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3 Hidden Gem Places to Stay in Wisconsin

Whether you love trains, photography or windmills, we've found some unique Wisconsin accommodations, including B&Bs, for you to check out! 

The Inn at Windmill Farm

By Laura Kearney
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

From Highway A, we gaze longingly down a valley where a bluish gray mist hovers above fields tinged with the afternoon's fading light. As our good fortune has it, we are to turn here, descending into this scene, for our stay at The Inn at Windmill Farm, nestled within Door County's less touristy interior.

Grape arbors line one side of the driveway. A garden swing sits beside an apple and cherry orchard and vegetable garden. Cornfields bracket the white Dutch gambrel-roof 1900s farmhouse, a windmill lazily turning beside it. Out back, the weathered barn and assorted outbuildings suggest the long history of this former working farm. Everywhere you look, there's a perfect vignette calling to be painted.

It doesn't take an artist's eye to find inspiration here. Nevertheless, many artists – aspiring and more advanced – are drawn to this B&B, not just for the bucolic setting but for its artists' studio and watercolor instructor. Co-owner Ed Fenendael took his first watercolor class at The Clearing in 1974. He later left his day job as a dentist and turned his hobby into his vocation. Today he teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute, the Peninsula Art School, and in the light-filled studio off his B&B's former dairy barn.

A getaway here offers an environment without the distractions – laundry to fold, beds to make, phones to answer – that disrupt the creative process at home.

Inside the farmhouse they restored and expanded in 2001, Fenendael and his partner, Frank Villigan – whose canvas is the B&B's landscaping – used a striking palette of dove gray and yellow on the walls. All the main-floor rooms – dining room, kitchen, sitting room (with grand piano and wood-burning fireplace), small library – are tastefully appointed with antique pieces collected by Villigan or handed down to Fenendael: a Belgian tapestry, Jacobean chest, majolica plates, Chippendale chairs with toile slipcovers.

Upstairs, past Fenendael's interpretation of Monet's "A Field of Poppies," the three handsome guest rooms (two with shared bath) display more antiques, plus prints by the artist – van Gogh, Vermeer, and Bruegel – for whom each room was named.

There are no starving artists here, thanks to a breakfast of egg soufflé with Swiss chard and herbs; peaches; powdered-sugar-topped banana bread; and melon accompanied by peach, mint, and raspberry. This meal, shared with the other guests, is the most congenial we've experienced at a B&B – due largely to the charm and accommodating ways of our hosts, who, if you want to hear the sound of raindrops on the tin roof, have been known to creatively oblige with a hose.

Monet had his gardens, Gauguin found his muse in Tahiti, and van Gogh painted prolifically in Arles. We have Door County – and the Inn at Windmill Farm.

The Silver Star Country Inn

By Harriet Brown
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

You don't have to be a photographer (or, in my case, be married to one) to fall in love with the Silver Star Country Inn, outside of Spring Green. You don't need to know Steichen from Stieglitz, or Lange from Cameron.

After all, you might (forgive the pun) develop an interest. Or at least come away with a new respect for the art form that has been described as "a moment of embarrassment and a lifetime of pleasure."

We make our way to the inn on a golden evening, driving the rolling back roads west of Spring Green and pulling up before an imposing log lodge that looks like it belongs in the Rockies, surrounded by snow-covered peaks and evergreens. Owner Jean Langer designed the inn herself, from the wooden beams and central stone fireplace to the interior log joins and exterior staircases leading to second-story landings.

"Every B&B is a reflection of its owner," explains Langer.

The Silver Star Bed & Breakfast Inn – named for the silver in the photographic process –reflects her passion for photography. Each of its 10 guest rooms is organized around a photo-related theme: The Magnum Room (named for the famous agency) features a moody triptych by Edward Holland, while the Julia Margaret Cameron Room focuses on women photographers. The Talbot-Daguerre Room contains two black-and-whites by Douglas Busch and a copy of the book Keepers of the Light. The FSA Room (for Farm Security Administration) offers a look at a couple of Langer's own artistic black-and-whites.

My husband and I score the Stieglitz-Steichen Room, complete with cozy plaid couch, an old manual typewriter, prints from local photographer Carol Bjerke, and a whirlpool in the bathroom.

Before opening the inn in 1995, Langer owned and ran the A-Space Gallery in Madison, where she collected much of the art – photography, painting, sculpture – that now fills the inn. The 10-foot-high ceilings (14 feet on the second floor) make for a lot of wall space. Downstairs in the enormous main room, a glass-fronted cabinet holds old cameras and artifacts, including a photograph of the actress Agnes Moorehead as a child.

Upstairs, the long hallway is lined with old wedding photos Langer has picked up over the years; occasionally a guest will recognize a family member. In one print, a radiant bride holds a bouquet of calla lilies, her 1940s gown swirled at her feet; in another, a bride from 100 years ago stares tragically from the frame, looking as if she's going to her doom. I find myself thinking about her long after we put out the lights – such is the haunting power of the photographed image.

At breakfast – french toast dusted with sugar and garnished with fresh melon, kiwi, strawberries, oranges, and a tiny plum – we ask Langer how many photographers are represented at the inn. "I have no idea," she says with a laugh.

We start going through the inn to count them, but quickly get sidetracked by the three-dimensional art sled, the infrared shot of trees, and all the other deliciously idiosyncratic items Langer has collected. You could spend a weekend here and not see everything. And Langer's always adding new pieces-all the more reason to come back again and again.

For more area Information on celebrating the fall harvest, contact the Spring Green Area Chamber of Commerce.

Caboose Cabins

By Katie McKy
Special to TravelWisconsin.com

Spending the night in Caboose Cabins' Soo Line Caboose #34 in Sparta, a block from one end of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, fulfills one of my long-standing fantasies: to spend the night in a museum. By day, there are the museum's rules and wandering guards, but by night, one can roam anywhere, unfettered by velvet stanchions and unworried by Do Not Touch signs.

Dave and Jenny Erickson didn't gut the caboose and render it into a cabin on wheels. Instead, they blended history and amenities. They honored what was there, but teased out its potential. The floor is original: refinished pine and maple, but raised to a honeyed shine. One half of the cupola is preserved, with the original, flipping "walkover" seat, which allowed the conductor to perch high and easy and watch both ways. The other half has been converted into a bed - the most splendid bunk bed any child could imagine. It's a lofty, comfy cubby with the windows granting views of passing trains-busy train tracks being just a block away.

The caboose is red, white, and black both inside and out; a black-and-white enameled kitchen table extends the original color scheme. On the table, a basket lined with red gingham holds crimson apples, assorted chocolates, and jaunty, ruby-red drinking glasses. Soo Line coffee mugs bookend the basket. White cotton embroidered cafe curtains and fresh-cut flowers further warm the steel interior.

My favorite part of most museums is the theater, but in Soo Line Caboose #34, one gets to watch the movie in a queen-size bed, plump with pillows and quilts. The video, of course, is Trains Unlimited-The Caboose, which we enjoy while munching on microwaved popcorn-provided by the Ericksons, as are a refrigerator, a grill on the deck, and a private bathroom.

Beside the bed is the conductor's original desk and chair, with an array of books about cabooses and a photo album depicting Caboose #34's journey to Sparta. Caboose art, caboose photos, and railroading artifacts grace the walls, and a railroad lantern serves as a night-light. We explore the commingling trails out behind the caboose and discover a glade, a perfectly strange and lovely opening. There's a hollow, too, arched with maple trees, and the clear La Crosse River, which is freckled with geese, ducks, and a great blue heron.

That night, occasional passing trains slightly stir our caboose, their whistles as lovely and lonely as loons. Earplugs, one of many perfect amenities, are available, but we pass on them. It's a sensually and historically rich experience, and we don't want to miss a note of it.

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This entry was posted in Places to Stay Specialty