This Unique Way to Explore Bayfield Focuses on Wellness and Outdoor Adventure
I'm standing waist-deep in the chilly waters of Lake Superior in early June, willing myself to go farther. My bottom half has already adjusted to the 50ish-degree water (or is it just numb?) but my mind needs a little extra convincing. Finally, I suck it up—and suck in a breath—and dive forward, plunging my head fully beneath the surface. I come up gasping, laughing, my muscles shocked and my adrenaline spiked from the rush. "Again!" I dunk deeper, swimming a bit this time. When I've had enough, I collapse on the sandy beach of Madeline Island's Big Bay Town Park. I'm starting to understand the restorative effect this Great Lake has on visitors and residents of northern Wisconsin's shoreside towns.
As I take the ferry back to the mainland, I'm mesmerized by the vastness of Superior, dotted with islands as far as I can see. The remote town of Bayfield (the closest city is Duluth, Minnesota, about 90 minutes away) serves as home base for exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which comprises 21 islands. For decades, artists, creators and adventurers have been drawn to the area, soaking in energy from the lake. Its spirit flows through canvases swirling with blue paint, pottery formed to mimic the waves and poetry inspired by its force. And now, with a new wellness retreat, Bayfield is embracing its identity as a holistic getaway.
Set in the woods overlooking the lake, Wild Rice Retreat is a sanctuary focused on the arts and well-being. Upon arrival, I receive a schedule of the week's activities—yoga, meditation, essential oil-blending classes, hikes. Guests have the option to attend as many or as few of the offerings as they'd like. Owner Heidi Zimmer previously worked for a company in the Twin Cities that builds artist housing and art spaces around the U.S.
"In my work, I would go to places like Sedona and Santa Fe and see how they tied the energy of nature to creativity and health and wellness," Zimmer says. "So I thought, 'Why couldn't we create a place that integrates all of that?'"
She and her husband had been vacationing in Bayfield for more than 10 years. When the land for Wild Rice Retreat came up for sale, Zimmer began drawing up plans for an all-encompassing retreat center. One signature detail: Rice Pods. (Think tiny house meets Scandinavian cabin.)
"We call them containers in nature," Zimmer says. "We didn't want them to feel like a traditional cabin. Utilizing oversized windows, we worked with the idea of connecting to nature through the light. We barely need any decor because the windows provide all the artwork."
On my first morning at Wild Rice Retreat, I wake up early to attend yoga in the light-filled Peace Pod. As I'm guided through stretches, I glimpse Lake Superior sparkling in the distance, ever present. Later in the afternoon I'll meditate by the stream and enjoy a foraged vegetarian meal at Wild Rice's restaurant, NOVO. But for now, I'm headed back to the lake.
Along the 12-mile mainland coast of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, sea caves cut into towering red cliffs. Book a half- or full-day guided kayak tour with outfitter Trek and Trail, where you'll get to paddle into tight crevasses, under dramatic arches and through connecting grottos. A cruise with True North Sailing Charters allows you to see more of the Apostle Islands without the physical effort. Learn about the area's nautical history at the Bayfield Maritime Museum along the waterfront. Bayfield's Fruit Loop (County Highway J) bursts with orchards, wineries and seasonal wildflowers. Depending on the time of year, you can pick strawberries, blueberries, tart cherries or apples. Stop by Hauser's Superior View Farm to do a tasting at their Apfelhaus Cidery.
NOVO (Latin for anew) at Wild Rice Retreat offers nourishing meals built around flavors of the land and sustainable food practices. Brunch and dinner are served communally at the restaurant, located within the retreat center. Enjoy Parmesan-crusted, fresh-caught whitefish with Superior views at The Deck at The Bayfield Inn. Breakfast at Manypenny Bistro includes dishes like smoked trout Benedict with a side of locally made raspberry jelly. At The Copper Trout, order the popular Big Lake whitefish pizza with whitefish, bell peppers, onions, mozzarella and lemon-garlic olive oil. Copper Crow Distillery, the country's first Native American-owned distillery, makes a unique vodka and gin with whey sourced from a Wisconsin dairy. Sample their spirit offerings in cocktails in the taproom.
A 2-ton stoneware pot out front signals Eckels Pottery. Opened by the late Bob Eckels 62 years ago, it's the oldest pottery studio in the state and is still run by his family. Visitors can watch potters through a window and shop for vintage Bob Eckels' pieces and works by regional artists.In downtown Bayfield, Joanne's Scandinavian is the place to go for elegant home goods and a sprinkle of Nordic humor. Get lost among the stacks at Honest Dog Books, which dedicates a section to local authors. Gear up at Howl downtown, or head to the outfitter's adventure center just outside of town, which has a full-service bike and cross-country ski shop, as well as an attached brewery.
From Bayfield, a ferry travels to Madeline Island—the only Apostle Island that's inhabited and accessible—for beach-town vibes, stunning scenery and a vibrant arts culture.
Take a Hike
Walk 7 miles of trails along the sandstone bluffs of Lake Superior's shore at Big Bay State Park. In summers(and when the water is calm), brave souls jump off the cliffs into the blue-green water.
Hit the Beach
Technically connected to the state park via a long hike, peaceful Big Bay Town Park also has its own, more easily accessed entrance. Follow a boardwalk trail over a lagoon to reach a large beach.
Have a Drink
Part junkyard, part bar, the legendary Tomas Burned Down Cafe was named after it caught fire and then reopened on top of the wreckage—and it has stuck with that theme ever since. Pull up an armchair or a van's bench seat and order a rum punch.
Buy a Souvenir
In Madeline Island's quaint downtown, Bell Street Gallery sells gorgeous regionally made pottery. Madeline Island Candles hand-pours a wide variety of scented soy candles. At Woods Hall Gallery and Studios, you can browse textiles and gifts from local artists.