Twin Citians heading north to Lake Superior eventually face a vexing decision. It's at the crest of that hill just outside Duluth, when the St. Louis River and Lake Superior suddenly -- thrillingly -- appear far below.

Continue through Duluth, and onward to the North Shore? Or hang a right, cross the vertigo-inducing Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge, zip through Superior and explore the South Shore?

As a native Minnesotan, I know that I'm supposed to go weak in the knees at the mere mention of Split Rock Lighthouse and Gooseberry Falls. Truth to tell, I do. But here's the admission that's probably going to cost me my residency: I have a soft spot for the lake's lower lip. Yeah, the part that's in -- gasp -- Wisconsin.

One reason is familiarity; after years of renting a vacation house on Madeline Island, I've developed an intense affection for the region's quiet beauty. But I've also come to cherish the Bayfield-Washburn-Apostle Islands-Ashland stretch of the South Shore as a one-of-a-kind food destination. Is there another Midwestern getaway that so vigorously celebrates its small cache of native ingredients?

"People all over are jumping on the local-foods bandwagon, but it's been done here for years," said Mary Dougherty, co-owner of Good Thyme in Washburn. "When you're isolated the way we are, you've got to figure out how to work with what you've got."

They have, whether it's trout, whitefish, herring or the occasional burbot, coaxed from the lake's chilly waters. Or hand-harvested wild rice. Or the bounty that comes from a happy geographic quirk, an extremely picturesque pocket of land in the hills above Bayfield that's an ideal microclimate for fruit and berry cultivation.

A berry good visit

When I landed in the Chequamegon Bay region a few weeks ago, I was greeted with a dizzying display of strawberry love: topping a delicate baked pancake at Lotta's Lakeside Cafe, contributing a jolt of color to a towering slab of bread pudding at Coco, sweetening margaritas at Maggie's, getting in between an insanely buttery lemon pound cake and a mountainous dollop of sweet whipped cream at 2nd Street Bistro.

There it was, teaming up with rhubarb in fresh-baked pies at the Gourmet Garage, finishing a yogurt-granola parfait at the Black Cat Coffeehouse and dressing up a trio of exquisite sorbets at Wild Rice. And that's just a list I'm rattling off from memory. My notebook contains twice as many entries, easily.

Wanting to see the source of this culinary celebration, I headed out of Bayfield, past the town's cemetery and straight into berry and apple country. First stop: Erickson's Orchard, a beauty that has been carefully tended by Jim and Muriel Erickson and their family since 1954. I walked past what looked like endless rows of apple trees until I reached the farm's 4-acre strawberry patch, asked for where-to-pick advice and got to work.

Enormous cotton-puff clouds sailed overhead in an otherwise piercing blue sky, and a cooling breeze contrasted nicely against the hot sun. It was everyone's idea of a perfect summer's day, and the picking was easy along football field-length rows of strawberry plants. Handful after handful, the heavy berries tumbled into my wax-coated cardboard box, and 45 minutes later I walked away with six pounds of local color -- borderline highway robbery at $1.25 per pound.

Although apple-picking season is a few months away (Bayfield's 49th-annual Apple Festival runs Oct. 1-3), I managed to leave with a memento from that side of the Ericksons' business in the form of a cakey, ultra-moist, sugar-dappled apple-cider doughnut, the kind that makes a person rethink their aversion to fried foods. OK, I bought a half-dozen.

A few orchards to the west, at Bayfield Apple Co., the father-and-son team of Bruce and John Hoekstra are also building a vibrant business based upon the apple -- actually, 16 varieties of apples -- pressing a line of ultra-refreshing nonpasteurized ciders (some flavored with raspberries and tart Montmorency cherries raised at the orchard) and making apple butters, apple mustards and apple jams.

"Some days I think, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?'" said Bruce Hoekstra, a former Twin Cities controller who moved north with his family for a less stressful existence. "But usually I'm excited to get up and do what I do every day."

We should all be so fortunate.

Rural luxury

Eating well is easy on Superior's South Shore. The pinnacle of the restaurant scene, Wild Rice, could double as a summer camp created by well-to-do, design-conscious, food-obsessed Quakers. It is, without question, one of the Midwest's great restaurants, and would easily shine in Chicago, Milwaukee or Minneapolis. That this vibrant slice of urbanity thrives in rural Wisconsin makes it all the more appealing.

The restaurant's spectacular good looks -- a series of airy, interconnected pavilions (by Duluth architect David Salmela) -- are the initial draw, but the heart of the experience is chef Jim Webster's spirited, contemporary cooking. Although his ever-changing menu isn't glued to the local larder -- his sweet-hot treatment of pan-seared foie gras and a stunning Asian-inspired crab salad are just two examples -- Webster's approach to the region's signature ingredients is genuinely inspired.

Three cuts of Wisconsin-raised veal were each taken to their most refined conclusion (a sautéed tenderloin, a slow-braised breast and, most effectively, sweetbreads gently crusted in almonds). He skillfully alternated layers of lovingly roasted whitefish with gently grilled lake trout, enhancing their subtle flavor profiles with teasingly smoky grilled artichokes and a bright basil pesto. His ingeniously deconstructed version of wild rice soup is the last word on the subject.

Desserts, including a small but exceptional cheese selection, are as artful as the paintings and sculptures in owner Mary Rice's eclectic collection.

Don't want to drop $40 on an entree? The stylish bar, which shakes up a mean martini, serves a more affordable array of cleverly conceived small bites, and there are values to be found on the well-tended wine list.

Wood-fired in Washburn

For years, I've viewed Washburn as little more than a 30 mile-per-hour highway slowdown impeding my mad dash to the Madeline Island ferry. That's a mistake I won't be repeating. My attitude adjustment came not 10 minutes after being seated on the secluded patio at DaLou's Bistro, where I was presented with what might have been my favorite treatment of smoked whitefish, paired with lusciously ripe cantaloupe, slightly salty prosciutto, Parmigiano Reggiano, roughly torn basil and pert baby strawberries. Every detail was perfect, and every bite seemed to telegraph a "We care about good food here" message.

My server's infectious enthusiasm -- and the $7.50 price tag -- only enhanced the experience. "Isn't it good?" she said, drawing out good into a three-syllable word. It is, indeed.

Dale Hanson and Lois ("Everyone calls me Louie," she said) Stensvad had logged several collective decades in the restaurant business before striking out on their own last year.

"We decided that we needed to stop working for other people and find our own passion," said Stensvad, and so they did, kicking open their terra cotta-colored storefront and equipping it with a striking teardrop-shaped clay oven, imported from Italy and fueled with slow-burning oak.

It turns out crisp, bubbled, lightly charred crusted-pizzas (and simple, olive oil-brushed focaccia) topped with an uncomplicated tomato sauce and all manner of thoughtfully chosen ingredients, including a fine house-made sausage. Dessert means the couple's intensely flavored gelatos. What a find.

Just west of town is another relative newcomer, and another must-make reservation. From the road, Good Thyme appears to be a classic foursquare farmhouse; inside, the Room & Board-ish surroundings -- all gleaming copper-topped tables, massive stone hearth and breezy, wide-open floor plan -- would incite envy in any upscale urban restaurateur.

Co-owners Renee Holman and Mary Dougherty, each a constant, energetic presence in the dining room, place on obvious premium on customer service. The enticing scent of the kitchen's wood-burning grill hangs in the air, inserting a smoky flavor into steaks, burgers, local fish and other well-prepared and amply adorned basics. There are also a handful of tasty global curiosities, from a Thai-inspired fish stew and a lake trout piccata to a pizza boasting that ever-appealing combination of chewy figs, bold blue cheese and prosciutto.

"We want this place to be an extension of our homes," said Dougherty. "Being around the table is one of the last places in our society where people can make a connection, and those are the kinds of connections that we want to create here."

Judging from the jovial sparks flying all around me that evening, I'd say Holman and Dougherty have more than met their goal.

A Wisconsin tradition

I wasn't prepared to fall in love with Greunke's Restaurant in Bayfield, but a head-over-heels tumble is exactly what transpired. Not with the funky dining room, and its reliably predictable all-American menu. No, my considerable affection goes to its near-nightly Wisconsin fish boil. It's probably the closest this non-outdoorsman will ever get to campfire cooking; even better, a few enthusiastic staffers do all the work.

Here's the drill: A giant caldron of water is brought to boil over a roaring bonfire. Red-skinned new potatoes ("and lots of kosher salt," said our waiter) start the process. Ten minutes later, in go the onions. After that, hefty cuts of Lake Superior whitefish hit the water for 10 more minutes, and then dinner is served, cafeteria-style, on plastic trays with slices of marble rye, a standard-issue coleslaw and small bowls of cherry-blueberry cobbler, all for just $14.95 (the tall, thirst-quenching glasses of locally brewed brown ale, an essential addition, were just a few bucks extra).

Seating is under a funky picnic pavilion and, although dinner is a little on the bland side, it's a heck of a lot healthier than a greasy fish fry (the accompanying and popular tub of drawn butter tends to undercut that argument). Mostly, it's a charming-as-all-get-out experience, and a wonderful vehicle for tasting that locally caught whitefish, a sturdier, more succulent version of walleye.

Good morning

Breakfast means one thing in Bayfield, and that's waiting for a table in the cheery, knotty pine Egg Toss Bakery Cafe for hearty Benedicts made with smoked lake trout and a supple Hollandaise, gigantic omelets, golden buckwheat pancakes and other short-order specialties.

Except on Sunday, when it's worth the round-trip ferry ticket (, $11.50 for pedestrians ages 12 and older) to scoot over to Madeline Island and nab a table inside the screen porch at Lotta's Lakeside Cafe, which, true to its name, offers a view of the water.

Co-owners Chris Wolfe and Janel Ryan have a gracious sense of hospitality and an appreciation of locally sourced ingredients, from the farm-fresh spinach inside a liberally stuffed omelet to delicate crepes paired with thick-cut bacon from Maple Hills Farm in Washburn. Do not skip the addictive caramel rolls.

Other dinner options

In hilly Bayfield, where it seems as if at least half of its eccentric homes have been converted to bed-and-breakfasts, it should come as no surprise that the town's most opulent Victorian manor is a famous hostelry.

From my postcard-worthy window seat inside the Old Rittenhouse Inn, I watched the Madeline Island ferry zip back and forth across the lake while I indulged in a multicourse dinner ($55) that was all old-school elegance: a fine lake fish chowder, a pretty wild rice-smoked trout-Wisconsin Cheddar salad, a superb fork-tender pork chop and an all-American hot fudge sundae, served on fancy damask linens in a magnificent gold-and-red room that demonstrates Bayfield's late 19th-century prosperity. That my fellow diners were a pair of couples, one celebrating their first wedding anniversary, the other marking their 57th, made it all the more enchanting.

If Maggie's shocking pink exterior makes an impression, then walk through the front door, where the floor-to-ceiling tribute to the pink flamingo is so over-the-top extreme that it practically qualifies as an art installation. The lunch-dinner spread is equally eclectic. Along with burgers, pizzas and sandwiches, a feisty beef chili is Bayfield's biggest meal-in-a-bowl bargain at $3.50.

Quarter-sized whitefish livers, a hard-to-find local delicacy, have a proud place on the menu, pan-fried with peppers and mushrooms and finished with a tangy sweet pickle relish. Best is a trout "salsa," with flecks of brown sugar-cured lake trout tossed with red peppers and capers and scooped with tortilla chips.

Where to grocery shop

After years of stocking up on cabin provisions at Bayfield's and Washburn's standard-issue supermarkets, I've made a mental note to shop in Ashland instead. The city, which is peppered with an impressive array of stone landmarks befitting what was once the Great Lakes' third-busiest port, is just a five-minute detour off the main highway from Superior to Washburn.

First up: the Sixth Street Market. From the sidewalk, it looks like your basic mom-and-pop grocery store. And it is, with one shining exception: its fabulous meat counter, which turns out all manner of delicacies, including a half-dozen Weber-ready bratwursts and fantastic smoked wieners, pudgy little breakfast sausages and chewy beef snack sticks.

Then it's on to the Chequamegon Food Co-op, a more modest version of its member-owned natural foods siblings in the Twin Cities but still impressive on many levels. When I shopped the store in late June, the produce section featured a rich variety of Wisconsin-raised vegetables. The dairy case boasted pearly milk from cows grazing grass at Springbrook Organic Dairy, plus gorgeous brown eggs from pasture-raised, heritage breed chickens at Great Oak Farm in Mason, Wis.

My inner bread baker wanted to buy out the house-ground flour fashioned from Washburn-grown white spring wheat berries. Oh, and thanks to the Badger State's enlightened attitude toward beer and wine sales, the cooler was stocked with a small selection of Wisconsin craft beers, including several labels from Ashland's own South Shore Brewery.

Most of the neighborhood's half-dozen or so smoked fish shops are family-owned and cover the whole process, from boat to smoker, showcasing whole and filleted whitefish or pale pink trout, some cured in brown sugar, others in locally produced maple syrup, all of them pure treasure. I gravitated toward tiny Newago Fish Market, in part because of co-owner Cathy Newago's house specialty, a sour cream-based smoked trout spread. It quickly became the star attraction of a makeshift picnic that also featured long, crispy lavash from Coco, a superb combination that reminded me just how much baking talent is harbored in the area.

The goods on baked goods

The area is a bakery lover's dream. At the Ashland Baking Co., bakers Curtis Gauthier and Kealy White and their crew create the region's most eye-grabbing breads, salt-crusted bagels, creamy Cheddar-thyme biscuits and golden Danish filled with Asiago cheese and caramelized onions.

The sweets are first-rate, too: pale yellow shortbread cookies rimmed in sugar, tender crackle-topped Snickerdoodles, adorable single-serving mango-passion fruit tarts crowned with toasted coconut and cinnamon buns that surely pull half the town out of bed.

Over in Washburn, Coco baker/owner Noreen Ovadia Wills does wicked things with chocolate, steering it into fudgy, walnut-packed brownies and diet-busting tortes. Her made-from-scratch philosophy is evident in her homey lemon bars, simple vanilla cheesecakes and cream-filled Danish. There are breads, too, and those terrific plate-sized lavash.

Judy Faragher launched her pie-making career in 1983 for Bayfield's annual Apple Festival, and by 1992 she had converted the garage of her 1970s rambler into a licensed kitchen, which explains the name Gourmet Garage. There are fruit-filled turnovers, cookies and other sweets, but really it's all about pies here, usually a dozen different varieties, many of which feature local fruits and berries. The prices? Low. Really low.

"A lot of city people say, 'Oh, Judy, you have to raise your prices,' " said Faragher. "But I try to keep them down. I feel like it's an honest pie, and $10 is an honest price."

Going native

Here's the easiest way to be mistaken for a South Shore native: Become a Tetzner's Dairy regular. Drive past the tidy brick farmhouse at this fifth-generation farmstead -- where the Holsteins enjoy views of Lake Superior -- park the car and step inside the no-frills, self-serve store, where locals know to go for freshly packaged milk, 2-quart white plastic tubs of ice cream (get the fabulous cherry nut) or the real reason to visit, the handmade ice cream sandwiches ($1.25), long rectangles of soft chocolate wafers pressed around slabs of vanilla, chocolate, cherry or mint ice cream. The local Dairy Queen ought to be worried.

Saying goodbye to Bayfield, I pulled over at the self-service roadside stand at Rocky Acres Berry Farm and grabbed some edible souvenirs: a bumper crop of absurdly fresh strawberries. At just $3.25 a quart, well, wouldn't you? Their gentle perfume, the essence of early summer, filled the car, and my more-than-occasional nibbling made the four-hour drive fly by in a flash.

The only possible way they could have tasted better? If I had picked them myself. Next time, with apples.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757