The concept of Canoe Bay, the 280-acre property near Chetek in northwestern Wisconsin, is deceptively basic—a collection of nine cottages scattered around the glacial 50-acre Lake Wahdoon. But look closer and you'll see how refined each element is. The cottages aren't rustic cabins, they're the perfect embodiment of Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie style—all wood and glass and straight lines, built to blend in organically with the environment.
This unobtrusive, soothing design is in keeping with the overall philosophy of Canoe Bay. The resort was created as a couples-only retreat by owners Lisa and Dan Dobrowolski, who became hoteliers in 1993 after a midlife career change. "No kids, no loud groups" is the mantra. Dan had originally intended to buy a piece of the property as a gift for his father. He was drawn to it because his grandfather Stanley, a Prussian immigrant, had owned a farm next-door. "I knew this area was so beautiful. I fished in this lake as a child," he says. Instead of a small parcel, however, he wound up with the entire 280 acres. Since Dan was reaching the burnout stage in his career as meteorologist and reporter at WFLD, the Chicago Fox Television affiliate, he and Lisa decided to leave their jobs and open a hotel. "We just thought, if we like it here so much, maybe other people will want to come."
The grounds and buildings had deteriorated from years of neglect after the previous owners sold the property. The Dobrowolskis planted native grasses and flowers—just wild enough to look as if they had been there for centuries. Three miles of overgrown trails were cleared and are now carefully maintained, as are the lakes, which are filled with crystalline water (to maintain purity and serenity, the Dobrowolskis ban motorboats and Jet Skis).
The rooms are cocoonlike: great beds with down duvets, top-of-the-line CD systems bouncing concert-hall sound off the cedar or redwood interiors, stone fireplaces, two-person Jacuzzis, minibars stocked with Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay and beers of the world ranging from Warsteiner to Guinness. Breakfast is delivered to your door on ceramic plates created by a nearby potter named Willem Gebben. The plates are carried in wooden cartons crafted by local Mennonites.
In the most remote location, attached to a hillside by a cantilevered deck, is the Rattenbury Cottage, which opened last year. This is the room to get. Designed by John Rattenbury, Wright's protégé and head of the Wright Foundation's Taliesin Architects, it's a showplace of the Wright aesthetic—honey-toned cedar-beam walls with white-oak floors, high ceilings, and a picture window looking out onto a wide swath of lake. The decor incorporates many of the furnishings you see in other Canoe Bay rooms—couches for sinking into, lamps in the form of prairie plants—but with a singular addition, the geometric-patterned rug titled Liberty, which was crafted in 1912 by Wright himself.
The Dobrowolskis' newest cottage, to be completed this year, has been designed to maximize the sybaritic quotient. It will have its own separate sauna, steam shower, and massage table, along with the latest Sony surround-sound system, and a wall of lakefront windows.
Meals at Canoe Bay are based on organic ingredients and local produce. Some dishes, such as a bland and dry roast chicken on a much livelier blend of wild rice and cranberries, need work. But others are terrific: Take, for example, the luscious shiitake and cremini mushroom soup or the local rainbow trout in cranberry-butter sauce, the rack of lamb dusted with hazelnuts, or the flourless chocolate cake. Much showier is the wine list, a deep, well-edited lineup of 700 choices from a 10,000-bottle cellar, ranging from Duckhorn and Turley to Château Haut-Brion and La Tâche. In fact, partly because of the sophistication of this wine list, two security cameras were placed in the wine room. Apparently some of the greedier guests were caught climbing up to pilfer a bottle or two—1995 Château Margaux, anyone?
That particular apparatus is the only nod to the harsh reality of the outside world. The Dobrowolskis are committed to keeping Canoe Bay easygoing and serene. "If you go to any of the other lakes around here, they're all built-up," Dan says. "There's a development of three-season homes just two miles away. But on our property, it feels the same as it has for years. And it's our responsibility to keep it that way."
Rooms: $270-$700. Box 28, Chetek, WI 54728; 800-568-1995; www.canoebay.com.