Whether you’re a tiny house hater or devotee, there’s no denying that the little abodes are hot right now.
From HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters” to minimalist blogs and Instagrams, everyone’s getting in on the tiny house game. And at Canoe Bay near Chetek, Wis., you can live the tiny house life — at least the tiny house vacation life.
On the first night my mother and I stayed in one of the resort’s 344-square-foot tiny homes, I pushed back the blinds next to my bed to take in the late-night view. The frozen white expanse of a lake was visible through a smattering of trees, and the night sky was full of constellations.
It was quiet, peaceful, cozy — everything I was looking for in a non-adventurous getaway. I could get used to this tiny-house life — at least for a weekend.
The tiny homes are part of Canoe Bay’s Escape Village, the first large-scale tiny home village in the Midwest. Built by Rice Lake, Wis.-based Escape, they check off many tiny-house boxes, with some major pluses: red cedar siding giving them a rustic-chic look; modern, full-size appliances and plumbing; large windows and high ceilings for plenty of natural light; a queen-size bed in a separate bedroom; and it’s all perched on a wooded lake.
We pulled up to our Traveler XL model after dark, so we’d have to wait until morning to take in those views.
What we did take in was the “tiny” space, still new-smelling with a hint of pine. One wall featured a full-size refrigerator, a gas stove and oven (not for use by renters), a full-size kitchen sink and a flat-screen television above an electric fireplace. A butcher-block table with two chairs sat beneath an oversized window and alongside a couch that could fold flat into a bed.
On one end of the home, a queen-size bed filled a bedroom. On the other end, a bathroom featured a large vanity, toilet and shower with tub. A loft above the bathroom provided another sleeping space. Pine lined the walls, and frosted glass doors let light pass through. The high ceilings and large windows made everything feel bigger than tiny.
That’s the goal, according to Escape CEO and founder Dan Dobrowolski.
When Dobrowolski left a two-decade career as a Chicago TV meteorologist to start Canoe Bay on the grounds of an old church camp, he teamed up with architect Kelly Davis to design the cabins, with heavy influence from Frank Lloyd Wright. The resort has garnered awards for its high-end cabins, elegant dining room — supplied from the onsite organic garden — and top-notch service.
John Rattenbury, a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, designed some of the cabins along with Dobrowolski and Davis. About four years ago, they began putting some of the smaller versions of their homes on frames.
“Everybody loved them,” said Dobrowolski. “It instantly kind of went viral.”
Tiny house, or small cabin?
But isn’t “tiny home” just clever marketing jargon for a cabin or mobile home?
Tiny houses are generally under 500 square feet and of course are not new. But tiny houses these days are usually mounted on trailers, and they’re impeccably designed to maximize every inch of space.
Legally, Escape’s tiny homes are recreational vehicles — they conform to Department of Transportation standards and all have their own VINs.
“It’s not built like a normal travel trailer, it doesn’t act like a normal travel trailer, it doesn’t look like a travel trailer, but it’s a travel trailer,” Dobrowolski said. “There’s quite a difference between an Airstream and a Traveler XL. ... But they both have everything in them to be certified as RVs. One is built like a house ... one is a tin can.”
It’s easier to imagine vacationing in a tiny home than actually living in one. As I lay in the queen bed, I couldn’t fathom fitting all of my belongings in the small space. And the thought of a family living in one full time is insane. Even with just two people, you’d better really like the other person.
But for a weekend getaway, it was the perfect size — more homey than a hotel room, but more affordable than a cabin. Some of the bigger Escape units have two full bedrooms, larger living rooms and screened sleeping porches.
Aside from a few hikers passing by, there was ample privacy in our unit, especially with the blinds drawn.
Our home didn’t have Wi-Fi, but there was cable on two flat-screen TVs, so we spent a lazy morning watching HGTV, drinking coffee and reading.
But the beauty of tiny homes is the subtle push they give you to get out of them. You can sit and watch the outside world through the giant windows, or you can walk a few steps and breathe in the crisp winter air, smell the pines and feel the soft powder beneath your feet.
So we ventured down two metal steps outside the front door into the snowy landscape. We hiked down the snow-covered road past Mallard and Lost lakes, pausing to locate a woodpecker whose telltale drum roll rang out from above. Along Dead Goose Lake we passed behind some of Canoe Bay’s original cabins, their Prairie-style architecture in harmony with the surrounding landscape. We waved to a pair of couples sitting on their cabin’s back patio in the mild January weather, covered in blankets, sipping wine before noon and obviously living their best lives.
It’s quiet at Canoe Bay, and not just because of the remote wooded location. Kids and pets are not allowed. There’s a reason the resort has earned a reputation as a romantic getaway.
The quiet enveloped us as we sat on an oversized Adirondack chair overlooking the lake. Later, we opened our own bottle of wine, soaking in the views through our big windows.
For two days, we lived big. We couldn’t use the stove, but we did make use of the refrigerator and microwave to store and reheat meals we had brought. We took advantage of the full-size shower/tub to wash off a full day of hiking. None of it felt cramped or inferior.
On Sunday, before we began the four-hour drive back to Milwaukee, we both wished we had at least one more day to live in the tiny house bubble.
But could we do it full time? In something that beautifully designed and well-built, there was a tiny chance.
If you go
Canoe Bay currently has three tiny-home models available for rent. Rates vary, but our Traveler XL cost $195 per night for a winter weekend, plus taxes and a one-time cleaning fee. Kids under 18 are not permitted in the Escape Village, nor are pets or smoking. See escapevillages.com.
The homes are also available for individual ownership.
Bloomer Brewing Co. reopened in Bloomer, Wis., in 2013, but it dates back to before Prohibition and brews a range of solid offerings from Back Porch, a lemon-raspberry ale, to the seasonal Winter Bock, made with Wisconsin syrup.
In Chetek, Caddy Shack lives up to its reputation of having the best pizza in the area.