Laven­der-scented HOS­PI­TAL­ITY

Scan­di­na­vian her­itage, quirky charm await on Wis­con­sin’s Wash­ing­ton Is­land

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - KURT CHAN­DLER

WASH­ING­TON IS­LAND, Wis. — Un­like many is­land va­ca­tion spots, Wash­ing­ton Is­land — a halfhour ferry ride from Wis­con­sin’s Door County penin­sula — takes pride in be­ing quirky.

Let’s start with the sign in the win­dow of K.K. Fiske Restau­rant: “Fresh Lawyers.” No, it’s not an ad for cocky lit­i­ga­tors. These “lawyers” are ten­der and tasty — fresh­wa­ter fish caught each morn­ing by lo­cal an­glers.

Down the road is Nelsen’s Hall, which claims to be the world’s largest pur­veyor of An­gos­tura Bit­ters. Nelsen’s — whose founder re­put­edly drank a pint of bit­ters ev­ery day as a restora­tive and lived to be 90 — is­sues Bit­ters Club Cer­tifi­cates to any­one willing to knock back a shot.

Along Wash­ing­ton Har­bor, count­less palm-size stones shape the pop­u­lar School­house Beach. Scat­tered here and there are stones that have been hand-painted with minia­ture tableaux by un­named artists. Be­ware: Any­one caught pock­et­ing a stone, painted or not, faces a $250 fine.

Wash­ing­ton Is­land’s ap­proach to tourism is un­con­ven­tional, to say the least. Its 700 res­i­dents don’t go out of their way to com­pete with the tony bou­tiques and clap­board con­dos of nearby Door County penin­sula or Michi­gan’s Mack­inac Is­land. In­stead, they rely on the is­land’s Ice­landic his­tory and

un­pre­ten­tious per­son­al­ity to at­tract tourists.

Now and then, a vis­i­tor might catch a whiff of “New Eng­land quaint,” but there’s no sign of Yan­kee stand­off­ish­ness. To the con­trary, a win­some ec­cen­tric­ity per­me­ates Wash­ing­ton Is­land and in­vites ex­plo­ration, as demon­strated by the replica of a fe­male mariner on the roof of Fid­dler’s Green pub, or the road­side sculp­ture of the head of a grin­ning cat on the body of a lanky fish — i.e. Cat­fish.

Car­peted by wheat fields and canopied by hard­wood forests, the 23-square-mile is­land is easy to nav­i­gate, though first-time vis­i­tors might ap­pre­ci­ate climb­ing Look­out Tower to get their bear­ings. Fill­ing the panora­mas are a vine­yard, art and na­ture cen­ter, air­port, camp­ground, golf course and two laven­der farms.

Laven­der grows re­mark­ably well on the is­land. Tem­per­a­tures are lower in the sum­mer and higher in the win­ter than on the main­land. Sun­shine is abun­dant and top­soil is shal­low and sandy, pre­vent­ing wa­ter from pool­ing.

Laven­der is used pri­mar­ily as a fra­grance. But it’s also ed­i­ble. Gift shops at the farms stock laven­der-fla­vored tea, choco­late, gelato, vine­gar, sea salt — even caramel corn (de­li­cious when paired with red wine).

The is­land also is known for its fes­ti­vals. All Things Laven­der was held last month. The Scan­di­na­vian Dance Fes­ti­val was Sat­ur­day, and the Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val runs Sept. 22-24.

But the sea­son’s big­gest draw is the Wash­ing­ton Is­land Mu­sic Fes­ti­val ev­ery Au­gust. Mu­si­cians from Mil­wau­kee, Chicago and be­yond per­form for 12 days at the True­blood Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter, a mod­ern, 263-seat con­cert hall. This year (through Fri­day), au­di­ences can ex­pect works by Mozart, Bach and Schu­mann, along with free shows by singers-song­writ­ers at the Red Barn Cof­fee House.

Lodg­ing on the is­land runs the gamut, from va­ca­tion rentals and re­sorts to mo­tels and B&Bs. One of the is­land’s old­est dwellings is Ho­tel Wash­ing­ton, opened in 1904 to house ship cap­tains who an­chored their schooners in the is­land’s har­bors.

A re­lax­ing re­treat shaded by tow­er­ing oaks and distin­guished by a broad front porch, Ho­tel Wash­ing­ton was bought by Chicago na­tive Jean­nie Kokes in 2014 af­ter it had been shut­tered for sev­eral years. Re­mod­eled and ex­panded, it op­er­ates to­day as a year-round B&B, with a full-ser­vice restau­rant and yoga stu­dio.

Kokes first vis­ited the is­land with her par­ents as a child. She now makes the is­land her full-time home, serv­ing as a per­sonal wel­com­ing com­mit­tee to trav­el­ers.

“One of my goals is to get more new peo­ple on the is­land,” she says.

The cui­sine of the is­land blends tra­di­tional with con­tem­po­rary. The his­toric Sun­set Re­sort serves Ice­landic pan­cakes filled with cream and yo­gurt and topped with warm cherry sauce. The clas­sic Al­ba­tross Drive-In dishes out burg­ers, milk­shakes, sand­wiches and chili dogs to pic­nic-ta­ble cus­tomers. To the de­light of re­turn vis­i­tors, the Sailor’s Pub re­opened this sum­mer af­ter a two-year hia­tus. Lo­cated at Ship­yard Is­land Ma­rina, the pub spe­cial­izes in fish, steak and po­tent rum drinks.

The Is­land Cafe and Bread Co. bakes sev­eral daily breads, and serves toast, home­made jams and or­ganic peanut but­ter through­out the day, along with break­fast and lunch, plus gourmet pizza din­ners once a week. Owner Heidi Gil­bert­son, who touts her cafe with the slo­gan “Love is all we knead,” once worked as a field bi­ol­o­gist. “There’s all sorts of bi­ol­ogy go­ing on when you’re mak­ing bread,” she says.

At one of the is­land’s few four-way stop signs, Red Cup Cof­fee House is a com­mu­nity hub. Bub­bling with lively con­ver­sa­tion and var­i­ous roasts of “killer cof­fee,” the Red Cup in­ten­tion­ally is not wired for Wi-Fi. “We feel it changes the at­mos­phere,” says Ann Len­non, who opened the shop with her hus­band 17 years ago. In­stead of star­ing into com­puter screens, tourists chat with other tourists as they browse the racks of hand­crafted pot­tery and fiber arts, while town lead­ers and busi­ness peo­ple hud­dle to work out deals.

Add to the re­cre­ational to-do list a fleet of rental bi­cy­cles, mo­tor scoot­ers and kayaks, and there’s no get­ting bored on Wash­ing­ton Is­land.

Un­less you want to. My wife and I have spent many sum­mer get­aways on the is­land, and time af­ter time, the 4 ½-mile pas­sage from the main­land feels like a re­turn to san­ity.

“The ferry helps in­su­late it a lit­tle bit from the rest of the world,” says Deb Way­man, owner of Fair Isle Books, next door to the Red Cup. Af­ter sum­mer vis­its with her fam­ily for 20 years, Way­man bought the book­store in 2015 — “It was my midlife ad­ven­ture” — and now lives six months on the is­land and six months in Chicago, her home­town.

“You have to re­ally want to be here to wind up here, and es­pe­cially to come back,” Way­man says. “It’s kind of in its own lit­tle world, re­moved from time in a way. And be­cause of that, it has this re­plen­ish­ing qual­ity for peo­ple.”

For more in­for­ma­tion, call the Wash­ing­ton Is­land Cham­ber of Com­merce at (920) 8472179 or visit wash­ing­ton­is­land. com.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/KURT CHAN­DLER

Laven­der buds are har­vested in early sum­mer at Is­land Laven­der on Wash­ing­ton Is­land.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/KURT CHAN­DLER

Count­less lime­stone rocks line School­house Beach along the wa­ters of Wash­ing­ton Har­bor. Vis­i­tors caught re­mov­ing the rocks face a stiff fine.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/KURT CHAN­DLER

Red Cup Cof­fee House is a com­mu­nity hub on Wash­ing­ton Is­land, bring­ing to­gether tourists and lo­cal res­i­dents to shoot the breeze with­out the dis­trac­tion of Wi-Fi.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/KURT CHAN­DLER

Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, the Ho­tel Wash­ing­ton was built with a $500 loan se­cured with a hand­shake. The ho­tel, which opened in 1904 as hous­ing for ship cap­tains, now op­er­ates as a bed and break­fast and yoga stu­dio.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/KURT CHAN­DLER

The quirky per­son­al­ity of Wash­ing­ton Is­land is ex­em­pli­fied by the road­side art called Cat­fish.

Chicago Tri­bune/TNS/LORI RACKL

Wash­ing­ton Is­land’s Scan­di­na­vian her­itage is on dis­play through­out the is­land. Rather than com­pet­ing for tourists with the nearby Door County penin­sula, the is­land em­braces its laid-back quirk­i­ness.

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