By Kathleen McCann   Published Jul 06, 2004 at 5:46 AM

{image1}On a map, Wisconsin's Door County is like a lanky, pinkie finger jutting far into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan, and Washington Island would be the pinkie fingernail. But if that were the case, the island wouldn't be a French-manicured type fingernail, but maybe that of an avid gardener, or an artist -- with a bit of grit underneath.

The island's downtown streets are lacking Kincaid-painting "shoppes." Modest cottages and quaint inns are favored over condos. There are miles of natural waterfront, hiking trails that take you through woods, fields and shore, farms and homes. And the nearly 700 islanders and the thousands of visitors who return year after year wouldn't have it any other way.

The fact that it takes a half hour to cross the ominously and not unfoundedly named Death's Door channel spares the island from much of the crush that some Door County towns like Fish Creek experience in summer. You have no choice to stop and smell the moist lake air as you line up at Northport Pier and wait to board one of the small fleet of ferries that will take you ($9 adults, $5 children 6-11 roundtrip) and your car ($20) to the island's Detroit Harbor.

Early French explorers called the channel Porte des Morts because of its treacherous currents and unpredictable wave action. In years past, merchant sailing ships and later fishing boats were casualties of the channel, but today the crossing is safe aboard the ferries. On the way, the ferry passes a number of smaller islands such as Plum Island, where an old Coast Guard station and lighthouse stand, and the long, skinny Detroit Island. The islands are intriguing, but the view is mostly water, sky and more water. My misty evening crossing last fall had me searching the dusky horizon for the islands while wishing I'd taken Dramamine. Even so, once we hit land, this island has a way of making you feel more grounded than usual.

Although you can leave your auto at Northport, a car is handy for hitting all the island's natural spots and sites that are spread throughout the 22-square-foot mile isle. Other options include renting transportation at the dock, such as a bike moped or even a small, electric-powered car that seats two.

A great introduction to the island's natural and manmade offerings is the Cherry Train, which gives a 90-minute narrated tour while you relax in the seat of a blaze-red "zoomobile"-type vehicle that's pulled behind a 1980s Suburban that's built like a tank. The perfect ambassador for the island's relaxed, fun style, the "train" has been a family business since 1963. But sitting and zipping past the water, forests and cabins, just makes you itchy to explore the island on your own, especially its natural features.

{image2}A road follows much of the shoreline with plenty of places for the public to stop and enjoy the water's edge, such as Sand Dunes beach along the southern shore -- aptly named for its beautiful beach dotted with delicate grasses -- and Percy Johnson Park along the east. Jackson Harbor along the northeast corner has the remnants of a once thriving fishing community and includes a maritime museum. Here you also can catch another ferry to neighboring and even more remote Rock Island, a state park. I sat and watched a pair of swans smoothly sail its choppy waves while with the imposing Thordarson Boat House loomed a mile away -- although it looked even farther. Its cavernous boat slips looking like big mouths waiting to swallow any ship that dares to approach.

The 900-acre island has marked hiking trails, a sand swimming beach, camping and picnic areas. A highlight is the Potawatomi Lighthouse, the oldest on Lake Michigan and built in 1837. From this handsome stone structure and you can take stairs down dolomite cliffs to the waterfront.

Washington Harbor on the northern shore of Washington Island is home to the small Schoolhouse Beach, which is made of beautiful, smooth, round stones -- one of only five such beaches in the world to have the limestone rocks, according to the local tourism bureau. The stones certainly are beautiful, but it is illegal to remove them, so don't be tempted. There was an incident some years back, according to our hosts from a local inn, where a visitor filled his trunk with the stones. Being about as sharp as the stones, he seemed to forget that he was in a small town (as in everyone knows everyone's business) and on an island. The local police caught up with him as he sat waiting for a ferry back to the mainland.

Not far from the stony beach is another gem, Jens Jacobsen's museum and home in the woods. Visiting the rough hewn building that Jacobson lovingly built to house his treasures, I perused the slightly dusty collection of chock-a-block that he created or collected over a lifetime. A friendly museum volunteer shared details about the many from arrowheads, fossils, ships models and intricate cut-out woodwork as well as stories of island history. Having lived on island for 35 years and raised her children there, she is considered "almost an islander" by the natives, she joked.

Once you explore the shores, there's plenty more to see inland. Another stop I made was Mountain Lookout Park's tower, which perches smack dab in the center of the isle. From the lookout deck, the view of the island, Rock Island, Lake Michigan and even Michigan on a clear day is more breathtaking than the trip to the top. Tiny dots in a field below are cows munching lazily and the cars look like Hot Wheels.

One blue sedan had something lashed to its roof that very well could have been a bent-willow chair made by a student who got into one of the most popular classes at Sievers School of Fiber Arts. Located on the northern end of the island, the school offers one- to seven-day classes where you can learn to make other rustic furniture such as a sugarbush stool, baskets using a variety of techniques, papermaking, knitting, quilting and spinning, and even objects made from antlers.

{image3}Begun in 1979, the complex includes two newer studios, an 1895 schoolhouse, and a turn-of-the-century barn that's been renovated to house a studio and dorm facility for overnight students. They have a Web site where you can check out their class schedule, but the cashier in the school's gallery warned me that summer classes fill early in the season. I didn't plan that far in advance, so I had to settle for browsing the knit and woven items for sale made by faculty and students, the skeins and skeins of yarn, books and the looms that they manufactured and sell worldwide.

A place with this much waterfront is bound to inspire artists of all sorts and the island's Art & Nature Center is a gallery that features the work of local artists, some of which is for sale. Housed in an old schoolhouse, it also displays the art of nature, and includes a beehive you can watch at work, and information on the natural history of the island.

A fairly recent addition to the island, but a must-see, is the Norwegian-style stave church or "stavkirke." The wooden structure, with dragon heads at the "prows" of the gabled roofs, is based on architecture that appeared around the 11th-century blending Norse shipbuilding techniques.

{image4}The church, run by Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church located across the street, is as much a celebration of nature as it is of a higher being. Inside, its honey-colored, rough-hewn wood is under your feet, all around, and up, up to the building's peak. It's an inspirational gem and the short nature walk back to my car had me thinking a lot about how the island's early non-Indian settlers, many of them Scandinavian and Icelandic, must have found the quietude of the landscape and the harshness of the wind, snow and waves, and felt quite at home.

After a day of exploring nature, this city girl was ready to explore what the island had to offer in the way of refreshment. Unfortunately the shops and businesses of downtown's main street, called Main Road, aren't clustered for strolls, but are spread apart to the point that you have to drive from one to the next (especially after a day of hiking). This includes shops geared toward visitors, like Den Norsk Grenda -- a gift and book shop --with grass roofs that were shipped from Norway, and shops that serve the community like a grocer, the local newspaper, the Observer and a grocery store.

KK Fiske Restaurant is the only year-'round restaurant that serves three meals a day. The folks there were kind enough to cook up some grub even after they were officially closed, and nearby is the landmark Bitter's pub in historic Nelsen's Hall. Started by a Danish tavern owner who was big on dashes of bitters in just about every drink, the bar sells more bitters than any other in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. There are at least another dozen restaurants on the island, so dining options are plentiful and most are casual.


{image5}We stayed at a place called the Dor Cros Inn, a gathering of small cottages boasting knotty pine interiors (including the ceiling), not far from the ferry landing at Detroit Harbor. It's by no means fancy, but provides the three basic C's -- comfortable, clean and charming. The inn was bought three years ago by Cory and Laura Anders. Cory was a mason who decided to chuck life on Milwaukee's South Side for the call of the wild -- well, the kind of wild that comes served with fresh coffee and muffins every morning! The Anderses have big plans to update some of the property's buildings, but are determined to keep intact the Inn's "up north" casual atmosphere, rather than go upscale like so many formerly humble lodging back on mainland Door County. You can even join the Anderses and other guests for an evening around the fire pit, but you have to supply your own marshmallows and camp songs.

One of the best things about the island is the fact that many of its sights are free of charge, so you can spend all your money on fish boils and bitters. It takes about three hours to drive from Milwaukee to the ferry dock, where the ferries run about once an hour. The time of departure depends on the season and day of the week.

Back home, the rolling of the waves from the ferry is still with me, but luckily the remnants of fresh air perfumed by lake waters and a sense of relaxation also remain.