The old French explorers, the original voyageurs who paddled across North America in the 1600s seeking fur-trapping riches, probably would have used sea kayaks instead of canoes if they'd only known. A closed cockpit boat like a kayak is exactly what you want in order to venture onto the cold, often rough waters of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. Come here in the summertime and the waters aren't quite so cold, though the waves are still unpredictable. But you're snug in your kayak and you can ride it out just fine.
Right off the northernmost tip of Wisconsin lies a scatter of 22 forested islands -- on the map it almost looks as if the Bayfield Peninsula had sneezed them out into Lake Superior -- and boaters have long found island-hopping in these frigid (but relatively shallow) waters an irresistible temptation. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore headquarters lies on the tip of the Bayfield peninsula, but that's merely an anchor point -- most of the park is accessible only by boat. Let the kids look at a map and choose day-trip destinations within easy kayaking distance -- historic island lighthouses, shipwreck sites, abandoned brownstone quarries, a ruined one-room schoolhouse, inviting sand beaches. Red sandstone cliffs line the otherwise woodsy shore, with sea caves in their bases that only kayaks can explore.
Local outfitters offer rentals, kayaking instruction (usually in protected bays or inland lakes rather than Superior itself), and guided excursions, both day trips and overnights -- unless you're already experienced kayakers, having a guide is a huge plus, allowing you to paddle directly to the most interesting sights. (The sea caves in particular can be treacherous to visit if you don't know the waters well.) Outfitters include Living Adventure (tel. 866/779-9503 or 715/779-9503; www.livingadventure.com), Trek & Trail (tel. 800/354-8735; www.trek-trail.com), and Whitecap Kayak (tel. 906/364-7336; www.whitecapkayak.com).
If your kayaking skills aren't enough to get you out onto the islands, never fear -- you can always go there on narrated trips run by Apostle Islands Cruises (tel. 800/323-7619 or 715/779-3925; www.apostleisland.com), departing from the Bayfield city dock.
Nearest Airport: Sawyer County, Hayward, WI, 75 miles. Gogebic–Iron County, Bessemer, MI, 75 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Bayfield Inn, 20 Rittenhouse Ave. (tel. 800/382-0995 or 715/779-3363; www.bayfieldinn.com). $$ Winfield Inn, 225 E. Lynde Ave. (tel. 715/779-3252; www.winfieldinn.com).
Best Time: May to September.