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Wisconsin, Unplugged: “Water Meets the Soul” in Bayfield and on Madeline Island

Article originally published in Lavender Magazine, September 2017

A summer’s weekend at your college friend’s parents’ cabin can be a blast. For starters, there’s sleeping six to a room, cooking your own meals, washing all those dishes…oh, and there’s no air conditioning.

Folks, it’s time to start a new tradition.

Bayfield, Wisconsin is four hours northeast of Minneapolis, and the drive along Lake Superior to get there is beautiful. Don’t let the town’s population of 487 and its total area of one square mile fool you. You’ll find amazing farm-to-table restaurants, nightlife, and plenty of ways to connect with nature. A short ferry ride away from Bayfield is Madeline Island, which is quickly becoming a hotspot for city slickers looking to get out of town.

This trip was a blessing in disguise for me. My phone struggled to get service, so by the end of my getaway, I forgot about my obligation to Facebook, and instead, was able to unplug and unwind.

If you haven’t ventured to northwest Wisconsin, you’re in for a treat. Here’s a roadmap for planning the perfect excursion.

Getting There

Going up Interstate 35 through Duluth means you’ll take Wisconsin’s Lake Superior Scenic Byway to Bayfield. It’s a simple drive, and the road was recently repaved, making for a smooth ride. If you head up after work, take a minute and pull over to snap a photo of the sun setting over the lake.

Despite Bayfield’s small population, there are plenty of options for finding a place to sleep. I got cozy in a lakeshore condo from the family-owned Winfield Inn and Gardens. Bayfield is not home to chain hotels. Instead, you can rent your own house or stay at a bed and breakfast to submerge yourself in local charm.

Not One, but Two Destinations

Bayfield is the starting point to the 22 Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, home to the largest collection of historic lighthouses in the nation. The biggest Apostle Island is Madeline Island, the only one with inhabitants. Vacations to Bayfield and La Pointe (the town on Madeline Island) go hand in hand.

When planning, determine if you want to head up to Madeline Island’s two parks, located side-by-side on the east side of the island. Big Bay Town Park is the better option for most; there’s no fee to get in. Both the Town Park and Big Bay State Park offer walking trails and beaches. Big Bay State Park is well-known for cliff jumping.

For those camping on Madeline Island, you’ll definitely want to take your car over on a ferry ride. The Madeline Island Ferry takes 20 minutes and it’s the only way for tourists to get from Bayfield to the island. To bring your car, you’ll pay $25 to go round-trip. That doesn’t include the $14 round-trip ticket cost per adult. Plan extra time to take the ferry—on the Saturday morning I headed over, I waited nearly 45 minutes on land before my car even boarded.

If you’re visiting Madeline Island for the day, you could forgo a car if you don’t want to visit the state or town parks. Madeline Island offers bike rentals, but be warned, the island is deceiving: it’s about the size of Manhattan. You’ll bike about six miles one-way from where the ferry drops off to arrive at the campgrounds and walking trails found at Big Bay Town Park and Big Bay State Park. All of Madeline Island’s restaurants, shops, and activities are within walking distance of the ferry drop off.

If you took everything at your uncle’s garage sale and dumped it all out under a big top tent, you get Tom’s Burned Down Cafe.

When to Go

According to locals, September and October are the perfect months to travel to Bayfield and Madeline Island. Prices for overnight accommodations lower dramatically and it’s easier to find a place that fits your personality. Plus, because of their location on Lake Superior, temperatures stay more summer-like than other destinations in northern Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Come the first weekend of October, farms and vineyards in Bayfield’s “Fruit Loop” are producing a top-notch harvest; the city is the berry capital of Wisconsin. The town celebrates with the Bayfield Apple Festival, an event featuring an evening fish fry, live music, and a carnival.

Typically, the number of visitors dwindles quickly after mid-October. The two towns stay relatively quiet during the winter months; on average, Bayfield racks up 89 inches of snow. However, the Apostle Islands hosts an annual sled dog race in February and Bayfield turns into a jumping point for those looking to experience the ever-popular sea caves on Lake Superior if the ice cooperates.

A Foodie’s Paradise

I had great meals in Bayfield and on Madeline Island. Don’t fuss with buying groceries and cooking in your condo. Instead, start with this list of restaurants.

The Fat Radish
200 Rittenhouse Avenue, Bayfield, WI

Pad out your schedule with extra time for a visit to The Fat Radish in the heart of Bayfield’s downtown. They stress they’re not a “food is cooked in seven minutes” type of restaurant; instead, items are made to order. In fact, that’s the vibe I got from all Bayfield and Madeline Island establishments. They’re on “island time” and it moves a bit slower. Your patience will pay off.

The Fat Radish’s BLTE showcases local bacon, lettuce, tomato, eggs and garlic aioli served on a ciabatta roll. It was a great way to start the day.

The BLTE from The Fat Radish.

Farmhouse Madeline Island
858 Main Street, La Pointe, WI

Farmhouse Madeline Island serves breakfast, brunch and lunch everyday until 3:00. [Edit: Their hours fluctuate through the year and in the fall, they are only open Thursday through Sunday. Check ahead.] Like The Fat Radish, Farmhouse focuses on local, organic, and sustainably sourced food. Gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarian options are prevalent on the menu. The owner suggests you get the Kimchi Rachel. Oh, and check out their Facebook page for evening pop-up dinners—they recently held a four-course ramen experience.

Shopping and More

Local goods available at Bell Street Gallery on Madeline Island.

Madeline Island Candles (LGBT owned)
219 Colonel Woods Avenue, La Pointe, WI

After a kitchen experiment making candles soon took over their entire house, Michael Childers and his husband, Glenn, started a new chapter in their lives and opened a candle factory in La Pointe, Wisconsin in 2012. Their soy candles come in clean, well-styled packaging and make for great gifts. Their current shop, inside a historic home on Madeline Island, is one of the first spots you’ll see off the ferry. And if you can’t make the trip, their online store is booming.

Woods Hall Gallery and Studios
712 Main Street, La Pointe, WI
A small, yet hearty group of residents call Madeline Island home year-round. The boom in visitors over the summer keep them busy, with many working in the service industry. However, providing for themselves and their families during the off-season can be a struggle. Enter Woods Hall, an association of over 70 artisans. In the front on the building, visitors will experience a showroom with beautiful hand-loomed rugs and scarves, jewelry, pottery, and more. In back rooms and upstairs, locals are hard at work creating these stunning pieces. Residents pay a small fee to access the workrooms, which stay open year-round.

Tom’s Burned Down Cafe
274 Middle Road, La Pointe, WI
Located in the middle of Madeline Island’s business district is something that looks like an old circus tent held together with road signs. That would be Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. The owners do not have a permanent structure on their land, so you could consider it more like the ultimate pop-up bar that’s always there. The foundation of this “bar” is made of junk automobiles (look close enough and you’ll see them). There’s no shortage of charm and quirkiness there. It’s definitely a spot you’ll want to visit at the end of the day for a drink and live music.

Look closely: the base of Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is made of junk cars.

Other Spots in Bayfield and Madeline Island Worth Your Visit

Bayfield Inn
20 Rittenhouse Avenue, Bayfield, WI
Featuring a rooftop deck with live music, head there to witness a beautiful sunset over Lake Superior.

Bell Street Gallery
807 Bell Street, Bayfield, WI
Walk inside to experience Wisconsin’s smallest bar and live music.

Dockside (LGBT owned)
190 Colonel Woods Avenue, La Pointe, WI
Featuring gifts, housewares, and souvenirs.

Island Eats Food Truck
Located next to Bell Street Gallery
Personal recommendation: get the whitefish tacos.

Bayfield Wine & Spirits (LGBT owned)
13 South Second Street, Bayfield, WI


Bayfield Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Bureau

Bayfield Berry Farm and Orchard Report
Updated twice weekly during the summer with berries and fruit available for picking at 15 farms and orchards.

Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce

Madeline Island Vacations (LGBT owned)
852 Main Street, La Pointe, WI
Featuring vacation lodging options.