WASHINGTON ISLAND, Wis. — Unlike many island vacation spots, Washington Island — a half-hour ferry ride from Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula — takes pride in being quirky.
Let’s start with the sign in the window of K.K. Fiske Restaurant: “Fresh Lawyers.” No, it’s not an ad for cocky litigators. These “lawyers” are tender and tasty — freshwater fish caught each morning by local anglers.
Down the road is Nelsen’s Hall, which claims to be the world’s largest purveyor of Angostura Bitters. Nelsen’s — whose founder reputedly drank a pint of bitters every day as a restorative and lived to be 90 — issues Bitters Club Certificates to anyone willing to knock back a shot.
Along Washington Harbor, countless palm-size stones shape the popular Schoolhouse Beach. Scattered here and there are stones that have been hand-painted with miniature tableaux by unnamed artists. Beware: Anyone caught pocketing a stone, painted or not, faces a $250 fine.
Washington Island’s approach to tourism is unconventional, to say the least. Its 700 residents don’t go out of their way to compete with the tony boutiques and clapboard condos of nearby Door County peninsula or Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Instead, they rely on the island’s Icelandic history and unpretentious personality to attract tourists.
Now and then, a visitor might catch a whiff of “New England quaint,” but there’s no sign of Yankee standoffishness. To the contrary, a winsome eccentricity permeates Washington Island and invites exploration, as demonstrated by the replica of a female mariner on the roof of Fiddler’s Green pub, or the roadside sculpture of the head of a grinning cat on the body of a lanky fish — i.e. Catfish.
Carpeted by wheat fields and canopied by hardwood forests, the 23-square-mile island is easy to navigate, though first-time visitors might appreciate climbing Lookout Tower to get their bearings. Filling the panoramas are a vineyard, art and nature center, airport, campground, golf course and two lavender farms.
Lavender grows remarkably well on the island. Temperatures are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter than on the mainland. Sunshine is abundant and topsoil is shallow and sandy, preventing water from pooling.
Lavender is used primarily as a fragrance. But it’s also edible. Gift shops at the farms stock lavender-flavored tea, chocolate, gelato, vinegar, sea salt — even caramel corn (delicious when paired with red wine).
The island also is known for its festivals. All Things Lavender was held this month. The Scandinavian Dance Festival is Aug. 5, and the Literary Festival runs Sept. 22-24.
But the season’s biggest draw is the Washington Island Music Festival, July 31 through Aug. 11. Musicians from Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond perform for 12 days at the Trueblood Performing Arts Center, a modern, 263-seat concert hall. This year, audiences can expect works by Mozart, Bach and Schumann, along with free shows by singer-songwriters at the Red Barn Coffee House.
Lodging on the island runs the gamut, from vacation rentals and resorts to motels and B&Bs. One of the island’s oldest dwellings is Hotel Washington, opened in 1904 to house ship captains who anchored their schooners in the island’s harbors.
A relaxing retreat shaded by towering oaks and distinguished by a broad front porch, Hotel Washington was purchased by Chicago native Jeannie Kokes in 2014 after it had been shuttered for several years. Remodeled and expanded, it operates today as a year-round bed and breakfast, with a full-service restaurant and yoga studio.
Kokes first visited the island with her parents as a child. She now makes the island her full-time home, serving as a personal welcoming committee to travelers.
“One of my goals is to get more new people on the island,” she says.
The cuisine of the island blends traditional with contemporary. The historic Sunset Resort serves Icelandic pancakes filled with cream and yogurt and topped with warm cherry sauce. The classic Albatross Drive-In dishes out burgers, milkshakes, sandwiches and chili dogs to picnic-table customers. To the delight of return visitors, the Sailor’s Pub reopened this summer after a two-year hiatus. Located at Shipyard Island Marina, the pub specializes in fish, steak and potent rum drinks.
The Island Cafe and Bread Company bakes several daily breads, and serves toast, homemade jams and organic peanut butter throughout the day, along with breakfast and lunch, plus gourmet pizza dinners once a week. Owner Heidi Gilbertson, who touts her cafe with the slogan “Love is all we knead,” once worked as a field biologist. “There’s all sorts of biology going on when you’re making bread,” she says.
At one of the island’s few four-way stop signs, Red Cup Coffee House is a community hub. Bubbling with lively conversation and various roasts of “killer coffee,” the Red Cup intentionally is not wired for Wi-Fi. “We feel it changes the atmosphere,” says Ann Lennon, who opened the shop with her husband 17 years ago. Instead of staring into computer screens, tourists chat with other tourists as they browse the racks of handcrafted pottery and fiber arts, while town leaders and business people huddle to work out deals.
Add to the recreational to-do list a fleet of rental bicycles, motor scooters and kayaks, and there’s no getting bored on Washington Island.
Unless you want to. My wife and I have spent many summer getaways on the island, and time after time, the 4 1/2-mile passage from the mainland feels like a return to sanity.
“The ferry helps insulate it a little bit from the rest of the world,” says Deb Wayman, owner of Fair Isle Books, next door to the Red Cup. After summer visits with her family for 20 years, Wayman bought the bookstore in 2015 — “It was my midlife adventure” — and now lives six months on the island and six months in Chicago, her hometown.
“You have to really want to be here to wind up here, and especially to come back,” Wayman says. “It’s kind of in its own little world, removed from time in a way. And because of that, it has this replenishing quality for people.”