Photography by Holly Leitner
Dress code is flip flop casual, margaritas eternally shake like maracas, sentences end with no worries, sunsets are treated like holidays, swimming replaces showering and all roads lead to the crystal clear waters. You think for a minute, could I be in Key West, Key Largo, Montego Bay, Aruba, Jamaica…and then the Wisconsin flying friend—the revered Mosquito—taps your arm and you realize that somehow you’re still in Wisconsin. Or at least, technically you are.
Welcome to Madeline Island, Wisconsin.
“What do you guys wanna do?” exclaimed Karen, followed by a long, contagious warm-hearted energetic smile. Karen Nichols, owner of Adventure Vacations, has tapped into the spirit of the Apostle Islands—laid back, sun-kissed, emanating positivity with a deep love and respect of the islands and Lake Superior. It is here where many visitors begin and end their Apostle Islands journey.
Madeline Island is the southernmost island in the chain and gateway to the Apostle Islands National Park and Seashore, a scenic archipelago of 22 islands surrounding the northern tip of Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula. Madeline is just a short 20-minute ferry ride from Bayfield yet truly a world away. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) and other native people made the island their home for hundreds of years before European contact and considered this island to be their spiritual center. Today, Madeline Island is the only year-round inhabited island, yet the island’s town, La Pointe, is home to only 246 year-round residents. The other islands have docks, rustic campgrounds, hiking trails and seasonal visitor attractions, including lighthouses and are famous for their intricate sea caves.
This corner of the world beckons beach lovers, adventure seekers, aquaholics and lovers of the pura vida. Whether you spend a weekend or a lifetime exploring one of Wisconsin’s most beautiful places, you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy life the island way.
Here’s our Top 10 ways to enjoy the island lifestyle:
GET ON THE WATER
The best way to experience the beauty of the area is by water. A good place to start is at Adventure Vacations in downtown La Pointe. From sunset sailing to kayaking through historic sea caves to paddle boarding along the shoreline of Madeline Island—this is the hub for Superior fun.
TOUR THE ISLANDS AND SEA CAVES
The best way to explore is to not only get on the water, but also to get into the National Park. You can take a cruise offered by the Apostle Islands Cruise Service or a glass bottom boat tour or a guided tour by Adventure Vacations. Adventure Vacations offers a variety of tours ranging from a couple of hours to full 8-hour day cruises that take you by all the fascinating sites of the park – sunken shipwrecks peering out of the shallow water, old fishing camps, lighthouses, some of the most pristine beaches in North America (Stockton Island) to the legendary sea caves. These dramatic caves were formed from centuries of waves—freezing and thawing— along the islands’ sandstone cliffy shorelines leaving delicate arches, vaulted chambers and tunnels along the shoreline.
The best caves are on Devils Island, Swallow Point on Sand Island, and along the mainland near the Lakeshore’s western boundary. On Devils Island, roughly 20 miles out from shore, climb to the top of the lighthouse and explore some of their legendary dramatic caves. Adventure Vacations offers a kayak trip (weather permitting) to explore the intricate billion-year-old sandstone formations. When the surf is high, the waves thunder and boom in the island’s caves, echoing well away from the shoreline. It is believed that the Ojibwe considered this noise as the sound of evil spirits imprisoned there by the Great Spirit, hence the name today, “Devils Island.”
DINE ON LOCAL DELICACIES
Downtown La Pointe is dotted with a few restaurants, including Café Seiche, a revered artisan restaurant featuring local farms. The seasonal menu changes, you may start with a Raspberry Feta Salad follow by the Pepito Crusted Whitefish on Grilled Pineapple and a Shiitake Vinaigrette Crab Cake. The food is all artfully crafted, letting you savor every bite. At the other end of “downtown” La Pointe is Farmhouse restaurant. The owners also follow the farm-to-table philosophy with menu selections locally sourced ranging from Asian (Pork and Kimchi dumplings with vegetable fried rice) to Italian to American (Sweet Waffles topped with house-cured and smoked bacon) to Northwoods (Green Eggs and Hamm Beer).
FIND NIRVANA (OR A GOOD SHOW AND MARGARITAS) AT TOM’S BURNED DOWN CAFE
It is said that many a wise thought strikes thou while sitting on the bar stool. At Tom’s, you won’t have to think too hard, because the bar is covered with hand painted signs sharing philosophical musings…“Normal is a setting on a washing machine,” “Remember, only you can prevent Narcism,” and “There are two ways to live your life: one is that nothing is a miracle and two is that everything is a miracle.” This open-aired platform bar was once a “normal” bar, as in that it had walls, a floor and a door. That tavern burned down in 1992, and instead of shutting down the whole operation, Owner Tom parked a trailer at the location and opened up a bar. From then on, platform by platform, and tarp roof by tarp roof, the bar has grown to be a notable music venue and known for its eclectic vibe. You can’t help but want to stay for one more, and then one more.
VISIT BIG BAY STATE PARK
Hop on a trail winding along Madeline Island’s rugged southeastern shoreline and take in the panoramic views. Big Bay State Park features picturesque sandstone bluffs, a pristine beach, camping, a boardwalk and nine miles of hiking trails, many with views of Lake Superior. Big Bay Park also houses the island’s best sea caves – best viewed by swimming or kayak.
ENJOY A ROUND OF GOLF
Madeline Island Golf Club is surrounded by the luscious forests with breathtaking views of Lake Superior. The 18-hole club is private but allows limited public play by prior arrangement with the pro shop or through their website.
PERUSE ART GALLERIES AND SHOPS
Downtown La Pointe is the perfect place to find artsy treasures at the local shops. The collection of galleries, artisan and craft shops (Madeline Island Candle Co. and Bell Street Gallery just to name a couple) are places to find truly one-of-a-kind gifts. La Pointe Center Art Guild and Gallery also exhibits area artists’ work in a variety of mediums.
VISIT THE MUSEUM
The Madeline Island Museum, part of the Wisconsin Historical Society, tells the story of the past three centuries, of generations of Native Americans, fur traders, lumbermen and many others who have been enchanted by Madeline Island.
RENT A SCOOTER/BICYCLE
Perhaps the best way to explore the 14-mile-long island is to tour around and hit all the spots from the comfort of your slow-moving vehicle. Bring along a camera to capture the beautiful views.
SIT ON THE BEACH AT BIG BAY TOWN PARK
Let the day melt away as you practice the art of doing nothing—beaching, sunbathing, swimming and camping at the Town Park. Owned by the town of La Pointe, the park provides views of the Big Bay Lagoon and the shoreline of the Lake Superior.
Take the Madeline Island Express, which leaves from the ferry landing in Bayfield. Ferry service is provided from March or April until freeze-up, weather permitting. The ferry ride takes approximately 20-25 minutes. There are several ferries per day, so please check the online schedule.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.