48 Hours at the Heidel House Resort

I have looked all over the area within 100 miles or so of the Fox Valley area (Illinois) for an out-of-the-way place to go for a weekend retreat in the dead of winter. I guess I just didn’t look quite far or quite hard enough. I just returned from a jaunt into south-central Wisconsin… and boy, do I have a place to recommend to you. It is only about 165 miles north of the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois and it has just become one of my favorite destinations. And so, this is the story of my trip to Green Lake, Wisconsin.

Green Lake winter shoreline

When I was about 10 years old, a business associate of my father invited our family up to spend a weekend at his cottage on Green Lake, Wisconsin. That was where I first learned to water ski. My clearest memory – remember, I was only 10 – was that of my mother warning me to not fall off of the skis because, as she put it: “The lake has no bottom and you’d be gone forever!” I was too scared to fall but I did have a great time and have loved water-skiing ever since; I have often wondered why I never returned to Green Lake.

Recently I was given the opportunity to return to Green Lake – again as a guest – and I jumped at the chance. It is certainly not as close as Lake Delevan or Lake Geneva, but is within a reasonable distance in terms of driving time from the Chicago suburbs, and has for some time now been on our list of “excursion” destinations.

We took all of the back roads we could find on the map and still the trip from the suburbs only took a bit less than 3 ½ hours and was an incredibly easy and relaxing drive; the roads were virtually empty. In fact, what we mostly saw were dairy cattle, horses and beautifully empty spaces with gently rolling hills en route to our selected destination for the trip: the Heidel House Resort.

Welcome to the Heidel House Resort

A little history would be in order here: the resort dates to 1873 when a Civil War hero, Brigadier General Mason Brayman built the original Grey Rock. Edward Morris of Chicago and his wife Helen Swift (Swift Meat Packing) bought the property in 1899, and in 1949 son Edward Jr. built the mansion that stands there now, which in 1989 was converted to an intimate lakeside dining facility.

In fact it’s touted as one of the top restaurants in the state of Wisconsin – I’ll let you know; I’m having dinner there Saturday. The Heidel House welcomed its first guests in on New Year’s Eve of 1945. In 1980, a building known as Mariner’s Lodge was completely renovated and included an indoor swimming pool, sauna, fitness center and game room.

A new Conference Center – able to accommodate up to 350 guests – was finished in 1989. And in 1992 the Heidel House unveiled a new main lodge next to the Conference Center. The whole resort encompasses about 20 acres and can offer just about anything you would require – in any of four seasons – in a resort facility.

Heidel House main entrance

I had called and requested an early check-in, so when we arrived at 1:30 pm, our room was ready and waiting for us. It was a suite on the southeast corner of the 3rd floor with a spectacular view of the lake. The view was breathtaking; I can only imagine what it looks like in the other three seasons.

There was also a small bar and wet bar, fridge and microwave. And the room also boasted a large boardroom table – obviously great for an actual board meeting – but perfect for me to spread out all my materials and set up the laptop for writing… especially with the view of the lake! And if I got a little chilly, there was always the gas fireplace at the far end of the room.

Heidel House suite with fireplace

After a short conversation with and very warm welcome from Chad – the Director of Marketing – we set out on a little discovery tour. We first drove about ten miles west on Route 23, passing the roughly 1800-acre conference facility known as Lawsonia, complete with its 36 holes of golf.

Arriving in Princeton, a town of about 1500 people, I quickly discovered that the business district was quite small and consisted mostly of some small boutique-like shops, antique stores and about a dozen taverns. Although it seemed as if it would be worth a walk down the main street, I wasn’t into antiquing today so we headed back to Green Lake to check out the business district there.

The town of Green Lake, Wisconsin is not much bigger than I remember it, at least from what little a 10-year old can remember! But it is very much what one might imagine a resort town to be like. There is a small park with a lagoon – it looked to be great place for skating or fishing. The two main streets were Mill and Hill and at the southwest corner of that intersection there sits a very old but stately courthouse.

Just across the street to the south are a family restaurant, confectionary and small boutique. To the east there are several other small shops, a tempting restaurant called Harbor Lights and a couple of real estate offices. To the north, a small café and another real estate office. At the south end of Mill Street is the North Bay Sport and Liquor Store.

It seemed to be very well stocked with all the necessary sporting and, shall we say, after-sporting, needs. The population of Green Lake is only about 1200 but I can guarantee you a much larger number in the middle of summer! We did stop for a beer at the Goose Blind, a very nice local restaurant and bar where a brief conversation with the bartender on duty made us feel right at home. Make a note to stop in for the Friday Fish Special if you’re in town!

Courthouse in Green Lake, WI

We headed back to the Heidel House, took a hot shower and decided to try the fish fry at one of the three restaurants on-site. Called the Boat House Lounge and Eatery, the restaurant serves the typical pub-type fare such as burgers, sandwiches and pizza as well as a wide variety of domestic and specialty beers.

I’m sure that the place really rocks during the summer months; yet the restaurant was fairly empty. Even so, the service was still excellent. We ordered a calamari appetizer and both requested the Friday Fish Fry – it was “all you can eat” and therefore hard to pass up. The calamari ap’ was a bit on the small side but was accompanied by a great horseradish sauce and the combo was very good.

As the fading early January light cast long shadows across an as-yet-unfrozen lake and the last sips of my martini passed my lips, I noticed the first of my tightened neck muscles beginning to unknot.

The simple yet tasty morsels of our main course of Alaskan Pollack, crispy fries and creamy slaw were the perfect start of what was to become one of the finest, most enjoyable 48-hour periods I have had in a long time. The exclamation point on that thought came as we returned to the room to find the bed had been turned down and some chocolate mints were awaiting us.

The blanket was sandwiched neatly between two sheets – one of the many small but important details that were constant reminders of the excellent service and pampering available at the Heidel House Resort.

View of the lake from the SunRoom restaurant

I awoke Saturday morning just before sun-up. The morning light shimmered across the lake but some clouds had started to move in, painting the morning sky serene and musty gray in color. We took our time in getting dressed. After all, this was a weekend getaway and the huge terrycloth robes were warm and luxurious. No need to rush. Our plan for the day was to head over to Ripon and check out a few sights; it was only a 10-minute drive from the resort.

Heidel House Bloody Mary

But first, we needed sustenance. We headed to the Lobby level of the resort and our destination: The Sunroom. It is aptly titled; the entire length of the restaurant is glass that faces south and overlooks Green Lake. The Bloody Mary was picture-perfect and tasted even better (thanks Laura!). The reputation of the “best Bloody Mary on the Lake is well-deserved.

We enjoyed excellent service and even better breakfasts; I ordered Corn-Beef Hash and Heidi opted for the Eggs Benedict. Both breakfasts were outstanding and service was with a smile. The coffee was hot and as I sipped it and let my mind drift out across the lake, I couldn’t help but repeat a line that my brother-in-law uses only for occasions like this: “This is reeeeeaally livin’.”

Birthplace of the Republican Party - Ripon, WI

Ripon could almost be a twin city to Green Lake, except that it was a tad bigger in terms of the population and boasted many more shops and even a few chain-type grocery stores. It is also the home to Ripon College, so one would expect more offerings. We made a stop in town at a house called “the little white schoolhouse”.

From the sign out front I read: “In 1852, Alvan Earle Bovay of Ripon met with Horace Greeley in New York and advocated dissolution of the Whig party and formation of a new party to fuse together anti-slavery elements.” With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill – introduced by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas in January of 1854 – Bovay called a meeting of 53 Whig, Free Soiler and Democrat voters in the little white schoolhouse to organize the new party.

Although the name Republican was officially adopted at a convention in Pittsburgh on February 22nd of 1856, that little white schoolhouse was the official birthplace of the Republican Party on March 20th, 1854.

Little twinges of patriotism swelled up in me as we drove away and headed toward our next stop: the Rippin’ Good Cookie Factory Outlet. Upon entering, all one can see is rows of shelves and boxes piled high with every imaginable variety of cookie.

The place was suddenly alive with folks who appeared to have not had a cookie in about twenty years – munching on every sample available. I believe it would be next to impossible for anyone to leave without buying something. We only spent about $10 and got enough cookies to last – and I’m not kidding – ‘til next July! But it was a lot of fun and the cookies and crackers are very good.

Rippin' Good Cookies at the Outlet Store

Next, we headed out of town in search of a buffalo farm. (We really wanted to visit the Larson Clydesdale Farm in Ripon, but unfortunately the place was closed until spring.) I’m not really sure how we managed to find the buffalo farm. We had no idea of where it was and directions from a local resident at a gas station were shaky at best.

But we did stumble upon it, south of Route 23 and about halfway between Ripon and Green Lake, only to find out that it too was closed for the season. We did get a chance to have a brief conversation with the owner – a very nice and obliging fellow, considering he came down his driveway to find a strange out-of-state car parked there, taking pictures of his buffalo herd! I promised myself that I would definitely return when the place is open; they even have buffalo meat for sale!

Head of the herd at the 3M Buffalo Farm

We finally headed back to the resort where we took a short stroll along the lakefront. Shards of ice danced in the water and tinkled eerily – almost like wind chimes – as the waves gently pushed and pulled the frigid waters against the shoreline. It was serene, quiet and beautiful; I can only imagine how the scene and the colors would change with the seasons.

The shoreline is packed with oaks, hard maples and Catalpa trees. After taking the “Heidel Hike” – a self-guided tour of the resort grounds – we returned to our room, changed into our bathing suits and headed for the pool to shake the winter chill. When we got there, it was actually somewhat crowded – I think it was a birthday party or something.

We instead enjoyed a hot sauna and relaxed a bit in one of the two spas available. There is also an area by the pool where one can actually sit under sun lamps; upstairs of the pool area is a fitness room. As we headed back to our room to shower and dress for dinner, we noticed that a light snow had begun to fall.

Complete with indoor pool, 2 whirpools, sauna, fitness center and game room!

Heidi and I had a 7:00 dinner reservation at the Grey Rock Mansion, a totally separate building about 20 meters west of the part of the resort known as the Northwoods Guest Rooms. The cold night air felt good on my face as we hurried across the open space.

Stepping through the front door of the Grey Rock, one is immediately aware of an almost austere, yet warm and inviting ambience that beckons you inside and bids you welcome. We checked with the hostess and asked if we might enjoy a cocktail in front of the huge fireplace and marble hearth framed by tall vases filled with dried prairie grasses.

The bar area had a great view out over the Lake (is there anyplace here that doesn’t have a great view?) and I bet that it is unsurpassed during the days with more daylight hours.

A great view of the lake from any table

Shortly we were escorted down a carpeted, spiral staircase and to a table next to a window with yet another phenomenal view of the lake. Read the entire review of the Grey Rock dinner.

Stepping outside after dinner, it was so quiet we could almost hear the snowflakes as they frittered their way down through the remaining few leaves on the oak trees.

Norweigian Smoked Salmon and Eggs Benedict...perfect!

All too soon it was time to pack up and head back to reality, but not before I had one last breakfast in the Sunroom – complete with a Seafood Bloody Mary this time – and some of the best smoked salmon I have tasted.

Once again, Heidi partook of the Eggs Benedict, commenting on their perfect doneness and piquant lemon taste of the Hollandaise sauce. No mistake about it, the food is exquisite and the venue is superb. And as sure as I am that May is a good time for day-trips and excursions, so too I believe that early January is just as good a time for a day or two of quality downtime.

The opportunity for a winter respite could not have come at a better time and The Heidel House Resort was the perfect place for our excursion.

Lake view from the Heidel House main lobby

Granted, it was early January but I was surprised at what seemed to be almost a deserted resort. (In case you haven’t figured it out from my previous excursions, that’s exactly the way I like it.) I almost hesitate to tell anyone about it. But this place is so perfect, I’d feel bad if I didn’t tell you. I am sure that the summer would offer more activities… if that’s what you desire.

There are more things to do here – in all four seasons – than you could ever imagine. But whether you are looking for a place to host a business meeting, or a birthday party, or a wedding or a place to simply unwind by yourselves, life is way too short to pass up an opportunity like this – no matter what time of year. My only disappointment of the whole weekend… was that I had to leave!

Special kudos are certainly in order for all of the fine staff at the Heidel House, from housekeeping to bartenders to servers to the executive chef and to anyone else I may have failed to mention.

Thank-you all for your warm hospitality. I will definitely plan a return trip to the Heidel House Resort.

R. Karl