Madeline Island ferry

The Madeline Island ferry carries passengers from Bayfield to La Pointe. Photo By Larry and Linda Dunlap

Get away to Madeline Island

The largest of the Apostle Islands provides plenty of opportunities for exploration

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Madeline Island is a part of Wisconsin but apart from it, too, and thus begins its charm. Fourteen miles long and three miles at its widest, the largest – and only inhabited – of the Apostle Islands is a leafy destination separated from the state’s northern rim by two miles of the often-churning – but more-often
shining – Chequamegon Bay.

Because of its prime spot on Lake Superior, Madeline Island’s allure predates statehood by two centuries. Originally home to the Ojibwe, French fur traders arrived here in the late 1600s. A century later, French–Canadian trader Michel Cadotte arrived and married the daughter of the island’s Ojibwe leader. When his daughter’s Ojibwe name, Ikwesewe, was anglicized to Madeline, he renamed the island in her honor.

Water- and rail-based trade fueled the local economy throughout the 19th century. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company set up shop on Madeline Island in 1816, and logging and fishing also helped shaped the economic landscape there.

Today the economy rests squarely on leisure and tourism. The island is year-round home to about 250 hardy souls, but its summer population swells to more than 10 times that, especially in July and August. Madeline is accessible only by boat, plane and ferry and while many visitors bring their cars on the ferry from Bayfield, most of the island’s places of interest are within walking distance.

The ferry lands at La Pointe, the unincorporated village where most of the places of interest – including food and drink establishments – are located. Guided bus tours of the island are offered in the summer and fall, and free walking tours of La Pointe are available as well. Motion To Go on Main Street in La Pointe rents bikes and mopeds by the hour or the day for those who leave home without them.

Tourists who go to play should also make time for the past. The Madeline Island Museum is a state historic site that sits just steps from the ferry landing. An original 1835 American Fur Company building is one of the historic structures in the complex housing exhibits on Native American history, the eras of fur and maritime trade and the often-difficult lives of those who made their living on what could be very treacherous waters.

One of the island’s most popular spots is Big Bay State Park, where a 1.5-mile barrier beach is sheltered enough from moody Lake Superior for swimming, flat-water paddling, wading and simple, but underrated, beach lazing. For the more active, there are miles of hiking trails, including a pine-shaded boardwalk trail along the shore of Lake Superior. Both the state park and the nearby Big Bay Town Park offer campsites, but they fill up early in peak season so reservations are highly recommended.

It might be remote, but the island is certainly not without its artistic merits. The Madeline Island Music Camp, a long-running summer music camp for young musicians, offers public concerts in June and July, and the recently developed Madeline Island School of the Arts provides classes in both visual and fiber arts on a former dairy farm. La Pointe boasts several galleries representing the work of a range of artists.

For those who make art with a five iron and a Titleist, the Madeline Island Golf Club is a gallery of greens and fairways well worth a shot. Designed by the estimable architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., the 18-hole course features an unusual layout of double tees and sprawling, double greens; thus the first fairway also serves as the 10th, the second as the 11th and so on. Gorgeous views of the sailboat-studded marina and gleaming Chequamegon Bay serve as wonderful distractions. A pro shop, driving range and putting green are also on-site. For more watery pursuits, kayak and canoe rentals are available in La Pointe, as are sailboat or fishing charters. For a look at what lies beneath, Adventure Vacations offers snorkel tours of the Fedora shipwreck between Madeline Island and Bayfield.

No single day is more crowded on the island than America’s birthday, when thousands of visitors arrive for the popular 4th of July parade. For many, the event is tradition; I saw my first in the early 1980s and have missed just one in all the years since.

Certainly it has grown from its decorate-your-dog/bike/kid in red, white and blue early days; today there are even a handful of floats and a pick-up marching band. At its heart, the parade is Americana at its small-town best. After the final unit has passed, many parade-goers gather on the museum lawn for songs and short speeches or picnic in the parks before heading back to the ferry.

Lodging on Madeline can range from rustic campgrounds to ritzy condo rentals, and just about everything in between. Many island owners make their cabins or homes available for rent when they are not using them; one of the largest agents is The Inn on Madeline Island, which rents some 70 properties in addition to its own lodging rooms. Madeline Island Vacations also has a number of properties around the island. Visit the Chamber of Commerce for a complete list.

Dining on the island is deliciously upscale at Cafe Seiche, where the luckiest diners savor sunsets from the restaurant’s screen porch. Bell Street Tavern is a popular restaurant and bar that often features live music, while the Beach Club offers casual waterfront dining adjacent to the ferry landing.

That leaves Tom’s Burned Down Cafe for last, which is the opposite of where it will be stored in your first-time-visitor memory bank. The restaurant was built from the ruins of Leona, a local bar that suffered a nasty fire. The current incarnation prospers as an open-air wonder that is part Key West, a bit of Jamaica and a whole lot of free-spirit Madeline Island. Even a quick spin through the establishment to take in its many bits of written wisdom (“Sorry – We’re Open,” reads one sign) will not be regrettable. The same applies for any trip to Madeline.

A former travel columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dennis McCann now lives on the edge of Lake Superior in Bayfield, where he looks at Madeline Island every day. This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Wisconsin Trails.

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