Winter 2008 Forward to a Friend

Door County, Wisconsin
by Lori Erickson


Photos by County Visitor Bureau


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.

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 Harbor.

“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.”

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.

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 following evening.

For more information: Door County Visitor Bureau – (800) 527-3529,

Lori Erickson is a freelance writer from Iowa City, Iowa.

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Door County LighthouseWinter 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 contest.

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.

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.

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 the peninsula.

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 markets.

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 cooks.

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 County.

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 peninsula.

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.