Five hours after leaving Chicago, we ran out of pavement. At the tip of the Door Peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin, the ice cream parlors disappeared. The wine shops and art galleries, too. Just a simple tollbooth, and the breakwaters beyond, and a small archipelago gathered like clouds on the horizon. A grinning crewman waved us aboard a 92-ton ferry, and before my wife, Mel, and I could exit our car, the Arni J. Richter was plowing through Lake Michigan. Like us, it seemed eager to flee the crowds.
Washington Island beckoned less than four miles ahead, but a certain darkness whispered beneath the lake. The French called this strait Porte des Morts, or Death’s Door, most likely cribbing the moniker from the Potawatomi. Here, where the warmer and shallower waters of Green Bay meet the darker and cooler waters of Lake Michigan, the currents swirl and rocky shoals hide just beneath the surface. Shipwrecks still litter the shallows.
From the starboard side, we struggled to identify a tiny smudge between lake and sky. One man asked if it was a freighter before another, squinting at his cellphone, concluded it was Pilot Island, named for a lighthouse now colonized by cormorants. We passed Plum Island and Detroit Island, neither accessible by ferry. And finally, we slipped into the dock on Washington Island, 30 minutes and a world away.
Though it’s technically part of Door County — a sort of Midwestern Cape Cod — the 24-square-mile island leaves the trappings of tourism for the mainland. Its biggest gift shop doubles as a True Value hardware store. Cellphone service is spotty, at best. There’s no craft brewery, no chain hotel, no definable business district — and that’s the point. As Matt Poole, a co-manager of the Hotel Washington, later explained: “Washington Island is where Door County people go to remember what Door County used to be.”
A refuge from the modern world
In the fall of 1870, four young bachelors from the Icelandic fishing village of Eyrarbakki landed on Washington Island. Their arrival, in turn, drew more immigrants from their homeland. By the end of the century, the island had become a center of Icelandic culture.
“For those with enough money to buy where the land is more fertile, the Island is one of the worst places to come to; but for the poor it is one of the best, for they can live off the water and off the land,” wrote one of the bachelors in a letter reprinted by an Icelandic newspaper. “I dare say there is no lazy and idle man in Iceland, no matter how many children he has got, who cannot live the good life here.”
Just weeks after returning from that now tourist-swamped nation myself, I was perhaps aiming for a glimpse of what Iceland used to be. Washington Island is the second-oldest Icelandic settlement in America, and if you know where to look, I assured Mel, hints of that history still abound.
Hidden beneath a grove of towering maples, our charming hotel near the harbor was no exception. Established in 1904 by Ben Johnson, another Eyrarbakkian, the colonial-style Hotel Washington now offers eight small guest rooms and two shared bathrooms above a farm-to-fork restaurant awash in natural light. Once the island’s social hub, the hotel retains an old-world feel, despite the updates.
After unloading our bags and exploring the hotel, we returned to our vehicle, and without any game plan whatsoever, we started driving.
We passed vineyards and lavender fields, woodlots and wetlands and tiny ranches, too. Various Nordic flags whipped from empty porches. Consonants spilled from the street signs: Bjarnarson Drive, Gunnlaugsson Road. We climbed 186 steps to the lookout tower in a shady pullout called Mountain Park, then climbed the tower, too. We stared at the forest below, wrapped in silence. No Interstate drone. No wailing ambulance. We held our breath, certain it couldn’t last.
Valhalla on the lake
When Johnson needed a $500 loan to build his hotel, he turned to the richest Icelander he knew: Chester Hjortur Thordarson, a manufacturing millionaire who would soon purchase the island next door. Richard Purinton, a local historian and author of a nearly 500-page tome on Thordarson’s exploits, joined us on the 10-minute ferry ride to Rock Island the next morning.
Thordarson immigrated to America in his youth, Mr. Purinton explained. At 27, he started his own company in Chicago, amassing nearly 100 electrical patents, and gained international celebrity for creating the world’s first million-volt transformer. Having earned a fortune, Thordarson bought up every privately held parcel on Rock Island. A naturalist at heart, he developed just 30 of his 777 acres, leaving the remainder untouched.
A mammoth stone boathouse loomed over us as we stepped off the ferry. Thordarson called it the Crown Jewel of Art and Nature. Nobody else did, Mr. Purinton said, but few could deny its grandeur. Designed by the architect Frederick Dinkelberg, best known for his work on the Flatiron Building in New York, this ostentatious display of wealth is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
From its cavernous underbelly, which screamed at the lake via two yawning arches, we followed Mr. Purinton into the Viking Hall above. The hearth alone could house a Honda — probably two. The sun blasted through 18-foot windows wrapped around the building. And exquisite oaken furniture carved by the Icelandic artist Halldor Einarsson depicted scenes from Norse mythology.
Instead of hosting parties, Thordarson later filled the hall with his million-dollar rare-book collection, now housed at the University of Wisconsin. Still, Mr. Purinton explained, Thordarson loved to show off the estate, and plenty of notables took him up on the offer: the lawyer Clarence Darrow, the writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold, and “Big Bill” Thompson, perhaps the most corrupt mayor in Chicago history, for whom he built a small cabin on the island, fueling rumors of bootlegging.
Fortunately for us, Thordarson’s heirs later sold the entire estate to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Today it’s known simply as Rock Island State Park.
Mr. Purinton caught the next ferry home while Mel and I hit the popular Thordarson Loop Trail, a five-mile trek that circumnavigates the island. Along the way, we toured the Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built of local stone in 1858. Replacing the first federal lighthouse on Lake Michigan, completed in 1836, the current iteration is now open to the public and restored to its 1910 interior.
Distracted by the scenery, we soon missed our turn and completed the silent and sun-dappled Fernwood Trail instead. We then paid our respects to Thordarson himself, buried beneath a modest tombstone in the woods, and reluctantly boarded the last ferry back to Washington Island, wishing we’d packed our tent.
Bitters and a blast of ice water
My regrets faded the next morning, however, when I found myself under the spell of a local curio. A whale tooth carved in the visage of Gudmundur Gudmundsson, one of the first Icelanders on the island, stood upright in a small glass case — another stunning, if peculiar, piece by Einarsson, the same artist whose carvings we’d admired the day before. We were perusing the Jacobsen Museum, named for Jens Jacobsen, a Danish immigrant and prominent local eccentric. Jacobsen had assembled something of a people’s history of Washington Island: Indigenous and immigrant artifacts, fossils, maps, model ships and that tooth — all in a cabin smaller than an R.V.
For lunch, Mel and I shared a chicken pesto panini at Jackson Harbor Soup, watching from our waterside table as the Rock Island ferry crawled into port. Afterward, we stopped for refreshments at Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Club, which — were it not on a tiny island in the middle of a great lake, and perhaps the most iconic business in town — one might be tempted to dismiss as another tin-roofed roadhouse. Established in 1902 by Tom Nelsen, another Danish immigrant, the bar survived Prohibition by applying for a pharmaceutical license and selling Angostura bitters — then considered a stomach tonic — by the shot.
“It was also 90-proof,” said Sarah Jaworski, whose mother has owned the pub and restaurant since 1999. “So the loophole in the system was found.”
Today, Nelsen’s Hall sells more than 10,000 shots of bitters a year. After Nelsen died, his wife and nephew started the Bitter’s Club, offering a membership card to every first timer. I signed mine at the bar while Ms. Jaworski poured me a syrupy shot. It was lukewarm and tasted like a mouthful of cloves.
I might have gone another round, but our time was running short, the day was growing hot, and the lake beckoned — it is an island, after all. Just beyond the town cemetery, Schoolhouse Beach spills into a harbor lined with tall green cedars. In the parking lot, signs threatened a $250 fine for removing beach stones, which seemed excessive until the panorama unfolded: a Milky Way of rounded rocks — polished smooth over the millenniums by crashing waves and glacial erosion — glistened white through the azure water.
Toddlers bounced in the surf. Teenagers leaped from a bright red pontoon. We hadn’t considered what their youth might reflect about temperature until we jumped in ourselves. Unable to shriek, we gasped. Our limbs seized. The water was roughly 50 degrees. We scrambled back to our blankets. I no longer tasted the bitters. I no longer felt my toes.
On the trail of big ideas
The cold plunge revived us from the afternoon doldrums, so we tacked on one last excursion. That morning, leaving the museum, we’d passed a small tar-paper shack that had once belonged to the Norwegian American economist Thorstein Veblen, author of “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” a classic 1899 treatise in which he coined the term “conspicuous consumption.” According to the placard, he summered here for nearly 30 years, reading, writing and learning Icelandic from those who still spoke it.
That inconspicuous shack had once stood elsewhere, several locals told us, along a trail they were reluctant to expose. Owned by the Door County Land Trust, the property is now part of a poorly marked 32-acre nature preserve.
We parked on the shoulder of Main Road, parted the trees and followed a narrow path through a forest of cedar and hemlock. Maybe 20 minutes later, we glimpsed Lake Michigan lapping at the shores ahead, and then, to our left, Little Lake, freckled with water lilies.
And it was here, overlooking a lake within an island within a lake, that Veblen — a sort of Thordarson in reverse — steeped himself in nature and Icelandic, squirreled away in that shack, a crown jewel of his own design, questioning the treacherous waters of capitalism and consumption. Mel and I stood on the economist’s slanted dock, purple irises crowding the cedar pilings, buoyed by an island still fighting the tide.
If You Go
The Washington Island Ferry Line operates between Northport Pier, at the end of Wisconsin Highway 42, and Washington Island. A round trip is $15 for adults, $8 for children ages 6 to 11. Cars cost $28 extra. The same line also operates a passenger-only ferry ($15 for adults, $6 for children) between Washington Island and Rock Island.
Lodging options are limited. Most of them are independently operated, and few are listed with major online travel services like Expedia and Booking.com. Rooms at the Hotel Washington start at $135. Gibson’s West Harbor Resort offers lakeside views from both a main house and six separate cottages; rooms start at $40, cabins at $100. Newer cottages at Four Elements Lodging start at $199, sleeping a maximum of two. Camping is available at both Rock Island State Park and Washington Island Campground, which also offers cabins. For a list of accommodations, visit the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce website.
Though dining options are also limited, several restaurants are island staples. For a cold beer and a plateful of the local catch — usually whitefish or burbot — don’t miss KK Fiske, owned and operated by Ken Koyen, the last commercial fisherman on Washington Island. Entrees start at $13. For an old-fashioned milkshake and some of the best burgers in Door County, don’t miss the Albatross Drive-In. Near the terminal for the ferry to Rock Island, Jackson Harbor Soup offers quality soup and sandwiches with a near-perfect view of the harbor. Panini start at $7.75. Fiddlers Green, in a school-turned-grocery store, features live music, a rotating menu and a full bar.
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