If you have the sleigh and the reindeer, the North Pole is the ultimate winter wonderland. But if you’re restricted to less-magical modes of transport, a quiet rural county in Wisconsin may be your next best alternative. Oconto County, a happy wooded hamlet about an hour north-northwest of Green Bay, is the kind of picture-perfect snowscape that would spur Robert Frost into a poetic fever dream. Seemingly preserved in time (in all the right ways) and comprised of quaint towns like Mountain and Lakewood, it’s a quiet region flanked by scenic hills, cross-country ski trails, cozy cottages, prime rib platters and icy ponds with so much water fowl that they look like the real-life Swan Lake. So, as Ina Garten would say, if you can’t make it to the Arctic Circle this winter wonderland season, Oconto County will do just fine.
Where to Stay
Part of the charm of a quiet retreat like Oconto County is its utter lack of development and modernity. This means you won’t find any chain hotels or motels, but rather a smattering of comfy cottages and cabins throughout the woods and on ponds. Around here, rental companies like VRBO and RedAwning are king, and there are real gems to be found, especially at snug abodes along West Shore Drive in Mountain. Lodging options don’t come any cuter than log cabins with fire pits, fireplaces, huge tubs and spacious living quarters overlooking Chute Pond. In the morning, private docks are the ideal places to sit still with a mug of coffee, watching geese and swans flutter about.
Just down the dirt road, Spur of the Moment Ranch is a beautiful family-run destination that offers year-round cabins and campsites, along with all kinds of horse-drawn fun. It’s a popular retreat for families, horseback riders and ATV enthusiasts, thanks to its patchwork of woodland trails that provide easy access for snowmobiles and horse-drawn carriages (in the winter, the summertime wagons make way for reindeer-worthy sleighs). The ranch is also a great place to stay and savor the serenity of the season — cabins come in all different styles and sizes, befitting a familial vacation, a romantic hideaway or an opportunity to hole up and let the solitude inspire you to write an album, Bon Iver-style.
For more of that full-service hotel vibe, check in at Waubee Lake Lodge, a huge timber-clad hotel in Lakewood that features 17 kitchen-equipped suites (including some with jacuzzis and lofts), along with seven cabins, a full bar and a restaurant with a particular penchant for aged beef and prime rib.
Where to Eat
In a lot of ways, Oconto County has the look and feel of a real-life Schitt’s Creek. But instead of having just one adorable cafe to patronize, there’s a whole slew of them.
In Lakewood, Northern Perks Coffee & Gift Shop doubles as the kind of place where you can snag a cup of coffee, a scone and all the bear-themed merchandise you never knew you needed. Part cafe and part twee boutique, the homey shop serves a laundry list of coffees and teas, with plenty of both sold in bulk for take-home sipping, along with a huge assortment of northwoods-inspired apparel, decor and gifts. Basically, whether you’re looking to give your home a Midwestern makeover, stock up on socks or buy lamps and slippers with black bears all over them, you’ve found the perfect place.
Another great spot to rise and shine is The Rustic Cup, a familial nook of a restaurant in Mountain, where cozy vibes include a stone fireplace and wholesome, soulful diner-style food like thick-cut French toast, fluffy flapjacks, corned beef hash and Denver omelets.
Come lunch, park your snowmobile at The Olive Pit Bar & Grill and sink your teeth into a little-known Wisconsin tradition. Located in Townsend, right on the Nicolet State Trail, the timeworn pub-like spot specializes in something called the Olive Burger — and surprise, surprise, it contains olives. Unlike the more widely known Wisconsin-style butter burger, the Olive Burger is a singular treat that tops beef patties with an olive and cream cheese spread, along with bacon and sautéed olives, on a cornmeal-dusted bun. It’s basically the dirty martini of burgers, and it’s surprisingly perfect in all its salty glory. And in true Wisconsin fashion, The Olive Pit also partakes in Fish Fry Fridays, which means fried fish baskets — available with either walleye or perch — are sold exclusively on Fridays.
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For something sweet, Sweet Memories Candy Shoppe is a real-deal blast from the past. Open since 1991 in a Lakewood locale that looks like an old house, every nook and cranny of this place is packed with all manner of sugars, syrups and vintage sweets. Walking in, you’re enveloped with the treacly aroma of fresh fudge and caramel corn, which is sure to put you in a zombie-like trance as you peruse the dizzying array of salt-water taffy, candy corn, brittle, jelly beans and fudge. There’s also a vintage piano, an old-fashioned Coca-Cola vending machine from 1959, and a variety of puzzles and games to give you something to do as you sink into a candy coma.
No matter how newfangled or old-school, supper clubs are a rite of passage in Wisconsin, known for their cozy timeworn comfort foods and even cozier confines. Oh, and Brandy Old Fashioneds are an essential cocktail order. Around here, Weatherwood Supper Club is a hallowed institution in Mountain — a lofty, barn-like space lined with timber, animal photos and requisite black bear decor to remind you that you’re deep in the woods. The food is endearingly decadent, with local favorites like cheesy hash browns, broiled haddock, pork chops and a surprisingly sterling plate of chicken cordon bleu, bursting with molten Swiss and enrobed in creamy alfredo sauce.
If you’re wanting a break from the brandy, Woodland Trail Winery is a longstanding Lakewood winery and gift shop that pours some surprisingly solid vino. Open since 1990, it’s the ninth oldest winery in the state, with a portfolio of nearly 100 wines to show for it. Perched on a hill overlooking the pastoral town, Woodland Trail offers tastings, gifts and retail sales, with bottles that run the gamut from familiar faves (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) to fruit wines (e.g. Cinnamon Pear, Black Cherry, Strawberry Cream) to the adventurous (e.g. Caramel Apple, Chocolate Fudge Orange, Butter Pecan).
Things to Do
Up here in the peaceful rolling hills and tranquility of the Wisconsin northwoods, time seems to stand still, stress melts away, WiFi fades into oblivion and you appreciate the niceties of nature and snow-swept trails. This is the kind of traffic-free oasis where travelers can really unplug and enjoy the simple pleasures of a good book by a fireplace, or a quiet stroll though the woods. Fortunately, no matter the winter wonderland vibe you’re channeling, Oconto County has you covered.
Out in the woods, especially in and around the massive Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, trails range from flat treks to scenic slopes, all ideal for hiking and leisurely strolls. Butler Rock and Quartz Hill are two popular — and short and easy — trails that offer ample reward in the form of sweeping views over the tree line. Although Wisconsin certainly doesn’t have any Aspen-style slopes, skiers can still scratch that itch on the Paul Bunyan Ski Hill in Lakewood or go tubing on the Oconto Falls Tubing Hill.
On flatter terrain, the county boasts nearly 1,000 miles worth of trails for ATVs, including some 480 miles of groomed trails for snowmobiles, all of which are equally suitable for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, while the Riverview Town Hall ice skating rink is free to use in Mountain (skate rentals are available, but limited). There are also designated trails that are specifically groomed for cross-country skis, including he Lakewood Cross Country Ski Trails in Lakewood, the Machickanee Forest Ski Trail in Stiles and the McComb Nordic Ski Trails in Mountain.
Oconto County is a wonderland for wintry outdoor recreation, but the region is also filled with funky shops, galleries and indoor activities — like Olive + Birch, a vibrant clothing boutique with plenty of fashionable winter wear; Joan White Nicolet Studio, a small studio teeming with nature-inspired artwork; Amish-made log furniture at Rustic Retreat Furniture; and The Wood Shed, the county’s sole axe-throwing facility at Riverwood Saloon in Lena.
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