The absurdity of my error smacked me suddenly in my face. I was reading Patricia Shultz’ New York Times best-seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” salivating over exotic destinations like the Great Wall of China, the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Serengeti Desert in Tanzania. I turned the page when––without any warning––out jumped a “must-see” destination that was basically in my own backyard … and I’d never even been there once.
I had flown in helicopter over Hawaii’s Na Pali coast, I had hiked Alaska’s gold-rush mountains, I had ascended Jamaica’s Dunn’s River waterfall, I had conquered “The Path of the Gods” along Italy’s Amalfi Coast, but I had never been to Bayfield, Wisconsin. The error of my omission jolted me into action.
So my wife and I set sail for Bayfield, which is to say, we threw some stuff in our Chevy Impala after work one Friday and drove 3½ hours. “That was easy,” Jodie mumbled when I nudged her awake in the passenger seat as we pulled into our B&B of choice. “Oh, wow,” she said, suddenly alert. “This looks really nice.”
Our home for the weekend was Wisconsin’s very first bed and breakfast, the Old Rittenhouse Inn. A Victorian house first occupied by a former Civil War general, the antique-filled Inn is today owned and operated by the Phillips family. As we quickly discovered, the Rittenhouse Inn’s appearance in Shultz’s “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” has as much to do with the family’s devotion to serving guests as it does with the B&B’s breathtaking views of Lake Superior and close proximity to the Apostle Islands.
The father of the Phillips family, Jerry, taught high school, met his bride––a fellow teacher––and then ignored everyone’s advice by risking it all and buying the Rittenhouse Inn some 38 years ago. His loyal sister, Julie, has worked by his side through it all and seems to feel her personal mission in life to start every person’s day off with a smile (enjoy even just one breakfast there and you’ll see what I mean).
The primary Innkeeper at the Rittenhouse is none other than Jerry’s son, Mark, who’s basically lived at the Inn since age 3. So perhaps Mark’s wife is the only “outsider” helping to run Rittenhouse? Well, not exactly. In high school she worked as a housekeeper at the Inn, then served as a waitress and maitre’d through her college years before––you guessed it––falling in love with Mark.
“It was kind of an unspoken thing between us that someday he and I would be running it,” she said. “Managing Rittenhouse has brought both joy and stress. It’s a constant inspiration to try to offer the best accommodations, the best dining, and the best service.”
That “service” for us included recommendations on how to see the best of Bayfield in one full day. Following their advice, we woke before the sun and raced up the hill to Le Chateau for the ultimate view of a Lake Superior sunrise. We weren’t disappointed.
Later that morning we cruised on a “3-hour tour” around the Apostle Islands which, it so happens, were misnamed by French missionaries who thought the islands numbered 12 instead of 22. (Apparently the French aren’t mathematicians.)
Weaving through the islands broke up the big lake in a way I hadn’t experienced before. After all, you can see Superior from the moon. It contains enough water to cover the entire land mass of North and South America in a foot of water. I’m used to gazing out from Duluth and seeing nothing but steely blue waves; to see, for my first time, the heavily forested Apostles interrupting the sea of Superior showed me a new side of the lake.
Also new was the experience, later that afternoon, of driving my car onto a boat and being ferried across to Madeline Island. On the island, Big Bay State Park provided a relaxing hike through 2,350 acres teeming with wildlife, beaches, and sandstone cliffs.
The culture on the island is distinctly different––you get the impression the people who already love Madeline wish that new people would quit falling in love with the island and leave her alone.
At a local pub on Madeline Island we bumped into a good friend of mine who had just won a sailboat race that day––in fact, we unknowingly saw the race in progress during our Apostle Island cruise. He’s been sailing around the islands for a decade and admitted to me that the locals at Madeline keep urging him to shut up about their hidden gem.
But he loves the island too much not to share it with his friends, and with sunsets like the one we enjoyed, it’s easy to see why.
After dark we returned to the Old Rittenhouse Inn for what was, perhaps, the highlight of our time in Bayfield: dinner at Rittenhouse’s Landmark Restaurant. I knew I was in for a treat when the breakfast that morning blew me away. I am firm in my belief that breakfast is the least important meal of the day; hence I rarely eat it and never developed a taste for breakfast food.
Nonetheless, Executive Chef Matt Chingo’s creativity and talents are obvious and overwhelming. Breakfast was fantastic and dinner, quite frankly, was one of the absolute best meals I have ever had. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m not a talented enough writer to do the dinner justice, so instead I’ll simply list some of the dishes and make one key distinction: the dinner is done entirely with a verbal menu.
Smoked Trout Salad: Local trout smoked with applewood served on a bed of wild rice and mixed greens dressed with lemon vinaigrette topped with garden chives and aged Wisconsin cheddar.
Steak Bercy: Grilled filet mignon with Yukon mashed potatoes, vegetable du jour and a Bercy sauce made with veal reduction, butter, herbs, garlic and burgundy wine and topped with a giant Bercy mushroom cap.
Chocolate Torte: Chocolate mousse layered between dark chocolate ganache frosting layers. Served with Bayfield raspberry sauce, whipped cream, and shaved chocolate.
Our waiter, Lance, recited in delicious detail all the key components in the 5-course meal by memory. It is a special ritual at Rittenhouse that catches you off-guard and makes the experience come to life: Sitting by the fireplace in an old Victorian mansion overlooking Lake Superior’s crashing waves, listening to Lance declare the day’s fresh fish and local ingredients.
We were so stuffed by the time dessert was done, we were grateful that all we had to do was stumble up a few stairs from the dining room to our bedroom to go to sleep. We slept well with full bellies and the knowledge that this day, which had started with a Superior sunrise, ended with us having enjoyed the beauty of Bayfield and the Apostle Islands … a beauty that definitely deserves its spot in “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”
The website for The Old Rittenhouse is www.rittenhouseinn.com. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-888-611-4667.