Crossing Lake Michigan on a steam ship 🚢

After our time spent in Door Country, we headed slightly south to take the car ferry across Lake Michigan and into Michigan state. This was partly for the novelty of crossing a lake that looked more like a sea, but also because it saved us 500 miles of driving. What we didn’t really notice beforehand was the fact that this was listed as a historic ship – the SS Badger is the last remaining coal-fired passenger steam ship in the United States. This sounded cool, but the black smoke coming out of the funnel into the already-hazy atmosphere was less so!

Before setting sail, we went to visit the friendly badger sculpture who was on the dock ready to wave off the ship. We then left our car for a member of staff to drive onto the ferry, since this is what they insist on doing – you’re not allowed to load your own vehicle.

Once on board, we sat out on deck for the whole four-hour crossing, despite the crew member who was insisting that it would be too windy to stay outside – “You’ll see! You’ll ALL see!” she was shouting to no one in particular before we set sail. (Ok, she didn’t quite say the second bit but it was still very theatrical).

We couldn’t see far at all as it was so hazy (due to smoke from the wildfires in Canada), so Dad settled down for a nap as he was recovering from a cold. That was, he napped until a crew member bypassed us and gently woke Dad to ask if his name was Leon. Half asleep, you could see the cogs turning – was he in fact Leon? No, he concluded, he was not, so they left him alone. We spent a while speculating whether the real Leon was on the run, until we overheard that his wife had lost him on the ship and the staff were helping to search for him. They didn’t do a very good job because it turned out he’d been snoozing right behind us the whole time – I just hope he didn’t overhear all our speculation about him!

We spent the rest of the crossing joking about the car conveyor belt that might meet us at the other end – because how else would we collect our car than as if it were baggage at an airport? In the end, this turned out to be uncannily similar to what actually happened.

We had a good laugh as each car was driven off the ferry by the staff and left with keys in the ignition and doors unlocked for people to claim, seemingly with no security checks that they were indeed the rightful owner. We thought this was bizarre but pretty funny until we realised two things:

  1. How easy it would be for someone to steal our hire car
  2. How easy it would be for us to accidentally steal someone else’s car, since we noticed only at this point that we had no idea of our car’s registration plate and couldn’t even agree what colour it was!

Our laughs gradually turned to cold sweat as the group of other waiting passengers dwindled and the flow of cars from the ferry slowed. It was at this point that we realised that none of us actually saw the staff drive our car onto the ferry before boarding. Our minds quickly jumped to the conversation we might soon be having with the hire company, covering how we simply left the keys in the vehicle, window open, and boarded a ferry. And then, finally, our hire car rolled off the ferry as one of the very last vehicles. Phew!

I assume that the whole thing is a pretty good illustration of the low crime rates in Ludington, MI…

Car collection roulette

After our jaunt on the lake, we spent the next few days sampling lots of beach towns while working our way down the east coast of Lake Michigan.

(shut the front) Door County

From Milwaukee, we picked up a car and drove north into Door County, a peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan. This area is known for its natural beauty, as well as being part of greater “dairy county” – Wisconsin is the second largest milk-producing U.S. state, after California.

Weather conditions weren’t the best during our visit for two reasons; first, it rained quite a lot, and second, winds had blown smoke from the forest fires that have been ravishing Canada across a huge area of the Midwest. While this slowed our progress around the peninsula slightly, it did leave us plenty of time to appreciate some of Door County’s man-made attractions.

Trains 🚂

On our way to Door County we stopped in Green Bay, the region’s “big city”, which happens to be home to the National Railroad Museum. Now Sara and I both like trains (well, to varying degrees), but we clearly have rivals as this wasn’t even Helen and Mick’s first visit to this museum! It told the story of early rail transportation in the USA, as well as preserving some absolutely pristine locomotives, including “Big Boy” (yes, that’s really its name). We were even allowed to clamber aboard some, pretend to operate the controls, and scare the living daylights out of some other punters who didn’t realise there was anyone in the dark carriage they were entering 👻.

Breweries 🍻

It’s been a while since Sara and I last visited the US, and I swear the breweries weren’t this good or plentiful before. The days of choosing between Coors, Miller and Bud are long gone, and instead brewery menus regularly featured beers inspired by Belgian blondes, Czech pilsners, hoppy IPAs and milk stouts. And the food wasn’t even an afterthought, either. At Copper State Brewing Co in Green Bay, we paired our brews with more delicious fried cheese curds, which went down an absolute treat. Add in some alfresco dining and the semi-regular passings of some nearby freight trains for entertainment, and it added up to a near-perfect meal. Even Mick found a place in his heart for a peanut butter stout alongside his real-ale favourites.

Nature 🌳

A short drive up the coast from Sturgeon Bay (where we were staying) was Cave Point County Park – a protected area right on the edge of Lake Michigan. Here, dense forest meets the lake’s choppy waters at a line of dramatic limestone cliffs. The absence of salt in the air was the only perceivable clue that the lake wasn’t open sea, and I’m sure we didn’t even see the water at its wildest. We stumbled over tree roots along the lakefront path to reach Whitefish Dunes, a totally deserted strip of sand along the lakeshore. The water was way too wild for swimming however, with the riptide signs and shipwreck information panels offering plenty of warnings of the dangers of taking to the water.

It was only on our way back along the cliffs that we noticed some deep cracks in the rock underfoot, many of which went all the way through to the sea beneath. Some were even large enough to lose a dog or a small child through!

Frozen custard 🍦

With Wisconsin being dairy country and all, frozen custard quickly became a regular post-lunch occurrence. In fact, when we were planning this part of the trip, it was clear that frozen custard was a very high priority for Helen and Mick, and who were we to argue?! We visited Zesty’s Frozen Custard which is housed in a 50s-style diner, and the riverside Not Licked Yet. While we loved watching the ducklings and feeding the topiary outside Not Licked Yet, Zesty’s super-creamy custard and rich hot fudge sauce stole the show.

Navigational aids ⛵️

On the east side of the peninsula at Baileys Harbor, we came across two rangelights, which together formed a navigation aid for ships arriving at night.

The rangelights were located 270 m away from each other but at different heights, with the white light shining 5 m above the red light. By aligning the white light directly above the red light, ships could be sure of a safe route in and out of the harbour, even at night. If this sounds familiar, then maybe you’re also a fan of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, in which Captain John and his crew use rangelights to safely enter a harbour in the dark.

Next, it was time to cross the lake to Michigan’s own Gold Coast (its eastern shore), via the historic S.S. Badger ferry.

Celebrating Summerfest in Milwaukee

We hopped back on the Empire Builder for the final leg of our Midwestern Amtrak journey, with our destination the lakeside city of Milwaukee.

This was a relatively short hop (just 6 hours), so we saved our pennies by travelling in coach class. This meant that unlike on our previous two journeys, we didn’t get a private compartment and we weren’t served three-course meals in the dining car, but we did still get a comfy reclining seat and access to the sightseeing lounge, so perfect for a daytime journey.

I’d heard lots of good things about Milwaukee (mostly about beer!) so it had been on our to-visit list for a while, but in our usual style we didn’t start planning our visit in any detail until we’d boarded the train and were well on our way. So, this is how it came about that we were about 20 minutes outside of the city when we realised that our visit would coincide with Summerfest, billed as the ‘the world’s largest music festival’. Whoops! This would explain one or two things about why we’d found it so difficult to find accommodation…

Anyway, we had found a place to stay and it just so happened to be within a couple of minutes’ walk of the Lakefront Brewery. Given Milwaukee has the nickname Brew City (because of its rich brewing heritage), this seemed like a great place to start.

When our friend Erin text us and emphatically recommended that we should go to exactly this brewery and eat the fried cheese curds served with garlic ranch, we knew we were onto a winner. Things got even better when we arrived and discovered that not only did they have a beer named Bumble Bear on tap (featuring a bear in a bumble bee costume, naturally), they also served tasting flights of sausages! Along with the excellent cheese curds, that was our dinner sorted. Of course, our food order was delivered under Oli’s American alter ego, ‘Holly’ (this happens often!), but even this wasn’t enough to upset Oli as we ate surrounded by the warm, yeasty, malty smell of brewing – this being an actual working brewery, unlike some of the places we’ve visited recently that are perhaps breweries only in name.

The following day, we began at Milwaukee Art Musuem. This might sound like an unlikely stop for us, but don’t worry – we just loitered outside! We’d read that the building opened and closed its ‘wings’ several times a day, which sounded intriguing, so we stood on the suspension bridge that led to the museum to watch it unfold. It was a beautiful piece of architecture and the movement was very cool, although extremely slow. So slow, in fact, that people were passing and we overheard them wonder what we (and a few others) were gathered for, speculating that something might be about to happen. In fact, it was already well underway! Thankfully Oli’s timelapse video captured it without you having to watch for a very long time, like we did…

After this, we wandered through the downtown area, which had a really lovely mix of mid-century and modern architecture.

Next, we made it to the Third Ward district, where we found a fun atmosphere, complete with a (somewhat gentrified) food market, lively bars, and a dog on a motorbike. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but I imagine that this area was much busier than usual because of the festival in town. We embraced the festive atmosphere with some warm-up beers at Café Benelux, and then decided to head into the festival itself.

Sadly, our Milwaukee friends Alec and Sydney were out of town, but they were kind enough to give us lots of Summerfest tips and even share their tickets that they weren’t using for the weekend. We started at one of the smallest stages, watching Old Goat Skiffle Band, and then worked our way around four of the larger stages. At Sydney’s recommendation, we ended the night watching Fitz and the Tantrums, who were really good fun. Earlier in the day, we’d been baffled about how there were lines of benches in front of every stage and everyone was neatly sat down – it all seemed strangely civilised. By this point, people were actually standing on the benches and it looked a bit more like the type of festival we’d been to before!

It wasn’t just music either – we also came across wrestling (with comically unconvincing choreography, of course) and some Freestyle BMX, which was Dad’s favourite part of the whole festival. I couldn’t watch, it was way too stressful!

A 1080 tailwhip. How?!

The one thing we were really puzzled about was how this could possibly be the largest music festival in the world – it takes place in the city centre and, although I’m sure there were some areas that we didn’t explore, we still found we could walk from one end of the site to the other in about 15 minutes! Glastonbury Festival comes to mind as being rather larger…

Anyway, some Googling after the fact gave us the answer. Firstly, it doesn’t hold the record any more – its record attendance is around 800,000, while Donauinselfest in Austria has around 3 million attendees 😳! Second, Summerfest takes place over 9-11 days and the Guinness World Record in 1999 was for total attendance rather than daily people at the festival, which is much lower. (Finally, in case you were wondering, Glastonbury is classified as a performing arts festival rather than a music festival – and even so, it’s way down the list with approximately 200,000 attendees.)

Either way, Summerfest was a lot of fun – it was definitely the right decision to embrace the festival while it was in town. And overall, we absolutely loved Milwaukee – what a cool city! We’ll be back one day, but for now, it’s time to head north towards Green Bay for the beginning of our Lake Michigan road trip.