People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.
That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.
The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.
The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features.
The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?
Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and you can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford––many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.
There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”
That final stretch of river is not just scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone. I took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.
Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”
A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.
With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.
Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email email@example.com or call 1.800.346.7007.
A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.
“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.
I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.
Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.
It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.
And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”
We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.
“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”
In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.
For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.
“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”
It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.
“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”
This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.
“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”
I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.
Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.
“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.
He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.
From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.
In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.
“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”
Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.
“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”
“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”
Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.
“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”
Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-393-1128.
You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.
These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.
Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.
The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.
At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.
After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways.
What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.
Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean and Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region to reach fabled Ashford Castle, I now can say that I have lived like royalty. It was only for a day, but a day in an ancient world lasts a lifetime in memory.
The castle, once the proud estate of the Guinness family, was built on the shores of Lough Corrib in 1228. The view across the lake has not changed in over 6,000 years and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features. The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands. It was a view made better (if not blurrier) by the complimentary bottle of champagne and decanter of cherry that welcomed us upon our arrival. And so we learned, quite quickly on this special visit, that life as royalty is good.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens that Rick Steves raves about––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was my favorite, where live music entertained at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib entertained by day. As soon as we checked in, my wife and I took our drinks to the Drawing Room, plopped down by the piano and wondered: Who else might have sat in these very chairs?
Possibilities include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wilde, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Pierce Brosnan, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
Wayne, O’Hara and director John Ford stayed at Ashford during the shooting of the movie that would put the quiet, nearby village of Cong on the map. Originally, people thought the movie would be a flop––the Republic only agreed to produce the movie after Wayne and O’Hara promised to first also star in a different Republic film you may have heard of … Rio Grande. They shot Rio Grande in the U.S. then raced back to this mystical spot in Western Ireland that captivated Wayne and compelled him to convince Republic to take on the film.
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate. You can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford; many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.
The Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, spills into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect scene of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Director of Sales and Marketing Paula Carroll. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”
That final stretch of river is not merely scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying due attention to my silver spoon as my eyes gravitated toward the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone.
I may not have caught the fabled fish that Father Lonergan hooked during Maureen O’Hara’s stream-side confession in “The Quiet Man,” but I definitely had fun trying.
As tasty as the steak was at the George V Dining Room, I wouldn’t have wanted to trade it in for a fresh-caught salmon anyway (the castle does offer to clean and cook guests' fish). The dining room was built in 1906 in preparation for a special visit from the Prince of Wales and has been winning awards ever since. Our dinner was beyond delicious, and the service was impeccable. Take a sip of wine, and a waiter tops it off. Take another sip, and the waiter comes back.
You can definitely see why Carroll, who herself has been at Ashford for 25 years, takes such pride in her 160-person staff. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” she told me. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”
A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their own ornaments at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them before they arrive, creating a home-away-from-home feeling.
With such service, it’s little wonder that Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010. Of course, the magnificent castle, immaculate estate and stunning grounds help a bit, too.
In addition to golf, biking, boating, horseback riding, clay shooting and archery, Ashford Castle also offers falconry, providing a rare chance for visitors to partake in an ancient sport unlike any other. I have sat in a duck blind with birds as the target, but to walk in the woods with a bird as my ally––for it to be released into the tree tops to search for prey, then to return to my arm as my comrade––is something else. Falconry, defined as “taking wild quarry in its natural state or habitat using trained hawks or falcons,” dates back to 2,000 B.C. and is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia or the Far East.
Europe adopted the sport in perhaps the 4th century when the Huns invaded, and it became popular among the nobles in part because falcons and hawks were rare, expensive and required the great estates of castles. It was not exclusive to men, however, as a European nobleman in 1801 commented, “the ladies not only accompanied the gentlemen in pursuit of falconry, but often practiced it by themselves; and even excelled the men in knowledge and exercise of the art.” This note also documents that women, unsurprisingly, have been bettering men since at least 1801 … though I suspect that began centuries earlier!
In total, the grandeur of Ashford blew me away. As a writer, I’m humbled to admit I was too overwhelmed to summarize my experience in a pithy clincher sentence. So I leaned on Ashford’s General Manager Nial Rochford who, to his credit, did a fine job: “Located on the shores of the sparkling Lough Corrib, the estate boasts generous woodland and magnificently tended grounds where the slow, relaxed pace of a bygone era meets the luxury and comfort of a 5-star hotel.”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email email@example.com or call 1.800.346.7007.
Tearing yourself away from Ashford Castle's 365-acre estate is no easy task, but if you manage to get away even for an hour or two, Ireland's wildest region, Connemara, is your reward. There are several notable stops nearby, including the picturesque Kylemore Abbey.
The Neo-Gothic country house was built by a wealthy English businessmen in the 1860s. During WW I, refugee Benedictine nuns from Belgium took over the Abbey, and today it's an exclusive boarding school for girls.
Connemara National Park, a short drive from Ashford, was another highlight for my wife and me. Its 5,000 acres of wild bog and mountains are free to access, with hikes ranging from easy to moderate. The Connemara region is also home to famed Croagh Patrick, the mountain from which St. Patrick supposedly banished the snakes from Ireland.
You can search the far corners of the globe, but you’ll never find a more perfectly named hiking adventure than “The Path of the Gods.” Situated along Italy’s scenic Amalfi coast, the half-day climb delivers the inspiring views and breathtaking beauty its dramatic name suggests.
Half-way up the mountain trail you can admire one of the most spectacular panoramas in the world––an incredible overview from Cilento to the Island of Capri––and you will indeed feel closer to the sky than to the sea … which, according to locals, is exactly why Giutstino Fortunato named the path as he did.
Fortunato named the path in the mid 1800s, which was only yesterday compared to the rich mythological history that “The Path of the Gods” overlooks. Most any point along the path offers a tremendous view of Capri, once home to the fabled singing sirens who called to sailors in Homer’s The Odyssey.
But you needn’t like history to love “The Path of the Gods.” All you need is eyesight. For sheer scenery, the trail is incomparable, as my wife and I discovered quite by accident during our recent trip.
We had completed the main drag of our much-anticipated Italy trip, having conquered Rome, Florence and Assisi, when we found ourselves in the tiny town of Praiano with a couple days to spare. We immediately fell in love with Praiano, in large part due to the gem of a hotel we stumbled across: The Hotel le Fioriere.
Built by Michael Irace in 1980, the quaint hotel is run today by Michael’s son and daughter, Luigi and Rosalia. Michael’s wife, Rosa, oversees the wonderful morning ritual that is breakfast at le Fioriere. Even just one day at the hotel makes it exceedingly clear that the family takes tremendous pride in their “little flower” (le fiorere is Italian for flower) and that nothing makes them happier than hosting guests.
In fact, we hadn’t even fully unpacked yet when Luigi knocked at our door with a surprise delivery of champagne and strawberries. Let me tell you: When you’re sitting in the sun on your private deck overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, champagne and strawberries taste pretty darn good.
In truth, we didn’t know the hospitality would be so tremendous at le Fioriere––we picked the hotel more for its location than anything. Praiano is just over 2 hours south of Naples and makes for a good place to stay along the Amalfi Coast after touring the ruins of Pompeii, as we had done. Praiano also positions you well for day trips along the coast.
On one day we ferried to Capri; on another, we bused to Amalfi for sightseeing and an outside dinner at dusk. Upon returning to le Fioriere that night, we discovered a cozy scene: Luigi and Rosalia hosting a group of locals in the hotel’s comfortable bar to watch that night’s “football” game. They seemed delighted when we pulled up a chair, ordered a drink and cheered for an Italian soccer team whose name we couldn’t pronounce.
But it was the next day, after a tasty breakfast served by Rosa, that the family gave us their greatest gift of hospitality by making the best recommendation anyone gave during our entire trip. Luigi and Rosalia suggested that, if we had an open day, we might enjoy hiking “The Path of the Gods.”
In what was a tremendous oversight on our part, my wife and I hadn’t planned on doing the hike and––worse yet––we hadn’t even heard of before. Luigi described the path, which required “quads of steel,” and mentioned that an entrance to the path lay just a hundred yards from the hotel. In fact, it’s the perfect place to begin the hike because you ascent up through several old vineyards and pass through the crumbled walls of San Domenico, a 16th century church that clings to the mountainside with what little strength it still possesses.
We decided to embark on the six hour hike, and were immediately grateful we did. The surroundings were surreal, a continuous stream of chestnut and corbezzolo trees, of holm olks and alders. The higher we climbed, the more Mount Sant’Angelo thrilled us. We forgot that in departing from Praiano, we were starting the hike at 2,000 feet above the turquoise sea.
We climbed and climbed, rising closer to the sun as it beat down on us.
Peregrine falcons, which soared far above the cliffs when we began, suddenly seemed at eye level. Beautiful San Gennaro church, which greeted us with its golden dome when we walked out the front door at le Fioriere Hotel that morning, was now nothing more than an insignificant dot.
Next thing we knew, we were on top of the world, alone.
The feeling is indescribable.
And shocking. We wondered, ‘Could this truly be the highlight of our trip?’
Having toured the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, the Duomo––all the sacred things you travel to Italy to see––to suddenly climb to the peak and feel this unexpected moment was the greatest of them all seemed like sacrilege.
Such thoughts, we then realized, were not sacrilege … for after all, it is “The Path of the Gods.”
The website for the Hotel le Fioriere is http://www.lefioriere.it/en/. The hotel can be reached by phone at 39 089 874203 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
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 email@example.com or call 1-888-611-4667.