Chetek's stunningly relaxing Canoe Bay offers the highest end retreat
If you've never heard of the ultra-luxurious Canoe Bay resort, don't feel too badly. The one-of-a-kind getaway in Chetek, about 300 miles northwest of Milwaukee, doesn't do much marketing to our area -- its Web site, in fact, only lists driving distances from Eau Claire, Chicago and Minneapolis.
But let me spill the secret of Canoe Bay: if you have the means -- and you'll need to, since it's extremely upscale and very expensive -- you won't regret a weekend getaway in this most private and secluded of properties. For a honeymoon, big anniversary or lavish escape, you can't do much better anywhere in Wisconsin.
For those who know what a "Relais & Chateau" property is, that will probably be enough to paint a picture of Canoe Bay, about an hour north of Eau Claire. For those who don't, it's an extremely rare designation among privately-owned hotels, and Canoe Bay is the only one that holds it in the entire Midwest.
Obviously, I don't have the means to spend a weekend at a resort in which the private cottages cost more than $800 per night, and dinners are "prix fixe" at $75 per person. But when the resort's PR liaison invited my wife and me to spend two nights at Canoe Bay, I reminded her (as I do with all similar offers) that a hosted junket doesn't buy favorable editorial coverage. It turns out they didn't have much to worry about. In many ways, Canoe Bay is the most luxurious property I've ever visited.
Relaxation is the name of the game at this resort, which is a converted church retreat. Activities don't exactly abound: other than feasting on world-class dinners and breakfasts, you can canoe, swim, fish or kayak on the resort's lake. You can arrange for a massage. You can work out in your own private fitness room or at the lodge's small facility, and you can hike some easy trails. And that's it.
Which, amazingly, is more than enough.
The couple who owns Canoe Bay has gone through extraordinary measures to convert the 280-acre property into a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired haven of peace and quiet. "Inspired," however, is the key word. Even by commissioning an architect from Taliesen West, the feel throughout is more "upscale lodge" with Mission-style touches everywhere. Sharp angles, uses of native stone and Prairie Style furniture everywhere help with the Usonian feel, but don't expect to stay in a little corner of Taliesen. The design aesthetic here is clean and perfectly executed, however -- modern, spotless and perfect to the tiniest detail. (Admittedly, we didn't see the Rattenbury Cottage, which was created by a student of Wright's, but if it's anything like the rest of the property, it's clearly stunning, too.)
We stayed in one of the two Lakeside Cottages, our own spacious house with two fireplaces, an expansive view of Lake Wahdoon, a steam shower, sauna, whirlpool and elliptical machine. The bedroom houses a gigantic "Emperor" bed -- six square feet larger than king-size and apparently the biggest in the hotel industry. With indirect lighting emanating from the angular soffits and stone walls carved from locally quarried dolomite, calling it a cottage does it a bit of a disservice. Between its white oak furniture, unique cantilevered deck and built-in spa, a couple could live comfortably in this structure year round.
Across the resort is the lodge, an A-Frame library with hundreds of books and yet another spot in which to relax. Without phones in the room, and admittedly spotty cell phone reception on the entire resort, the lodge is the only place with wi-fi, should one feel a dire need to connect back to the world.
Overall, the property has six suites and 15 cottages spread out among three lakes and specially-planted native foliage. You won't find any kids or dogs here, either. This is an adult-only, couples' retreat that doesn't allow smoking anywhere on the premises. It's not at all surprising that Canoe Bay is regularly named one of the most romantic hotels in the country.
The real story at Canoe Bay, however, is the food. They'll make you a picnic lunch if you want, but dinners and breakfasts set this resort apart from everywhere else; lunch is a nice time to venture out to Chetek or 30 minutes to the north to Rice Lake.
At Canoe Bay's private restaurant, you'll find the multi-course meals are beautifully though out, organically and locally sourced, and ripe with quality that's actually noticeable. Our first night, we dined on wild rice cod cakes with lime aioli and cilantro, spring asparagus soup and pan-seared Alaskan halibut with saffron couscous. I'm not a big fish guy, so I substituted for potato gnocchi with fresh vegetables. Of course, between courses, we cleansed our palates with honeydew and thyme sorbet.
Dessert was a playful "carrot cake tasting," consisting of carrot sorbet, spice cake and cream cheese mousse. The servers chose a nice bottle of somewhat rare Peccorino wine to accompany our meal; the resort's expansive cellar houses hundreds of bottles, and for super-special occasions, one can actually dine inside it.
Breakfasts are a special part of the experience, too. At a pre-picked time (we went with 9 a.m. to accommodate our 11 hours of sleep; yes, we were that relaxed), someone from the small staff brings guests a picnic basket of fresh food right to the cottage door. Side note: the staff really works all aspects of the resort, from the front desk to the private dining room. That means that they are an integral part of the experience; polite and gracious and in touch with their guests' needs.
Both mornings, we enjoyed omelets with aged cheddar, their signature baked oatmeal, bakery, fresh fruit, coffee and orange juice. I'm a big breakfast guy, and Canoe Bay's offerings were delicious.
Amazingly, our second dinner was even better than our first. We began with a tiny cup of dense, mushroom soup, followed by a salad of Mississippi greens with berries and cave-aged Marisa cheese. The sorbet (I love that) was pineapple Riesling, which paved the way for slow-roasted beef tenderloin, gratin potatoes and asparagus in a cabernet sauce. Dessert consisted of molten chocolate cake and roasted banana ice cream, and for a final touch, the chef presented two tiny, homemade "peeps," since it was the night before Easter. All this was perfected paired with another wine chosen for us, a red blend called "Hey Mambo."
It takes a lot for me to gush endlessly about any individual experience. Friends say I'm picky and quick to find fault in just about anything. But short of the slightly -- and only slightly -- oversold Frank Lloyd Wright angle, Canoe Bay is nearly perfect: The meals were simply superb, perfectly portioned and ever so thoughtfully planned. The setting, both inside and out, is utterly idyllic; on a hike through the woods, three deer leapt past us -- I've never seen the species quite that close up. And the relaxing touches, from fresh flowers to toasty fireplaces to serene classical music popping up in unexpected places -- it made the five-hour drive to this remote hideaway eminently worthwhile.
The rooms in the lodge start at just over $300 per night, but a private cottage is the way to do it, and that goes all the way past $1,800 per night. You'll be more than delighted, however, with their "mid range" offerings like the cottage we stayed in.
Obviously, plan to spend a lot of money to make Canoe Bay a weekend reality, well upwards of $1,000 for a weekend. But do keep in mind that it's a car trip, not a plane trip, and the drive is actually quick and pleasant -- outside of Canoe Bay, you'd have to pay to fly somewhere this nice, and that's a significant expense you'll skip.
Now that I know what you get for the money, I could envision returning for the most special of occasions, as the memories of this incredibly relaxing weekend were priceless and will be conjured up for years to come. Such an experience may not be for everyone, but for those looking for the best lodging Wisconsin has to offer, well, it's hiding in tiny Chetek.
I took two friends there when I was in Chetek and we all had the hot beefs. They are the best I have had and when I return I will again have the hot beef. AMAZING.
I second Legally Blonde's recommendation. Then head across the street to the B&B later that night for a couple cold ones and a pizza.
If you're ever in Chetek again, go to "Bob's Grill". It is on the main road and has the most ridiculous Hot Beef Plate you'll ever see. The potatoes and gravy make you want to be a better man.
20 years ago, Chetek was a great little town. Now it might as well be Lake Geneva.
After your description of traveling to Bavaria to pick up your new BMW and this week's episode with the SPD, I didn't think you could possibly come across as any more self absorbed and pompous. But you've somehow managed it, and I tip my cap to you. I wonder what the people who don't "have the means" and don't know what a "Relais & Chateau" is will do for relaxation.
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