The view at Harrington Beach
DESTINATION Port Washington, Wisconsin
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 116 miles; 2 hours by car
Never underestimate the value of a dead end. Take, for example, the one we literally stumbled on, tripping over a tree root in Belgium. Not Belgium the country—Belgium, Wisconsin, which was supposed to be peddle-through territory on a meticulously mapped route along the Interurban Trail through Ozaukee County, a two-hour drive and a world away from Chicago. The horses here don’t haul tour-ists. Traffic congestion is generally a swarm of gnats. And although there are short stretches where the Interurban Trail turns into regular pavement, the route is for the most part off-road: no motors allowed.
If you want to explore the trail, Port Washington is a fine place to set up your bicycling base camp. The Port Washington Inn is roughly midway between the trail’s end at the Ozaukee/Sheboygan County line and the town of Grafton, where you can rent a bike. Port Washington is one of the busier trailside towns, but seen from atop Sweetcake Hill, it is pure Whoville. Pedal along the downtown riverwalk, and a vast, glittering swath of Lake Michigan spreads out to the horizon. Pedal along the Interurban Trail, and swaths of prairie do the same. Our plan was to bike the trail to Sheboygan and be back in the inn’s Jacuzzi by sundown.
Once you get beyond Port Washington, the Interurban Trail can lull you into an effortless Zen state. It dips, rises, and repeats. Critters—deer, rabbits, birds, dragonflies—seem to outnumber people. Gentle curves arc just enough so that beyond-the-bend is forever out of sight. By Belgium, the road signs have become so few that when they do appear, they seem oddly emphatic. When the sign for Harrington Beach State Park suddenly looms above the blacktop, it seems more imperative than informational. We ditched our itinerary and obeyed.
The 636-acre park begins where the eastern edge of town ends. There’s no pier to announce the stretch of beach that’s even further east, past Sucker Creek and Puckett’s Pond and Quarry Lake. No Ferris wheel, no food court, no neon marquee or Wednesday night fireworks. Come on a day when beachgoers are sparse, and you’ll find something both pristine and primeval about Harrington Beach. If Navy Pier is Coney Islandish, this is Walden Pondesque. The water is cold. Extremely so. It is an anti-Jacuzzi that is absolutely worth the diversion.
DINE: For casual fare, Port Washington’s Dockside Deli (218 E. Main St.; 262-284-9440, docksidedeli.com) is inexpensive, fast, and tasty. >> For a hearty white-tablecloth dinner, try the 108-year-old Port Hotel (101 E. Main St.; 262-284-9473, theporthotel.com).
STAY: Built in 1902, the Port Hotel (above) has a somewhere-in-time vibe and easy access to tours and activities, such as the Main Street Farmers’ Market on Saturdays now through October. Many of the rooms have sweeping views of Lake Michigan and the harbor. $150 to $275 per night. >> The 107-year-old Port Washington Inn (308 W. Washington St.; 262-284-5583, port-washington-inn.com) sits on top of Sweetcake Hill for a bird’s-eye view of the town. $150 to $225 per night.
PLAY: Bike the Interurban Trail. Bicycle rentals, free trail maps, and friendly, knowledgeable advice are available at Grafton Ski and Cyclery (1275 Washington St., Grafton; 262-377-5220, graftonskiandcyclery.com). You can pick up the Interurban Trail three blocks away. >> Attend Port Washington’s annual Port Fish Day, a.k.a. the world’s largest one-day fish fry, on Saturday, July 17th.
Photography: Eric Hausman