Madeline Island, Wisconsin

Photo: Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce
Photo: Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce

You boarded one of the first ferries this morning. Sunlight swept shadows off the light blue water as it rose above the pine tree line. A lone seagull followed the boat’s ripples in hopes of finding an easy breakfast. A resort town, home to Victorian-era buildings, gradually became smaller on the mainland. While red sandstone cliffs and golden-sand beaches lie ahead. It won’t be long until you reach the island.

When the summer arrives, the waterfront is where you want to be. Bonus points if it’s on an island. From the San Juan Islands and the Channel Islands on the West Coast to Jekyll Island and Shelter Island on the East Coast, you’ll travel anywhere as long as you have sunshine and a gorgeous view. But you don’t actually have to go to one of the coasts to find one of these serene spots. There are actually islands in the Midwest, too.

Visions of beaches and islands don’t dance in your head when you think of Wisconsin. But the Badger State borders two of the Great Lakes, Michigan and Superior, and has miles of gorgeous coastline. Lake Superior, to the north, is known as the cleanest and largest of the Great Lakes. It’s also home to the Apostle Islands.

Photo: Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce
Photo: Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce

The Apostle Islands are famous for their old-growth forests and sandstone sea caves. Historic lighthouses, old brownstone quarries, and a former one-room schoolhouse are scattered over the 21 islands. They were declared a national lakeshore and protected against future development. All except one, that is.

Madeline Island, the southernmost Apostle Island, is the only island open to commercial development and private ownership. The island was originally a spiritual center for the Lake Superior Chippewa and was named after the daughter of an Ojibwe chief. French colonists established a fort here in the late-17th century, and Native Americans, fur traders, and missionaries lived relatively peacefully side-by-side for almost 400 years.

The island is still peaceful today. Big Bay State Park is home to those sandstone bluffs, hiking trails, and bald eagles’ nests. Native American sites—including a prayer pole and a cemetery—dot the island. More island history is on display in the Madeline Island Museum’s log buildings. While your golden-sand beach is called Joni’s Beach here.

When you disembark from the Nichevo II, the ferry from Bayfield, head to the Fat Radish to pick up supplies. A smoked white fish or two-tomato tango sandwich makes a perfect to-go lunch. Spend the day biking around the island, hiking along the cliffs in the state park, keeping an eye on the sky for a bald eagle, and relaxing on the beach. Go kayaking, paddleboarding, or swimming—okay, maybe not swimming, as the water is quite chilly.

Then make your way to Tom’s Burned Down Cafe after playing all day. Only its decks remained after the tavern really did burn down. Instead of rebuilding, the owner just added a tarp roof and more decks. It’s now a popular spot to sip an Island Rum Punch and watch the sun set. There’s no better way to end a day on the islands.


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