Perhaps you’ve arrived at Wisconsin’s Madeline Island with no plan beyond watching the sparkling waters of Lake Superior from your own temporary hideaway. But before you can settle in a house (rented for a week or owned for generations), pitch your tent at the one of the beachside parks or pedal the island’s flat roads for a day, the town of La Pointe demands your attention.
The ferry unloads summer vacationers in this rumpled village, which is part island-vibe hippie (witness the dreadlocks and flowing skirts), part Midwest reserve (don’t expect small talk at the town’s two grocery stores), part open-air art exhibit (a car has been transformed into a mermaid). La Pointe can shock, especially since the ferry launches from Bayfield, filled with spiffy Victorian homes, fudge shops and gift stores.
Turned off by the disheveled looks of Madeline’s center of commerce, some people drive their cars, laden with food and goods, off the ferry and straight to some far-flung retreat. Don’t be one of those people. Because while Madeline Island beyond La Pointe offers exquisite natural beauty, La Pointe has a quirky charm, and it could grab your heart as much as any Superior-splashed shoreline.
You’ll get to those, but stop in La Pointe first and often.
Madeline Island Library
The Madeline Island Public Library is the place that best evokes all that is Madeline. The building is a survivor, like many of the resilient 300 or so year-round residents that tough it out here through windswept winters; it is housed in a former schoolhouse, circa 1872, that’s been moved several times.
The front porch of this clapboard building has columns colorfully outfitted by knit-bombers (there’s that Madeline Island folk-art flair) and rocking chairs (signifying the laid-back nature of the place). Inside, the wooden floor creaks as people move around the stacks (it’s a little tattered, just like the island), and bronze roosters and needlepoint wall hangings ensure no space goes unused (the place doesn’t take itself too seriously). Librarians grant visitors their own library card (kindness is another island staple). During the summer, the upstairs community room holds morning classes for children that include jewelry-making and weaving (1-715-747-3662; madisland.wislib.org).
Madeline Island Museum
For a more detailed and curated look at the island’s history, there is the Madeline Island Museum. It offers fascinating displays on Ojibwe culture, fur trading and the traditions of summer vacationers. The museum is housed in several buildings; some are historic, including the last surviving structure from the American Fur Company’s island post. The museum has partnered with Madeline Island Wilderness Preserve to present talks on the natural life of the island on many Wednesday nights through the summer (1-715-747-2415; madelineislandmuseum.org; info on the preserve at miwp.org).
Beach Club mini-golf
Across the street from the museum, a mini-golf course challenges players with obstacles designed as local landmarks in miniature. The tiny-town course was upgraded a few years ago, its sagging structures shored up and torn turf replaced. The sporadic hours are helpfully announced on a chalkboard.
Ice cream treats
After a rousing game of mini-golf, there is but one thing to do: Refresh with an ice cream cone from Grampa Tony’s. The food, from breakfasts to dinner pizzas, can be enjoyed on a second-floor balcony overlooking the lake. But ice cream is best savored outside, on one of many picnic tables or Adirondack chairs (1-715-747-3911).
The eyesore/beloved bar
Tom’s Burned Down Cafe resembles a pirate ship washed ashore; its decor leans toward junk heap and its anything-goes philosophies are announced on signs that fill the place. Among them: “Buy your mother a bottle. Remember, you’re the reason she drinks.” This is the laid-back spot for a beer and live music. A food truck selling insanely delicious and healthful bowls and burritos is often parked out front (tomsburneddowncafe.com).
Tucked beside the Tudor Revival St. John’s Church is Woods Hall, a nonprofit marketplace for island artists. The store — selling hand-spun yarn, woven rugs, pottery and other handcrafted beauties — was started by the church in the early 1950s. The idea was to encourage islanders to spend the long winters creating goods they could sell when summer visitors returned. More than 70 artists currently sell goods there (1-715-747-3943; woodshallcraftshop.com).
Wednesday night pizza party
Take a wood-fired pizza fresh from the outdoor oven, add a guitarist strumming ballads, and grab a table among ceramic vases and paintings of Lake Superior rocks. This is the Bell Street Gallery’s Community Pizza Party, and it takes place every Wednesday during the summer. Diners bring their pizza dough and toppings (kits can be purchased at Grampa Tony’s), arrange their pies at a table and watch them bake in the domed oven (5-8 p.m. Wed., bellstgallery.com).
Here’s the really great thing about souvenir shopping on Madeline Island. It’s quick. A handful of shops make for an easy amble. The widest selection, some on the upscale side, can be found at Dockside, across from the historic post office at the ferry dock (1-715-747-2314; dockside gifts.com). Mission Hill Coffee House has huge, sometimes disheveled piles of T-shirts and sweatshirts — and you can sip a cappuccino while you dig (1-715-747-3100).
Two grocery stores in town keep kitchens stocked: The Island Market is the place for newspapers and fresh-caught Lake Superior fish (1-715-747-6635; madelineislandmarket.com). Lori’s Store leans toward Wisconsin goods, from beer to bacon produced by a popular Ashland, Wis., purveyor (1-715-747-5200). Those craving a wide array of fresh vegetables will want to head to the Friday morning farmers market across from the ferry dock. The newcomer Farmhouse is a natural-foods restaurant and mini grocery store (1-715-747-3276). Madeline Island Bakery offers fresh pies, cupcakes and other yummy treats (1-715-209-2622; madeline islandbakery.com).
Madeline Island Ferry Line (1-715-747-2051; madferry.com) departs regularly from Bayfield, which is about a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities.