For most guests the serene setting, pampering accommodations, and gourmet cuisine of Canoe Bay , a privately owned resort hidden in the heart of Wisconsin's north woods, are enough to make a lifetime of endearing memories. My visit took me on a nostalgic journey into my past.
During the '60s and '70s Canoe Bay was Camp Wahdoon, a rustic Seventh-day Adventist youth retreat located near the tiny town of Chetek. I spent many summers there as a camper and staff, eventually working my way up to assistant director. This is where I met my first girlfriend, learned to play guitar, water-skied on a canoe paddle, spied on bears, and went scuba diving with the snapping turtles. In the early 1990s Dan and Lisa Dobrowolski purchased the land, later making it one of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux properties , an exclusive group of privately owned inns. Now, since my old camp was garnering rave reviews from the likes of Food and Wine  and USA Today , my wife and I decided to check it out for ourselves.
Our visit coincided with the tail end of severe flooding that disrupted travel throughout the Midwest. But our memories of cancelled flights and lost luggage quickly faded once we arrived at our cabin. Classical music played softly as a fire flickered in the two-way stone fireplace. Thick robes and slippers beckoned near the whirlpool tub. Outside, two deer welcomed us, just 30 feet from our deck. Let it rain, we thought.
How the owners get the deer to show up on cue, the loon and kingfisher to follow our canoe, the bullfrogs to sing duets at sunset, and the baby robins to nest in the eaves of our cabin, I'll never know. But the Dobrowolskis have made a strong effort to fully integrate every structural improvement with the resort's natural surroundings. From the beginning they applied Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural principles as part of that plan, even going so far as to have Wright disciple John Rattenbury design one of the guest houses.
The naturalistic bent extends beyond the architecture. No hunting is allowed on the 280 acres, fishing is catch-and-release, the landscaping is unaltered woods or restored prairie grass, and the entire property is smoke free. An organic garden supplies fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables for the kitchen.
As you might expect, activities are all about nature, too. Guests can swim or canoe (no motor boats or jet skis allowed) in the summer and hike or snowshoe in the winter. And there are unexpected amenities: walls lined with bestsellers at the lodge, a hearty breakfast brought to your door, and in-room massages. Chef Timothy Fischer offers personal tours of the garden and will even take you foraging for wild edible plants (we found stinging nettles that he swore were tasty).
It was hard to believe this tranquil place had once been my old summer camp, but I soon found plenty of reminders. The swimming raft, where Mr. Beck accidently shot off all of one year's 4th of July fireworks in one tremendous blast, was still moored in the same spot. Our cabin turned out to be the old site of Mrs. Brown's nature museum, now handsomely refurbished without a single moth collection or stuffed raccoon in sight. I felt like an archeologist discovering the poles that once supported the ski dock, and the nearly petrified remains of the old campfire benches across the lake.
But the biggest change met me at the dining hall, now an elegant restaurant—suit jackets required. Gone were the metal folding chairs, pitchers of Kool-Aid, and Melmac bowls filled with chili. Instead, fine linen, an award-winning wine list, and a well-trained staff greeted us. Between courses, we enjoyed an exquisite pineapple/Riesling sorbet and a view of a fawn and doe by the lake. After the main course—homemade pasta with fresh garden vegetables—chef Fischer stopped by our table. Those mysterious cooked greens topping our pasta? "Stinging nettles!" he laughed. He was right—they were delicious.
"How ironic—it goes from a kid haven to a snobby wine place where children aren't even allowed," our 12-year-old daughter commented when we described our stay. But it didn't feel snobby at all. It was still the same place, only more peaceful and sophisticated. And just like my old camp days, I can hardly go wait to go back.