BAYFIELD — Heidi Zimmer removed her shoes in the Peace Pod entryway.
The singular building on the shore of Lake Superior has large windows facing the water and surrounding birch trees. The vaulted ceiling rises high above as natural light floods the space.
“It feels very much like a sanctuary,” she said.
The intentional space is one of many within the Wild Rice Retreat.
The year-round wellness center offers the option of guided programming or a DIY experience, lodging, a sauna, access to trails, a nourishment program and more to help create an environment for grounding the mind, body and spirit through artistic and holistic experiences.
Movement, creativity and art are just as healing as any kind of therapy, said Zimmer, retreat founder.
Zimmer built affordable housing and creative spaces for artists for 14 years before setting her sights on revamping the former Wild Rice Restaurant into the retreat center. She hired Duluth architect David Salmela and his team, who had originally designed the restaurant, to work on 22 lodging spaces. While their soft open is Friday and their grand opening is July 22, the retreat has had its units and kitchen available through Airbnb for several months.
In that time, they’ve had visitors from Chicago, Iowa, California and Vermont, and they’ve been featured in "Food & Wine Magazine," "Travel + Leisure Magazine" and "Forbes." During a News Tribune visit, Zimmer and creative director Annalisa Bermel discussed finishing touches during a tour of the grounds.
The Ricepod, the first lodging choice, houses two twin beds, in-floor radiant heat, windows on all sides (including a skylight) and views of lush trees.
They didn’t want bunk beds and barebone surroundings with a community bathroom. They wanted it to be geared toward women and feel more like a luxury experience. "It’s taking camping up 10 more notches," Bermel said.
The next unit up, The Nest, features a king bed in a private bedroom and a sleeper sofa in a meeting room. In each bathroom stand encaustic walls that mirror the lake; there’s also bedding from Parachute and a Blu Dot nook bed.
Their "treehauses" are two-floor buildings with four private suites, a full kitchen and seating areas. Each has its own color scheme — red, blue and black — with little nooks of private spaces. To maximize square footage, each unit’s utilities are through a trap door in the basement.
Weighted blankets in mauve or cream rest on the beds throughout the grounds with local commissioned art on the walls and books about forest bathing, meditation and the Apostle Islands on shelves and end tables.
“We were very intentional about how we created the physical spaces here, even down to the names of them. … Ricepod, Nest, Treehaus are all containers in nature,” Zimmer said.
While developing this space, Zimmer drew from her own experiences on retreats. During one in particular, she struggled with letting go.
“I was overwhelmed with grief. I had three losses all in a row with people really near and dear to my heart, and trouble really moving through it. So, going on retreat and just resting in nature, meditating, writing, cutting myself off from the electronics and allowing myself to actually grieve, I came away feeling a lot lighter. It was quite a transformation.
“I knew that you can go to a wellness resort and you can get a massage and you can get a pedicure and you can lie by the pool and you can eat healthy food, but it’s not the same as doing something as intentional as retreating and doing some of the work that goes along with that,” she said.
They built this space with the intention that guests may feel protected in nature, let their guards down, become vulnerable and have that falling apart or putting back together that they need, Bermel said. But they don’t want there to be pressure to transform from a caterpillar to a butterfly. If you literally just need to lie down for five days, that’s OK, Zimmer said.
For their nourishment program, retreat staff members are planning daily signature dishes that will focus on the season. They’re partnering with the Red Cliff Fish Company and local farmers; there are also plans for artisan pastries.
“Everything is in service of: What kind of day is it? How are you feeling? What do you need from us?” said Brie Roland, head of food and beverage.
They plan to offer low-decision dining, which means asking if you want something comforting or adventurous, meat, no meat, alcohol or no alcohol. From that, they’ll craft and present a three-course meal. The food is about simplicity. After guests make their small decisions, the staff will provide the nutrition, Roland said.
Being on Lake Superior affords them the ability to dine as if they’re on the coast, said head chef Dustin Thompson. He used to be a Wild Rice Restaurant customer, and he’s looking forward to giving the existing kitchen new life.
Guests can choose a personal or a guided retreat.
If you’re going DIY, you’ll have the option to engage in a sequence of daily options such as yoga, hikes, gardening — or nothing at all.
Some come to unwind, unplug and rest; others come to further their art form of photography or writing.
“It’s not a school, but a true retreat center,” Bermel added.
For those who choose to go guided, they’ll be led by a visiting instructor.
Expect yoga practices focusing on intuitive transitions, manifesting and the art of seeing, and everything from metalsmithing to indigo-dyeing.
“I approach instructors who have values that align with our mission,” the retreat’s programming consultant, Jenna Erickson, said by email. It’s “the perfect recipe for creativity.”
While “all-inclusive” has a connotation that doesn't quite fit their intentions, a stay offers just that. Prices range from $178 to $392 per night depending on the space you book, and the cost covers lodging, meals, open classes, access to the trails and the sauna.
They are working on a scholarship fund to increase accessibility.
Zimmer would not have picked Bayfield for this development if it hadn’t already had an existing vibrant art and tourism scene. They went into this supporting local economy and have received support from the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce.
They invited a Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa medicine man for a ground-blessing ceremony. “He said the ground was already blessed,” Zimmer said. “His blessing was to bless what we were carrying forward.”
The story continues: Architect talks about revisiting a space he designed 20 years ago
The Wild Rice Retreat space in Bayfield is and has always been female-led, starting 20 years ago with restaurateur Mary Rice.
When designing the original Wild Rice Restaurant, Duluth architect David Salmela wanted the restaurant to run parallel to Lake Superior, so there would be no bad view in the house.
They intentionally created a light gap between the kitchen and the dining room, so there would be light coming in from five directions.
They used dynamite to break up the brownstone, the remnants of which now grace the entrance of the retreat center’s main building.
They put the restaurant on piers, so it’s floating on the ground and facing the lake.
His job for the Wild Rice Retreat was to make a physical reality that communicated the intent of their program. The former restaurant, which now acts as the retreat’s main building, was easy to usher in a new direction.
He called the development of the Wild Rice Retreat an “absolutely worthy, positive thing.”
Creating the lodging units was a new experience for Salmela, whose background is in creating commercial and residential spaces.
Salmela said he tried to focus on what the lodging spaces communicated, their placement on the grounds and letting the recognizable structures, like the Peace Pod and the sauna, speak for themselves.
His clean design is a nice juxtaposition to the wildness of the woods. It’s an amazing balance, said Wild Rice Retreat founder Heidi Zimmer.
She and artistic director Annalisa Bermel said working with Salmela inspired some thoughts for the future.
“If you look at the Treehaus handrails, those are simple. Simple materials made into beautiful things. That’s probably one of my best lessons: You don’t actually have to use super-expensive materials to create beautiful spaces.
“Put your money into natural light, and let nature be your home decorator,” Zimmer said.
For Bermel, the lesson is that you don’t need an enormous amount of square footage to create an impact. Pare it down and simplify. Also, you don’t have to go big or fancy. Focus on being resourceful, working with suppliers and builders, and nurture good relationships.