Apostle Islands

So now that it’s October, let me tell you about our family trip in September to the Apostle Islands. It sounds like it’s some tropical beach destination, but it’s actually a national park in northern Wisconsin. This trip ticked two of my newish travel goals: visit as many national parks as possible and visit all the cool places in Wisconsin I never knew about until I left Wisconsin.

The Apostle Islands are way north in Lake Superior. It’s so far north that one website claimed it gets more visitors from Minnesota than Wisconsin. This translates to a very long travel time from Chicago. Mr. Dove and I took a bus 3.5 hours to Madison, where my parents picked us up for the remaining 6 hour drive to Bayfield, WI. Which means we can travel from Chicago to Brussels, Belgium about the same amount of time. But as a result we had plenty of time to catch up with each other and I also got in a ton of reading.

We stayed in Bayfield because the ferries to the islands pick up there and it had reviews as a cute town with good restaurants. It was a cute historic, tourist town, with several restaurants, book stores, coffee shops, and other small shops to browse. But it also had surprisingly expensive accommodations for a tiny town in a rural area. The town clearly thrives on tourism, which is fine, but doesn’t provide travelers a good bang for their buck.

We stayed at the Seagull Bay Motel, which was a good deal for the town. The location is awesome – on the lake and only a 10 minute walk to town via a trail. The views of the lake from the rooms and balconies were amazing. The rooms were very clean, if not out dated, and the beds comfy. The owners/managers were super friendly and helpful. I never thought I’d pay $100/ night for a motel, but this place was the cheapest in Bayfield and above and beyond any motel I’ve ever seen in terms of location, views, and service. We spent all three evenings relaxing and chatting on the balcony, looking out at the lake. I’ve genuinely never spent as much time at my hotel or apartment while traveling as I did on this trip. Then again, I’ve never had those kinds of views from a hotel before.

Day 1 we decided to take the ferry to Madeline Island, which is the only island not part of the national park. It has an even tinier town than Bayfield and a large state park. We chose Madeline Island because we went after Labor Day and the ferries to the other islands were no longer running. We could have taken a water taxi, but they were really expensive and outside our budget. Plus, the water taxis charged an hourly waiting fee, and even if we splurged I knew I would constantly be thinking is this trail or that beach worth another $50? So note to my future self and any one reading, if you go to the Apostle Islands even slightly off season, you will be blessed with less crowds but left with no affordable means of getting to most of the islands. Regardless, we all had a blast on Madeline Island.

We took the car to Madeline Island and I cannot recommend this enough. The car made it possible to travel to the state park and the ferry fee for the car was cheaper than the four of us renting bikes or mopeds on the island (the only other way to make it to the park). When we first arrived at Madeline Island we parked the car, got some coffee and walked around the town and down the main road for a bit. It had several galleries with local artists and homemade souvenir shops that we popped into.

Then we hopped back in the car and drove to the state park. This was our favorite part of Madeline Island. We picnicked in a pretty clearing, and then took the boardwalk trail that follows the beach and marshland/lagoon area. It was beautiful and also easy, flat walking once you got down the stairs to the boardwalk. This trail loops through the town park (with bathrooms!) to another trail that goes along the other side of the lagoon. We planned on doing the full loop, until we came to the next trailhead that had a warning sign for bears with cubs. My mom freaked out, said no way in hell. The rest of us all pretended that for her sake we would double back instead, but we were all (not so) secretly relieved to do so. So we saw the lovely boardwalk trail twice.

Before heading back to Bayfield, we had a drink (or more) at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe. Given my dad’s name is Tom, this would have been an obligatory stop even if it didn’t look so interesting. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is pretty much a rambling connection of canopy tents, platforms (some built over cars), and trailers. The vibe is fun and the pithy signs that cover the “walls” are entertainment in and of themselves.

The next day we walked around Bayfield, visiting whatever shops interested us (mainly the local bookstore for Mr. Dove and I, and the thrift shop for my parents). Then we switched to four wheels and slowly made our way to Cornucopia for a boat tour of the sea caves (yes, in the lake). There are a lot of apple orchards around the area and a few wineries that we checked out along the way. And it turned out Cornucopia was having an art fair next to boat tour store. So we killed the last bit of time before our tour browsing the fair and nearby art shops (only a few looked open daily).

The boat tour was probably the highlight of the trip. We went with Captain Mike from Good Earth Outfitters. There are several boat tour companies in the area, and I had narrowed down our options to the two with the best reviews and cheapest prices. Good Earth Outfitters won the tie because it’s website had a YouTube video with a preview of the tour that played the song Gilligan’s Island in the background. Sold. I was kind of disappointed to learn they didn’t make the video, a guest did. But they had the good sense to put it on their website, so kudos for that.

The boat tour lasted a little over 1.5 hours and almost all of it was spent seeing the mainland sea caves. Originally, I wanted to take a tour to Devil’s Island for the sea caves, because it’s supposed to have the most spectacular ones. But based on the timing of our trip, the only option (other than prohibitively expensive water taxis) was a four hour “Grand Cruise” with another company. That tour was the same price, but had awful reviews for being boring, not getting close enough to the islands to see what differentiates them, and only spending ten minutes in front of the Devil’s Island sea caves. I am so glad we didn’t waste four hours to only see the caves for ten minutes. And I was stoked to learn just how close Captain Mike can get to the sea caves – we actually went part ways in some of the larger ones. Can’t recommend this tour enough.

The following morning, we had to head home as it took all day to travel back to Chicago. I would like to go back to the Apostle Islands and surrounding area someday, but for much longer than a weekend trip – a week at minimum. It’s just too much traveling in a weekend. To be honest, I knew that going into this trip. But I didn’t want to commit to a whole week without knowing how we would like it, since we normally travel to cities and only stop for a few days in small towns. In Belgium, we learned the hard way that, as a rule, we should not take any day trip longer two or more hours one way. On this trip, despite all the fun we had, we learned not to take a weekend trip nine or more hours one way. I suspect the 9 should also be a much lower number.

I also think if we went back as a family for a week or longer, I would look at whether renting a house or cabin outside Bayfield would be cheaper. Our normal location rule is that we like to stay either in or near the center of town, whether we’re staying in a town of 1500 or a giant city. We like walking to restaurants and attractions and not spending as much time commuting to places. We also then save money on transit and the value of our time. But I think a new rule of thumb is if we take a trip where most of the attractions require a car ride regardless of how central we are, then we should look at cheap places within, say, a 15-20 minute car drive of where we want to visit. Aka when planning on doing outdoorsy things in rural Wisconsin, it doesn’t matter if we’re not walking distance to a town center.

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