Having grown-up on Door County’s ‘mainland,’ Washington Island was always a mysterious place to me. I traveled there once or twice as a child, but don’t have any real memories of those trips. As some city dwellers tend to view Door County’s mainland just as skeptically as I viewed Door County’s northern-most region of Washington Island, I knew that a day trip to the “mysterious” island was a perfect place to spend the day with my husband. Having lived in Milwaukee and Austin these past 6 years, I was feeling quite ignorant of knowing next-to-nothing about this special part of Door County you can only travel by car ferry to. Little did I know what an amazing day the island had in-store for us.
My husband, Mitch, who had never been to the island before, and I, along with our dog, Kingsley, made it time for the 11:15 a.m. ferry departure from Northport Pier at the end of Hwy. 42. We parked and quickly made our way up to the top level of the ferry as it pulled away from the dock. The ride across ‘Death’s Door’ (the straight that connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan), which takes approximately 30 minutes, couldn’t have been more beautiful on this particularly sunny and warm August morning.
When we arrived at Detroit Harbor on Washington Island, we gave our island map a quick once-over before taking off in our car without a specific destination point. We decided we wanted to stop everywhere that caught our eye and to ‘get lost,’ which is hard to do on an island that is only about 5 miles wide by 6 miles long! Since most of Washington Island’s economy is based on tourism, we knew we’d find plenty to keep us busy.
First stop was the Art & Nature Center, where we viewed local plants, snakes, toads, and bees, before we were on our way to the Jacobsen Museum, where got a quick history lesson from a Washington Island resident who worked there. After learning about the original Native American immigrants to the island, we hiked down a wooded path towards ‘Little Lake,’ a beautiful lake located inland on the northwest corner of the island. It’s almost religious what silently viewing a peaceful, nearly untouched lake can do to you.
We piled back in the car and made our way to Schoolhouse Beach, a gorgeous pebble beach (there are only five such beaches as this one is the world!) with clear blue water on the northern part of the island. Sprinkled with locals and tourists swimming and skipping stones, we walked along the beach and then hiked back through the woods. I wish we would have had our swimsuits with us so we could have swum out to the large raft about 100 feet off the shore and jumped off!
Next, we made sure to stop at an eclectic café called Fiddlers Green. You couldn’t miss it with its bright hand-painted signs on the side of the road that advertised hummus, soup & bread, and Guinness. Then we walked next door to the Farm Museum where there were plenty of chickens and goats walking around, as well as a ‘People’s Garden’ and several farm buildings to walk through and soak up some more history of the island.
Back in the car again, we discovered Jackson Harbor where you can board a passenger ferry to Rock Island, an uninhabited island just north of Washington Island, which is maintained as a state park. There were several people walking around, artists set up in different spots clearly taking advantage of the sunny day while they painted, young kids fishing off the pier, and a handful of people enjoying lunch from a small food truck called Timeout Concessions that offered items such as ice cream, hot dogs, and cotton candy. We walked around with Kingsley and marveled at the beautiful simplicity of the island.
We then made our way over to Mountain Tower, a lookout tower positioned on a ‘mountain,’ where we climbed to the top to view the magnificent green treetops and the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan in the distance. The sun was so warm and bright which made the day even more wonderful after the unusually mild summer we’ve been having in Wisconsin this August.
Next, we came across Fragrant Isle. As we pulled into the parking lot, we noticed the vast, bright purple lavender fields stretching out behind the red building. It was truly a magnificent sight! We walked into the shop to find dozens of different lavender products for sale, such as soaps and lotions, caramels, gelato, candles, CBD oils, bath salts, and much more, all made with lavender. Not knowing how all-purpose lavender was, we curiously purchased some caramels and gelato, both of which were outstanding. We mingled around the lavender fields for a bit and watched other guests “pick-your-own” lavender before heading off to our next island adventure.
We drove back ‘downtown’ where we walked though some local businesses, such as Bread & Water, a restaurant, hotel and kayak rental, and Mann’s Grocery, were we stocked up on a few cases of our favorite drink, Coconut La Croix, that was priced less than it is at our local grocery store!
We were exceptionally excited for our next stop, Nelsen’s Hall, home of the famous Bitter’s Club. Patrons can order a shot of Angostura bitters and are then presented with an official Bitter’s Club Card once the shot is completed. We eagerly took our shots and enjoyed the fact the bar was unusually empty, probably due to the fact it was 2pm on a Wednesday. This gave us plenty of time to get to know our wonderful bartender, Iris, while she told us about Nelsen’s history and helped us order some lunch. We enjoyed delicious ‘Island’ burgers, waffle fries, and sweet potato tots, as well as some handcrafted brandy old fashioneds.
We were having so much fun at Nelsen’s but knew that we best be on our way if we wanted to make to our final stops. We said our good-byes to Iris and headed out to discover a few more places before it was time to head back to the mainland. We walked through Mann’s Mercantile store, which sold everything from souvenirs to paint to mattresses; a small bookstore that had a grass roof and a nice book selection; and The Granary and K.K. Fiske Restaurant, which had an awesome outdoor bar and patio specializing in Death’s Door cocktails. We made sure to get a caffeine fix at Red Cup “Killer Coffee” House before making our way back to Detroit Harbor to catch the last ferry home at 6 p.m.
What started as an exciting, curious, and skeptical trip to Washington Island that morning, turned into one of the best days Mitch and I have enjoyed together this summer. During the ferry trip home, we reminisced of all the kind, interesting people we met, the beautiful places we saw, and the overall lasting impression that Washington Island has left on us. We can’t wait to plan another trip back so we can camp overnight. Maybe it was the beautiful weather or the company of my wonderful husband, but this trip to ‘the island’ was one I’ll never forget. How lucky the island natives are to live and work in such a secluded gem that we are so fortunate to have in Door County, let alone Wisconsin!
-By Laurel Ciohon