Here I Go A Wassailing: Old Rittenhouse Inn & Bayfield, WI

Old Rittenhouse Inn

Today the road has brought me to Bayfield, WI.

It’s time once again for my favorite review of the year:  the annual Christmas B & B review.

This review has been 3 years in the making, but at long last I was able to make my way to this tiny village at the tip of northern Wisconsin to experience Old Rittenhouse Inn, owned and operated by the Phillips family, and its famous Wassail Weekend which was back in action after being suspended due to COVID for a few years.  This has been one of my favorite reviews and an inn that I would visit again in a heartbeat.

As I stated, Bayfield is a small village located at Wisconsin’s northern tip.  It also sits at the base of Lake Superior which means there is always the danger of a lake effect blizzard.  Due to this threat, I took the precaution of insuring my trip through Travel Guard.  For the cost of $35, I was able to have the peace of mind knowing that I wouldn’t be out financially in case things went south and the insurance would also fund lodging to the tune of $100 a day for five days if weather prevented me from returning home.

Fortunately, the weather report called for cold, but clear, weather for my jaunt.  So I was ready to rock.

I took an alternate route to Bayfield through the highways of Wisconsin for the double purpose of avoiding the Twin Cities which had just gone through a winter storm and for the hope of passing through small towns and seeing some local Christmas flavor.  A hope which was fulfilled as I made the long, but quaint, drive through the state.

I finally arrived in Bayfield around 3:30pm on Friday afternoon.  When you think small town, Bayfield is what leaps to mind.  It only has a total population of 584, has no chain restaurants, and a movie theater with one screen.  Truly it is the place to get away from it all.

The town had been bopped by its own storm on Tuesday and snow lined the streets and lawns.  But, hey, what’s a Christmas review without the magic of some winter snow?

I made my way to Old Rittenhouse Inn which practically kisses Lake Superior.  It is a Queen Anne Victorian mansion built in the Painted Lady architectural style and was originally built as a summer residence in 1890.  Jerry and Mary Phillips bought the home in 1973 and began operating it as Wisconsin’s first B & B. 

The mansion boasts an impressive 12 rooms which hold amenities such as whirlpool tubs, fireplaces, and views of Lake Superior.  Old Rittenhouse also has a sister inn called Le Chateau which holds an additional seven rooms for lodgers.  Old Rittenhouse also contains its own gourmet restaurant, Landmark Restaurant, on property and is open to the general public.  As the restaurant only holds 62, reservations are highly recommended, even as a guest of the inn.

I crunched my way to the front door of the inn where I checked in at an honest to goodness front desk and was led to Room 6.  This is one of the five biggest rooms I’ve stayed in and could have hosted a small party.  The room’s tan walls hold some lovely paintings along with a comfortable leather couch, rocking chair, coffee table, private table for two, a king-sized bed, and a whirlpool tub in the corner.  I also shared a private balcony with the room down the hall.

Once settled in, I explored the mansion and admired the Christmas festiveness on the first floor as well as the inn’s highly regarded stained glass windows.

Once my explorations were done, I donned my hat and coat and went to the downtown area to look around.  Downtown is just a few blocks away so there’d be no need for the car for this journey.  Downtown Bayfield looked properly Christmassy with the pine boughs wrapped around the street lamps and the storefronts shining with decorations, lights, and trees.

I was visiting during the off season so many activities and restaurants weren’t available to me which simply means I’ll have to come back during the spring or summer to experience ferries to the Apostle Islands and other seasonal events.  But I did enjoy gazing into the various shops and stores and saw the Christmas spirit in full swing.

For my dinner, I headed to Morty’s Pub.  This small bar and grill exuded a great deal of fun with sports showing on several TVs, a pool table, and seating at tables or the bar.  Morty’s Pub also had a goodie table laid out with desserts and chips and some hot items for the patrons to enjoy.

For myself, I enjoyed a tasty Bourbon BBQ Burger while I continued working my way thought my latest book of Sherlock Holmes pastiches.  A light snow had started to fall as I hiked my way back to the inn and I felt a long day of driving hit me as I entered my room.  I drew a whirlpool bath, added some aloe and green tea bath salts and just soaked for a long while before crawling under the thick quilt and blankets and reading myself to sleep.

Since I tend to rise early, I decided to eat early as well and had made a reservation to have breakfast at 8am.  In fact, I was the only guest eating at that early hour.  A menu was available and breakfast is free to guests of the inn ($16 for the general public).  The menu had several intriguing entrees, but I went with the special du jour:  Virginia Ham Scramble with a side of Yukon Gold Potatoes. 

Breakfast started with goblets of water and orange juice and a popover with crabapple ginger jelly.  For those of you unfamiliar with them, it’s a hollowed-out muffin.  Now I don’t typically eat jams or jellies, but this jelly was exquisite and the ginger really enhanced the flavor of the fruit.  My entrée was perfect in every way, shape, and form.  It was the perfect size and didn’t leave me feeling stuffed.  The potatoes were nice and crisp and eminently seasoned.  The scramble was right on the mark and a little cracked pepper upped the ante on the taste.

This, my friends, was dining.  I spent 45 minutes eating this delectable faire as I vacillated from reading and watching the lake smoke (due to the water being warmer than the air) waft off of Lake Superior.  I left a generous tip for the service (remember this is a working restaurant) and returned to my room for a bit of writing and reading.

About 11:30am I headed back downtown as I had a 90 minute massage scheduled at Superior Body Massage & Spa with Jen Banowetz.  Might I say that if you’re seeking a massage in Bayfield, make an appointment with Jen.  Jen’s knowledge of massage is unparalleled and she explained her techniques as she worked my muscles.  Jen used a variety of techniques including acupressure, Thai, Chinese, and even a bit of chiropractic adjustment when she stretched out my lower back.  The best moment was when she found a knot the size of a marble in my jaw and dissolved it with her fingers.  I felt my jaw hang loose in a way I haven’t felt in ages.

After untying my knots, Jen led me to the infrared sauna to close out my treatment.  Infrared sauna is a fairly new treatment that is more effective than traditional sauna as the infrared heaters warm you up from the inside out instead of just heating the air.  This lets one have a longer treatment and also purges more toxins from the system, increases relaxation, helps in weight loss, and promotes better sleep just to name a few benefits.

After a great sweat, I made a stop at the spirits shop across the hall and picked up a six pack of Wisconsin’s famed Spotted Cow beer to enjoy with my siblings during our own Christmas celebration in a few weeks.  I then returned to the inn for a brief rest before heading off to worship at Holy Family.

Holy Family Parish

It was a good Advent service with the deacon giving a strong sermon on how easy it is to justify sin and accepting the challenge of Jesus to change those patterns of thinking.  It was definitely a meaty subject to mull over.  But what moved me the most was what happened when I was leaving the chapel.

Holy Family has had a substitute pastor and I shook his hand on the way out and he gave me the warmest handshake I think I have ever experienced.  I was struck by his sincerity and his servant’s spirit which taught me a lesson in being Christian more powerfully than words ever could.

I mulled over that lesson as I walked back to Old Rittenhouse where I took another whirlpool bath and dressed for the Wassail dinner.

About 6pm I headed downstairs and found Landmark packed to capacity.  I was seated at a table with a pair of lovely couples:  Cheryl & Ed and Gail & Paul.  I enjoyed conversing with them throughout the eve.

At 6:30pm, the Old Rittenhouse Singers lined the cherry staircase and Jerry Phillips appeared in the doorway, shook his tambourine, and shouted, “Wassail!!” which the diners/audience heartily repeated.

Jerry Phillips welcomes the diners to Wassail.

This launched the Wassail Weekend.  Through the month of December, Old Rittenhouse Inn hosts 3 course luncheons ($65) and 5 course dinners ($95) where you are serenaded by the Old Rittenhouse Singers who will entertain you with a variety of Christmas hymns and carols.  Normally, the singers go from dining room to dining room to serenade, but sang to us from the stairs this year as a precaution.  Next year, the plan is to return to the traditional format.

Old Rittenhouse Singers

Now five courses may sound like a lot of food and it is filling, but the portions are not excessive (though the main entrée, understandably, is the most filling) and the courses are paced out over the night.  To give you an idea of the pacing, the first course was served shortly after 6:30pm and the final course was served around 10pm.

But what an amazing and festive night!!

The Christmas spirit was in full swing as the Old Rittenhouse Singers sang their hearts out and I enjoyed a sumptuous meal which began with a special Christmas cocktail called a White Christmas which was like a grasshopper without the green coloring.  Throughout the night I enjoyed a sumptuous feast consisting of the following courses:

Course 1:  Mushroom Consommé
Course 2:  Wassail Salad
Course 3:  Sorbet
Course 4:  Shaved Prime Rib with asparagus and mashed potatoes
Course 5:  Turtle Sundae with a rum syrup

With a full stomach and a peaceful soul, I slept soundly until morning dreaming of attending Wassail again in its full glory.

I dined early again as I had a long drive ahead of me and got to eat in the Blue Room (due to the color of the walls).  This was the inn’s original dining room before the Phillips family expanded it into the restaurant in the early 1980s.  I enjoyed the daily special again which was a Denver Scramble though I opted for bacon as the side dish and had V8 for the beverage.

Once I’d breakfasted, I settled the bill and began the long trek home.

If you want to experience Christmas in a way you never thought, you need to come to Old Rittenhouse Inn.  You will have an experience that will have you light of heart and full in stomach.  And the accommodations are luxurious and comfortable.  It will truly be a weekend you will remember always.

Until the next time. . .happy travels. . .and happy holidays!

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