We squeezed in a last-minute family trip to Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands near Bayfield, Wisconsin. We went mid-week, as our planning was somewhat last-minute and that was the only time lodging was available.
Nearly 20 years ago a friend I knew through Rotary suggested we go to Madeline Island for our honeymoon. We had a bigger trip planned later in the year, and were looking for a relaxing place to go for a few days. Years ago it was said to be a place on “island time” - a slower pace – and it was perfect for our short post-wedding getaway. This time we headed out on a Wednesday afternoon, stopping in Duluth for a quick lunch at a family favorite, the Northern Waters Smokehause. We arrived in Bayfield to catch the ferry, which runs every half hour and cost $90 round-trip for a four-passenger vehicle. In late August, the weather was cool and Lake Superior was relatively calm.
When we booked the trip, we found there weren’t many accommodations available. Midweek we were able to find a more affordable place, but the options were few. We assumed it was because it was the busy last week of summer. We arrived a little before 5 and found our keys in an envelope pinned to a bulletin board, as the check-in was closed. As we pulled up to our two-bedroom condo, we felt like the Griswold’s in the movie “Vacation.” We were so shocked all we could do was laugh. The tennis courts were overgrown with weeds, the pool and hot tub were out of order and the condo was tired. The door jam of the front door had been busted out, and I ended up using a kitchen chair to lock us in overnight. Since the front desk was closed, there was no one to call. In fact, we didn’t see a single other guest near the condo during our stay. The condo itself was reasonably comfortable and clean.
We shrugged it off as a new norm with staff shortages and headed downtown for dinner, where we found one restaurant open. We quickly realized the problem finding accommodations and restaurants wasn’t that the island was so busy the last week of summer; it was that there were no workers on the island to work the front desk, clean rooms and serve food. The local businesses on the island were having the same problems the hospitality industry is experiencing everywhere.
Aside from all of that, the island itself is magnificent. The scenery is beautiful. The people are warm and friendly. Each morning at 6:45 I drove downtown to get an early start on coffee and pastries at the coffee shop. Often the supply is limited. I loved talking to the locals come through for coffee as they made their way to the ferry for work on the mainland.
While cars are allowed on the island, the touristy thing is to bring your bikes or rent bikes or mopeds to get around. The kids really wanted to rent mopeds but our son wasn’t old enough so we settled on electric bikes. The 14-mile island is long and narrow and pretty flat. We packed water bottles, swim suits and towels and headed out to Big Bay State Park where we hiked the shoreline and found the cliff known as a cooling off spot. We played a late afternoon round of golf followed by dinner at the restaurant. The next morning as we checked out we made reservations for a two-hour tandem sea kayak tour in Ashland. The lake conditions were perfect, with waves about a foot so our elbows got a little wet but all in all we stayed pretty dry. It’s normally a little more of a wet ride. Our tour guide navigated us in and out of caves and did a great job explaining rock formations, history and some fun gangster folklore. We took the Wisconsin route home and ended up exploring a few of the downtown areas in Hayward and Spooner. The North Shore journey was a success and I would recommend it.
I later found out some friends had done a trip but launched their boat and toured the Apostle Islands that way. That feels like big water for this inland lake boater, but I would love to go back and try a sailing adventure there sometime.
If you’re looking for a bit of island time close to home, consider Madeline Island. Be sure to do your research on where to stay and the best time of year to go try camping or rent a place on the mainland and take your bikes over on the ferry for a day trip. Please remember to be patient with the service industry.
Carter Johnson is publisher of Press Publications.