Yurt, dining gems in northwest Wisconsin

It’s been six days away from home and 1,000 more miles on the odometer. Northwest Wisconsin is full of good reasons to dawdle.

Like a fine cheese or decadent dessert, we’ll parcel it out in small servings. When wandering this part of Wisconsin, here are a few places worth noting.

Four out of five at our breakfast table ordered eggs benedict at the Souvenir Café, downtown Amery, operated by Joe and Rochelle Davis, graduates of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, Minneapolis. It looks like an ordinary restaurant on the outside. On the inside is a down-home feel and scattering of local artwork. Food choices are delectable and fresh. For more: www.souvenir-catering.com, 715-268-5000.

Kathy and Jim Shattuck provide lodging in a one-room yurt – a 20-foot diameter, domed, four-season tent with flooring – that can sleep up to seven. Their Namekagon Waters Retreat, near Spooner, contains electricity but no indoor plumbing. Don’t let the outhouse be a turn-off. It is near, cute and well maintained. Also on the grounds is a Finnish sauna for bathing, labyrinth for meditative walks, in-ground swimming pool, hiking/skiing trails and a nine-hole chipping course for golfers.

Jim is a massage therapist, the 40-acre property overlooks the Namekagon River, and the point is to experience simple living. It’s $75 per night. For more: nwretreat@yahoo.com, 715-635-2027.

It was easy to find a creamy piece of butterscotch pie (my favorite) at the Norske Nook on Highway 27 in Hayward (one of three such pie palaces in Wisconsin). Trivia: The pies are baked at each restaurant, but the crusts are made at the original Nook (in Osseo), then frozen and transported to the Hayward and Rice Lake restaurants. For more: www.norskenook.com, 715-634-4928.

Fans of Famous Dave’s barbecue can visit the chain’s birthplace, nine miles east of Hayward and next to Grand Pines Resort. Inside the log restaurant is a congenial staff and gorgeous Northwoods décor – more elaborate than the average Famous Dave’s. Outside is generous patio seating. It all overlooks Big Round Lake.

Resort accommodations resemble rustic cabins on the outside, but amenities are modern. It’s 10 motel rooms and 22 cabin suites (the biggest sleeps 10). Cabins have a hot tub, fireplace, equipped kitchen and pontoon boat rental. Lodging ranges from $99 to $350 per night, but suite rental requires a one-week stay during this time of year ($1,750 to $3,150). For more: www.grandpines.com, 888-774-3023.

One of the classiest rest stops in Wisconsin is the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center on Highway 2, west of Ashland. Climb to the five-story observation deck on a clear day, for a keen view of Lake Superior as well as wetlands, wildlife and hiking trails. Exhibits are plentiful and emphasize local history/culture. For more: www.nglvc.org, 715-685-9983.

Locals rave about Racheli’s, just north of Washburn on Highway 13, which opened in October 2005. It is a homey and intimate, family-run Italian restaurant and gift shop, on a former dairy farm and in front of two silos. For sale are local art and crafts, including wood furniture by Larry Racheli, a son of the proprietors. For more: 715-373-5008.

For fine dining, just head up the road 14 miles, to the Wild Rice Restaurant near Bayfield, an architecturally astounding structure that overlooks Lake Superior and is flanked by woods. It opened in 2001 and was a dream-come-true for restaurant maven Mary Rice (whose Egg Toss and Maggie’s in Bayfield are casual but long synonymous with good quality).

What can you expect? Plenty of whimsical artwork, some created by Rice herself, and lots of glass. Hundreds of bottles can be stored at 58 degrees in the floor-to-ceiling “wine cube,” which becomes its own see-through work of art. Diners can watch chefs at work behind another set of glass walls.

Think artisan cheese, grilled quail, local whitefish and trout. Open through New Year’s Eve, for dinner only, and presently closed on Sundays and Mondays. Entrees are $24-42. On a budget? Order from the bar menu, $8-14. For more: www.wildricerestaurant.com, 715-779-9881.

Much farther south, and seven miles south of Menomonie, is tiny Downsville and another out-of-the-ordinary dining spot, The Creamery, which describes the main building’s former life. The University of Wisconsin-Stout’s best hospitality students get a fairly loose leash in this kitchen, which makes for an inventive menu. Support of local farmers is a priority, so expect trout, bison and free-range chicken entrees.

Proprietor Richard Thomas, a Chicago-area transplant, also operates a 12-room inn here, with comfortable meeting/gathering spaces that have accommodated bridge players, bridal parties and corporate execs. Rates are $125-160, including an appetizer plate and breakfast.

“When someone asks ‘what is there to do?’ the correct answer is ‘nothing’,” Richard says. His business brochure emphasizes “the art of relaxing.”

Nearby is the 15-mile Red Cedar state bicycling trail. Music on the patio occurs on some weekends. A six-course beer-tasting dinner will be Aug. 11; the menu includes wild boar. At least two kinds of bread are sold in a small bakery. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. For more: www.creameryrestaurant.com, 715-664-8354.