Life on an island always seems to move at a different tempo. Whether set apart from the mainland by thousands of miles of water or just a few, that geographical separation can’t help but slow things down a little. While the 35-mile square of Washington Island, Wisconsin, may only be 7 miles away from the state’s idyllic vacation destination of Door County (and across a passage imposingly named Death’s Door), the contrast between island and mainland is still palpable.
“It’s definitely a different pace of life here,” admits Frank Hartmann, the hospitality manager at the Washington Hotel, a restored 1904 inn that also features a gourmet restaurant and culinary school.
But don’t let that leisurely atmosphere fool you: There’s plenty to see and do on Washington Island. Sure, the entire “downtown” can be walked in about 5 minutes, but to speed through would be to miss many of its distinctive charms—like Nelsen’s Hall, a pub dating back to 1899 that managed to stay open during prohibition by applying for a pharmacist’s license and distributing the 90-proof Angostura Bitter’s stomach tonic to its thirsty customers. Those brave enough can still imbibe the potent potable and receive membership in the saloon’s Bitter’s Club. (Lightweights might prefer a refreshing glass of Island Wheat Ale, brewed from wheat grown on the island.)
As enticing as Washington Island’s indoor pleasures are, its outdoor attractions are even more so. With polished white pebbles and crystal-clear waters, the secluded Schoolhouse Beach has a vista that rivals that of any tropical paradise (though the water temperature tends to run a bit more frigid). Rent a bike shortly after stepping off the ferry, and cruise down gently rolling, traffic-free roads past sweet-smelling fields filled with wheat, flax and Queen Anne’s lace.
Or, with a quick but rewarding climb to the top of the centrally located lookout tower in Mountain Park, you can take in a panoramic view of the fields with the limitless Lake Michigan beyond. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s plenty of delicious local fare to satiate your hunger, from classic burgers and shakes at the beloved and busy Alabatross Drive-In to inventive wood-fired pizzas at the Washington Hotel, where the dining room is helmed by Culinary Institute of America grad Leah Caplan.
While two-thirds of the island’s residents come for the temperate summers only, the 700 or so who do stick it out during the harsh Wisconsin winters have created a tight-knit community. The evidence of this camaraderie is easy to find, but nowhere is it more apparent than in the Stavkirke, an authentic Scandinavian chapel (paying homage to Washington Island’s roots as the first Icelandic settlement in North America) that was constructed entirely by island-based volunteers.
Resident Ed Livingston, who gives island tours on his pickup-pulled Cherry Train, still gets a little choked up when talking about the hard work poured into building the church, particularly by his late friend Dale Bjarnarson, who spearheaded the project.
“I don’t think I’d ever live anywhere else,” Ed says of the island—and it’s clear that it’s the people who live here (and not just the beautiful scenery or island-y quaintness) who have convinced him.