Story | Sally J. Clasen
A trip to Door County, Wisconsin is a bit like opening a Scandinavian nesting doll. As you explore each section, you discover another exquisite treasure. The year-round destination, considered the Cape Cod of the Midwest, is surrounded by Lake Michigan on three sides with 300 miles of shoreline and filled with picturesque harbor towns, tart cherry fields and an endless bounty of deep-fried cheese curds.
But that’s just the tip of the peninsula’s allure because there’s always something more to see and do in “The Door:”
Sip local refreshments
Say cheers to a thriving industry of locally produced wine, beer, hard cider and distilled spirits in The Door. Start by following the Door County Wine Trail to eight wineries, some of which grow estate wines from grapes, cherries and other fruits.
One stop, Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market south of Fish Creek, features 30 home-grown wines, guided wine tours, free wine tastings and regular cherry pit spitting competitions. At Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay, you can sip handcraft Normandy style cider in the Door County Cider House tasting room.
If you prefer craft beer, visit the tap room at Door County Brewery in Bailey’s Harbor to sample some native suds like Polka King Porter, Little Sister and Goat Parade.
See goats reside in an unusual habitat at one of the most recognizable places in Door County. Al Johnson’s is an authentic Swedish family-owned restaurant in Sister Bay that serves meatballs, pancakes and fish sandwiches with a charming “butik” filled with authentic Scandinavian wares and goods. And even though the Swedish lingonberries, limpa bread and warm cherry pecan bread pudding are major hits at the diner, the four-legged grass grazers that chill on the restaurant’s sod-covered rooftop are the featured attraction at every meal.
Top it with a cherry
Alkaline soil and limestone deposits, combined with a temperate climate, create the perfect growing environment for the juicy red pitted-fruit in Door County, the fourth largest producer of tart cherries in the nation.
By mid-summer, more than 2,500 acres of cherries fill the fields with the seasonal harvest, which yields from 8 to 12 million pounds of cherries each year. Many orchards, roadside stands and farmers markets in the region allow visitors to pick their own cherries.
But don’t worry about filling up your bucket—they appear in everything from pies to jams, jellies, relishes, salsa, wine and other signature beverages like the cherry-infused margarita at Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Grill in Sister Bay.
Go for a float
Navigate the waters of Door County by renting a kayak from Nicolet Beach Concessions and head to Horseshoe Island, the only island that is part of Peninsula State Park, a 3,776-acre park with hiking and biking trails, an 18-hole golf course and the White Cedar Nature Center. Your one-mile paddle includes scenic views of high bluffs, the village of Ephraim and a 1860s lighthouse. Once your reach the 38-acre uninhabited island, park your craft and follow the Engelmar Trail, a one-mile rustic path that meanders its circumference.
Cherries and cheese curds are plentiful in Door County, but so is java at Door County Coffee & Tea Company, a family-owned, artisan coffee roaster located on Highway 42 between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor. The facility offers 100 freshly roasted coffees daily, such as the signature dark-roasted Lighthouse Blend.
There’s also a café serving breakfast and lunch, an espresso bar, and gift shop that features a range of home décor, gourmet foods and women’s accessories. Visitors also can watch through the viewing windows as master roasters produce the diverse coffees that are packaged and shipped directly from the roasting operation.
Tell ferry tales
Six miles off the tip of Door County is Washington Island, one of earliest immigrant settlements in Wisconsin. To get there, ride the cargo ferry from Northport Pier through “Death’s Door,” a passage that takes you across a shipwreck burial ground.
Once you reach the idyllic island, board the Cherry Train, an open-air trolley for a two-hour narrated tour of art, history and folklore attractions like the Art & Nature Center, Schoolhouse Beach, the Farm Museum, the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop and Stavkirke, a church built to resemble a Viking ship. You also can join the Bitters Club at Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub and Restaurant.
From Washington Island, take a non-cargo ferry to Rock Island, a state park where you can hike and tour the restored Pottawatomie Lighthouse and stone buildings built by a wealthy inventor who once owned the primitive island that doesn’t allow cars.
Book a cozy room
In Door County, bunking options lean toward family-owned B&Bs, cottages, cabins, home rentals, vintage motels, luxury resorts and unique hotel stays rather than chain accommodations.
In Ephraim, for example, is Eagle Harbor Inn, one of the first B&Bs in the area that is open year-round and sits on five forested acres across from the bay. The romantic property has nine inn rooms named after historic women innkeepers of Ephraim, and six elegant whirlpool suites with resort amenities, as well as a fitness center, indoor pool/sauna, and a small breakfast area and shop that sells signature homemade cherry granola and custom soaps, shampoos and body lotions.
Savor a fish boil
Sample the local catch of the day by attending one of the many outdoor fish boils, which are part entertainment, part eating. A traditional Door County fish boil features freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish caught by local fishermen and cooked outside over an open fire, just as it was 100 years ago by the Scandinavian settlers of the peninsula.
At Rowley’s Bay Restaurant, for example, a master storyteller spins the history of the bay as guests wait for the boil over of fish, onions and potatoes from a hot cauldron, which signals dinner is ready at this vintage lakefront resort.
Climb to the top
…of a historic lighthouse, that is. Door County and its five islands are home to 11 lighthouses, beacons of protection for those traversing the sometimes rough waters of Lake Michigan.
For a spectacular bird’s-eye lake view, climb 93 steps on a narrow spiral staircase to the gallery deck of the Cana Island Lighthouse, one of the most popular lighthouses in Door County and one of the few in the United States whose original lens is still functioning as an active navigational aid.
Winner of the 2014 Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence, the white lighthouse built in 1869 is part of an 8.7-acre island, located four miles northeast of Baileys Harbor, halfway between North Bay and Moonlight Bay. The grounds include the 89-foot-tall light tower, the original home of the lighthouse keeper and his family, and the oil house where fuel for the light was stored.
For additional lessons in lighthouse lore, exhibits and other nautical history accounts of the area, visit the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay.
Soak up the arts
Don’t let the rural, bucolic landscape of Door County fool you—art and culture is a natural part of the peninsula’s fiber. You can see pottery, sculpture, paintings and other works from renowned artists displayed in galleries, and renovated historic barns and farmhouses, as well as year-round festivals, and arts and craft shows that showcase creative regional flair.
Plus, Door County is a hotbed of entertainment with several indoor/outdoor playhouses and venues that offer professional concerts and theatrical performances, including Birch Creek Music Performance Center, Northern Sky Theater, Peninsula Players Theatre and Trueblood Performing Arts Center. In addition, the Midsummer’s Music Festival hosts 33 classical music concerts in art galleries, churches and private homes from June through September.
Photos: Door County Visitor Bureau