After our confidence-boosting hiking, we made it back to Bayfield and returned out wet suits after our tour was cancelled. We asked the woman at the kayak place if she had any thoughts about where to go for dinner. Without hesitation, she advised us to go to Madeline Island and visit one of the restaurants there. Sam and I thanked her for the information about how to get to Madeline (there are ferry rides every 30 minutes) and made our way back to the car. Since our ferry to Stockton Island cost us so much money, we ruled out budgeting for another island while we were here. But going to Madeline was only $10 or $15 each, and we’d just received a hefty refund from the cancelled kayak trip, so we decided to treat ourselves.
But first, I needed a bath in Superior. Because why not? That’s what I did all summer in Lake Michigan, so why not here? Let’s put it this way: our lake baths were very short. Like, maybe 30 seconds? In case you’re wondering, swimming in Lake Superior when it’s drizzling and barely 60 degrees outside is not something I’d recommend. Unless you’d like a taste of onset hypothermia.
An hour later, we were clean(er), changed, and on a ferry to Madeline. By this time, neither of us could remember the name of the restaurant the kayak woman gave us. We weren’t worried, though, since there were a lot of options for food when we stepped off the boat.
Then I got distracted by an adorable candle shop near the harbor right as we got off the boat on Madeline Island. When we finally made it back outside, it was clear we were both starving and unwilling to look at too many options before eating. Instead, we considered no options as we walked down the main drag, convinced there was something better near the marina. We forgot that the island is sparsely populated, and as such, there was only one option at the marina. It was called The Pub. After I spotted at least one vegetarian option on the menu that sounded good, we both gave it a thumbs up and went inside.
“The Pub” turned out to have one of the most deceptive restaurant names of all time. We both envisioned a casual bar-food type place, probably with a few TVs running various sports in the background and one of those casino game things on the bar counter. It was going to be low-key, relaxing, and a real local’s hideaway from the two-blocks-long main drag where all the real tourists go for dinner.
It took us a combined 15 seconds to realize The Pub was not a pub at all, but possibly the nicest restaurant on Madeline Island. Large windows looked out onto the lake, and the restaurant had an outdated yacht club look to it: white walls with 1990s oak trim around the windows. A classic Norah Jones CD cut through the soft, warm murmur of voices from the other patrons (all of whom appeared to be in their sixties or older), but other than that, there was a solemn, privileged quiet floating up to towards the high ceilings. I’m not saying it was genuinely fancy, but it was definitely the fanciest place around these parts.
And here we were, half-bathed-in-Lake-Superior, wearing SmartWool and convertible wicking pants already smelling of smoky campfire. I quickly pulled my ratty hair into a braid as we approached the hostess and asked for a table, realizing we were in too deep to turn around and leave. Besides, that meant walking another 15 minutes, which meant 15 more minutes not eating food. Essentially, it was not an option.
One perk of selecting the nicest restaurant on the island is that our dinner was incredible. We shared a cup of soup, because it was chilly outside, and filled our bellies with fresh salmon (for me) and a creamy pasta (for Sam). The waitress was a genuine Wisconsinite and a delightful host. Our seat from the window allowed us to watch the sun start setting over the marina. By the time we left, we couldn’t help but laugh about how we managed to select the most expensive, classy restaurant when all we wanted to do was stuff our faces with something warm and hearty. Still, it was a great dinner to bid farewell to civilization…even if we now planned on camping for one night on Stockton. It felt like a worthy send-off.
We strolled back towards town and grabbed ice cream and a muffin for dessert. It turns out we missed the ferry back to the mainland because we had the time wrong, so we had to wait another hour. Figuring we should work off some of our dinner and sweets, we walked around the island and tried to imagine what living on an island would be like, even just for a few months.
Madeline Island is the only island in the Apostle Islands chain that isn’t part of the National Lakeshore. It is a significantly sized island—14 miles long and around 3 miles across—and the only island with year-round residents. Around 250 people live on the island year-round, but in the summer, it’s more like 2,500 residents. The ferry allows people to easily get to and from the mainland with their cars, and in the winter some people use ice boats or skis to traverse the frozen water back to Bayfield.
Sam and I both thought it would be like Mackinac Island, but it was nothing like that. For one, there were far fewer people than I’ve ever seen on Mackinac Island. There are more cabin rentals (or second homes) on Madeline as opposed to hotels and B&Bs on Mackinac. Cars are allowed on Madeline, so there weren’t the familiar horses and bicycles we’re accustomed to with Mackinac, but we didn’t mind this change in ambiance. If anything, seeing cars made us feel like we were in a real place and not some faux place geared towards tourism and nostalgia.
It was easy to see why the few people who live on Madeline Island enjoy it so much. It’s quiet, peaceful, welcoming. The residents we encountered weren’t boastful or proud. They were more than willing to share their space with tourists without catering everything to visitors. Sam and I walked the quiet streets towards the open fields and dense woodlands of the northern part of the island, killing time and reveling in the summer silence.
The silence didn’t last too long. We came across a funky, Key-West-feeling bar on our way to the main street. Among the plethora of street signs, wood signs, homemade signs, road signs, and construction signs that appeared to make up the structure of the bar, we couldn’t even find a menu telling us what we could order. The bar was primarily just an outdoor deck that looked like it was part of a trailer park, but somehow it felt right.
More people were gathered here than we’d seen anywhere else, and they were having a great time. Oh, and there was a man in a bear suit playing bagpipes. Not sure what that was all about. The sun was setting now and our ferry would be here soon, so we navigated through the porch and made our way back to the marina.
On the ferry ride back to Bayfield, Sam agreed that Madeline Island was the best surprise experience after everything that turned to shit in the past 36 hours. Madeline Island felt like our own personal secret, a treasure savored between the two of us. We had no plans to visit, and yet, because so much had changed, we had the time and money to make the trip for a few hours and see what it had to offer.
It is a place of natural beauty and gentle souls, perfect for two people ready for a sliver of peace after our months in Chicago. The hum of the ferry motors lulled us into a ready-to-sleep state of mind, our hearts and minds full of the things we’d seen and done in our first full day nestled on the northern Superior shore.