Canoe Bay Resort: remote, remarkable

First come the rustling stalks of corn, one field after another. There are dots of farmhouses and ripened vegetable gardens, splashes of wildflowers and thickening foliage, as the road loses its center marking and begins to twist.

Then the route becomes desolate, with no sign of human life. You instinctively brace for a darting of deer, as dusk approaches and a mist of rain clouds the windshield.

Eyes squint and search for a sign, any sign. It turns out to be simple, elegant and wooden. There is one more turn to go, a half-mile stretch with a speed limit of 10 mph. Only the slow rhythm of wipers cuts the silence in this remote patch of Wisconsin. Radio chatter turned to static quite a while ago.

Having directions is crucial, and they aren’t on the Internet. I am about 15 minutes east of Chetek, between Eau Claire and Rice Lake. My visit comes on the last evening of an eight-day and 800-mile road trip around the Upper Midwest.

So I am tired, the weather is gloomy, and the destination turns out to be incredible. The most plush and acclaimed accommodations in Wisconsin also seem to be the hardest to find and the least advertised – unless you happen to catch the unpaid accolades.

“Couple nirvana,” writes USA Today.

“The setting is sublime, the food is fabulous,” offers the Food Network.

The newest Zagat Survey calls this the top hotel in the Midwest, and one of the 10 most romantic lodgings in the nation. Wine Spectator gives it a “Best of” award, one step beyond its Award of Excellence.

This is Canoe Bay Resort, whose spacious cottages and duplexes are isolated but full of amenities. Designer John Rattenbury was a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé; the property oozes with the legendary architect’s love for clean lines and earthy materials. It is the only Midwest inn to earn a four-star Mobil Travel Guide rating, the only Paris-based Relais & Chateaux lodging in the Midwest.

This is a smooth meeting of art and environment, a far cry from the Seventh Day Adventist camp that had been abandoned here in the 1980s. Today the most modest quarters, at 352 square feet, is $375 per night. The most astounding, the Edgewood, is 2,083 square feet (plus a gigantic wrap-around deck) and $1,800 or $3,100 per night (depending upon whether meals and wines are included, and whether amenities are customized).

The prices are per couple. Even the Edgewood is not meant to accommodate more than that.

Owners Dan and Lisa Dobrowolski bought these 280 acres in 1992, opened them to guests in 1993. There are sentimental attachments beneath the business investment: Dan – a former Chicago TV weatherman – used to fish around this glacial area as a boy.

“It’s morphing and changing,” Dan says of the property. “Like a running river, it gets deeper and more complex.”

“It suits our own sensibilities,” says Lisa, an Ohio native with a journalism background. “We find it relaxing and restorative.”

My Heavenly Suite faces one of three lakes, with two decks outside and two gas fireplaces aglow inside. The tinkling of a Scarlatti sonata drifts as the door opens to a warmly lit haven of cedar walls and arched ceilings.

Recessed lighting and bouquets of fresh flowers soften my mood. Fresh fruit and chef-made granola quell the appetite.

Unable to arrive for a dinner seating before 7 p.m., what is described as a light supper awaits in a small refrigerator. It is more fruit, wedges of three cheeses, crackers. Under another lid is a chicken breast over wild rice, a salad of greens with paper-thin radish and kohlrabi slices. For dessert: a pumpkin spice muffin with cream cheese filling.

Chef Scott Johnson’s cuisine tends to be organic, serving free-range poultry and grass-fed beef. Even flours are made on-site, and a local potter made the breakfast dishes.

Eat in the dining room, where there is a dress code, and it is $65 per person for dinner. Most indulgent: the Wine Cellar Dinner, $220 per couple.

Swimming, fishing and paddling are possible on a 50-acre Canoe Bay lake. There also are hiking and cross-country ski trails.

Visitors can feed fish by hand, sweat in an elaborate exercise room, browse the in-house library for a newly released book or video, laze by the beach in summer, ride a horse-drawn sleigh in winter.

The Dobrowolskis make it all appear effortless, but everything is a complicated web – from getting the New York Times delivered in a timely manner to finding appropriate menu ingredients and fixing back-up generators in stormy weather.

“Whenever people are doing something extraordinary, it doesn’t fall in your lap,” Dan says. “You have to work and think all the time.”

“I’ve never felt so alone – yet so well cared for,” wrote a couple from Williams Bay, in a guest diary.

What I regret is not the rain or fog, but that I chose to accept Lisa’s invitation when I knew that I’d be spending a night at Canoe Bay alone. Although a fine place to decompress solo, what an extraordinary setting for a twosome.

For more about the 19 lodging options at Canoe Bay, which is for adults only, go to www.canoebay.com or call (800) 568-1995. Opening this fall is another duplex, two upper level cottages, with meeting space for up to 14 people below.

Only three Wisconsin sites make the cut in Patricia Schultz’s “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” (Workman Publishing, 2003). They are Canoe Bay Resort, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore near Bayfield and The American Club resort in Kohler.

What exceptional Wisconsin place or attraction would you add to the list? Please shoot me a quick note, and I’ll let others – including author Schultz – know.