Last summer, the Federal Highway Administration minted 49 new National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads—its first such designation in more than a decade. One of the chosen thoroughfares was the Lake Superior Scenic Byway in Wisconsin, a 70-mile stretch running from Port Wing to Washburn in bucolic Bayfield County. A lakeside agrarian paradise with fewer than 15,000 residents, Bayfield also happens to be the gateway to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and home to Wild Rice Retreat, a beautiful new wellness sanctuary hugging Lake Superior.
One of the first stops on our three-day road trip to the South Shore was Copper Crow, the country’s first Native American-owned distillery. The spirits here are made with provincial ingredients; the gin and vodka, for instance, are produced with whey, a byproduct of Wisconsin cheesemakers. Tours and tastings were temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, but the place was thrumming when we dropped by on a balmy afternoon, with friends gathered around picnic tables sipping rummy Painkillers and outlandishly garnished Bloody Marys.
An equally merry scene unfolded five miles south at Adventure Club Brewing, where tie-dye–clad dads threw back craft doppelbocks while their kids pedaled furiously inside an enormous bicycle-powered wolf puppet. Home to the Howl Adventure Center, the family-friendly grounds also boast a gear shop, disc golf course, and half-mile mountain biking track.
We poked around the Bayfield Artists Guild, a downtown gallery showcasing handmade leather booties and pottery baked with beach sand, before grabbing lunch at Pier Plaza. The lakeside restaurant was packed, but the whitefish po’ boys were worth the wait. Besides, we needed fuel: We were gearing up to kayak to some sea caves with Trek & Trail, an outfitter with more than 30 years of experience navigating perilous Lake Superior.
The guides met us at a popular put-in spot on Meyers Beach and ran through basic safety protocol, like how to pop off a sea skirt if our vessel capsizes. Though fresh out of high school, they were keen to talk about the geology and ecology of the sea caves as our paddles sliced through the lake’s jade-hued waters. It was warm enough that we didn’t need a wetsuit, and so placid we pushed right up to the lips of the caves and through their fragile arches, even dipping the noses of our kayaks into a vaulted chamber swarming with mosquitos. We waved to the hikers on the sandstone formations above and patted ourselves on the backs for having the better view.
For dinner that evening, we made our way over to the Fat Radish in nearby Cornucopia. The restaurant is known for date-night dishes like braised lamb shank and roasted bone marrow, but we were more intrigued by the snowmobiler-friendly “tiki” bar bursting with Green Bay Packers memorabilia.
Several brandy old-fashioneds later, we collapsed at Cornucopia Sweet Retreat, a beachy-chic vacation rental housed above Corny Coffee. One of the more thoughtfully outfitted Airbnbs we’ve stayed in, it had lavender goat-milk soap in the bathroom, chewy-fresh chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen table, and New Glarus beers chilling in the fridge.
The next morning, we tucked into a warm quiche from Corny Coffee before setting off for the family-run orchards and berry farms scattered along the Bayfield Fruit Loop. After loading up on far too many jams and ciders, we popped back into the town of Bayfield to purchase smoked trout and whitefish from the family-run Hoop’s Fish Market—and even took a gamble on the whitefish livers, a local delicacy typically sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions.
At Antler Specialty Goods, the Northwoods’ first mobile coffee bar, we sampled a Moss on the Rocks, a creative iced matcha drink laced with housemade lavender-lemon syrup and macadamia nut milk. At Eckels Pottery and Fine Craft Gallery, one of the state’s oldest ceramics studios, we found Pete Skoro, son-in-law of the late founder, Bob Eckels, hunched over a clay-spattered wheel, pausing only to love up his lumbering basset hound Rudy. In addition to Skoro’s hand-thrown pieces, the gallery sells a variety of covetable gifts from regional woodcarvers, glass blowers, and kaleidoscope makers.
When it’s time to check into our Scandinavian-minimalist cabin at Wild Rice Retreat, we’re finally ready to relax. Billed as the Midwest’s first all-inclusive luxury wellness retreat when it opened last July, the programming covers lodging, two healthy meals per day, and access to daily movement and wellness classes. Other draws include a pristine sauna “haus” and rain room, a meditation/fire circle, and trails snaking through 114 private wooded acres. Without getting too New Age-y, it’s exactly the sort of restorative experience we’ve been craving throughout this pandemic—and the remote nature of the standalone units, designed by Duluth architect David Salmela, feel particularly COVID-19-friendly.
For the next 36 hours, we succumbed to the good vibes. We pretzeled our bodies like suns and warriors during a hatha flow session with Jodi Ann Supanich, a yoga instructor from the Washburn Meditation Center, and joined former general manager Scott Pollock (an erstwhile program director for the American Swedish Institute and one of the original founders of North House Folk School) for a candlelit stroll past old-growth hemlocks. The night ended with good conversation over a crackling fire, kombuchas in hand.
Each morning, the European-style “backpacker breakfasts” tempted us with fresh local fruit, housemade granola and sesame bagels, and delectably salty sheep’s milk cheese with prosciutto. Lunch was a whole other feast, starring veggies grown on site and smoked trout sourced from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa at Bayfield’s Red Cliff Fish Company.
Our cabin was a dream, too—flooded with natural light and decorated in airy raw basswood. And unlike so many wellness retreats whose stock-in-trade is asceticism, Wild Rice had fiber-optic internet. They’re not down with the bootcamp mentality, depriving you of your vices. If you want to doomscroll on Twitter, go for it. At least you’re doing it in a forest.
Because Wild Rice’s restaurant wasn’t up and running at the time of our stay, we ventured off campus for dinner. Patsy’s Bar & Grill in Washburn, we discovered, makes a to-die-for burger topped with cola-caramelized onions and melty Wisconsin cheddar. For a fancier meal, we stand behind the almond-crusted whitefish at Good Thyme, an elegant Washburn restaurant housed in a rambling plantation-style home.
On our drive back to the Twin Cities, we paused in Ashland—a crunchy town of 8,000 where the main drag sports Trump signs and rainbow flags in equal measure. We puttered through the farmer’s market, picking up a jar of garlicky-hot salsa from Window Licker Cannery, before ducking into Ashland Baking Company for a wheelbarrow’s worth of blueberry danishes, pecan rolls, and maple croissants. What’s the point of a wellness retreat if not an excuse to start over?
Tip: For travelers keen on seeing the Apostle Islands scenery but not so keen on piloting their own kayak, there’s the 55-mile scenic Grand Tour with Apostle Island Cruises, a double-decker boat that courses past sea stacks, picturesque caves, the historic Manitou Island fish camp, and the century-old Raspberry Island and Devils Island lighthouses.
Fruit of the Loop
Bayfield is the Berry Capital of Wisconsin, and you’d be hard pressed to find a juicier way to spend an afternoon than crawling the county’s Fruit Loop. Here are four of our favorite family-run orchards and farms—with suggestions on what to buy at each.
86600 Betzold Road, Bayfield; 715-913-0717
This is a 68-year-old you-pick farm with strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and apples. Arrive near closing time at your own peril—this popular orchard regularly sells out of matriarch Muriel’s piping-hot cider doughnuts by early afternoon. If you miss the window (drats!), homemade apple butter is a decent consolation prize.
86565 County Hwy. J, Bayfield; 715-779-5404
The 1928 Sears Roebuck red barn at this solar-powered greenhouse, cidery, and orchard showcases Grandpa Jim’s extensive collection of vintage trucker caps, beer cans, and toy tractors. Climb your way to the hayloft to see a sliver of Lake Superior, then buy a bottle of Apfelhaus small-batch hard cider from the ground-floor tasting room.
87540 County Hwy. J, Bayfield; 715-779-5700
We love this organic orchard for its 40-plus varieties of apples and pears, as well as hand-pressed cider. Swing by the rustic farm store for six-packs of the hard stuff, plus pear butter, apple mustard, and unique local products like semi-sweet blueberry wine from Pikes Creek and Racey’s Tasty apple-pumpkin dog biscuits.
34045 S. County Hwy. J, Bayfield; 715-779-5400
The sustainable farm offers both you-pick and pre-picked apples, raspberries, and blueberries, the last of which are so fat and juicy, they’ll never make it home. The blooming gardens and old-fashioned stone barn selling beeswax pillar candles and vintage dishware are also worth a meander.