A getaway on the St. Croix River is an idyllic setting for a staycation.
To explore the St. Croix Valley in the summertime is to experience classic pastimes in beautiful surroundings: boating on the river, hiking in the woods or sipping cocktails on a patio. But to explore the Valley in the winter—snowy, cold and quiet—is something else entirely. “Living in Minnesota, the winters can be brutal,” Valley resident Alison Wilder says. “Doing something to get out of the house can seriously get you through.”
Wilder owns Wilder Retreat, a pair of small Airbnb getaway lodgings just outside of Taylors Falls in Shafer. She offers guests a chance to get away from what she calls the “rat race” of modern life, to rest and connect with nature. The lodgings—a bell tent and a tiny cabin—are uniquely suited to wintertime stays, looking out over the frosty St. Croix River. “They’re designed for all seasons,” Wilder says. “… There’s a woodstove in the tent and a fireplace in the cabin, and a woodfired sauna is something I’ve always been drawn to. I love getting it started for people, lighting some candles and making that experience, so they walk in and are in a different world.”
Wilder and her husband, Garrett, bought the 5.5-acre Shafer property a little more than four years ago. “It borders federal land, and we have a unique situation where we have river access,” she says. A half-mile walk down to the river takes guests for boating or swimming in the summer and hiking or snowshoeing in the winter. Wilder and her family live on the property in an old farmhouse but have situated the bell tent—made in Belgium specifically for cold weather—and the guest cabin a ways off. “We really emphasize giving guests privacy,” Wilder says. “We have a self-check-in process. If I’m around, I try to greet people, and we have two dogs, who are sort of the Wilder Retreat greeters.”
The bell tent is made of rugged canvas and includes a large bed, plush rugs, a woodstove and even a little deck with Adirondack chairs (for glamping, you might say). “We provide coffee at each rental and a beautiful local guide that my friend put together,” Wilder says. “You can find recommendations for where to eat and shop like a local—it’s the best of the best of our area.” Besides the tent, Wilder Retreat offers the Writers Cabin, a neighbors’ old hunting shack that Wilder and her husband renovated. The cozy nook is ideal for guests who might want some time to delve into a creative project, featuring a main level with seating and a sweet kitchenette, and a snug sleeping loft adorned with beautiful linens and other touches. “There’s something so transformative about being able to reconnect with yourself and your own thoughts,” Wilder says. “Doing that is self-care.”
The woodfired sauna is Wilder’s particular love, made by her husband—who builds custom saunas through his business, Forge Saunas. “I’ve always loved the sauna experience,” she says. “My birthday is in January, and my husband first built the sauna for my birthday.” Guests reserve a two-hour sauna session as part of their stay (The price is included in the lodging rate.) to ensure complete privacy. The sauna is warm and woodsy and stirs all the senses. “It truly feels like you’re going to the spa,” Wilder says. “You can see the fire burning. You can pour the water on the rocks, and it creates steam with essential oils.” After warming themselves thoroughly, guests can slip out to the outdoor bath and shower area, which is fully enclosed for privacy and features a luxurious soaking tub and a shower. The sauna space is stocked with fluffy towels, candles and essential oils. “When you do the hot sauna and the cold shower, you feel completely different. Radically different,” Wilder says. “It’s such an experience.”
And Wilder knows the power of a staycation. She’s a professional singer-songwriter who put on a local concert series this past fall and is working on a new album; she’s also a mom and a real estate agent. “I’m 45, so I grew up without modern technology,” Wilder says. “I feel like I’m craving a disconnection, to be able to unplug, and I want to offer that to guests. The experience here, where you’re really connected to nature, it’s something I’ve always dreamed about doing. We want this to be a place where people can take refuge, to really recharge and connect with themselves and with nature.”
When Wilder says she’s always dreamed of this, she means it. “I have a lot of core memories of the Valley,” says Wilder, who, as a kid, traveled often to her family’s cabin across the river in Wisconsin. “We’d drive up and stop in Stillwater or Taylors Falls. The Franconia Sculpture Park had opened when I was a teen. I really attached a lot to the Valley.” On the drive, she’d point out the quaint farmhouses along the road and say, “Someday, I want to own a farmhouse on the river.” She remembers seeing the farmhouse that would become hers. “I literally pointed at the house I live in now when I was around 16,” Wilder says. “I probably told my boyfriend at the time, ‘I’m going to buy that house someday.’”
Helping visitors and locals alike experience the year-round beauty of the Valley is now Wilder’s passion. “A lot of our guests are actually from the Twin Cities,” she says. “There just isn’t a lot of lodging in the Taylors Falls area. A lot of people see this region as a day trip, but we’re trying to make it more of a staycation.” She notes how important it is to have more than a single day to get settled into a retreat. “If you take just a day trip, you’re heading back to your life right away,” she says. Wilder recommends booking two nights at Wilder Retreat, as it is the perfect amount of time for guests to experience the amenities—including plenty of Zen moments in the sauna—and explore local shops, restaurants and outdoor activities.
To learn more and make a booking, visit airbnb.com and search for “Wilder Bell Tent” or “The Writers Cabin.”