Stave Church on Washington Island in Wisconsin.
, Eric Dregni
Midwest traveler: A Scandinavian oasis
- Article by: ERIC DREGNI
- Special to the Star Tribune
- July 14, 2012 - 4:06 PM
As they disembark from the ferry, tourists see a giant coffeepot welcoming them to Washington Island. Thorvald Johnson and Ervin Gunnlaugson built the homage to java years ago and used to post two young beauties wearing traditional Norwegian dresses to pass out fresh cups of hot coffee and tourist brochures to the new arrivals. Johnson and Gunnlaugson painted, in Norwegian, the proclamation, "Coffee is the best of all worldly drinks!"
WHAT TO DO
Once your coffee kicks in, the sites await at this Scandinavian oasis, which has not succumbed to the tourist invasion of Door County, Wis. The quaint Washington Island Farm Museum beckons children to run through the meadows (1675 Jackson Harbor Road), while Jacobsen Museum chronicles the early life on this remote island of a Danish immigrant (2150 Little Lake Road; 1-920-847-2213).
Visit the Stave Church based on the stavkirke in Borgund, Norway, complete with dragons extending from the eaves to ward off evil spirits (some claim these are the same type of beasts that protruded from the prows of Viking sailing ships). The Washington Island stave church may only date back to the early '90s (that's 1990s) as opposed to the 12th century one in Norway, but the local Scandinavian craftsmen knew how to instill the Old World feel in a modern construction. (The church is across the road from Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1763 Townline Road.)
Next to the Jacobsen Museum, you'll find another holy spot on the island that was marked by Father Marquette who erected a cross in 1673. It became the favorite spot of Thorstein Veblen, an avowed anti-Norwegian Norwegian and brilliant atheist. After doing graduate work at Johns Hopkins and Yale, Veblen set up a writing shack on the island, from which he criticized the tyrannical takeover of the United States by big business and the "conspicuous consumption" of the leisure class. He once gave an impassioned speech to the whole Carleton College campus titled "A Plea for Cannibalism," in the vein of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal."
WHERE TO EAT
Nelsen's Hall Bitters Pub, built by Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen in 1899, managed to stay open during Prohibition and continues to this day. Nelsen wisely got a pharmacist's license to prescribe his stomach tonic, or "the cure," as the waitress calls it, of a shot of Angostura bitters to ailing (or thirsty) patients. Better yet, skip the bitters and settle in for the delicious bar food (1201 Main Road; 1-920-847-2496).
Scandinavian fish boils are classic Wisconsin fare, so stop at K.K. Fiske on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday in the summer evenings for fresh "lawyers." I asked the cook there why he calls eelpout "lawyers," and he explained that they're ugly, bottom-feeding fish. Hmm ...
Still, the fish are caught almost daily by the Danish-American restaurant owner, Ken Koyen, the last commercial fisherman on the island.
When the fish has nearly cooked to perfection in the water, Koyen chucks a cup of kerosene on the coals for a blazing flame that causes the water to boil over and douse the campfire. The spectacle is as effective as a dinner bell to get diners to the table for some delicate, delicious fish (1177 Main Road; 1-920-847-2121).
WHERE TO STAY
Visitors can rent a cozy cottage on the island, but I recommend Sunset Resort, the oldest continuously running hotel on the island. The owners are "Icelandic and Norwegian with a bit of Swedish thrown in for good measure" and it shows with the delicious assortment of Scandinavian specialties in the resort's restaurant (1-920-847-2531; www.sunsetresortwi.com).
IF YOU GO
Most tourists will skip the option of flying to the Washington Island Airport, which has a runway whose field is mowed in the summer and plowed in the winter. If you go by car, expect another two hours of driving from Green Bay to arrive at the very end of the Door County peninsula. Crossing the channel from the Wisconsin mainland to Washington Island requires a fun ferry ride ($13 for adults and $7 for kids). For an extra $26, even cars can be loaded up on the boat that crosses every half-hour during the summer daylight hours and only four times a day in winter.
The island is bike friendly, although beware of the cars sharing the road. If you go just for the day, consider leaving the car behind and hop on the Cherry Train tour -- our kids loved it. This two-hour guided tour visits the island's hot spots and the driver gives a comical running commentary (1-800-223-2094; www.cherrytrain.com).
The island's Chamber of Commerce offers information for travelers at www.washingtonisland-wi .com.
Eric Dregni is the author of "In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream" and "Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America."
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