by Lori Erickson
Photos by DoorCounty.com/Door
County Visitor Bureau
I KNEW I WAS GOING TO LIKE DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN, WHEN I HEARD SOMEONE MENTION
THAT A POPULAR LOCAL PASTIME IS TO GATHER ALONG THE SHORELINE IN THE EVENING TO
WATCH THE SUNSET. “AND WHEN IT’S OVER, PEOPLE STAND UP AND CLAP,”
THE MAN ADDED.
The sunset ritual evokes the character of Door County: Despite its wealth and sophistication,
the peninsula remains a place of simple pleasures and Midwestern charm. It’s
the sort of place where mom-and-pop resorts still cater to families who have been
coming here for generations, a place where strangers soon become friends.
CAPE COD OF THE MIDWEST
Door County’s reputation as the Cape Cod of the Midwest is well-earned. Like
that famous East Coast resort area, Door County has spectacular natural beauty,
diverse cultural attractions, and charming small towns that have streets lined with
art galleries and fine restaurants.
Just 29,000 people make their home permanently in Door County, scattered throughout
24 towns and the small city of Sturgeon Bay. Each settlement has its own unique
character. Among the most charming are Sister Bay, Egg Harbor, Ephraim, and Baileys
“We’re fortunate that many people in Door County realize our natural
resources are our most important asset,” said Karen Newbern.
Like Cape Cod, Door County is shaped and defined by water, in this case the huge
expanse of Lake Michigan. Because of the narrowness of the 75-mile-long peninsula,
Lake Michigan’s waters are never far away – sometimes softly lapping
against the shore, sometimes stormy and fierce, but always an alluring presence.
Not surprisingly, outdoor activities reign supreme here, from sailing, sea kayaking,
fishing, golfing, and beachcombing to biking and swimming (for those willing to
brave the usually cold waters of Lake Michigan). The two sides of the peninsula
are different, with the Green Bay side having calmer waters, while the Lake Michigan
shore is known for its rougher coastline and choppier waters.
With more than 300 miles of coast, Door County boasts a rich array of access points
to the lake and bay, including Peninsula State Park, with its extensive hiking and
biking trails, and Whitefish Dunes State Park, which protects fragile sand dunes
and a picturesque, rugged coastline. In all, more than 10,000 acres of state-owned
green space dot the peninsula, providing outdoor buffs with wooded campsites, scenic
beaches, well-maintained trails, and prime wildlife viewing.
Near Baileys Harbor, you can find one of the peninsula’s most treasured natural
gems: the Ridges Sanctuary, which was named Wisconsin’s first National Natural
Landmark in recognition of its unusual ecological features. A series of 30 ridges
extend from the shoreline of Lake Michigan inland for almost a mile, creating microclimates
for 25 native orchids and more than a dozen endangered or threatened plant species.
On its shaded paths, marvel at the delicacy of yellow lady’s slippers, fringed
gentian, and dwarf lake iris, and watch for the rare Hine’s emerald dragonfly,
an endangered species that often darts among the undergrowth.
“We’re fortunate that many people in Door County realize our natural
resources are our most important asset,” said Karen Newbern, assistant naturalist
director at the Ridges. “We work hard to protect the unique environmental
features of Door County.”
SHAPED BY TREACHEROUS WATERS
The landscape has helped to shape the peninsula’s history. Door County was
largely settled by Scandinavian immigrants who depended upon fishing and farming
for their livelihoods. The county earned its name from the treacherous waters around
the peninsula, which claimed thousands of ships. Sailors christened the waters between
the peninsula and Washington Island as “Death’s Door,” a moniker
that later was shortened to Door County.
The 10 lighthouses built around the peninsula to keep vessels from harm have become
beloved landmarks in Door County.
The 10 lighthouses built around the peninsula to keep vessels from harm have become
beloved landmarks in Door County. Among the most photographed is Eagle Bluff Lighthouse
in Peninsula State Park, where you can enjoy a picnic on the grounds and then take
a tour of its interior, climbing winding steps to the huge light at the top.
Given the natural beauties of the peninsula, it’s not surprising that artists
would be drawn to this region. Nearly 100 art galleries and studios showcase the
works of local and regional painters, sculptors, and craftsmen, many drawing inspiration
from Door County’s dazzling combination of water, sun, and sky. Admire the
work of the professionals, and then explore your own creativity at the delightful
Hands On Art Studio near Fish Creek, an art studio where you can try your skills
at pottery making, metalworking, painting, glass fusing, and other crafts.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
Find a spot out-of-doors to enjoy the best show in town: a spectacular sunset over
Green Bay. As the water and sky glow with ethereal light, you’re likely to
understand the local custom to applaud. After the sun slips past the horizon, you
can console yourself with the fact that there will be an encore performance the
For more information: Door County Visitor Bureau – (800) 527-3529, www.doorcounty.com.
Lori Erickson is a freelance writer from Iowa City, Iowa.
View readers’ road trips at
The site also gives you the opportunity to share your own favorite road trip story.
AN ESCAPE FOR ALL SEASONS
Winter is a favorite
time of year for visitors who savor Door County’s slower pace. More than 100
miles of trails perfect for skiing or snowshoeing line the peninsula, while snowmobilers
have their own network of 250 miles of groomed trails. Enjoy the falling snow as
you walk amid towering hemlock, tamarack, pine, and spruce trees, ending the day
in a restaurant with a roaring fire. If you’re hardy (and a little crazy),
you can even join the Jacksonport Polar Bear Club – brave souls who take the
plunge into Lake Michigan on New Year’s Day. More winter fun can be found
at the Winter Festival in Fish Creek, held February 8-10, 2008. Activities include
a candlelight ski in Peninsula State Park, snow sculpture contest, and a cook-off
During the warm months, the winding roads of Door County provide easy access to
another prime attraction of the peninsula: cherry and apple orchards, which thrive
on the sandy soil. In spring the delicate pink and white of their blossoms herald
the coming of warm weather, and at harvest time travelers flock to pick-your-own
operations as well as roadside stands overflowing with fruit. Throughout the year,
you can sample the orchards’ bounty in homemade desserts, jams, jellies, and
other treats, from cherry wine to freshly baked apple and cherry pies.
THE CROWN OF DOOR COUNTY
Washington Island is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Door County, but your trip
across the channel will take you back in time several decades. On this small island,
life moves more slowly, offering ample opportunities for savoring the rhythmic beat
of waves against a rocky shore, the cry of seagulls, and the island’s panoramas
of light, water, sand, and woodlands.
Settled by Icelandic and Danish immigrants in 1850, Washington Island is home to
700 residents. One has to be self-reliant to live here year-round, for winter’s
icy cold can mean long delays in the ferry service that connects residents to the
mainland. But during summer, the island attracts thousands of visitors who come
to enjoy the quiet beauties of this peaceful enclave. Some stay for a day, while
others book a room at one of the island’s lodging places, which include cozy
bed and breakfasts, small hotels, and holiday cottages overlooking the water.
While you can bring your car to the island on the ferry, many visitors choose to
rent a bike or moped at the dock. Others hop on board the Cherry Train trolley for
a 90-minute guided tour of the island. Riding the island’s narrow roads at
20 miles an hour, you can gain a window into life here through the stories of guide
Ed Livingston, who has lived here for decades.
“The first time I came here I fell in the love with the place,” Livingston
said. “There’s a peacefulness and sense of community here that I haven’t
found anywhere else.”
Island landmarks include the Stavkirke, a church built in the architectural style
of 11th-century Scandinavia. Constructed by local craftsmen and topped with dragon
heads similar to those on a Viking ship, the building celebrates the ethnic heritage
of the original settlers of the island.
In Jackson Harbor, learn more about the maritime history of the island at a small
museum dedicated to the fishing trade. The site also tells of the many shipwrecks
that have taken place near here. The turbulent six-mile passage that connects Lake
Michigan and Green Bay has claimed countless boats dating back to the days when
Potawatomi Indians lived on the island. In the fall of 1872 alone, more than 100
large vessels were stranded or damaged. Tour the exhibits, then give thanks for
the modern navigation methods that ensure the safety of travelers today.
The island’s agricultural heritage comes to life at the Washington Island
Farm Museum on Jackson Harbor Road. Its three acres feature a reconstructed pioneer
farm, including log cabin, blacksmith shop, and sawmill.
After touring, visit one of the most popular restaurants on the island, the KK Fiske
Restaurant on Main Road. Early each morning, owner Ken Koyen heads out onto the
lake to catch fish for his guests. The restaurant is best known for its “lawyer”
fish (ask Ken how it got its nickname). With your meal of delicately flavored fish,
enjoy a glass of Capital Brewery Island Wheat Ale, a specialty brew bottled in Madison
made exclusively with wheat from Washington Island. As you drive around the island,
you can see many fields designated with the Capital Brewery sign.
Stop by Nelsen’s Hall, also on Main Road, to experience another island tradition.
Built in 1899, Nelsen’s is the oldest bar in continuous operation in the state
(and perhaps in the nation). During Prohibition, the establishment stayed in business
by turning itself into a pharmaceutical outlet that sold bitters, a foul-tasting
concoction said to have medicinal properties – though its high alcohol content
was most prized by customers. If you can manage to choke down a full shot glass,
you can claim a certificate registering you in the Bitters Club.
“You have to re-qualify every year,” said owner Doug Deleporte. “It’s
a cosmopolitan club with members all over the world.”
Across the street, stop by Mann’s Mercantile and Den Norske Grenda. It’s
not difficult to miss – just watch for the goats eating the grass on the roof.
Inside, shop for Scandinavian gifts, souvenirs, and homemade fudge.
Finally, don’t miss pristine Schoolhouse Beach in Washington Harbor, so named
because of the school once located there. The scenic cove with its crystal clear
blue water and rocky beach is one of just a handful of beaches in the world made
up solely of white limestone rock. The well-polished stones are protected by law,
so enjoy them without dropping one into your pocket.
At the end of your stay on Washington Island, you’ll have to go back to the
bustle of the real world, but memories of your visit to this serene enclave likely
will continue to refresh you long after you say goodbye.
THE TASTES OF DOOR COUNTY
For many visitors, Door County means food – the tartness of locally grown
cherries baked in a pie, the flaky tenderness of whitefish steaks freshly caught
in Lake Michigan, the fresh taste of an apple picked at a roadside orchard, and
the sophisticated flavors of a gourmet meal served overlooking a picturesque harbor.
You’ll find many opportunities to savor the tastes of Door County throughout
Door County’s signature food is cherries, which thrive in the region’s
sandy soil. As one of the nation’s top producers of the fruit, Door County
raises primarily Montmorency, a tart variety primarily used in pies, juices, and
jams. The cherry harvest season runs from late July to mid-August, when you can
pick your own fruit in dozens of orchards or shop at roadside stands and farmers
Throughout the year, you can enjoy cherries in dozens of forms in Door County. After
touring the peninsula, in fact, you may well wonder whether there’s any food
item that Door County residents have not flavored with cherries. On your travels
you can sample cherry pie, jam, wine, syrup, bread, pancakes, ice cream, salsa …
even mustard. Door County cherry growers are thankful for the inventiveness of local
Door County’s sandy soil is also a boon to apple growers. In September and
October, the peninsula’s apple orchards overflow with ripening fruit. Many
visitors schedule their visit to Door County to coincide with the harvest, a time
when the peninsula’s forests blaze with color.
To sample the peninsula’s most famous meal, pull up a chair at one of the
many restaurants that serve Door County fish boils. The tradition dates back more
than a century to the days when fishermen used to cook a meal of fish and potatoes
on their ship’s boilers. The custom spread to other residents, who found it
an easy and delicious way to feed large numbers of people at church dinners and
family gatherings. Eventually the fish boil became the most famous meal in Door
The visual drama of a fish boil is a big part of its appeal. Locally caught whitefish,
small red potatoes, and sweet onions are cooked outside over a wood fire in huge
stainless steel kettles. Just before the food is done, the master boiler throws
fuel oil directly on the fire, causing a huge burst of flames that makes the pot
boil over. The fish oils that have risen to the top of the pot during cooking spillover,
leaving just the succulent fish and vegetables behind. The resulting dinner is tender
and delicious, with fish steaks that nearly melt in your mouth. Coleslaw and rye
and white breads typically accompany the meal, topped off (of course) with a slice
of cherry pie.
Among the favorite spots for a fish boil are Pelletier’s Restaurant and the
White Gull Inn, both in Fish Creek. Be sure to bring your camera, for you’ll
want to record the moment when the fire flames up amid billowing smoke. Just don’t
stand too close!
The lush bounty of the fields, gardens, and waters of Door County translate into
a wide array of additional dining experiences. The offerings range from elegant,
high-end restaurants to down-home cafes where the waitress calls you “honey.”
One of the most-acclaimed eateries is the Mission Grille in Sister Bay, which was
named one of the top 12 restaurants in the state by Gourmet magazine and
has won nine Wine Spectator awards. For an inexpensive – but still
delicious – alternative, try Fred & Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar &
Grill, a casual restaurant overlooking Little Sister Bay between Sister Bay and
Ephraim. Dine right next to the water and savor the flavor of the restaurant’s
cherry margarita, a new concoction that is likely to spread to other places on the
A new addition to Door County cuisine is locally produced wine. Within recent years
the Door County wine industry has blossomed, and today five wineries dot the peninsula,
many offering free samples as well as concerts and other special events. Door Peninsula
Winery and Simon Creek Vineyard and Winery, both near Sturgeon Bay, have won awards
for their vintages, which you can sample in their tasting rooms.
During the warm months, the peninsula’s many farmers markets provide a great
way to take the flavors of the region home with you. Local growers are happy to
chat with customers about the best dishes to make with their fresh produce, from
colorful peppers and tart apples to sweet honey made from the nectar of island flowers.
One thing is certain: If you leave Door County hungry, it’s your own fault.