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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Forest, beach and water layer the northern shore of Washington Island at Schoolhouse Beach.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Red Cup Coffee serves as a morning meeting point for hot java, baked goods and local artistry.

Road trip: Washington Island


Let's face it, taking a vacation is tough these days. Everyone's tightening their belts these days, and airfare alone to get far from Wisconsin might be more than you've budgeted for a getaway. But the time-honored road trip may be just what you need this summer -- a fun escape on just a tank or two of gas. Fortunately, we've come up with a few car trips that won't break the bank. Pack a lunch and get going.

Washington Island (approximate round-trip mileage from Milwaukee: 416 miles)

Take away the fish boil dinner and river of tourists wandering small boutiques and gift shops. Leave behind farm stands selling hundreds of cherry derived jams and pies, bike rental shops and four star dining destinations.

Abandon Internet access, cell phone service or any semblance of 24-hour convenience and forgo the spectacle of goats on the roof or crazed ice cream shops scooping hundreds of cones nightly.

But add in quiet solitude, expansive rocky beaches and only the dedicated vacationer willing to undertake the half-hour ferry ride and there, you'll find the divergence from Door County that is Washington Island.

Located at the tip of Wisconsin's Door County Peninsula, Washington Island is the largest of five islands forming the Town of Washington. A ferry ride takes you across the channel to Washington Island; linking you to Rock Island State Park, Plum Island, Detroit Island, Hog Island and Pilot Island.

But as the final destination in a chain of Peninsula tourist towns, Washington Island's relative proximity and shared landscape are virtually where the similarities to mainland Door County start and end.

Boasting a few staple stores like grocery, liquor and coffee, there are relatively few restaurants, bars or boutiques in contrast to the consumer driven viability of Fish Creek, Ephraim or Bailey's Harbor.

The few available stops, like Red Cup Coffee or Nelson's Hall Bitters Pub & Restaurant, are loved by locals and vacationers but by no means tightly compressed into a walk-able neighborhood. While perhaps seen as a downside on an island merely a few square miles in size, the resulting open space fulfills the fantasy of private seclusion rather than mimicking the inconvenience and waste of urban sprawl.

Hotel style accommodations are few and far between with monolithic resorts or condominiums out of the question. The namesake of Capital Brewery's "Island Wheat" beer, golden fields of wheat extend through the center of the island while, small rental homes or cottages line the Island's perimeter for low-key, relaxed vacation retreat.

Blending into the local surrounding, you see families vacationing or groups up for a weekend, but without the "needed" plethora of goods and services customary in places like Door County or Wisconsin Dells, the tourist footprint is minimal.

But while the island may be small, the adoration for local establishments is not.

Red Cup Coffee, addressed by simply the street name Detroit Harbor Road, is an early riser's dream. A sweeping front porch is littered with oversized rocking chairs perfect for the morning paper. Inside, an artistically vintage interior highlights jewelry, pottery and the Island's talent for painting and photography. Serving the standard fare of coffee, espresso, baked goods and pastries, Red Cup is an oasis of community and conversation.

Just down the street on Main Road, The Albatross operates as the staple summer burger and custard stand. Diners order from a walk up counter plastered with signage reiterating the Island's stance on time management. Proclaiming each item is made to order, The Albatross lectures diners to sit back, relax and remember they are on Island time. Grilled burgers, fries and sandwiches are matched with shakes, smoothies and in-house created sundaes.

Deeper into the island, Nelson's Hall Bitters Pub and Restaurant, 1201 Main Rd., is perhaps the most sought after stopping point. Home of the Bitter's Club, those wishing to join must take a shot of homemade bitters in exchange for a membership card and chance to record the experience in the Bitter's Club diary. Where tradition meets inter-personal bets and dares, Bitters Pub & Restaurant is the newbie's adventure and the veteran's safe haven.

Arguably more memorable than the man made destinations, days can be wasted exploring the island's unique physical characteristics.

Expansive beaches, sunset lookouts and fisherman's docks lure droves of vacationers to forgo swimming pools and mini-putt-putt in an effort to capture and embrace Lake Michigan's erratic coastline.

Schoolhouse Beach, located on the north end of the island, swaps sand for rock. But, just as sand rounds into a perfect circle over time, the Beach's limestone rocks reflect shaping strength of smoothing waves and buffing winds crashing ashore for dozens of generations.

Likewise, generations of fishermen anchor at Jackson Harbor where fixed wood piers layout a small-scale marina full of lake battered boats.

To snap a view above sea level, visitors can hike Mountain Park Lookout Tower for incredible views of the northern and eastern coastlines.

But more than the list of places to go and things to see, Washington Island is a place to have no plan at all. An abundance of meandering trails leading to water, creaking Cedars towering through dense forest and wild flowers sweetly strewn through grassy fields fashion the perfect playground to slow down and see where the day takes you.


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