Washington Island, Wisc. — Door County’s Largest Island
Published: Monday, March 19, 2018
Surrounded by water, Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula has long been a hot spot for boaters and vacationers. Beaches, limestone bluffs, waterfront villages, and 34 named islands help give this Midwestern destination a distinctly coastal vibe.
Located off the tip of the peninsula lies Washington Island, Door County’s largest island. Discover this enchanting island rich in Scandinavian history and full of family-fun activities.
When arriving by boat, the island has three marinas boaters can dock at: Shipyard Island, Kap’s Marina, and the Town Dock in Jackson Harbor. Visitors not traveling by pleasure craft to the island can take the Washington Island Ferry, a vehicle and passenger ferry, or the Island Clipper, a passenger-only ferry. Both ferries run multiple times throughout the day during the summer season, and the Washington Island Ferry runs all year to serve the transportation needs of the island’s 700 year-round residents.
If you don’t have a vehicle while visiting the island, no worries! The Cherry Train or the Viking Tour Train are two great places to start your Washington Island adventure as you make stops at popular and notable locations around the island.
History and architectural buffs will enjoy a stop at the Island Stavkirke. Based on drawings of an original stav church built in Borgund, Norway, in 1150 AD, the Stavkirke is an island project that pays tribute to Door County’s strong Scandinavian heritage. Constructed in the 1990s, it is a spot not to miss. Make sure to take in all the beautiful wood carvings on the inside and outside of the building.
Kids will love a visit to Schoolhouse Beach, the most popular beach on the island. However, upon getting to the beach, they may ask, “Where’s the sand?” The beach is a geological marvel in that it is comprised entirely of small smooth limestone rocks. One of five smooth stone beaches in the world, the beach offers swimming, a diving raft, picnic tables, and more along the shore of an old-growth cedar forest.
Farming was, and still is, a big part of Washington Island’s heritage. Step back in time at the Washington Island Farm Museum where you can tour pioneer farm buildings along with antique farming equipment. Kids will enjoy playing with the water pump and feeding the animals on the property. On special days, you may see re-enactors on site. The museum also hosts a weekly farm market.
With over 100 miles of paved roads, renting a bike or a moped is another fun way to explore Washington Island. Annie’s Island Moped Rentals offers bikes and mopeds near the ferry dock, and Island Rides Bicycle Rentals, also located near the ferry dock, can deliver bikes to anywhere on the Island. Also near the ferry dock is Island Adventure Company, where you can rent a utility vehicle (UTV) and travel in style throughout the island with up to 6 passengers.
As you travel around the island, take in the intoxicating smell of lavender around you. Washington Island boasts two lavender farms, Fragrant Isle and Island Lavender. Fragrant Isle is home to the largest lavender farm in the Midwest with 20,000 lavender plants. The farm also features a café for sampling lavender products. Island Lavender’s farm is based around a 1916 restored dairy building that also features a multi-roof, hand-carved Scandinavian temple for drying fresh lavender. Both farms feature gift shops that have endless supplies of lavender products.
Top off your day at the top of Washington Island with a visit to Mountain Park and Lookout Tower. Climb the 186 steps to see Rock Island State Park in the distance as well as the Grand Traverse Islands.
After working up an appetite, great dining options can be found throughout Washington Island. Try Icelandic pancakes and sample homemade breads for breakfast at the Sunset Resort. The Albatross Drive-In and Tiki Bar is known for their burgers and ice cream creations. You will know you’re at the right place when you see the candy eyes on an ice cream cone. Another local favorite is K K Fiske restaurant, known for serving “fresh lawyers,” a locally caught Burbot fish that got its name from fisherman because it has a tiny heart near its rear end. K K Fiske catches the fish daily and serves them in many ways whether deep-fried, boiled, or pan-fried.
While visiting the island, many visitors like to join what’s called the “Bitter’s Club” at Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub. To get your Bitter’s Club card all you need to do is take a shot of Angostura Bitters. The ritual started during prohibition when the owner applied for a pharmacist license to dispense bitters (which just so happens to be 90 proof) as a stomach tonic. Today, Nelsen’s Hall is the largest purveyor of Angostura Bitters in the world and over 10,000 visitors a year become part of the Bitter’s Club.
If you plan to spend some time on Washington Island, be sure to take a day trip to Rock Island State Park. Wisconsin’s most remote state park is accessible by pleasure craft or a passenger ferry that boards from Jackson Harbor on Washington Island. While at Rock Island State Park, tour Wisconsin’s oldest lighthouse, Pottawatomie Light, which dates back to 1836. Hike around the island for great views and be sure to check out the beautiful boat house at the main dock, built by the island’s previous owner.
To plan your island adventure and for additional information on lodging, attractions, restaurants, and activities visit WashingtonIsland.com or call 920-847-2179. For travel information about all of Door County, visit DoorCounty.com or call 1-800-527-3529.
This article first appeared in the Spring Issue (Mar/Apr) 2018 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.