Madeline Island

September 1, 2001

The best little place in a Superior location

Madeline Island lies in Lake Superior 56 nautical miles east of Duluth, Minnesota, three miles offshore from Bayfield, Wisconsin. It is the jumping-off point for the still largely undeveloped Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Here is a refuge for campers, canoeists, kayakers, wreck divers, lighthouse climbers, the heartiest of nature lovers — and pilots. But those taking a more pedestrian approach will also appreciate the place and its hints of Victorian remains, a Robert Trent Jones golf course with brutal double greens, superb day-sailing, great fishing (Lake Superior whitefish is an indescribably delicate and tasty dish even if you otherwise detest seafood), and pristine beaches. And there are enough interesting native characters and displaced charter boat captains to keep the place lively.

The Apostle Islands were named by Jesuit missionaries who came here 350 years ago to "civilize" the native Ojibwe people. The area's fate fell to the typical historical evolution in this part of the world: priests, fur trappers, boat builders, commercial fishermen, loggers, and, finally, tourism. The "cottagers" began arriving in the 1850s. Mary Todd Lincoln sought solace here after the assassination of her husband and Calvin Coolidge visited during the 1920s.

There are 22 islands, not 12 as the name would imply (from their dugouts, the friars counted only 12). The archipelago reaches 25 miles into Lake Superior. Off season, about 200 people live here; during the summer that swells to just under 3,000. Madeline Island is 14 miles long and three miles wide — there are 45 miles of roads and plenty of room. In 1997, The Chicago Tribune named Bayfield, Madeline Island, and The Apostles collectively "The Best Little Town in the Midwest." It is definitely a place best visited with an airplane. Bring your nonpilot spouse here and all those caustic comments about the cost of aircraft ownership will be dead and gone.

That said, the Madeline Island Airport (listed in AOPA's Airport Directory under La Pointe, Wisconsin) has little to recommend it other than that it is paved (3,000 by 75 feet), lit, and there are tiedowns. There is no fuel, it's not attended, there's no instrument approach of any kind, and it's a healthy two-mile hike from the island's main town of LaPointe. But there is a pay phone and the island's innkeepers, restaurateurs, and boat captains are generally accommodating. Just remember when the skipper shows up in his rusted-out Yugo that the ride is free — and be sure to tip generously if you want a return lift. If the weather doesn't cooperate, you can try the VOR approach and gas up at Ashland, Wisconsin, 16 miles to the southwest, where you can also rent a car and then hop the 20-minute, $4 ferry from Bayfield. (If you want to bring the car it will cost you an extra $10.) If the weather goes down below the VOR minimums, there are ILS approaches at Duluth and at Ironwood, Michigan. The area is prone to fog so plan accordingly.

When you get to LaPointe, skip the visitor's center and head straight for Tom's Burned Down Café and Middle Road Literary/Arts Society. You can't miss the place: It looks like a bombed-out MASH tent surrounded by a rummage sale run amok. The crushed remains of a 1970s' vintage Cadillac Fleetwood support part of the floor. There are various witty sayings displayed about. Behind the bar a baseball bat stands at the ready, emblazoned with the words "Communications Device." Patrons perch on fishing lockers and other unique furniture.

Before the tent, there was a café here. Tom Nelson owned it and it did burn down in 1992. Pictures of the conflagration are proudly displayed on the premises. Nelson didn't have insurance, but he did have a lot of friends who chipped in to "rebuild" it in its current form. This is where boat captains, summering from the Caribbean, mix with the local iconoclasts. Tom's is a good place to quickly glean island knowledge while ingesting a Zesty Pesto Sandwich or one of the other gastronomic incendiaries on the menu. On weekends, Tom's has live music — bands with names such as Otis and The Alligators. More information on Tom's is available on the café's Web site ( The site advertises "Special prices for geeks — mention our page."

Across the street from Tom's is Motion To Go (715/747-6585), which rents bikes and mopeds. The latter cost $15 an hour and many look like they survived the fall of Saigon. Lessons learned while trying to start an IO-360 on a 100-degree-Fahrenheit ramp will serve you well with these machines. My moped's ancient suspension, mated to rural roads, broke my holstered Nikon free of its belt, sending it bouncing off the pavement at 25 mph. Despite that little mishap — the camera somehow survived — a moped is a great way to see the island.

And there is plenty to see. Wildflowers and wildlife are bountiful. On the eastern shore lie the Big Bay town and state parks. Both feature overnight camping. The beach becomes more dramatic at the larger state park, which also features an extensive network of hiking trails and planked nature walkways. Back in LaPointe, the Madeline Island Historical Museum will impress even the most studied history buff. There are various art stores but none of the ticky-tacky variety.

For those with a desire to get on the water, a call to the Apostle Islands Yacht Charter Association (800/821-3480) can produce sailing lessons, a bareboat (you drive it) rental, or a captained charter from either Madeline Island or Bayfield. I chose the last option, with an experienced captain on a 27-footer for a half-day sail. These are not one-man boats and you need to be an active crew. Total tab with tip and libations was just under $250. The history lesson and the critique of the tour boats were on the house. We sailed up the eastern shore of Madeline Island and then tacked north past the Michigan Island lighthouse. The red bluffs south of Bayfield provided a picturesque backdrop against Lake Superior's cold blue waters. Those wishing a less intimate sail may be interested in rides aboard a schooner ($40 to $70) or various powered tour boats from the dock in Bayfield. The sunset lighthouse cruises are particularly popular. They last three hours and cost $25 per adult passenger (telephone Apostle Islands Cruise Service, 800/323-7619).

Bayfield should not be missed. The ferries run continuously until 11 p.m. Virtually everything in Bayfield is a short walk from the Town Dock. Last year the Bayfield Maritime Museum opened with a small but eclectic collection of relics from the area's ship-building period, including a completely rebuilt pilot house from a 1924 car ferry and small coal-fired steam engines. The circa-1830 Scottish pond nets proved most efficient in retrieving large hauls of local whitefish, herring, lake trout, and burbot. A superb black-and-white photo collection reminds all of the hardships of the nation's early commercial fishing era. This is $5 well spent.

You will spend considerably more than $5 at the Old Rittenhouse Inn (888/611-4667), one of the best places to consume the local catch and just about anything else on the limited menu. Long regarded as one of the top restaurants in Wisconsin, the main dining room in this classic Victorian manse is quiet, intimate, and dark. The service is impeccable. The food and presentation are five-star. (Try the boneless glazed pork chop.) Given the context, the $45 prix-fixe dinner is a true bargain.

Several local pubs host live music during the summer season, but the best place to enjoy an evening's melodies is Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua, just south of town on Highway 13 below the Mount Ashwabay Ski Hill. (A free shuttle runs between the Town Dock and the Big Top on performance nights — generally Saturdays.) The Big Top bills itself as "The Carnegie Hall of Tent Shows."

If you live in the Midwest, you may already know about the Big Top, thanks to its "Tent Show Radio" broadcasts on National Public Radio (NPR). It is therefore no surprise that most of the musical acts presented here could easily slide into the entertainment slots on A Prairie Home Companion. (The host of that show, radio humorist Garrison Keillor, occasionally performs here.) You may have heard of some, such as country singer Loretta Lynn. Others, such as Leftover Salmon, await a larger national audience. Adult tickets range from $18 to $38; prices for children under 12 start at $8. Ticket prices for the intimate 780-seat round tent are in direct proportion to the obscurity of the talent. There is not a bad seat in the house. For ticket information, see the Web site (

Like the Big Top's music, the architecture, pace, people, and pastimes of Bayfield and Madeline Island are decidedly laid back and genteel, the surroundings unspoiled. It reminds us that life was once harder, yet simpler. Maybe it is "The Best Little Town in the Midwest."

Mark Huber is a marketing executive and an occasional contributor to Pilot. He lives and flies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.