When you think of summer and islands, most people probably don't think of places north of Madison. I set out last summer on the four and half hour drive from Madison to spend my summer on Washington Island at the tip of Door County, not knowing what to expect. While I knew pina coladas and swimming with dolphins were out of the question, Washington Island turned out to be a paradise all its own.
First off, I'm not an "Islander." This title is reserved strictly for the 600 year-round residents of the island. Islanders do take pride in their home and their lifestyle, but they are very open people, glad for the tourists who support their livelihood. They are so nice, in fact, that it's impossible to walk anywhere without being asked by an islander if you need a ride, or to drive down the street without being waved at by everyone who passes. All the islanders ask in return for their friendliness is that we don't call ourselves Islanders.
I can't call myself an Islander, but I did spend three months living on the island. Intrigued by the Washington Hotel, Restaurant and Culinary School and its standards of sustainability and use of local ingredients, I accepted a position as a server. I lived in a rented duplex with several other college-aged co-workers, some of whom were looking for experience in the hospitality industry, with others on work exchange from countries in Eastern Europe. At first I was leery of spending a whole summer away from all things familiar -- and on an island at that. But as the days passed I grew attached to the island and to its people, and spent what turned out to be one of the most serene, most delicious, most memorable summers of my life.
While cars are welcome on the island -- for a one-way ferry fee of $25, passengers not included -- the island's thirty square miles and paved roads are perfect for biking. During the tourist season (June-September), it's not unusual to see more bicycles roll by than cars. Bikes can be brought across on the ferry, or rented on the island.
If you come to the island looking for civilization, you might first take a drive down Main Road. Here you will find staples like a grocery and a general store. You don't want to miss Nelsen's Hall, one of several bars on the drag. You can always find an crowd of Islanders and summer residents at Nelsen's, occasional live music, some good pizza, and its claim-to-fame, shots of Angostura Bitters. Also, don't skip The Albatross, a walk up ice-cream and burger joint. Try the famous Alby Burger, a local favorite with Swiss cheese and bacon, and choose from several flavors of hard and soft serve ice cream. Hours are limited and seasonal.
If you're looking for a civilized destination with a little class, the first place you'll want to check out is the Washington Hotel. This past year, the restaurant and culinary school closed, and it's now just a hotel. But what a hotel it is. Rent one of the its eight bedrooms, or the guest house next to the main building, and be treated to a peaceful night sleeping under linens made of organic materials, and hand crafted bed frame. Summer availability is limited.
Another good lodging option is the Sunset Resort, which offers rooms with spectacular water views, gorgeous sunsets, and its own restaurant that specializes in Norwegian cuisine. And of course a trip to the island isn't complete without a stop at The Fiddler's Green. This restaurant offers unique wines and beers, and a changing menu of sandwiches, soups and snacks, all in an in environment that seems hodge-podge and homey at the same time. Check in for upcoming events -- if you're lucky you might get in on a jam session or sushi night.
While the people and businesses of the island offer a wonderful vacation experience, the real reason to travel to Washington Island is to get away from all those things. The natural beauty of the island is boundless and breathtaking. Every curve of the road can lead you into a completely different terrain -- from sweeping shoreline vistas, to dense forests, to vast, open fields and even water-side bluffs.
People's Park is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch and spectacular views of Lake Michigan. Schoolhouse Beach, though often crowded, is a reason to visit the island all in its own. The beach is covered with perfectly smooth white stones, and the water is often such a stunning shade of blue you will forget for moment you're not in the tropics.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Washington Island is its proximity to Rock Island, a car-free, bike-free, primitive camping spot that can only be accessed by a ferry departing from Washington Island. Tour northern Lake Michigan's oldest lighthouse, get lost on various hiking trails, or go for a swim or kayak off one of the various beaches. No matter how or where you experience Washington and Rock Island's beauty, make sure you look up. On a clear night, the stars are unbelievably bright.
Washington Island's beauty can only be experienced in person, but, luckily, its bounty can be enjoyed closer to home. The Washington Hotel Coffee Room is an offshoot of the hotel, offering food and coffee drinks prepared with ingredients local to Madison and to Washington Island. Capital Brewery's Island Wheat Beer is brewed with wheat grown on the Island. Similarly, Death's Door Spirits, available widely in Madison bars and restaurants, are crafted with island wheat and juniper berries. Fans can also find island-grown, certified organic flax seeds at Green Earth Health Food Store in Middleton.