Hikers, weavers love Washington Island

As autumn nears, let’s plan an island vacation, one that doesn’t require airfare.

The laid-back pace and varied moods of Washington Island, a 22-square-mile parcel at the tip of Door County, tend to get ignored when summer ends. Let that be your gain. Locals say the weather tends to stay warmer longer in this part of Wisconsin, thanks to the kind effects of Lake Michigan.

Get ashore via private plane (there is a small airport) or a half-hour ride from Gills Rock on the Washington Island Ferry, which operates all year. Roundtrip fare is $9 per adult and $5 per child, plus $22 per auto, $13 per motorcycle and $4 per bicycle. Reservations aren’t taken. Don’t arrive late.

But do take some kind of vehicle, and consider biking – the terrain is even and pretty, a mix of forests and meadows, wheat and cornfields, with sandhill cranes and deer lingering throughout. One beach is sandy, another full of smooth and flat white stones (remove one and it’s a $250 fine).

Elsewhere on the island, another ferry takes people – but not their vehicles – from Jackson Harbor to Rock Island State Park, where there is a beach, 10 miles of hiking trails, exhibits in stone buildings and space to camp. This ferry service operates from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Business signage is minimal on Washington Island, and road signs are small. So reserve a place to stay before arriving, and ask for directions. There are a couple of dozen lodging choices, scattered around the island, but you need to have a clue about where to go.

The range includes B&B farm stays and simple motel rooms to dynamic waterfront views and gourmet restaurant fare. Here are three examples of the variety that exists:

* Hoff Haus Inn, two modernly furnished and upper level suites with decks that overlook Lake Michigan, nightly bonfires and a boardwalk to the water.

* Sunset Resort, a fourth generation family business established in 1902, with a beach on Green Bay and a cheery, nostalgic lodge that serves a Scandinavian breakfast.

* Washington Hotel, an eight-room and refurbished inn with a fine dining restaurant. The menu is big on organic and locally grown ingredients, plus bedding/linens/robes are organic products.

There are charming public attractions, most of which seem to close by Oct. 10. For example:

* Washington Island Farm Museum has antique machinery, household and harvest tools, farm buildings and a pioneer cabin from the late 1800s. Penned farm animals and gardens exist, too. Honey, dried flowers and other items can be purchased on the honors system; just drop your payment in the collection box.

* Stavkirke, a stave church whose architecture resembles a sturdy Viking ship, is a rugged reminder of the area’s Norwegian heritage. It is in a quiet, woody area and owned by Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.

* Sievers School of Fiber Arts presents classes in weaving, basketry, knitting and other skills, through the end of October. The business was first known for its fine looms and spinning wheels, products that prompted customers to ask for the wide array of classes now offered in three rustic, airy and inspiring studios.

No patience for that type of hobby? You’ll most likely still appreciate the consignment shop that sells the wide assortment of students’ work, beaded jewelry to bed quilts. It, too, is open seasonally.

* People who appreciate good food may be a good fit for the Washington Hotel’s culinary arts classes. Chef Leah Caplan’s upcoming topics include the food and wine of Sicily, and Tuscany. There also is an October class on autumn herbs.

Washington Island is the kind of place that doesn’t shout about its attractiveness. Indeed, some sites can easily go unnoticed because of a lack of billboards and any other advertising.

It’s all a part of the island’s modest but hearty attitude. For more about the area and what it has to offer, go to www.washingtonislandchamber.com or call (920) 847-2179.

One claim to fame that visitors can help uphold all year is the Bitters Club at Nelsen’s Hall, a Danish pub built in 1899 and the oldest legally and continuously operating saloon in Wisconsin.

During Prohibition years, proprietor Tom Nelsen got a pharmacist’s license to dispense a stomach tonic to local residents. “Even though Angostura Bitters is 90 proof, Tom was allowed to serve his tonic, so his saloon remained open,” a pub history states.

So drink a shot of bitters today, and it’ll get you membership into the Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Club. Some locals say it’ll also settle your stomach, for a while.

More than 10,000 people join the club each year, the owners say, and that helps give Nelsen’s a place in the Guinness Book of World’s Records, because more bitters (per capita) are drunk there than any place else.

If that’s not an attractive pastime for you, visit anyway and get a small order of mini potato pancakes, with a side of sour cream, for $2.25. May as well nibble away on something as you watch everybody else get bittered up.