late 14c., “freedom from obligations, leisure, release” (from some activity or occupation), from Old French vacacion “vacancy, vacant position” (14c.) and directly from Latin vacationem (nominative vacatio) “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service,” noun of state from past participle stem of vacare “be empty, free, or at leisure.”
Work hard, play hard has been my motto for a long time. My typical bike vacations can be described as epic and involve lots of planning, ultralight camping gear, gps routes, nightly checks for tick and sometimes even satellite rescue beacons. While I do love challenging myself in the alpine high country of the San Juan Mountains or bushwacking long-abandoned logging roads in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, sometimes all you want to do is relax.
For years people have been suggesting that I do a story about bicycling on Washington Island. I have not been there in almost three decades, so I did some online research about bicycling on Washington Island, but didn’t come up with much beyond some small businesses to rent hybrids. No bicycle-themed coffee shops or breweries like I usually frequent. No epic routes famous for their difficulty. In fact, it is only 35 miles and 928 ft off elevation if you ride completely around the island, including trips out to every scenic point.
Without something epic or bicycle themed to build a story around, I just politely thanked people for the suggestion but never went. This year though my wife Liz retired after 34 years of teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools. She loved teaching, but that was a long, challenging row to hoe. I’m slammed with work during the summer and can’t take much time away, so we were looking for a short, relaxing trip to take together. I mentioned to her that people keep telling me I need to visit Washington Island, and she thought it sounded like a perfect weekend getaway.
So we made reservations for Friday and Saturday nights at two different places to try different lodging, loaded the road bikes in the bed of the truck and had Milwaukee, computer screens, and responsibility in the rear view mirror by 10am.
You have to take a privately-operated ferry to get to Washington Island. The ferry schedule changes with the season, but during the summer it leaves every 45 minutes or so between about 7am and 10pm depending on which direction you are going. The cost is $13.50 per adult, $4 per bicycle and $26 per car. Kids age six to 11 are only $7 for the 30 minute, six-mile crossing of the strait between the tip of the Door County Peninsula and Washington Island,
Often referred to as Death’s Door, (or Porte des Morts in the days of the French explorers), it was once one of the most notorious, treacherous stretches of water on the Great Lakes and home to scores of shipwrecks, perhaps the most of any freshwater in the world. The danger of the unpredictable waters and a potential shortcut were the main reasons they built the canal through Sturgeon Bay back in 1881. This is also where the Door County Peninsula got its name.
Thankfully our crossing was scenic, smooth, and uneventful.
Off the ferry, we drove the two and a half miles to Steffen’s Cedar Lodge Inn, dropped our bags in our cabin, and hopped on the bikes to explore. Our first stop was only 1.5 miles away to the ironically named Albatross Drive Inn, given most people had ridden their bikes there. After a delicious shake, we hit the road again, pedaling another mile down the road for a mandatory stop at Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub, the oldest continuously operating tavern in the country and home to the Bitters Club.
The story behind the record begins when Tom Nelsen, a Danish immigrant, built the Washington Island tavern way back in 1899. In 1920, when Prohibition hit even hard to reach Washington Island the entrepreneurial Nelsen applied for and was granted a pharmacist license to dispense bitters as a “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes.” Since Angostura Bitters is 90 proof, Nelsen maintained a busy “public practice” when most people were forced to seek out an underground speakeasy or brew bathtub gin at home.
Today the bar still serves shots of bitters, and they even fingerprint you with bitters to prove you are a card-carrying member of the Bitters Club. Liz declined the offer to join, but I like things like Gammel Dansk, Akavit and Icelandic Schnapps, so I knocked one back and chased it with a beer. What does it taste like? Let’s say it is better than Malört, but I was not itching for a second bump.
After our stop at Nelsen’s we were starting to get hungry but wanted to experience somewhere new. As soon as we stepped out the door, we saw a sign that said “Fish Boil Tonight” at KK Fiske Restaurant right next door and knew we didn’t have to unlock our bikes. KK stands for Kenny Koyen, AKA the Fish Mortician, who also runs a commercial fishing boat. His daily catch includes Lawyers, a slang term for the eel-like Burbot and Whitefish. Kenny also runs his own fish boil, which did not disappoint in terms of flames or flavor.
After the fish boil, we headed back to Steffen’s Cedar Lodge Inn to sit by the water with a bottle of locally sourced Angry Orchard Cider and watch the beautiful West Harbor sunset from the shore. Cedar Lodge is small pet-friendly resort owned by fourth generation Washington Islanders with two free standing cabins, a multi-unit lodge, and single rooms located on the shore of the West Harbor.
Our two-bedroom cabin had a full kitchen and a working fireplace. While the cabin could use a little TLC, it was very comfortable and the peaceful location right on water could not be beat. The dad in family in the cabin next to ours told us he grew up on Washington Island, moved away but has been bringing his family back Cedar Lodge for years.
With the sun set, we went back to the cabin to sit by a fire, finish our cider, and go to bed. Day one of our trip was complete, less than five miles ridden.
The next morning, we packed our stuff, grabbed coffee and delicious breakfast sandwiches at the nearby Red Cup, and headed over to the historic Hotel Washington Restaurant and Studio for our second night’s stay on the Island. The historic Hotel Washington was established in 1904 by Icelandic immigrants Ben and Evaline Johnson, and has eight carefully restored rooms overlooking Detroit Harbor featuring organic linens on antique, hand-carved beds. The hotel is small enough that you won’t mind the two shared bathrooms, which feature luxury steam showers and all Kohler fixtures.
After we checked in with the very personable owner Jeannie Kokes and dropped off our bags in our cozy Dragonfly Room, we hopped back on our bikes and headed out for a ride around the island. Our plan was to stay as close to the coast as possible and visit every point we pass. Most of the shoreline around Washington Island is private homes, so you only catch glimpses of Lake Michigan from the forested roads.
What really struck me as we soft-pedaled around the island’s low-traffic paved roads was how relaxing it was. With a population around 700, you rarely see cars, and when you do, they are not in a hurry to get anywhere. Because the island is so small, even our goal to ride all the way around it was a goal almost anyone can accomplish. The complete absence of pressure and stress frees you to be completely in the moment, enjoy the scenic ride and talk with your riding partner.
My usual bike trips which involve a hard push to ride 100 or more miles, and when you add in my stops to take photographs, I’m usually a little worried about getting to my destination before the restaurant closes. By contrast, a 25-mile cruise around Washington Island leaves lots of time to soak up the sun at a beach or stop visit a one of the many museums on the island. Want to stop at the lavender farm, why not? See an interesting looking cafe at a marina? Let’s grab lunch, we will still have plenty of time to make it back to the hotel for an afternoon nap before dinner. I doubt a pedal has ever been turned in anger on Washington Island.
Of the stops we made, our two favorites were near each other. Schoolhouse Beach, is one of a handful of beaches in the world that is made up of flat, round limestones worn smooth by thousands of years of waves. The beautiful beach seemed even more appropriate place to take a short break given Liz just retired from a career teaching.
Just two miles away on the south shore of Little Lake is the Jacobson Museum, really a must-stop destination. The tiny museum is housed in a vertical log cabin, in the classic Scandinavian style. While the museum contains an eclectic outstanding collection of natural and historical artifacts of the region, what made it so special was Jeannie, our docent, who knew Jens Jacobsen and had personal stories to tell about almost anything we asked about. Outside the museum is the small log cabin, once owned by Jens Jacobsen, which has been restored with authentic furniture and a mannequin of Jens which adds realism to the cabin
After the museum, we hopped on our bike for the pleasant six-mile ride back to the Hotel Washington. We took a nap and had a glass of wine and a beer on the beautiful front lawn before dinner at the hotel restaurant.
The restaurant features a bistro-style menu of appetizers, salads, pizzas and dinner entrees cooked in a brick oven. Much of the restaurant’s produce and proteins come from their own eight-acre farm or other Island suppliers. Our dinner of whitefish pizza, brick oven ribeye was fabulous, and paired well with a cold bottle of Door 44 Rose, from Parallel 44 Vineyard & Winery.
The next morning we packed up and headed down for breakfast (included), we were surprised to see there was a Mayfly hatching during the night. The window screens and front port were covered with hundreds of Mayflies!
Breakfast was a berry and honey yogurt parfait sprinkled with granola, a yummy vegetable quiche with a small side of homemade beef breakfast sausage. We were also served small glasses of refreshing grape juice, made from island-grown grapes leftover after pressings at Parallel 44 Vineyard.
Breakfast done, we thanked our host Jeannie for a wonderful visit and tip toed our way through the Mayflies to our car to grab the return trip on the ferry. It is worth checking the ferry schedule so you can time your arrival with loading and avoid a wait at the docks. If you packed your overnight bag in a backpack, you could easily save some money by leaving your car on the peninsula and just bring your bikes on the ferry. Everything is so close, you really never need a car on Washington Island. As our ferry took us back past Rock Island, I felt relaxed and refreshed rather than sore and exhausted as I usually feel after one of my “epic” trips. Perhaps the opposite of epic is vacation, and something just as worth striving for.