Destination: Sundara Inn & Spa, Wisconsin Dells and Owl Ridge Cabin, Wausau
Distance from Madison: 52 miles (Wisconsin Dells); 143 miles (Wausau)
I think it was in the outdoor jacuzzi — steam rising from the hot water into the cold night air as I let my shoulders drop — where I realized stopping at a spa mid-road trip was a fantastic idea. Gas station snacks are certainly blown out of the water by a cocktail at a swim-up bar, and I can’t in good conscience even try to compare a heated seat to a warm massage table at an award-winning spa facility. I actually might have ruined road trips for myself forever. And that was just the stop along the way.
I set out to escape to the woods (with modern amenities) by pairing two destinations that offered luxurious experiences in serene, forest-surrounded places: I spent a night at Sundara Inn & Spa in Wisconsin Dells on my way to Wausau’s newest destination rental, Owl Ridge Cabin. I initially landed on these two spots because they met one key criterion: They wouldn’t require me to drive very far. Sundara is only an hour from Madison, and Wausau is another 1 hour and 45 minutes from the Dells.
I walked into Owl Ridge Cabin already in a Zen state of mind from my Sundara stop. My expectations were exceeded many times over after I discovered the details put into this one-bedroom hideaway. Sundara had helped me relax my body, but Owl Ridge quickly relaxed my mind.
Once I was ready to rejoin society (after more bubble baths than a human should probably take), I drove the short distance from the cabin into Wausau’s downtown to do some exploring. It became a slow-paced, three-part, three-day getaway. Here’s a breakdown of the experience, plus tips, if you need a trip like this.
Start At Sundara
I was pleasantly surprised by Sundara Inn & Spa’s electronics-free policy in common areas. These days it seems like we need a little push to put our devices down, and not carrying my cellphone around really did help me feel unplugged. Sundara is tucked into an 80-acre forest on the outskirts of the Dells, making it feel like a hidden gem. But for 20 years, the spa has racked up national and international acclaim, including a mention on Town & Country’s “The 20 Best Destination Spas” in the world list and a No. 4 ranking on Travel + Leisure magazine’s “10 Best Resorts in the Midwest” list.
Start your morning on the quiet side of the spa, where a five-step purifying bath ritual area lets you go from a hot whirlpool to a cold plunge. Then consider booking a hydrotherapy treatment in an Aemotio Spa cabin, which includes a heated water mattress and a rainfall water shower (featuring six water jets), among many other treatments. Then walk over to the Cambrian Oasis pool area (which includes a swim-up bar, indoor/outdoor pools and jetted inlets) that’s made to look like you’re surrounded by Wisconsin Dells’ characteristic Cambrian sandstone.
Pro Tip: If you’re staying overnight, the Woodland Retreat is worth it. When Sundara expanded its resort in 2018 to add eight Woodland Retreat guest suites (the largest of which include private soaking tubs on the patio) it took no time at all for the rooms to develop a waiting list. In 2022, eight more secluded suites were added (four featuring the private enclosed patios with oversized hot soaks and fireplaces). Plan ahead and snag one, and sit in your own personal tub, with a fire roaring just above the water and deer wandering beyond the patio on the edge of a pine tree forest.
Sneak Away to the Cabin
Randy and Sara Bangs have thought of everything. Owl Ridge Cabin, which they opened in December 2022 on a 10-acre forested area, capitalizes on the luxury cabin getaway trend that so many single travelers and couples are clamoring for. And at $260-$350 per night on average, it’s priced lower than many other luxury cabin experiences. The amenities are lavish — heated floors, a large soaking tub, dimmable lights throughout, essential oil bath products, a full kitchen, a high-end Toto toilet (just Google it), towel warmers and more make this Wausau’s Shangri-La. I highly recommend opening a bottle of wine, asking Alexa to play some music, putting on a face mask and drawing yourself a bath. It’s tough to leave this place during your stay, but with downtown Wausau only 11 minutes away, you won’t have to wander too far.
Buster Brown, a German long-haired pointer, greeted me at the door of The Stewart Inn, a bed and breakfast also owned by the Bangs (they’re Wausau’s unofficial hospitality experts). I was treated to a charming breakfast and sit-down with Randy Bangs, who helped lay out my day in Wausau. The day before I had already hit Red Eye Brewing Co. for a quick lunch and browsed a little boutique next door called JN Creations, then picked up a latte from The Ugly Mug located inside a small business district building packed with shopping and dining storefronts. (Editor's note: The Ugly Mug closed after this article went to print.) My Wausau tour guide and host told me I must order the shrimp chartreuse at Ciao. I followed those orders and paired the dish with a pear martini at this Italian restaurant’s bar, and I was happy to discover I was not led astray. I stopped at Timekeeper Distillery for a nightcap before retreating back to Owl Ridge. The next day, I returned downtown to check out Janke Book Store (the oldest bookstore in Wisconsin) and Evolutions in Design (an eclectic and sprawling gift and floral shop). I would have tried to stop at a few more spots, but instead popped into Downtown Grocery to load up on snacks, then drove to Nine Mile County Forest to hit the trails. After a 6-mile hike, I was dreaming about another bubble bath back at the cabin. The morning of my departure, I stopped at a local institution for breakfast: The Mint Cafe. Bangs says those who work and eat at this little diner, which has been open since 1888, see it as a point of pride in the community. I’m a sucker for diner coffee, so this hit the spot for me and was an excellent final stop in a city I have a new appreciation for.
If I hadn’t had to leave right after breakfast on my last morning in town, I would have filled a basket full of cheese at The Milk Merchant, then picked up a bottle (or two) of wine at Lil’ Ole Winemaker Shoppe. One extra day in Wausau would have also allowed me to catch the opening of an art exhibit at D Anthony, a gallery/atelier/framing shop.
PRO TIP: Wausau’s art and museum scene punches above its weight class. Take a museum crawl and stop into the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art (undergoing renovations), the Yawkey House Museum, the Center for Visual Arts and the Marathon County Historical Society.
Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine.
COPYRIGHT 2023 BY MADISON MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.