Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Bayfield and the Apostle Islands
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
BAYFIELD – You can't get any farther north in Wisconsin than Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, though, surprisingly, this amazing community doesn't feel especially "Northwoods."
It actually feels a lot more like Door County, but without so many Chicagoans and traffic – and a little coastal Maine thrown in for good measure. The people who call this magical place home feel a special connection with Lake Superior, the mighty Great Lake that is really more of a sea than a lake. You have to see it to believe it, but Lake Superior weaves its way into every facet of daily life up here.
Maybe it's because of the area's amazing natural beauty, or perhaps because it's so far away from everything – a seven-hour drive from Milwaukee if you don't dawdle – that Bayfield and the biggest and only populated of the Apostle archipelagos, Madeline Island, draws a special type of tourist and resident.
It's a well-kept secret that needs to be let out.
People who live up here embrace nature and ecology, and the county is known for artists and adventure types practicing quiet water sports like sailing and kayaking. And that's just during Bayfield County's short summer.
They equally embrace winter with dog sledding and celebrate the frozen lake with a temporary ice road between the mainland and Madeline.
They even get along with and respect the area's Native Americans, who still occupy much of the peninsula on a reservation – this is sacred land for the Indians, where magnetic and due north line up. The white settlers who came after the Anishinaabeg quickly understood this energy and revered it, too.
Of course, being so far from Milwaukee and Chicago means that you need to be fully committed to the trip that takes you many miles north of even Minoqua, and you're more likely to see tourists here from Minneapolis than you are from Mequon.
But this is still Wisconsin, even if it doesn't really feel like it.
It's just a different kind of Up North that what you might be used to. And, unlike some other quaint destinations in the Northwoods, these folks don't discourage visitors from seeing their little slice of heaven, they welcome them.
Bayfield and Beyond in Only Two Days
We arrived in Bayfield on Monday night, taking a circuitous route through western Wisconsin to visit another "Wisconsin Wonder" destination, Superior's Big Manitou Falls (that article is coming soon). Certainly a scenic drive, it took us close to 11 hours before we checked in at the beautiful Rittenhouse Inn, one of the city's most stately old hotels.
Unless you love driving, don't take this route. Instead, head to Appleton, west to Wausau, north on Highway 51 then west on Highway 2, and finally up the peninsula on Highway 13. In all, you're looking at a peaceful but slightly grueling 375-mile drive from Downtown Milwaukee.
Before we arrived at the Rittenhouse Inn on Rittenhouse Avenue. (of course), we stopped for an early dinner in Washburn – Bayfield's little sister community 20 miles to the south. There, we ate at Café Coco, a place more known for its breakfasts and desserts, but one equally delicious for its soups and salads. The star of the meal, though, were indeed the desserts, particularly the carrot cake and an amazing Key lime pie. Coco is a must-stop when in the area, and locals all across the peninsula rave about it.
With 500 miles of driving now under our belts, we didn't have much energy Monday night beyond taking a short walk in downtown Bayfield to orient ourselves, and then settling into the Rittenhouse. While this Victorian mansion seems at first like an opulent bed and breakfast, it's actually an inn and restaurant, which I prefer. That means you're not eating breakfast with a table full of strangers, but you still get the experience of staying in a beautiful old house.
And this house is beautiful, indeed. Our room was woody and spacious, with a hot tub and fireplace and a gorgeous view of this harbor town. Had we not booked so many activities, it would've been easy to lounge around the room the entire time and be perfectly happy. The Rittenhouse offers 12 guest rooms and suites and free wifi, though interestingly, my cell phone worked better up here than at home.
Not that I had much time or interest to surf the Web. Tuesday morning, we enjoyed an early, delicious and filling breakfast of pastries, fruit and locally-sourced ingredients at Rittenhouse with Mary Motiff, the director of Bayfield County Tourism and Recreation. As we stuffed ourselves with some of the best breakfast I've had in recent memory, Motiff shared with us why she thinks the area is special.
"There is something about the islands that is so calming and centering," said Motiff, "which is why so many artists are drawn to the area."
Motiff said this draw extends to creature comforts, too.
"Many people who appreciate the abundant, high quality natural resources that exist here usually also appreciate good food and the arts."
After breakfast, we threw on bathing suits and drove just north of Bayfield to the town of Red Cliff on a Lake Superior Chippewa Indian reservation. Here is where we met up with Living Adventure, one of the two sea kayak trip companies in the area. With only a little trepidation, we put our lives in their hands for a thrilling six hours on the lake.
The owners of Living Adventure really have it figured out. In winter, they take their operation down to the Rivieria Maya in Mexico, and in the summer, owners Gail Green, Grant Herman and their dozens of guides take novice and advanced tours out on this magnificent body of water.
Herman was our guide on this day, and we joined a team of French kayakers, who were visiting Washburn for an international symposium. My wife and I were obviously the least experienced of the group, but at least we looked the part with wetsuits and life jackets. Fortunately, Herman supplied us with a tandem kayak that is more stable and faster than a solo.
Still, this was no casual kayaking trip. With water temperatures in low 40s, Lake Superior is more like ocean than lake, and our trip began with a van ride 20 minutes past the casino under construction, to a beach drop off within the national park. Herman offered us a paddling tutorial, helped us secure our spray skirts and gave us a shove. We began to paddle east.
The scenery along this trip is stunningly beautiful, but unless you know what you're doing, it's best to leave the camera in the boat (I lost a pair of sunglasses to the "sea"). We skirted along and inside caves and cliffs carved out of red sandstone that looked like nothing I'd ever seen in person. Waves boomed and echoed off these unique formations, the clear water sitting tranquilly just feet from white capped, roiling waves.
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