The Luxe Life



July 18, 2002 -- "Is that the same Relais & Chateaux as in Paris?" guests frequently ask Canoe Bay proprietors Dan and Lisa Dobrowolski when they call to make reservations. And who can blame them? Canoe Bay is in Chetek, Wisconsin (population 2,180), 2½ hours east of Minneapolis-St. Paul--in a county without a traffic light. The closest U.S. members of Relais & Chateaux are hundreds of miles away, in western Pennsylvania (Glendorn) and Colorado (The Home Ranch and The Little Nell).

What's singular about Canoe Bay is that it takes you far away, but isn't, in fact, that far away--even from New York City. I went out for a weekend, leaving LaGuardia Airport at 11:30 a.m. on a Friday for Minneapolis-St. Paul, and arrived at the hotel at 4 p.m.--taking the cross-country scenic route rather than the interstate, which cuts 30 minutes off the trip. Even discounting the hour time change in my favor, the travel time is not that much more than it takes to drive to The Point in upstate New York or Glendorn, both of which are much closer to New York City on my mental map of the United States than Minnesota. On the return, in the airport departure lounge, I ran into two friends who had gone to Minneapolis for the weekend to see an Asian art exhibit and who marveled at how easy the trip was.

What Canoe Bay provides is solitude with style, taste without pretension. The Dobrowolskis (Dan is a former Chicago weatherman) bought the 280-acre property in 1992--it had been a Seventh Day Adventist day camp--and the hotel, says Dan, "just evolved." Both love fine wine, honest cooking à la Chez Panisse and the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Thus the 10,000-bottle cellar is particularly deep in top Bordeaux (six vintages of Chateau Haut-Brion, 10 of Chateau Margaux); much of the food is sourced within 50 miles; and the 11 cottages, which look out on one of the property's three lakes, pay homage to the Prairie School Master. There are also seven spacious double rooms in two other buildings.

"Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities," Wright once said. Canoe Bay asks the same. In return for peace, quiet and privacy, one foregoes what have come to be regarded as resort necessities: a menu of activities, formal room service, beck-and-call staff, lots of public space. The person who will thrive at Canoe Bay likes to read, walk in the woods, paddle a canoe, relax in the room. Immunity to cabin fever is the most important quality because the room is your base. Breakfast (included in the nightly rate) and lunch ($40 per person) are delivered to the cottage (although in summer you're welcome to lunch on the restaurant patio).

The cottages are cozy, so it's not hard to stay put. The best of them, Rattenbury, is named for its designer, John Rattenbury, a Frank Lloyd Wright disciple. The interior, a long, high-ceilinged space, is paneled in clear cedar (meaning the surface has no knots in it). There's a 15-foot-high stone fireplace and chimney at one end, a cozy sleeping alcove at the other and a living area in between that could hold a small cocktail party. The other cottages have surprisingly urbane touches. In the bathroom of Lakeside is a Life Fitness 9000 elliptical trainer, a sauna and a two-person Jacuzzi with a lakeview. Four cottages have spacious stall showers with double showerheads. All the cottages have DVD players.

Service is good. Breakfast and lunch were delivered when asked for and the orders were accurate. (That's important in a hotel that has no phones in the room and is out of cellular phone range most of the time.) The staff is unfailingly polite and attentive. The slipups I experienced were small, but obvious, which was puzzling. Neither the waiter nor the sommelier refilled the wine glasses at dinner (but then the same thing just happened to me at a one-star restaurant in France, so perhaps it's a trend), and the cabin thermostat was set to "off" rather than "heat," something I learned the first morning.

During my two days, I walked around the lakes, read a book and started another, watched a raft of movies on cable (you're not that far away) and looked forward to the morning calypso provided by redheaded woodpeckers drilling dead trees on the lakeshore. My to-do list came down to one item: Remember to turn in the breakfast order at dinner the night before.

With more time I could have visited the workshop of Wendell Litwiller, a Mennonite cabinetmaker who did the dining room chairs, an homage to Scottish architect-designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh. (They can be ordered from Litwiller.) Or looked in on Hillcrest Pottery (40 minutes southwest), where Willem Gebben makes the hand-thrown and wood-fired pieces used in Canoe Bay's breakfast basket. Two hours due south is the heart of Wisconsin's cheese country and, near Dodgeville, the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed for himself on his family's ancestral farm.

Who knows? Going to Canoe Bay could make this the summer of your Wiscontent.

THE DETAILS: Accommodations are $270 to $725 a night. For reservations, call 715-924-4594 or send an E-mail. Information: the Canoe Bay Website.

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Copyright © 1993-2004 by Gary Walther. All rights reserved.