At the edge of the largest of the Great Lakes, the small harbor town of Bayfield, Wisconsin, forms a gateway to music, art and the Northern wilderness of the Apostle Islands.

In photos, the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore look like lacy decorations at the base of the layer cake of red, black and gold sandstone bluffs towering over Lake Superior just outside Bayfield, Wisconsin. But from the low vantage point of my kayak, the caves have the soaring, echoing majesty of a cathedral nave.

Kayaks provide the best access to the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Kayaks provide the best access to the sea caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  

Under the care of guides, my husband, Rob, and I paddle our tandem kayak under towering stone arches and around rocky castoffs where start-up forests have taken root. Our paddles splashing in concert, we follow the undulating shoreline and, in a hollow, find a narrow sea cave. I paddle forward, until Rob grabs the sides of the cave to pull our kayak, hand over hand, deeper into the Earth. We float in the shadows, listen to the water lap against the rough walls, crane our necks to catch a glimpse of the slip of blue sky above, and believe, for just a second, that we've uncovered a secret.

The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, a nearly 70,000-acre preserve, covers 12 miles of cave-studded shoreline along a peninsula jutting into Lake Superior. The preserve also includes 21 of the 22 Apostle Islands, which scatter out from the peninsula like skipped stones. (Some 200 souls inhabit the archipelago member Madeline Island, not part of the national lakeshore.) The heart of this region is Bayfield, a sophisticated outpost of 400-plus residents hidden between a blanket of northern forest and the sweeping inland sea. About 85 miles east of Duluth, Minnesota, the town draws travelers yearning to kayak to the caves or the islands, to hike through the trees, or to simply enjoy an evening stroll down Bayfield's corridor of culture, Rittenhouse Avenue.

Rehabbed Queen Anne Victorians and freestanding brick businesses line steeply sloped Rittenhouse Avenue, a six-block reprieve from the wilderness, that ends at the Apostle Islands Marina. We watch Bayfield stream by: kayak-topped Subarus navigating to and from the lake; shoppers carrying bags; music-lovers gathered outside the red Big Top Chautauqua box office building, waiting for the free shuttle to carry them to the evening's entertainment.

Big Top Chautauqua
Big Top Chautauqua

The chautauqua is a nod to the early-1900s traveling tent-city universities that brought lectures, concerts, plays and prayer meetings to smaller cities across the country-a sort of thinking man's county fair. Bayfield's modern take stays in one place, but it rises and falls with the seasons. A striped circus tent goes up each May (and comes down each October) over a stage in a clearing hemmed by stands of sugar maple, hemlock and pine trees outside Bayfield's city limits.

We join the music fans on the shuttle to see fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy play under the big top-an appropriately down-home event for a tent concert in the woods. The 900-plus seats are somewhat ragtag (Rob and I find ours on a reclaimed church pew; others look like cushioned stadium seats), but we drink in our two-hour education on reels and jigs infused with Scottish and bluegrass spirit.

As our trip progresses, we find ourselves settling into a rhythm like the lake's waves. We're drawn away from Bayfield to seek the secrets of this remote corner of the world and pulled back for the comforts of civilization. A ferry carries us to the minuscule collection of vacation homes, restaurants and artists studios that is La Pointe, Wisconsin, on Madeline Island. The town feels like a compromise between nature and civilization, the constant lush curtain of trees standing proud behind Woods Hall Craft Shop—a gallery and workshop for regional artists that's part of an island church-and Island Carvers, the home-slash-studio of wood-carvers Ken Peterson and Chris Thompson. And the trees aren't far from Tom's Burned Down Cafe, a come-as-you-are watering hole built on the burned remains of Leona's Cafe. ("Quirky" describes the finished product: industrial-tarp ceilings, wooden floors, hand-painted signs, a landlocked sailboat and tattooed staff.)

But it's uncompromising nature that draws us to Big Bay State Park on the eastern side of the island. We hike a dirt path along a rocky bluff, the lake stretching to the horizon on one side of us, a forest of white pine to the other. Rob asks me to take his picture next to one soaring tree, but I can't get it to work. To get the lowest branches in the frame, I have to pull back so far that his face becomes a blur at the bottom of the photo. Instead, I take his picture standing at the edge of a giant slab of stone, the lake behind him as wild and blue as an ocean. We're 6 miles and a ferry ride from platters of fresh whitefish and pints of locally brewed beer in Bayfield's The Pickled Herring Pub, but standing on this precipice, it feels like we've found the edge of the world.

Big Bay Town Park, right next to Big Bay State Park, has a boardwalk trail over Big Bay Lagoon.
Big Bay Town Park, right next to Big Bay State Park, has a boardwalk trail over Big Bay Lagoon.

Trip Guide

For more information or to plan your trip, contact the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Bureau: (715) 779-3335;

What to do

Bayfield in Bloom This month-long celebration of Bayfield's daffodil, apple blossom and wildflower bounty kicks off in mid-May 15 and concludes with the annual Blessing of the Fleet (a ship parade and blessing ceremony).

Big Top Chautauqua Concerts, stand-up comedy and variety shows star under a tent May through October each year. A free shuttle between downtown Bayfield and the venue makes for a stress-free evening.

Madeline Island Boats with the Madeline Island Ferry Line deliver visitors to La Pointe, where they can visit artists studios, galleries, off-beat bars (like Tom's Burned Down Cafe) and the informative Madeline Island Museum. On the east side of the island, Big Bay State Park and nearby Big Bay Town Park offer hiking, swimming and picnic opportunities.

Rittenhouse Avenue Bayfield's main drag offers one-of-a-kind boutiques, beachy gift shops and upscale eateries, as well as great views of Lake Superior and Madeline Island.

Where to eat

Cafe Seiche Chef-owner Chris Wolfe's menu changes daily but might include almond-crusted lake trout over roasted red potatoes and asparagus at the Madeline Island spot.

DaLou's Bistro For cheap but authentic New York-style wood-fired pizzas, follow State-13 ten miles south to Washburn.

Old Rittenhouse Inn The menu is seasonal, but the signature fork-tender pork roast in apple-cider glaze is always available. The historic lodging is one of our all-time favorites.

Pier Plaza Restaurant A bayfront location makes for great views for guests eating burgers, sandwiches, wraps.

Where to stay

Bayfield Inn Local artists' works hang in the lobby and line the halls; guest rooms have modern furniture, lake views and (in some) whirlpool tubs, perfect for a postkayak soak.

Old Rittenhouse Inn An updated Queen Anne houses an elegant bed-and-breakfast. Antique bed frames support ultracomfortable mattresses, and breakfast is a multicourse affair with eggs, fruit and homemade sweets.