Florence flourishes with a Northwoods flair

Why spend a night in Florence, unless you’re talking about Italy? Convenience, we decided, was a good enough reason.

But what began as a fast and necessary stop – en route to other adventures in Door County and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – will be remembered as a charming overnight with more depth and style than the average Northwoods hideaway.

Florence County, which meets the Michigan border, has the second smallest population of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. About 80 percent of the area is wooded, and that includes Nicolet National Forest, which should hit peak color during the next week or so.

“Best Kept Secret of the North” is what the locals choose as their slogan.

Our stay in the biggest community, Florence (township population 2,300), involved booking a night at Lakeside Bed and Breakfast downtown. The roomy, three-story house – built by a retired contractor Don McMullen in 1993 – overlooks Fisher Lake, a clear and natural pool that is neither overdeveloped nor neglected.

Furniture by local craftsmen, Amish quilts, fireplaces and patios were pleasant, unexpected touches at Lakeside. The back yard met the lake, where canoes and pontoons were docked. Plenty of chaise lounges, too, for bird watching or book reading.

Hostess Rita McMullen is glad to chat or keep her distance, depending upon your mood. We had a hard time arriving before 9 p.m. and fretted about what we could sniff out for dinner.

No problem, Rita replied, directing us to Maxsells, less than a block away and also within eyesight of that gorgeous little lake. We would have settled for sandwiches without complaint but were delighted and surprised to see gourmet touches on the menu.

Sockeye salmon in rural Wisconsin on a weekday? That was my $20 choice, served with jasmine rice, zucchini and cucumber salsa. Among the other hints that the chef was a connoisseur: mushroom risotto, ribs with a garlic/balsamic glaze, an asiago cream sauce over pasta.

Dining occurs in a 1904 Prairie Mission house, built for the county’s first district attorney (Max Sells). Don and Rachel Egelseer opened the place in 2006; the building had been abandoned for many years and needed TLC.

The couple had long owned a summer lake home in the area and permanently moved from Hustisford (Dodge County) after retirement in 2001.

“Retirement” seems to mean “restoration” more than “rest” because the Egelseers have revamped five other old buildings in Florence.

“Our goal is historic preservation,” Rachel says, “but I’ve also looked for ways for the public to enjoy the results.”

Maxsells contains five overnight suites, as well as the restaurant. The 1880 Tiderman House contains the county’s history museum and an antiques shop. Other projects are open for retail or event rental. The oldtime ballroom at Encore on Central accommodates wedding receptions and other crowds of up to 300.

“We feel like we’re on vacation all the time,” Rachel insists, to explain why she and Don chose Florence as a year-round home.

Pride Golf Tee Company manufactures its namesake product with white pine that is locally harvested. Rachel raves about two nearby golf courses: TimberStone at Pine Mountain Golf & Ski Resort (“you golf up a mountain”) and the George Young Recreational Complex.

What else? Surroundings are ideal for fishing (bass, trout, musky), paddling and wandering. Hiking trails double as cross-country ski paths. ATV riding is the least-silent sport, but popular.

On the locals’ list of 101 things to do: listen to a chorus of frogs, look for animal tracks, wade in a stream, dissect owl pellets, take a child fishing, look for interesting bugs.

Wild Rivers Interpretive Center is the closest thing you’ll find to a tourism bureau. Downtown, historic buildings can be toured and owners of cute businesses are glad to help lighten your wallet.

“We have more and more people finding us,” Rachel says. “It’s been kind of fun.” Latest example: a Corvette club that booked 22 rooms, which pretty much fills up the town.

“We’ve tried to get one of the chains to come in, but they haven’t,” she says. It is an attempt to accommodate more visitors, especially families, but we like Florence just as it is: genuine, one-of-a-kind and a small but exquisite gem.

For more about Maxsells Restaurant and Suites, 209 Central Ave.: www.chamferedwis.com, 715-528-5511 (food) and 715-528-3000 (lodging). Rates are $79 to $179.

For more about Lakeside Bed and Breakfast, 509 Furnace St.: www.northern-destinations.com/lakeside, 715-528-3259. Rates are $85.

For more about TimberStone, N3332 Pine Mountain Road, Iron Mountain, Mich.: www.pinemountainresort.com, 906-776-0111.

For more about George Young, 159 Young’s Lane, Iron River, Mich.: www.georgeyoung.com, 906-265-3401.

For more about Wild Rivers Interpretive Center, 4793 Forestry Dr.: www.florencewisconsin.com, 888-889-0049.