For more photos, click gallery, above.
The summer rental is always a surprise. And honestly, I don't mind that. Encountering a little something of the unexpected can be a good thing during a vacation.
Despite the prevalence of websites that provide maps and photos of the rooms and the sunset from the pier, and copious descriptions of same, and the reviews of previous renters, you never really know what you'll end up with. The reality is never quite what you imagine it being in April or May when you're clicking on thumbnails. Or even at the end of July when you're really behind the curve on booking something for August and still clicking on thumbnails.
Of course, before the days of thumbnails, it was a lot more work to find out what the place was like even marginally, and often you just didn't. A rental I ended up at on Ocracoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, seemed to be made out of nothing more than plywood and two-by-fours, no wallboard or paneling, furnished with couches and chairs one might expect to find on the curb in Madison come Aug. 14. I guess the rent must have been really cheap. I highly doubt if the place survived the last hurricane.
It didn't really matter. The house was right next to the ocean, had an outdoor shower, and enough pots and pans to throw dinner together. My friends and I could see the sun set from the (on-the-verge-of-collapsing) front porch.
Since then, I've rented a few cottages/cabins/houses for a week's stay, some with the benefit of an Internet preview, some not. There was an impeccable, nearly brand-new log cabin with a Jacuzzi and a hot tub and a view of the setting sun over the Great Smoky Mountains and the largest bed I have ever seen.
Then there was the rental billed as quiet and on an almost-private lake that turned out to be a double-wide trailer that didn't seem to have quite been prepped after the previous renters left.
And there was the very petite two-bedroom cottage on a lake near Cable that had an almost-double bed squeezed into the first bedroom so that one had to climb onto it from the doorway.
And the charming cottage "on Lake Superior" that was not really on Lake Superior in a way that you could, say, see Lake Superior from its porch. That one had a stone fireplace that wouldn't draw and a bed that was so tall I almost needed a stepstool to climb into it.
I would go back to any of these places. Despite the iffiness of some of the trappings, there was always something else appealing that balanced the negatives.
First of all, the common denominator among all these places, for me, is that they accept pets. If you are looking at the wide world of vacation rentals and despair of ever being able to narrow down your choices, just check "pet-friendly" as a requirement and watch your options dwindle.
The pet-friendly end of the rental spectrum tends to provide more rustic accommodations. Not universally - when the owners of the rental are big pet lovers, they might not mind letting you use their beautiful new cabin with the hardwood floors and $1,000 couches with your two wildly shedding dogs, but this is not the usual.
What "pet-friendly" means varies widely. It can mean "One dog only under 20 pounds," or "$20 per pet per day," or "$150 per pet per stay, non-refundable," which doesn't strike me as all that friendly. A refundable $100 deposit, if your pet doesn't wreck anything, seems a lot more neighborly.
It's all about balance. What's more important - having your dog with you or having to leave him in a kennel? A new bedspread or a quiet lake free from Jet-Skis? A Jacuzzi or 100 feet of sandy beach and a clear lake with a gentle slope instead of a drop-off? Your call. At heart, I want the shack on the beach, not the multi-story hotel with spa and workout room.
I actually stayed for a week at the double-wide for two summers, and I'd do it again, despite the minimally equipped kitchen and the threadbare bedding. (The owner is no longer renting out the trailer.)
The double-wide was about 15 minutes outside of Minocqua, down a couple of long gravel roads, and then down a fairly steep driveway. It was set back from the lake enough to allow for a hammock, a kind of outdoor dining area (a picnic table under a tarp canopy) and a fire pit. There was the sandy beach, the dock, and a canoe and a rowboat with an outboard motor at the ready. A hodgepodge of inflatable tubes and balls were stored with the oars down by the dock.
The lake was shallow enough at the shore for wading but deep enough at the end of the pier for a vigorous jump or dive. There were only a handful of other homes on the lake, mostly on the opposite shore, and in the second week of August, very few people seemed to be around. Every so often someone would come around in a simple boat, fishing. There were more loons on the lake than people.
The lake, unlike a lot of lakes in the Minocqua area, was not part of a chain, so there was no parade of motorboats roaring past. Ever. The owner did divulge that there was an overgrown canoe portage on the opposite side, where it was possible to get to the next lake without too much trouble. (It was overgrown enough to remain completely unfindable, but still, the paddle and search was a worthy summer activity.)
Bicycling a big loop on the gravel and dirt roads around this and the neighboring lakes was possible, though, and the near complete absence of traffic made it possible to bring the dog along, panting tirelessly alongside the bikes.
At night, sitting around the campfire, it was easy to look up into the dark sky and see shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower (peak time falls between Aug. 9 and 14) and listen to the ridicule of the loons. Threadbare bedspread? Who cares? If getting away from it all is the goal of a summer vacation, this was the solution.
After the double-wide was removed from the spectrum of up-north rentals, I found myself looking, spur-of-the-moment, for something similar (secluded, on a lake, pet-friendly) everywhere from the U.P. to Burnett County. While it is possible to find something for the third week in August (families with kids are already heading back to school), during the first week in August it's not a practice I would necessarily recommend. However, after a lot of hunting around online I found a spot outside Cable that seemed similar without its actually being a trailer. (I didn't really need to re-create that aspect of the experience.)
One of the most difficult things to divine from reading the descriptions of summer rentals is how close the nearest neighbors are, and there are plenty of cottages and cabins up north jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder. In this instance, I lucked out. This rental was near the neighboring houses, but almost no one on the entire row of homes was in residence. There was a long grassy yard sloping down to the lake and the dock. No sandy beach this time, and low water levels had created a muddy shore, but wading was possible at the end of the pier and a canoe was also beached there for paddling. The area roads were little traveled, and mountain biking and snowmobile trails crisscrossed the forest land all around.
The house itself looked like a small 1950s ranch house, but it boasted a stone fireplace and a big picture window looking out over the lake. Kitchen supplies were scattershot, but there was a Weber outside for grilling, and a picnic table. Come to think of it, except for the fireplace and the picture window, the meager amenities were not that different from the trailer.
Still, I liked this place. Shortly after arriving, I looked out the window to the lake and saw a black bear ambling past down near the water. Again, the most noise came from the racket of the loons. But if I was trying to re-create the magic of that shacky, secluded little beach at the trailer, it wasn't quite the same.
In the end, it's probably just as well that the trailer owner no longer rents the place out. That lake and those summers have turned into a perfect memory, and I can stay on the lookout for new places to explore.
Rentals usually advertise fully equipped kitchens, but keep in mind that your fully equipped may not be someone else's definition of the term. The coffee maker may be a percolator, knives are likely to be dull, and non-stick frying pans are likely to be of the age that the coating is starting to flake off. If you plan on cooking, and you have room in your bags, take along some of your most leaned-on equipment... your favorite frying pan and knife, for instance. I bring along a simple coffee filter holder and filters just in case. I also bring a can opener (this is something that's usually there, but often it's very dull) and a sharp vegetable peeler. Good salt and pepper, and small containers of basic spice mixes, come in handy for cooking and grilling out.
Find your place...
Persistent Googling of various combinations of terms like "Wisconsin," "cottage," "cabin" and "rental" is a good place to start. If you have a specific county or town destination in mind, throw that in too. Try the "lodging" section of chamber of commerce websites for specific communities. Follow links - one link to a small rental agency run out of a bait shop can yield a number of possible spots to stay. Here are some places to start.