Canoe Bay Resort, Chetek: remote luxury

When you love something, you take care of it. This is what Dan and Lisa Dobrowolski have done with 280 acres in Rusk County. They share it, too, but not in a haphazard, flamboyant or casual manner.

Three miles of hiking trails meander into the woods, toward little Lost Lake. Kayaks and canoes skim 50-foot-deep Lake Wahdoon. Lodging units, designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, are spaced far enough apart to ensure privacy.

The result? Canoe Bay Resort, open since 1993, is one of Wisconsin’s most expensive, inviting and unusual destinations for couples. It is the Midwest’s only Relais and Chateaux property, a worldwide indication of high quality and character, because only the most unique and alluring properties gain access to the elite association.

Dan’s immigrant grandfather taught him how to fish on Canoe Bay’s spring-fed lakes, how to navigate its forests of ash and oak, how to nourish a link between soul and land.

The grandparents farmed and raised nine children, including Dan’s father, on 80 acres nearby. So the family long knew the area as remote and tranquil, but the spell broke in the 1960s, when a church bought this piece of paradise and turned it into a camp.

Two decades later, the church abandoned its efforts and hung out a “for sale” sign. Dan and Lisa, newlyweds living in Chicago, saw their chance to chase a dream and drastically change their lifestyle. They left careers in journalism for stints as innkeepers of the highest degree.

“We’re offering things that are real, not flashy, trendy or appealing to a passing human interest,” Lisa explains.

“We all tend to be over-stimulated by work” and thrill-a-minute diversions. “This is about finding out what it’s like when you don’t have a schedule – being aware of what you hear, what you smell, and maybe taking a nap, just because you can.”

For me and my guy, it means savoring tea-smoked duck breast, topped with a tart cherry port sauce, served with a scoop of nutty Camargue, a red rice that has grown in southeastern France since the 16th century.

The meal begins with tiny cups of chilled cucumber soup, topped with a dollop of poppyseed cream. It ends with handmade chocolate truffles, served in a small, wooden canoe.

The dining room is candlelit and intimate – there are only 10 of us – and we linger almost two hours. We are in the Northwoods but wear suit jackets and skirts.

Urban fare in country confines explains only a part of the resort’s juxtaposition and mystique. Long before midnight, we drift into deep slumber, accompanied by perfect silence and darkness.

Our spa cottage – with an overnight rate of $775 – contains two fireplaces and its own elliptical trainer, whirlpool, Finnish sauna and steam room (which doubles as the shower).

A single doorbell ring announces the appearance of breakfast, left on a wooden bench, in a simple wooden box, presented with tableware created by a local potter. Chocolate chip muffins and raspberry scones arrive warm.

Later, we scan the hundreds of book titles, many relatively new, that fill shelves of the resort library. Dozens of movie and music DVDs also can be borrowed. We talk about asking for “Gran Torino” and “Citizen Kane” but never get around to it, because we’re too busy looking for the perfect maple leaf during an autumn hike, then watching a couple of deer graze between cottage and lake.

“Having the leisure to let your best self come forward” is what Lisa hopes for her guests.

“Sometimes I don’t recognize them when they’re ready to leave – their faces relax, and that makes us want to protect the peace and quietude that we have. We’re blessed to be able to serve people with what we have.”

Executive-level meeting space, large enough to accommodate 12, was added in 2005 because guests requested it. Spa cottages also are a recent addition.

Children and pets are not allowed at Canoe Bay Resort, which is east of Chetek. Directions are not online, and the property is not open for tours. For more: www.canoebay.com, 800-568-1995. Room rates begin at $350; add $75 (per person) for the fixed price dinner.

For more about other Relais and Chateaux properties: www.relaischateaux.com. Only 43 of the association’s 475 restaurants and hotels/resorts are in the United States. Among them are The French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley and Per Se in Manhattan; Thomas Keller, the chef/owner of both, on Dec. 2 cooks and chats at Bacchus restaurant, Milwaukee.

Tickets are $150, plus tax and tip, for a four-course meal with matching wines, served family style. Diners will receive the chef’s latest book, “Ad Hoc at Home,” about comfort foods.

Thomas Keller has earned numerous culinary awards, including six from the James Beard Foundation. For more about his Milwaukee meal: 414-765-1166.

Mary Bergin visited Canoe Bay as an invited guest of the resort. She last visited in 2004. Look for her photos of Canoe Bay meals at Examiner.com, where she is the Wisconsin Culinary Travel Examiner.