Bayfield in spring: quiet, classy, memorable

Sometimes seconds are all you need to seal a simple memory that will outlast the next box office hit.

My Guy and I were driving in the Chequamegon National Forest, near the northernmost part of Wisconsin, when we spotted a beak and tuft of white in the ditch. We did a U-turn at the next crossroad, retraced our route, then turned again.

The bird was easy to spot against the quack grass – now that we were intent upon finding it – and the creature certainly was aware of us. As our car slowed to a crawl, huge wings flapped and gained height quickly. The takeoff occurred barely a car length in front of us. It all happened in little more than a flash.

For the alert bald eagle, this was a strong and graceful flight to the safety of a treetop perch, dozens of feet above ground. We likely had interrupted its breakfast. I have seen this magnificent bird at wildlife rehab facilities, and as a soaring speck near water, but never quite like this – close, in motion, focused and determined.

One day earlier, another creature made an impact more subtly. We were preoccupied with our first tandem bike ride, on Madeline Island, and were only beginning to settle into a smooth pedaling pace. The road was deserted, sun bright, air slightly brisk.

While turning my head left, I spotted a solitary doe in a clearing, having a roadside munch, no more than 50 feet away. The animal seemed engaged by our antics, chatter, sometimes wobbly movement.

Seeing a whitetail is not unusual. Having it lack fear while you share its habitat, even for a minute, is. A few miles later, we were at Big Bay Town Park, with its pristine sand, tranquil bay, lack of people and noise.

These are fleeting moments, and I am trying to savor more of them as they occur. That is one reason why time spent recently in the Bayfield area was more than a simple weekend away. The area is picturesque and peaceful enough to hike your chances to discover something precious.

There is much to recommend in and near Bayfield, even before the bustle of summer tourism kicks in. Or maybe we really mean “especially before” the influx of tourists.

Madison friends Jocelyn Jacobs and Mark Musolf – long associated with the Nature Conservancy – retired early a couple of years ago and moved to Bayfield, where they own and operate Wachsmuth House, one of dozen bed and breakfast inns in this town of 700. It is cheery and bright, with a large wraparound veranda and uninterrupted views of Lake Superior.

We stayed at Le Chateau Boutin, which is a part of the grand and acclaimed Old Rittenhouse Inn, owned by Jerry and Mary Phillips. The inn is a part of the Select Registry (www.selectregistry.com), which lists 400 of the best small lodging properties in North America.

Our South Room was more like a suite, with a fine mesh of comfort and class. A fireplace was neatly stacked and ready to light. Nearby was a whirlpool big enough for two.

The windows of our two dormers overlooked the moody Great Lake; a cozy leather chair, in front of one, would have made even a rainy day a pleasure. Downstairs, near the entrance, a plate of freshly baked cookies arrived in late afternoon.

Six of us shared champagne, wine and a lake view from the inn’s porch, then retreated to one of the finest five-course meals we’ve ever had. Rittenhouse dinners are a fixed price of $45, plus tax/tip, and the choices are both complicated and seductive.

A part of the prelude, especially if Julie Phillips (Jerry’s sister) has your table, is hearing the description of what’s not on the menu. It’s good mini-theater, presented by Julie with passion and a bit of drama.

So to say that I had lake trout stuffed with lobster and shrimp does the entrée little justice, knowing what Julie could do with the description.

Brother Jerry is a savvy businessman who realizes that owning pretty and historic Victorian properties isn’t enough to stay ahead of the competition. That’s why he and Mary have developed an extraordinary menu, too.

The couple also have added special events, especially during the winter. There are festive Wassail Dinner Concerts in December, cooking demos, and liquor-themed (wine, beer, martini, margarita) weekends. Costumed murder mystery dinners are available, too, and can be booked privately.

Thirty-two years ago, Jerry says friends couldn’t believe he was leaving Madison to be an innkeeper in remote Bayfield. “Now, there are tons of us who want to live in a community and feel we can still make a difference,” he says.

Be it kayaking or hiking, antique or gallery hopping, a night at Big Top Chautauqua or a drive to see orchards of apple blossoms, this is a part of the world where progress and entertainment may have atypical definitions.

For more about Bayfield, contact www.bayfield.org or call (800) 447-4094. For more about the area, see www.travelbayfieldcounty.com.

For more about the Rittenhouse, see www.rittenhouseinn.com or call (800) 779-2129. For more about Wachsmuth House, go to www.wachsmuthhouse.com or call (715) 779-0137.