Life

Wisconsin’s Washington Island Makes City Life A Distant Memory


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“Did you know Harry Houdini is from Appleton, Wisconsin?” This is a sentence I’ve said, conservatively, seven hundred times.

He is, for the record. Though I can spout endless Wisconsin factoids like this, back when I was studying at Harry Houdini Elementary, I would have told you that the entire state was lame. By high school, I couldn’t wait to get out. This is the curse of teenage-hood — an inability to see or appreciate the beauty in your own surroundings, lest you lose the courage to strike out on your own.

I left for college and haven’t lived in the state since. But absence and time have made my heart grow fonder. I often think back on days spent laying on an inner tube, floating down the Wolf River with my friends, the sun warming our backs. Or heading into the woods up north, windows down on someone’s Dad’s car and a terribly cool mix CD blasting. Most of all, I think of driving through Door County — an almost too picturesque peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, where the fall foliage and quaint galleries and restaurants can rival any New England town — and taking the ferry to a friend’s cabin on Washington Island, laughing as the wind blows my untameable curls into my face.

Washington Island, open and accessible year round (a remarkable statement if you know anything about winters in Wisconsin), is an almost ethereal wonder — with clear teal water, thick green forest, jagged cliffs, and endless paths to ride bikes or wander. It’s only about three and a half hours from Milwaukee to reach Northport Pier, where you catch the ferry to the island, but as you cross the aptly named Death’s Door strait you feel like you’re crossing out of this world and being ferried into another plane of existence entirely. A realm where the leaves are greener, the time moves slower, and there’s nowhere to be and nothing to do except to savor the moment.

If you want to truly disconnect from city life, head to where the highway literally ends and then go further. Take the ferry past the ends of the earth to this five-by-six-mile island off the coast of mainland Wisconsin.

To Get There:

From Milwaukee, take I-43 to Greenbay. Once there, you’ll take WI-57 N to WI-42 until it ends at Northport Pier in Ellison Bay. On the way, stop for breakfast at Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay (or, if you get a late start, have lunch and try the Swedish meatballs). After eating, be sure to check out the restaurant’s main attraction — a mountain goat graze on the real grass roof. Once at the pier, you can either take your car to the island or ditch it. I recommend ditching it and taking a bike, which is a much cooler way to see the island (it’s truly set up for biking, they boast 100 miles of paved road). An adult ticket on the ferry is $13.50 with an extra $4 per bicycle.

Don’t want to lug your bike on the ferry? You can rent one when you arrive at Island Rides Bicycle Rentals for $25 a day. They’ll meet you at the ferry with your bikes for no additional charge.

Where To Stay:

If you really want to disconnect from the trappings of your city-dwelling existence, definitely go for camping. Washington Island Campground is wooded and scenic. You can opt either for traditional tent camping in the woods or one of their little cabins which range from the more rustic ($80) to those with a few more creature comforts (read: bathroom — $140).

If you’re looking for more of a “classic inn on an island” type experience, Hotel Washington has a white farmhouse feel with an excellent restaurant and grassy grounds to do yoga or stroll on. Built in 1904, the inn says they have kept their selling point the same as it was when built over a hundred years ago, Pick Hotel Washington for “a vacation filled with delightful sun and cool nights; days to fish, swim, hike, paint or lay under a tree and breathe the washed air Nature provides this Island.”

Washed air is a lovely way to describe the fresh smells and tastes that delight you at every turn here — clean, pure, and energetic.

What To Do:

A trip to Washington Island pretty much has to include a visit to Schoolhouse Beach. The beach itself is comprised of smooth, round, parched white stones rather than sand. The water is incredibly clear. I’ve seen many beaches and few are this perfect for lazying away a day on.

Later, take a walk through the woods to Stavkirke Church, which feels like an ancient spiritual place that rises out of its natural surroundings seamlessly. The church was built based on the renderings of a church in Norway from 1150 AD. The community came together and built this themselves in the 1990s (it only looks old), and craftsman would work whenever they could find the time for a few days or mornings a week until it was finished.

Looking for more adventure? The strait that connects Lake Michigan and Green Bay is called Death’s Door for a reason. The region has 240 shipwrecks hidden in its depths and you can dive, snorkel, or kayak to see them. Check out Island Adventure Company for rentals.

A Washington Island visit wouldn’t be complete without a stroll in the (very Instagram worthy) lavender farm. Fragrant Isle has rows and rows of the delicate, purple flower in the summertime. Sit outside with a drink and savor their signature Lavender ice cream on a hot, island day while a lake breeze wafts the sweet smell of flowers to you.

To Eat And Drink:

The island’s most famous establishment is probably Nelsen’s Hall Bitter Pub and Restaurant. Established in 1899, the pub is the oldest legally continuously operating tavern in Wisconsin — which is due entirely to the owner being crafty during prohibition. Rather than shutting down, Nelsen got a pharmacist’s license during the period and gave out “medicine,” a stomach tonic in the form of bitters, to his happily still-buzzed customers. Today, you have to stop by for an obligatory shot of Angostura Bitters. This then qualifies you to join the Bitter’s Club and sign your name in the club book. More bitters are consumed in Washington Island than anywhere else in the world, making this a real, “when in Rome” scenario. They also have great food so, you can get a burger and a (more common) drink to cleanse your palate after.

For more options, the quirky Fiddler’s Green probably has the best food on the island with its mismatched furniture, live music, and dishes that range from a tender steak sandwich with caramelized onions to fresh fish to homemade hummus. If you’re looking for something that has a true Northwoods Wisconsin feel, head to the no-frills Karly’s Bar for a brat and a beer. You’re sure to meet some locals and have that quintessential northeast Wisconsin experience.

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After a day (or several) disconnecting from city life, make your last stop Mountain Park Lookout Tower, the highest point on Washington Island. Climb the 186 stairs to get panoramic views of the whole island and breathe that washed air one more time. A weekend here, and a little of that good air and peaceful vibe will follow you right home.

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