Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Bayfield and the Apostle Islands
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
BAYFIELD – You can't get any farther north in Wisconsin than Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, though, surprisingly, this amazing community doesn't feel especially "Northwoods."
It actually feels a lot more like Door County, but without so many Chicagoans and traffic – and a little coastal Maine thrown in for good measure. The people who call this magical place home feel a special connection with Lake Superior, the mighty Great Lake that is really more of a sea than a lake. You have to see it to believe it, but Lake Superior weaves its way into every facet of daily life up here.
Maybe it's because of the area's amazing natural beauty, or perhaps because it's so far away from everything – a seven-hour drive from Milwaukee if you don't dawdle – that Bayfield and the biggest and only populated of the Apostle archipelagos, Madeline Island, draws a special type of tourist and resident.
It's a well-kept secret that needs to be let out.
People who live up here embrace nature and ecology, and the county is known for artists and adventure types practicing quiet water sports like sailing and kayaking. And that's just during Bayfield County's short summer.
They equally embrace winter with dog sledding and celebrate the frozen lake with a temporary ice road between the mainland and Madeline.
They even get along with and respect the area's Native Americans, who still occupy much of the peninsula on a reservation – this is sacred land for the Indians, where magnetic and due north line up. The white settlers who came after the Anishinaabeg quickly understood this energy and revered it, too.
Of course, being so far from Milwaukee and Chicago means that you need to be fully committed to the trip that takes you many miles north of even Minoqua, and you're more likely to see tourists here from Minneapolis than you are from Mequon.
But this is still Wisconsin, even if it doesn't really feel like it.
It's just a different kind of Up North that what you might be used to. And, unlike some other quaint destinations in the Northwoods, these folks don't discourage visitors from seeing their little slice of heaven, they welcome them.
Bayfield and Beyond in Only Two Days
We arrived in Bayfield on Monday night, taking a circuitous route through western Wisconsin to visit another "Wisconsin Wonder" destination, Superior's Big Manitou Falls (that article is coming soon). Certainly a scenic drive, it took us close to 11 hours before we checked in at the beautiful Rittenhouse Inn, one of the city's most stately old hotels.
Unless you love driving, don't take this route. Instead, head to Appleton, west to Wausau, north on Highway 51 then west on Highway 2, and finally up the peninsula on Highway 13. In all, you're looking at a peaceful but slightly grueling 375-mile drive from Downtown Milwaukee.
Before we arrived at the Rittenhouse Inn on Rittenhouse Avenue. (of course), we stopped for an early dinner in Washburn – Bayfield's little sister community 20 miles to the south. There, we ate at Café Coco, a place more known for its breakfasts and desserts, but one equally delicious for its soups and salads. The star of the meal, though, were indeed the desserts, particularly the carrot cake and an amazing Key lime pie. Coco is a must-stop when in the area, and locals all across the peninsula rave about it.
With 500 miles of driving now under our belts, we didn't have much energy Monday night beyond taking a short walk in downtown Bayfield to orient ourselves, and then settling into the Rittenhouse. While this Victorian mansion seems at first like an opulent bed and breakfast, it's actually an inn and restaurant, which I prefer. That means you're not eating breakfast with a table full of strangers, but you still get the experience of staying in a beautiful old house.
And this house is beautiful, indeed. Our room was woody and spacious, with a hot tub and fireplace and a gorgeous view of this harbor town. Had we not booked so many activities, it would've been easy to lounge around the room the entire time and be perfectly happy. The Rittenhouse offers 12 guest rooms and suites and free wifi, though interestingly, my cell phone worked better up here than at home.
Not that I had much time or interest to surf the Web. Tuesday morning, we enjoyed an early, delicious and filling breakfast of pastries, fruit and locally-sourced ingredients at Rittenhouse with Mary Motiff, the director of Bayfield County Tourism and Recreation. As we stuffed ourselves with some of the best breakfast I've had in recent memory, Motiff shared with us why she thinks the area is special.
"There is something about the islands that is so calming and centering," said Motiff, "which is why so many artists are drawn to the area."
Motiff said this draw extends to creature comforts, too.
"Many people who appreciate the abundant, high quality natural resources that exist here usually also appreciate good food and the arts."
After breakfast, we threw on bathing suits and drove just north of Bayfield to the town of Red Cliff on a Lake Superior Chippewa Indian reservation. Here is where we met up with Living Adventure, one of the two sea kayak trip companies in the area. With only a little trepidation, we put our lives in their hands for a thrilling six hours on the lake.
The owners of Living Adventure really have it figured out. In winter, they take their operation down to the Rivieria Maya in Mexico, and in the summer, owners Gail Green, Grant Herman and their dozens of guides take novice and advanced tours out on this magnificent body of water.
Herman was our guide on this day, and we joined a team of French kayakers, who were visiting Washburn for an international symposium. My wife and I were obviously the least experienced of the group, but at least we looked the part with wetsuits and life jackets. Fortunately, Herman supplied us with a tandem kayak that is more stable and faster than a solo.
Still, this was no casual kayaking trip. With water temperatures in low 40s, Lake Superior is more like ocean than lake, and our trip began with a van ride 20 minutes past the casino under construction, to a beach drop off within the national park. Herman offered us a paddling tutorial, helped us secure our spray skirts and gave us a shove. We began to paddle east.
The scenery along this trip is stunningly beautiful, but unless you know what you're doing, it's best to leave the camera in the boat (I lost a pair of sunglasses to the "sea"). We skirted along and inside caves and cliffs carved out of red sandstone that looked like nothing I'd ever seen in person. Waves boomed and echoed off these unique formations, the clear water sitting tranquilly just feet from white capped, roiling waves.
The three-or-so-mile paddle to the beach where we stopped for lunch wasn't exhausting, especially because we slowed to maneuver through so many caves. Living Adventure supplied us with waterproof dry bags, and we brought our tasty lunches from Wild By Nature Market back in Bayfield. You'd be surprised how much of an appetite you'll work up after three hours of kayaking.
The paddle back was more challenging, even though the wind was now at our backs. The breeze picked up and we had to paddle quite hard to traverse through choppy waves. One of the French kayakers even capsized, though Herman and the group hoisted him back in his boat within 30 seconds. One should not even think about being out on this water without a wet suit.
Our trip lasted about six hours, and it was not just a highlight of this visit, it was a highlight of my entire summer. For a mere $99 for a half-day trip, this is an absolute must when visiting the area. Living Adventure also does longer camping trips and shipwreck tours, which I would strongly consider if we had more time. Their staff is excellent, even if you barely know what you're doing, and surrounded by pros and top-notch equipment, they make a daunting trip safe and exhilarating.
Our tour ran a little long, but we had just enough time to shower and change before catching the ferry to Madeline Island. If Bayfield reminds me of Door County, then Madeline Island is its version of Washington Island, but to me, much, much nicer.
Of the 22 Apostle Islands, Madeline is the only one with a full-time population, about 220 in the winter and 2,500 in the summer. The Ojibwe lived here for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived in 1659, and in fact, the island is named after Madeleine Cadotte, the daughter of Chief White Crane, who married a French fur trader.
You can take a car on the ferry, or go by foot. A round-trip fare is only $12. Add another $24 if you want to bring a car. Keep in mind that the island is large enough that if you plan on visiting its two main parks, Big Bay State Park (a serene 2,350 acres on the water) and Big Bay Town Park, you'll want to drive. Downtown, though, is very small and quaint and walkable. We made a beeline to Big Bay State Park, which would be a strong candidate for camping if we visit again without the high-end inn experience.
Every meal we had on this trip was delicious, and dinner on the island was no exception. We visited the The Pub Restaurant & Wine Bar, and I ordered a Moroccan chicken entree, while my wife went with the local trout dinner. Remember that everything on Madeline Island must be brought over by ferry (or, in the winter, by ice road). Somehow, that makes a fresh, scrumptious and actually reasonably priced meal, even better. We dined with Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lois Carlson, who gave us tons of local flavor. A native Milwaukeean, herself, she helped us understand the magic of this tiny island.
"Our population is pretty colorful," Carlson told me. "This place totally marches to its own drummer, where individuality is expected and conformity is not. Mix that with sailboats, iceroads, windsleds, great food, outdoor opportunities and all the incredible scenery, and that makes for one pretty terrific and original community.
"Perhaps because we are set apart from the mainland, we understand the great connection we have with nature. It influences everything we plan and do."
After dinner, we drove around the island a bit with our tour guide, visiting the Native American cemetery, the beach and a few of the nicer homes and inns. We also saw the Madeline Island Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. Designed 18-hole course. As Carlson pointed out, Madeline Island isn't a budget vacation destination, but if you value peace and quiet, it's an incredible, unheralded treasure.
With less than an hour until the last ferry would depart to Bayfield, we stopped into what could easily become my favorite bar in Wisconsin. Really.
The place is known as Tom's Burned Down Bar, because, well, someone torched it. The eclectic owner, Tom, simply backed an 18-wheeler into the rubble and reopened for business ... until it caught fire again. Now, it's covered by a permanent white tent, with pithy witticisms and sculptures scrawled and placed throughout. Tom brings in top-flight live music, and the bar has a laid-back island vibe to it. This was the kind of place I could've stayed all night. I hated to leave, really, but more adventure awaited on Wednesday ... and my body was sore and spent, anyway. Sleep came very, very easily back at The Rittenhouse.
Another View From the Sea
Our final day in Bayfield called for more lake exploration, this time via Dreamcatcher sailing tours. For $140 per person, you can rent a boat, complete with captain and first mate (and lunch) and partake in a five-hour excursion around a few of the Apostle Islands. We were paired with Captain Jimmy and his captain-in-training, Jen. Jim looked the part, white beard flowing like Ernest Hemmingway, but he graciously let us sail as much or as little as we wanted. Which, for me, was a lot.
I've sailed many times, so I only needed a refresher on the 34-foot sloop, and Lake Superior was just windy enough to push us along at up to six knots with the Genoa billowing with air. A long drive home ahead, we cut the tour a little short, but still had time to tack out Basswood Island and to hear some great stories from the unassuming locals who were more than happy to share. This was a great way to get a feel for the nautical side of Bayfield, if sea kayaking is a little too intense for you. Silent and serene, there's something so wonderful about sailing this lake.
But finally, it was time to go and begin the trek home. As we said goodbye to Bayfield, two black bears ran across the highway not too far in the distance. It felt like we'd been there forever but not nearly long enough. Even weeks after this busy trip concluded, I'm fondly remembering nice memories from this part of the state I barely knew existed.
Quiet, Understated Relaxation
It's not that Bayfield and the Apostle Islands are necessarily the prettiest parts of Wisconsin, though they're certainly right up there in our picturesque state. Rather, the people up here embrace the natural wonders more than anywhere I've seen. Save a few little T-shirt shops, nothing is cheesy, touristy schlock. You won't find any water slides, though the new casino being built in Red Cliff may change the tourist landscape a bit.
I appreciated that the architecture is quiet and understated, that the nightlife (other than Tom's) is subdued, and the dining is casually elegant. (And we didn't even get to the famed Wild Rice restaurant or hear music at Big Top Chautauqua – we'll just have to come back).
Of course, there are other options for a visit beyond what we saw. Hikers should see Brownstone Trail, and, if in season, you can pick apples at The Orchard. Numerous scenic spots abound for amateur photographers, like City Dock and Dalrymple Park Campground. All that, of course, will take more than two days.
But even on a short trip, you'll see that Bayfield and Madeline Island both have their own separate but friendly, laid-back vibes, that might be just as nice in the winter as they are in the short northern summer. The lakeshore's distance keeps it pristine and uncrowded, and you know that any Milwaukeean willing to drive seven hours to get there appreciates it for what it is.
Said Motiff, "People have to make an effort to get here and once they do, they realize that not only was it worth it, but they don't want to leave. Often they are also looking to escape hectic city life but still want access to the things that they enjoy, which we have. As you can tell, this isn't your typical Northwoods destination."
"We also are very cognizant of the respectful relationship with the Earth that the Anishinaabeg, the native islanders nurtured," said Carlson. "That spirit remains with those who call this place home today. We're also gifted with amazing surroundings – rocky cliffs, views of Superior, abundant wildlife – all nature-made rather than man-made and intriguing in every season."
I couldn't agree more.
This is the kind of place that you owe it to yourself to bring your family and spend at least a few days, though, if you hustle, you can see enough, like we did, in just two and a half days. But that's not really enough time.
Bayfield and the Apostle Islands are unspoiled, enlightened and magical places, fully worthy of one of Wisconsin's seven wonders.
And once you visit, you'll make plans to come back.
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