Islands We Love

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations Guide

Islands We Love

Slip on the flip-flops, pack up the frisbee: It's not really summer till the ferry pulls away and you leave the mainland behind


During the 20-minute ferry ride from Bayfield, on the mainland, to Madeline Island's only town, La Pointe, you go through a transformation: instead of being a mere bystander on the shore of Lake Superior, you're now firmly in the grasp of the largest lake on earth. You feel wet with spray, even if you aren't.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Tom Bean/Tony Stone Images

Madeline is the largest of the 22 Apostle Islands, and the only one with any commercial development. The rest of the group, scattered throughout Chequamegon Bay and off Bayfield Peninsula, has been protected as wilderness within the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

From the ferry dock, La Pointe extends for a couple of quiet blocks. The Beach Club is the local hangout, where residents down Leinenkugel's and discuss the ferocity of the summer's sand flies while waiting for the ferry to show up. The tiny, five-room Island Inn or Cadotte's Cottages, both just a block or two from the ferry landing, are good town bases from which to explore.

Madeline has some 35 miles of paved and gravel roads, with hardly a hill to whine about the entire way. Pick up rental bikes in town at Motion To Go, and head off. Traffic is light to nonexistent, so kids can swerve around with relative impunity. Outside of town the roads become shaded, overarched by sugar maples and paper birch, and the summer homes that cluster along gravel lanes seem transported from New England.

For quick immersion in the island's backcountry, the best spot is Big Bay, a sheltered curve of shoreline midway along Madeline's southeast side. The 2,400-acre state park, with two campgrounds, is about seven miles out of town.

Spring the kids loose on the two miles of curving, white-sand beach. Locals boast that Lake Superior's temperature alternates between frozen ice and liquid ice, but the calm water in Big Bay can heat up to a tolerable swimming temperature, and children will dive in until their lips turn blue. They can take the chill off by scrambling around on low sandstone cliffs beneath the canopy of massive white pines.

Big Bay is usually quiet enough to paddle around in open boats, and canoes can be rented from Bog Lake Outfitters. Behind the beach, several two- to three-mile nature trails wind along boardwalks and through forests, alternating among bog, hemlock, and white pine environments. The park's interpretive programs are a good introduction to island ecology and Lake Superior lore.

Madeline Island can gobble up a vacation all on its own, but if restlessness sets in, the other Apostle Islands are within easy reach. A couple of sailing charters and motorboat tours travel the islands, but kayaking is the most adventurous and self-contained way to get to remote, pristine beaches, sandstone cliffs, and distant lighthouses. You can rent boats, take skill clinics, or sign up for guided tours through Trek & Trail, back in Bayfield.

From La Pointe, an easy day-paddle north (ten miles round trip) gets you to the Basswood Island dock, offering access to several short trail loops. For a longer jaunt, best done as an overnight, continue up the west coast of Basswood, make the three-mile open-water crossing to Oak Island, then paddle a couple miles to the sandspit at its southwest corner. Its designated camp is one of the prettiest in the Apostles. The small, sunny beach is a perfect swimming spot for kids, and trails crisscross the island. Take the six-mile round-trip hike to the overlook at Oak's northern end. From there, the view billows out over the broad lake interspersed with wilderness islands, terrain enough for a decade of summer trips.  --Alan Kesselheim

The Details: The Island Inn (715-747-2000;; doubles, $89) overlooks the water in La Pointe. Cadotte's Cottages (715-747-3075; $90 per night for two people, $10 each additional person) has two units, each with two bedrooms, kitchenette, and bath. Rent road bikes from Motion To Go (715-747-6585) for $6 per hour, $22 per day; kids' bikes, tandems, Burley trailers, and tag-alongs are also available.

Big Bay State Park (715-779-4020) has 60 campsites for $8–$12 per night, plus a $9.50 reservation fee (call 888-947-2757 to reserve).You can rent canoes from Bog Lake Outfitters (715-747-2685) for $7.50 per hour, $35 per day. Rent kayaks at Trek & Trail (800-354-8735; for $40–$70 per day; certification or a skills course ($50–$279) is required. Guided trips ($66–$649) run from one to six days.

For more information, contact the Madeline Island Chamber of Commerce (888-475-3386; or the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (715-779-3397;



The fortuitous location of Block Island--at the null point where the celebrity force fields of East Hampton, New York, and Martha's Vineyard cancel each other out--results in an utter lack of Kennedys, Clintons, Steven Spielbergs, and Martha Stewarts. So backward is this six-mile-long island of 800 year-round residents that it has acquired neither a stoplight nor a single restaurant serving carpaccio of sea bass.

My three-year-old daughter, Callie, of course failed to appreciate Block Island's backwater appeal. For her, the fun began on the ferry from nearby Point Judith, Rhode Island, when the boat's thundering departure blast made her clap her hands to her ears in delighted terror. From the top deck, a seagull plucked a Cheese Doodle from her outstretched hand. As we approached the island, she gaped at the low orange cliffs, gently rolling fields, and the two-mile sweep of beach just north of the dock in Old Harbor. And within minutes of disembarking onto the waterfront row of a-little-too-quaint turn-of-the-century hotels, she had spotted an ice cream shop.

In previous years, my wife, Lisa, and I had stayed in a few of those old hotels. But with Callie in tow, we sought something more like home. The modest four-bedroom gray-shingled bungalow we rented for the week (along with Callie's nine-year-old pal Liam and his mom) was set on a quiet dirt road, surrounded by thickets of bayberry bushes and an expanse of grass more than sufficient for a wide-ranging game of duck-duck-goose. Faintly rumbling in the background was the surf of Mansion Beach, a five-minute walk away. Minutes after unpacking the car, I was sitting on the deck drinking a beer, reading the New York Times, and starting Callie off on repeated stopwatch-timed sprints around the house. Our daily routine was really more like a weekend at home than a typical family vacation--and that was the whole point. No schedule, no rush, no tickets to buy or lines to stand in.

After breakfast, we'd gather blanket, kite, and boogie board and stroll to the beach, a lengthy process that included mandatory stops for Callie to pet a horse in a nearby field, pick berries, draw in the dirt, and practice her hitchhiking technique (learned from Kiki the cartoon witch) on passing cars. Once at the beach, Lisa and I settled back with our potboilers, while Callie and Liam joined swarms of other children doing the usual kids-at-the-beach stuff.

Hitchhiking aside, bicycles are the ideal mode of transportation on Block Island; no place is more than an hour's leisurely ride from any other. Dad's fancy dual- suspension Y-Bike wouldn't accept a child seat, so Mom carried the load on family rides to Mohegan Bluffs (at 200 feet, claimed to be the highest sea cliffs in New England), Southeast Lighthouse, and Great Salt Pond, a protected inlet with a pebbly beach and lightly riffled water.

Each day Lisa and I would trade off solo time--she to ride her bike unencumbered or hike through Rodman's Hollow bird sanctuary, I to windsurf on Great Salt Pond or to complete a stage of the 20-mile round-island beach trek. Somehow, we never found the time for horseback riding from the stable over at Dories Cove or sea kayaking on the pond. Maybe next year. Callie will be old enough to try some new adventures, and with any luck she still won't know who Martha Stewart is.  --David Noland

The Details: House rentals run $900–$4,000 per week in summer; call Offshore Property Ltd. at 401-466-5446. Rent bicycles, kid seats, Burley kid trailers, tag-alongs, or even a car at Old Harbor Bike Shop (401-466-2029). The round-trip ferry ride is $16 per adult, $8 for kids 5–11, free for kids under five. Bringing your own car on the ferry costs an additional $52 round trip; call 401-783-4613 for ferry schedule and car reservations.



Ariel was on a mission. My seven-year-old daughter charged ahead as we hiked through lush Vancouver Island forest. The leafy canopy suddenly gave way to a Tarzanesque landscape: Ropes crisscrossed overhead, and wire bridges swung from the upper reaches of fir trees. Ariel stopped and pointed skyward. "I'm doing that," she declared flatly.

We had journeyed to Vancouver Island for an action-packed week of water sports and rock climbing. Our first stop was Strathcona Park Lodge, where, as I had promised my daughter with much fanfare, kids can do anything. I had told Ariel about the sea kayaking, sailing, canoeing, orienteering, ropes courses, and rock climbing. We'd barely arrived at the three-story wooden lodge on the shore of Upper Campbell Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park when we were accosted by chief instructor David Hilling. Like all the instructors, Hilling is a graduate of the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training Centre, a NOLS-type program based at the lodge. "I'm taking some people over to the high ropes course, and I've got some extra harnesses. Wanna come?" he asked. Which is why, before we'd even unpacked our bags, my wife, Sue, and I found ourselves watching Ariel swing from the trees 50 feet off the deck.

The lodge has an insidious way of luring everyone into trying new things. At mealtime in the timber-framed dining hall, we sat next to other families who regaled us with their adventures. Somewhere between the roasted chicken, pasta salad, tofu and veggies, and freshly baked muffins, you get caught up in the can-do vibe of the place and sign yourself on for everything it has to offer. A typical day included rock climbing in the morning, kayaking on the lake in the afternoon, a little recharging in our two-level log cabin, and a turn at group problem-solving on the low ropes course.

As for the airborne high ropes course, my poker-faced daughter negotiated it with barely a pause, simultaneously terrifying and amazing us. When her feet finally reconnected with terra firma, I asked her if she'd been scared. "Kind of," she said. "But I kept it a secret." She had made her point: Cocky Kid, 1; Nervous Parents, 0.

For the next leg of our trip, we arrived by boat at the remote Eagle Nook Ocean Wilderness Resort. At first glance, this Tudor-style inn on the west coast of Vancouver Island seemed a bit overwrought, but our family adapted heroically: Sue and I relished the four-course dinner that started with Cajun shrimp and ended with chocolate raspberry mousse, while Ariel was equally impressed by the chef's talents with mac 'n' cheese.

Noisy rugrats would be out of line at this elegant lodge, but the guides made it a fun adventure base. Down on the docks the next morning, Ariel again upped the ante. "I can paddle a single kayak," she fibbed to kayaking guide Keith Nelson. "Then let's go," he said gamely, as we headed out into the nearby Broken Islands group, part of Pacific Rim National Park.

Ariel bailed out into my double kayak after an hour, but she beamed at having proved her skeptical parents wrong once again. She then turned her energies to trolling in tide pools for sea cucumbers, starfish, and other marine life. The next day, logger-cum-naturalist Charlie Everard whisked us away in a motorboat for a wildlife tour. We exchanged stares with a bear, floated among a gang of sunning sea lions, and went fishing. As Ariel reeled in one rockfish after another, Charlie used them to lure bald eagles to the side of our boat.

As we pounded across the swells at day's end, Ariel asked if she could drive the skiff. That's where I drew the line. "Maybe next time," I replied. She flashed me a mischievous smile, and let me off the hook. Her Vancouver Island mission had already been accomplished.  --David Goodman

The Details: Strathcona Park Lodge costs $185 per night for a family of three for all meals, activities, and lodging (all prices are in U.S. dollars). The seven-day Family Adventure Week (available July–September) costs $485 per adult, $350 per child, all-inclusive. Contact: 250-286-3122;

Eagle Nook Ocean Wilderness Resort costs $339 per person (half-price per child sharing your room) for a three-day stay July–August; a four-day stay costs $499 per person. Price includes all meals and kayak use. Contact: 800-760-2777;

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