By Laurel Ciohon
Having grown up on Door County’s ‘mainland,’ Washington Island was always a mysterious place to me. I traveled there once or twice throughout my life, but never for more than a few hours. 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 weekend trip to the island was a perfect place to spend a relaxing few days. Having lived in Milwaukee, Austin, and, most recently, Ephraim since I graduated from Gibraltar High School (Fish Creek) in 2001, 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 weekend the island had in-store for us.
My boyfriend, Chris, also a Door County native who had only been to the Island a few times in his life, too, and I, along with our dogs Bandit and Lucy, took the 5pm Friday ferry from Northport Pier at the end of Hwy. 42 on the tip of the Door Peninsula. We pulled onto the boat, parked our car, 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 clear August afternoon.
When we arrived at Detroit Harbor on Washington Island, we gave our island map a quick once-over before taking off in our car to our friends property where we would camp for the weekend. We made a quick stop at Mann’s Grocery Store (about a mile from where we were camping) to pick up some beverages, snacks, bug spray, and firewood. The property wasn’t hard to find, probably because the Island is only about 5 miles wide by 6 miles long! We unpacked the car, set up our tent, and blew up our air mattress while it was still light out.
Once we were ready, we piled back in the car and headed to Hotel Washington for dinner. The historic and grand hotel is known as a “peaceful getaway” on the Island. We were seated outside on the veranda and noshed on a delicious cauliflower appetizer paired with wine. For dinner, we enjoyed whitefish and a vegetarian bean and spetzel dish. The innovative menu, the view, and the ambiance was a perfect way to start our “stay-cation” on Washington Island.
Full from dinner, we headed back to our campsite to enjoy some drinks around the fire and plan out our full-day of activities for Saturday. Since most of Washington Island’s economy is based on tourism, we knew we’d find plenty to keep us busy.
We woke up early, and, with the recommendation of a friend for “the best eggs benedict you’ll ever have,” we decided to have breakfast at Findlay’s Holiday Inn. With a quaint table overlooking the water, we indulged in waffles, hash browns, and of course, eggs benedict, all rolled out on a serving cart. Peppered with locals and tourists alike, Findlay’s was every bit as good as expected. Our table with a view of the water made the experience even better.
Even though we had coffee with breakfast, we both decided we needed something a bit, well, stronger, so we made a stop at Red Cup Coffeehouse for some espresso (Anodyne Coffee Co. from Milwaukee) and people watching. The colorful coffeehouse has plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a huge fireplace, quirky yet tasteful decor, and a gift shop with jewelry, clothing, and Island souvenirs.
Next was Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm. The bustling farm was busy with customers watching lavender oil being made, strolling the purple fields, relaxing in adirondack chairs, enjoying treats from the cafe, and shopping the in the beautiful gift shop. We picked out a few sweets for ourselves (lavender chocolates and macaroons) and even for the dogs (homemade dog treats), who were patiently waiting in the car. We roamed the vast lavender fields (there are 20,000 plants in 14 varieties at this farm!) in awe of the bright purple lavender.
Nearby is Mountain Park & Lookout Tower. We drove over, parked at the bottom, and then climbed the 186 steps (about a 10 minute hike) up to the top of the tower. Even though the dogs weren’t as impressed as we were (they weren’t too sure of the tower), the majestic views on this sunny day were incredible! North-facing, you can see Lake Michigan for what seems like days.
Down the road a few miles, we made our way to Schoolhouse Beach, one of Door County’s two famous pebble beaches. We carefully walked down the beach with the dogs, watching kids swim and skip rocks. The well-known red floating dock/island was full of people swimming and jumping in. Dog-owners (and families with kids) can appreciate the pebble beach lack of sand. No sandy messes to clean up when it’s time to go home!
Feeling hungry again (and knowing that we wanted to visit Rock Island that afternoon) we drove northeast to Jackson Harbor. The Karfi ferry leaves the Jackson Harbor dock every hour, but we had some time before the 1pm departure, so we stopped to have lunch at Jackson Harbor Soup. Beer Cheese soup and Cream of Potato soup were our choices that day, along with the “Maggie” hot panini sandwich – grilled onions, tomato, pesto, crumbled bleu cheese, and provolone. Delicous! We enjoyed our food with some beer on their outdoor patio overlooking the Harbor until it was time to make the 1pm Karfi ferry.
Unlike the car ferry you take to get to Washington Island from the mainland, the Karfi ferry to Rock Island only holds about 50 passengers max – no cars. At a reasonable $11 for a round-trip, 15-minute ride each way (dogs were free!), we made our way to Rock Island. As the well-known, historic boat house came into to closer view, we saw people roaming the grounds, as well as others gathered on the dock anxious to hop on the ferry back to Washington Island. While we filed off the Karfi, we noticed several riders on the boat were headed to Rock Island to camp, as they had plenty camping gear and food bagged up. There are even carts to use to easily bring camping gear to the campsites when you get off the Karfi.
We decided to walk towards the campsites towards the south end of the island where we discovered a pristine sand beach. As we sat on the beach while the dogs ran around, Chris and I both decided that we definitely need to camp on Rock Island next summer. The peaceful beauty of that beach is something I won’t soon forget.
Once we caught a boat ride back, we decided to head to Nelsen’s Hall Pub to get our “Bitters Card.” What this means is that you must take a full shot of Angostura bitters. You then receive a membership card as an initiated member of the “Bitters Club.” Taking the shot means you’re “now considered a full-fledged islander and are entitled to mingle, dance, etc. with all the other islanders.” Chris and I actually both love bitters, but it’s definitely not everyones cup of tea. We hung out, played some pool, connect our phones to the WiFi, and watched bits of the Brewer baseball game on the TV before deciding to head back to the campground for a nap before dinner.
Once rested (Chris napped; I read my book), we got changed and made our way to Sailors Pub for dinner. Located just past Hotel Washington, Sailors Pub is off the beaten path, but worth the drive. Located right on the water, the sunset views are incredible. We decided to sit at the bar to eat our dinner so we could enjoy the water view. We ordered Chicken Alfredo and the Roasted Cherry Duck, each of which was served with warm bread and olive oil. The friendly service and delicious food makes Sailors Pub a must-stop on your list of places to eat on the Island! Afterwards, on our way back to the campsite, we stopped to enjoy a Daquiri nightcap at The Ship’s Wheel (located just near the ferry dock) before heading back to enjoy a fire and the peaceful silence of the woods.
On Sunday morning we woke up early and hiked around the land we were camping on. Once we worked up our appetites again, we unanimously decided to have breakfast at the Island Cafe & Bread Co. One of the newer businesses to the Island, the cafe had a hip, modern feel and boasted local ingredients in their menu items. Chris got an egg sandwich and I ordered a waffle – both amazing. We enjoyed our breakfast and coffee on the outdoor patio where we chatted with other guests who also had dogs with them.
We decided it was then time to pack up our camp, even though we were sad to do so. The beauty of the woods and quiet nights were definitely an incredible experience in itself. We drove back over to Schoolhouse Beach so the dogs could go swimming, then made a stop at Mann’s Mercantile to pick up some souvenir sweatshirts and mugs. We were really impressed by the selection of clothing at Mann’s – it was hard to only pick out one thing each!
Our last stop before heading back to the mainland was lunch at The Albatross, a nostolgic drive-in diner that specializes in burgers. In fact, “Burgers are Our Business!” is their tagline! Chris got the Cowboy Burger – cheddar, bacon, onion rings, and BBQ sauce – while I ordered the Southwest Burger – pepper jack cheese, crispy jalapeño straws, lettuce, tomato and ranch. Everything is made to order and worth the 10 minute wait. So yummy!
As we drove to the ferry dock, we both vowed to make Washington Island a regular getaway trip – and to not eat again for a week! Full and happy, we got right on the ferry without much a of wait and headed back across Death’s Door to Northport Pier.
If it’s been a while since you’ve visited Washington Island, I highly recommend making a day trip – or even spend a few days like we did – you may be surprised at how awesome it is! There’s much more to see and do than what we did that particular weekend, so we’re anxious to get back. We hope you have as an enjoyable, relaxing experience as we did!
Photos from left to right: Truck/bikes parked at Jackson Harbor Soup; Ship’s Wheel Restaurant; Rock Island Boathouse; view from the top of Lookout Tower; shirt from Mann’s Mercantile; lunch at Jackson Harbor Soup; breakfast at Findlay’s Holiday Inn; dinner at Hotel Washington; burger from The Albatross; secluded beach on Rock Island; hiking on the island; breakfast at Island Cafe & Bread Co.; rustic street signs; sunset at Sailors Pub; coffee break at Red Cup Coffeehouse; Rock Island views. Credit: Laurel Ciohon