To get to Washington Island by car, take I-94 north to Milwaukee, then I-43 to Green Bay. At Green Bay take Route 57 north to Sturgeon Bay, which straddles the ship canal that separates northern and southern Door County and is the last major town on the peninsula. From April through June there’s construction on the main bridge; motorists are advised to take Business 42/57 into the city. Depending on the ferry schedule, it may be convenient to spend the night here (in winter, it’s basically a given if you’re shooting for the morning boat). Sturgeon Bay has a bunch of standard accommodations, many offering discounts to island-bound travelers; rooms at the Comfort Inn, 923 Green Bay Road (920-743-7846), run $99.99 a night June through October, $59.99 during the off-season. If you’re hungry, Leah Caplan recommends the Inn at Cedar Crossing, 336 Louisiana (920-743-4249 or www.innatcedarcrossing.com). It’s open year-round, seven days a week. If you want to stay at the 120-year-old inn as well, rooms run from $105 to $190 a night during the season; winter rates range from $75 to $180. Call 920-743-4200.
On your way out of town in the morning, Java on Jefferson, 232 N. Fifth (920-746-1719), is a good spot to grab a red eye (coffee laced with a shot of espresso) and a muffin for the road. If you want to hang out and eat, Kick Coffee, 148 N. Third (920-746-1122), serves pastries, soup, and sandwiches in addition to coffee, espresso, and tea. If you’re traveling during the off-season this may be your last chance to fuel up.
Just outside Sturgeon Bay the road splits: Route 42 takes you up the north side of the peninsula along Green Bay through tourist-saturated Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Sister Bay. It’s about an hour’s drive to the ferry at Northport, but travel times can vary drastically depending on weather and traffic–in winter it may not be plowed, and in summer the two-lane road can get clogged. Route 57, which runs along the south shore through Baileys Harbor before rejoining Route 42 in Sister Bay, is a prettier and less developed route that won’t cost you any extra time. If you take 57, you can also stop outside Sister Bay at the Door County Bakery, 10048 Rte. 57 (920-854-1137), a bakery, deli, and specialty grocery with a well-rounded wine selection bought through Tim Long, who also supplies the Washington Hotel. In addition to baked goods, the store offers a half-dozen sandwiches like barbecued pork on thick slices of the bakery’s signature Corsican bread, a chewy loaf drenched in olive oil.
Route 42 dead-ends at the Northport ferry landing, where the Washington Island Ferry Line’s vessels dock regularly from April through October, and a lot less regularly the rest of the year. Round-trip tickets are $22 a car ($13 for motorcycles, $4 for bikes) and an additional $9 per person ($5 for kids ages 6 to 11). Reservations are a good idea; plan to get there 30 minutes before the boat’s scheduled to leave. See www.wisferry.com or call 920-847-2546. Three miles back up the road the Island Clipper, a passenger ferry, runs from Gills Rock to the island from the end of May through the beginning of October; round-trip day tickets are $9. See www.islandclipper.com or call 920-845-2972 for reservations–they fill up fast. At roughly 30 square miles, Washington Island is too big to get around easily on foot, but you can bring your bike along or rent one at the island’s dock for $3.50 an hour.
The trip across the Porte des Morts (“Death’s Door”) passage–in the early days of Lake Michigan shipping one of the most treacherous straits around–takes about half an hour. Once you’re on the island, the Washington Hotel is a five-minute drive from the pier: head up Lobdell’s Point Road and keep going straight past Main Road, where Lobdell’s Point turns into Detroit Harbor Road. At Range Line Road, turn right; the hotel is a bit down the way on the right. Rooms at the hotel–which are named after historic island ships like the Griffin and the Madonna–range from $119 to $159 ($79 to $129 November through February). Rates are for one or two and include a continental breakfast. The dining room’s open from noon to 8 Monday through Saturday; on Sundays there’s a brunch from 11 to 1. A light menu of salads, sandwiches, and brick-oven pizzas is also available in the parlor and on the porch from 11 to 5. Caplan has cooking classes and special events scheduled throughout the season–the next one is the “Spring Forage” on May 15, where she’ll lead guests in gathering morels, rhubarb, and ramps from the grounds and then use them as the basis for a spring menu. That’s $100; call 920-847-2169 or see www.thewashingtonhotel.com for more.
There are other, cheaper places to stay on the island, including Frog Hollow Farm on Route 1 (920-847-2835), a four-room B and B with rates ranging from $75 to $90 in season, with a minimum stay of two nights, and the Cedar Point Inn (920-847-2180) on Green Bay Road near the ferry, where rooms run between $55 and $85. For those on an even tighter budget, there’s the Washington Island Campground on inland East Side Road (920-847-2622). Tent sites are $21, $25 with electricity. It’s open May 15 through October 14.
The Red Cup Coffee House (920-847-3304) is next to the post office on Detroit Harbor Road, just east of Main. In addition to coffee, tea, and snacks, the Red Cup also sells a variety of island crafts and books ranging from Anne T. Whitney’s Let’s Talk About Washington Island, written in honor of the town’s 100th anniversary in 1950, to Global Decisions, Local Collisions: Urban Life in the New World Order, by part-time island resident and UIC emeritus professor of urban planning David Ranney.
“Uptown” Washington Island–the stretch of Main Road between Michigan and Town Line roads–is where you’ll find the grocery store, the mercantile, the rec center (day passes $4), and two island institutions. Built in 1899, Nelsen’s Hall was once the center of island life, housing the town hall, the dentist’s office, the apothecary, and a tavern. Today, Bitters’ Pub–the oldest continuously operated drinking establishment in Wisconsin–is still going strong. The tavern got its name during prohibition, when proprietor Tom Nelsen used his pharmacist’s dispensation to sell 88-proof Angostura bitters as a cure for stomach ailments, which became oddly epidemic on the island. Slam a shot and you’ll be accepted into the pub’s “bitters club”–an honor shared with 10,000 other tourists. Just down the street is a cluster of businesses that owner Kenny Koyen has dubbed the “Koyen collection.” Included in the complex are an ice cream parlor, a butcher, the Granary pub, and KK Fiske Restaurant (920-847-2121), serving fresh whitefish and “lawyers” caught daily by Koyen. The only full-service restaurant open year-round on the island, KK’s does a fine fish boil every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in the summer.
A little west of Main on West Harbor Road, the Double K-W Ostrich Farm, run by retired rodeo clown Wayne Oscor and his wife, Kristi, is open from 10 to 5 daily May through October. In addition to the ostriches, the Oscors have a petting zoo with a potbellied pig and a camel, and an exhibit of what they claim is the world’s largest ostrich egg. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1.25 for kids. Call 920-847-3202.
Once you’ve done the town, continue north on Main to Jackson Harbor Road, where you’ll hit the Art and Nature Center (920-847-2025). Open from mid-June to mid-September, the center houses a gallery showing work by local artists and a kid-friendly nature room. Just east of Airport Road on Jackson Harbor is the Washington Island Farm Museum (920-847-2522), which is full of vintage farm equipment and everyday objects from the island’s farming history. It’s open from Memorial Day weekend through the end of October. Less rustic but decidedly more functional, Lynn Utesch’s farm is at the intersection of Jackson Harbor and Mountain roads. He sells cuts of grass-fed beef in the fall and seasonally as the supply permits. There’s no sign out front–look for the salmon-pink house and the field full of cows. (“If you can’t find it,” he says, “just ask around.”)
Sievers School of Fiber Arts is just east of the Utesches’. Founded in 1979, the internationally renowned school offers more than 80 classes a season in weaving, knitting, spinning, quilting, basketry, and wood carving; the converted barn across the road serves as a dorm and studio for eight students at a time. The Sievers Shop sells everything from needles and hand-spun yarn to Sievers-made looms. Like the school, it’s open from May through October. See www.sieversschool.com or call 920-847-2264.
At the end of the road, on the northeast tip of the island, the passenger ferry Karfi runs from Jackson Harbor to Rock Island State Park, a 912-acre island with hiking trails, beaches, and campsites. It operates from the end of May to mid-October, making the 15-minute trip hourly between 10 and 4 in July and August. Tickets are $8 round-trip for adults ($9 for campers with gear), $4 for kids, and $1 for dogs. No bikes or cars are allowed. Call 920-847-2252.
There’s a whole lot of nothing on the southeast side of the island. As you head back along South Shore Drive to the Washington Hotel, stop and clamber over the hill to Sand Dunes Beach, where you can sit and watch the gulls swoop over the bay.
For more information about Washington Island see www.washingtonislandchamber.com or www.washingtonisland.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Laura Park.