Inside my tiny house-like lodging, I was ready to read the novel I'd thrown into my suitcase. Freshly steeped turmeric-ginger tea sat within reach. The chair I lounged in was comfortable, but not slouchy enough to bring on a nap. A floor lamp aimed light at the pages.
Still, I got through only one paragraph.
The chair was angled toward a window that took up nearly the entire back wall, and the scene outside was just a little too lovely for me to bury my head in a book. Instead, I watched wrens dart among the trees and fresh leaves flutter on the wind. Beyond the greening woods lay a blue backdrop, and I spent time trying to discern where Lake Superior ended and the sky began. Mostly, I simply sat back, relaxing.
This shift — from reading a novel to doing nothing — fit with the spirit of Wild Rice Retreat, a wellness center and a new kind of upscale destination for Bayfield, Wis.
"It begins with the sign on the road, on the way in: 'Please slow down,' " yoga instructor Darcy Schwerin told me later, when I went to dinner. "That's what we want you to do here."
The retreat center occupies the space of the much-loved Wild Rice Restaurant that closed in the small Wisconsin town in 2017. The former dining room, a serene open space with a soaring ceiling and windows that overlook the woods and lake, is now devoted to daily yoga sessions. The kitchen still turns out delicious seasonal fare, much of it gluten-free and vegetarian, for overnight guests. Some of the 114 acres of surrounding land now holds newly constructed housing — stand-alone lodging units that, like the original restaurant space, were designed with a soothing Scandinavian simplicity by Duluth architect David Salmela. He also designed the sauna house, which includes a rain-shower room.
You could say that I was spending the night at a new lodging option — but that wouldn't quite encapsulate the experience. In the parlance of the place, I had booked a "personal retreat."
My stay included not just a room, but also breakfast and lunch at NOVO, the onsite "nourishment center," aka restaurant. Also included were the sauna and the center's informal educational offerings, which range from daily morning yoga to a discussion about spirit-free cocktails (with samples), and a class on how to make your own essential-oil bug repellent.
Its "guided retreats" are led by instructors from around the country on topics that focus on arts or wellness. Danny Saathoff, a jewelry maker and Carleton College professor, will conduct a workshop on the metalsmithing technique of lost wax casting in July. In September, Tanya Boigenzahn of the Devanadi School of Yoga & Wellness in Minneapolis will lead a yoga and aryurvedic retreat. In October, European floral designer Francoise Weeks will help students create woodland arrangements based on items foraged from the woods.
In a nod to these times, Wild Rice has also been hosting virtual retreats, such as one coming up in July with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown.
The whole concept, in fact, seems uniquely suited to the pandemic, though no one could have seen that coming when the project was planned years ago. The outdoor spaces — including a deck off the dining room for open-air service, and separate lodging units that ensure social distancing — are a comfort during COVID-19. The place, with its quiet vibe and woodsy surroundings, invites reflection at a time when many people, slowly re-emerging into the wider world, are asking themselves key questions about what they find important.
The NOVO service — with food by Dustin Thompson, who has worked at Tilia and Surly in Minneapolis, and drink service by Brie Roland, formerly of St. Genevieve, also in Minneapolis — focuses on locally sourced and healthful food. My dinner included local asparagus and bison short ribs with rhubarb jus on a bed of fiddlehead ferns and pea shoots; it was delicious, filling and also surprisingly light, given the meaty centerpiece.
New to the Midwest
While luxurious — with top-notch amenities and beds — Wild Rice isn't a pampering spa, like Kohler Waters Spa in Kohler, Wis. Nor is it a monastic-like wellness center. Unlike the famous Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., each room at Wild Rice has a Wi-Fi connection. And, unlike the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the rooms are cushy, like singular miniature havens where a person could happily spend the entire day.
Though Wild Rice Retreat offers education, it is also unlike the popular North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn., which teaches northern arts. The workshops at Wild Rice go beyond teaching craft to nurturing creativity and enhancing mind, body and soul.
The concept is unlike anything else in the Midwest, let alone Bayfield, known as the gateway to the Apostle Islands. The quaint town, pop. 500, rises from the south shore of Lake Superior with aromatic fish shops, a creaky secondhand bookstore, gift shops that cater to tourists, and longtime restaurant Greunke's, which looks like it belongs in the 1940s and has frequent Lake Superior fish fries in the summer. Lodgings lean toward Victorian B&Bs, like the somewhat stodgy Rittenhouse Inn, and comfortable motels.
Wild Rice Retreat founder and developer Heidi Zimmer, who once created affordable housing for artists through the Minneapolis nonprofit Artspace, said the Midwest deserves a place like this, which weaves together arts, wellness and the area's natural beauty. "We wanted to integrate them all together and create a fantastic experience."
The goal is lofty, and attainable, given my one-night stay.
I walked a wooded path that runs along Lake Superior and had a brief staredown with a red fox. I sweated it out in the sauna before bed. I relished a terrific yoga class, and drank a nonalcoholic cocktail that wowed me with its complexity. But, mostly, I absorbed a rare sense of calm — and ignored my novel. The story was brimming with unease and angst, and those emotions had no place here.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282, @kerriwestenberg
Wild Rice Retreat
The new wellness retreat center is devoted to creating a peaceful experience for guests who are there for a "guided retreat" (with workshop enrollment) or a "personal retreat" (no workshop). Children between ages 2 and 16 are not allowed. Quiet hours are from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Smoking is not allowed.
Nests have a bedroom with a king-size bed, a sitting area with a sleeper sofa, a kitchenette with an electric kettle and French press, and a full bathroom.
RicePods have two twin beds, a small table with chairs and either a lounge chair or love seat, plus a small bathroom and kitchenette.
TreeHauses are two-story structures with four private suites, each with a queen bed and private bathroom, and a large common space with a full kitchen. Unless renting the TreeHaus as a whole, rooms are for one person.
A weekend stay in early September for two people in a Nest was $998; a RicePod was $841 for two. The TreeHaus for one cost $522. All rates include breakfast and lunch and access to the sauna and all movement and wellness class offerings.
Through June 30, Wild Rice is offering 25% off personal retreats (wildriceretreat.com).