They might lie on the shores of Lake Superior but Bayfield and the Apostle Islands are anything but snobby. AMY ADAMS takes a tour of one of the most inviting regions in the American Midwest.

On our drive from Minneapolis to the Wisconsin shores of Lake Superior, Tobies was the ideal pit stop. The Kahlua-flavoured coffee (called Jamaica Me Happy) was good, but the table of cookie and cake samples was better, and when the apron-clad stall-owner saw our enthusiasm she couldn’t give away her biscuits fast enough. Wielding our gifts to Toby McCarrick, our Chicago-based guide, he smiled knowingly, saying: It doesn’t surprise me, not up here.”

In the northern Midwest near the Canadian border, there are lots of things to fear, from wild black bears to lakes capable of producing 30ft waves, but generally being ignored isn’t one of them, not around Bayfield anyway. Walk around this small town on Superior’s southern shore and you won’t have to look far for conversation – it’s a long way from New York, and even further from London.

It’s not like they’re short of visitors, either. A charming harbour town divided by leafy boulevards of Victorian houses and overlooking the clear blue lake, Bayfield would pull in the crowds anyway. But the town has another ace up its sleeve: it’s the launch point for ferries to the lake’s 22 Apostle Islands, an archipelago of sandy beaches, rugged shorelines and abundant wildlife.

Zipping past Basswood, Oak and Hermit islands on a local taxi boat, our first stop was Stockton. While many of the Apostles are famous for their 19th century lighthouses, Stockton has a rather different claim to fame as home to one of the greatest concentrations of black bears in North America. The nearest we got on our hike through the island’s deserted wilderness, though, was some digested berries. Arriving back where we’d started, we mentioned the droppings to a man who looked like he hadn’t moved from his fishing spot in the past 10 years.

Oh sure, there was a bear here this morning, you can see his prints over there,” he said, pointing to a trail of paw marks that crossed the beach before disappearing into the undergrowth. Our fisherman might have been having a good laugh at our expense, as he slipped his paw-shaped stencil back in his pocket, but I’m pretty sure they were real.

There were no signs of bear activity on Madeline, though whizzing round the island on hired bikes they might have heard us coming. Pancake flat, it’s ideal terrain for the fair-weather cyclist and in a couple of hours you can cover the area, from the ferry landing at La Pointe to beautiful beaches of the Big Bay Town Park and on to Amnicon Point. Unlike the other 21 Apostles, Madeline, the largest and only inhabited island, isn’t protected as part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, but this makes it no less special.

“For me, the island has a neat kind of spiritual feel,” says Northern Wisconsin Tourism manager Ruth Goetz. She puts this down to an aura left by Native Americans (the Ojibway) who arrived on Madeline from Canada in approximately 1490. Most of them left in 1620 when food supplies ran low, and 70 years later, French officer Pierre La Sueur landed. The fortunes of the island have since ebbed and flowed. Once the headquarters of the American Fur Company, La Pointe was a bustling city of 2000 inhabitants. Today, the population sits at a whopping 200, but again, Madeline is no worse off for it: islanders let their kids roam unchaperoned, leave their houses unlocked, and the keys in the ignition of their cars.

“If the car’s gone when they’ve come back they’ll presume a friend’s borrowed it,” says Madeline local Leone.

The island isn’t entirely crime-free. Tom’s Burned Down Cafe is as it says on the tin thanks to “some arsehole from the city” setting fire to the place, twice. It’s risen from ashes both times, roofless and ramshackle but with bags more character than the sleek Beach Club opposite. Every wall is decorated with quotes, jokes and slogans of the “everyone who works here was fired from the place next door” variety (you’d think they go easy on the fire references), and Tom stands behind his makeshift bar muttering a few more soundbites of his own. As we leave for dinner he shouts after us: “We’ve got seven extra beds here, remember.” But it’s not quite the season for sleeping under the stars so after dinner at The Inn we catch the last ferry across the 2.6 miles back to the mainland.

Despite its diminutive size (600 inhabitants), Bayfield has a few decent options for sampling the local South Shore Brewery Nut Brown Ale. There’s quirky hangout Maggie’s Restaurant covered in flamingo-related junk from clocks to life-size inflatables and the bar at Bayfield Inn where you can shoot some pool with the locals. Be careful of resident pool sharks Judith and Becky, though: not only will they thrash you in a couple of shots, they’re likely to drag you over the road to their pub, Greunke’s First Street Inn. Still, with a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox and Hollywood memorabilia nailed, hung and propped on every available surface, it’s not a dull place to have a lock-in.

For a trip further back in time, the Old Rittenhouse Inn takes some beating. Named after Charles Rittenhouse, one of the original investors in Bayfield, it’s a rambling Victorian mansion converted into a restaurant and guest house. Ask nicely and you can have a nose around the unoccupied rooms – each complete with decadent antique furnishings and a wood-burning fireplace. The outside of the building is a mass of gables, balconies and Lake Superior brownstone. Swing in a chair on the wrap around veranda, gazing at Lake Superior rippling in the distance and you might just realise why Midwesterners are happy to give away free biscuits.”