellar option and were led to a table for two in a room housing thousands of beautiful bottles. Naturally, we chose to have the wine pairing with our meal, which included chef’s-choice extras.
We enjoyed the chef’s sense of fun and imagination. Our amuse-bouche was a frothy, pink, carbonated fruit shooter blended from cantaloupe, watermelon, and berries plucked from the garden. The salad was equally fresh—lettuces and beets we’d seen on our walk earlier in the day. There were Angus short ribs, then sea bass, served with more garden vegetables and herbs. Dessert arrived, vanilla pound cake with fresh strawberries, Chantilly whipped cream, and garden mint. And then, for good measure, we were served an almond-caramel tartlet, which we took to go because we couldn’t eat another bite.
Something To Celebrate
A peek inside the notebooks left in the rooms for guest comments shows that many couples come to the property to celebrate special occasions, especially anniversaries, from a first to a 50th.
“We dropped our kids off at the in-laws and came for the celebration of our 10th anniversary,” wrote one guest from Kansas. “Canoe Bay has been such a gift—we have relished every peaceful moment.” “Here to celebrate our 35th anniversary,” wrote another. “My husband kept it a surprise . . . Wow!”
One reason Canoe Bay is a special occasion destination is the splurge factor. Overnight costs range from $250 for a room at the lodge to $999 for the most expensive cottage. Dinner is $75 a night per person in the dining room, with a $70 fee for wine pairing, plus higher costs to sit at the chef’s table or in the wine cellar.
But there’s no denying the quality of the experience—the rare feeling of having needs anticipated and met, the service without stuffiness, the low-key elegance. Many guests wrote about the excellent food and amazing garden. Others found rejuvenation hiking the trails and spotting wildlife. The quiet of the woods and the calm of the bay allow for an expanse of attention, a chance to focus on the person you’re with.
Lisa Dobrowolski says she’s heard more than once how very improbable it seems that a romantic oasis exists in tiny Chetek, Wisconsin. She responds, smiling, with something her husband likes to say. He says Canoe Bay is proof that God exists. It certainly is heavenly. 715-924-4594, canoebay.com
Canoe Bay may be the ultimate quick romantic getaway, but you can have a mini-retreat with your sweetie even closer to home. Most of the finer hotels in town offer “romance packages” that include some combo of champagne, strawberries, roses, or spa services. But only The Saint Paul Hotel (651-292-9292, saintpaulhotel.com) was named one of Travel + Leisure Magazine’s 2014 top 500 hotels in the world for its world-class service, beautiful views, and opulent décor. There are three levels of romance to choose from here—the ultimate includes tuxedo strawberries, champagne, fresh flowers, bathrobes to keep, dinner, breakfast, and late check-out. An easier room to get is at the new Radisson Blu MOA (952-881-5258, radissonblu.com). “A mall hotel?” you ask. Yes, it’s attached to the mall, but this blue-and-white oasis from the din is all about luxury. To prove it, they’ve added a wine lover’s package that includes a bottle of Silver Oak cabernet.