Introducing Door County, Wisconsin
With its quaint towns and villages, recreational fishing and boating activities, family-friendly bike trails, lush golf courses, art galleries, and pristine beaches (almost 300 miles of shoreline), it’s no surprise Door County is often referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” This northeastern Wisconsin county is a peninsula, which extends out between Green Bay on its western side and Lake Michigan on its eastern side. Only 2 ½ hours north of Milwaukee and 4 ½ hours northwest of Chicago, Door County is a popular recreation destination. The county is home to 11 lighthouses and offers a restaurant community with a focus on local, artisanal cuisine. Its growing wine industry ranges from wine produced with locally sourced fruits such as cherries and apples, to wine made from cold-climate hardy varietal grapes, cultivated by viticulturists, and the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center. Begin your journey in the town of Sturgeon Bay, and explore the peninsula by taking the scenic coastal byway loop State Highways 57 and 42.
Sturgeon Bay has a long maritime history, facilitated by the completion in the late 1800s of the Sturgeon Bay Canal, which provides a shipping water thoroughfare from Lake Michigan to Green Bay. The Door County Maritime Museum Sturgeon Bay has captivating exhibits of the shipbuilding and fishing industry, the inner workings of lighthouses, shipwreck artifacts, and an entertaining interactive exhibit where you can pilot a steamship from the wheelhouse. Tours are available to explore the John Purves tugboat located on the bay, just outside the museum.
The 44th parallel north is the geographic setting for Door 44 and Parallel 44 Wineries. The vineyard, 44 degrees north of the equator, shares this latitude with the wine regions of Bordeaux and Tuscany, and it has similar rainfall and hours of daylight. However, because Wisconsin winters can have below freezing temperatures, the vineyard has planted cold climate cultivated grapes – a “new,” new-world variety of grapes. Try their authentic Wisconsin Ice wine, made from Frontenac Gris grapes, and their Frozen Tundra Label of White, Rosé, and Red Frontenac varietal wines.
Popelka Trenchard Fine Art Gallery displays the stunning and extraordinary glass art and oil painting by owners Jeremy Popelka and Stephanie Trenchard. We were fortunate on our visit to be able to watch Jeremy Popelka give a glass blowing demonstration. He creates his glass art using the Murrini style of colored patterns of designs. Stephanie Trenchard casts conceptual glass sculptures and paints expressive abstract oil landscapes.
We stayed at The Rushes Resort in Baileys Harbor, north of Sturgeon Bay, just off of State Highway 57. Nestled in the woods along Kangaroo Lake (named for its marsupial shape), these comfortable two and three bedroom townhouses have full kitchens and stone fireplaces. The resort provides complimentary water amenities, e.g., canoes, paddleboats, and kayaks. Friends of ours have enjoyed family reunions at Gordon Lodge, north of the Rushes. Situated in a peaceful, picturesque setting between the waters of Lake Michigan and North Bay, you can reserve a cabin or stay in the lodge. The Top Deck Restaurant and Bar is open for lunch and dinner. For more information on places to stay in the county, visit Door County Lodging.
The Cana Lighthouse is part of the Door County Maritime Museum. You begin your excursion by taking the tractor drawn wagon across the causeway. Built in 1869, the lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are interactive, hands-on exhibits along with photos, videos, lighthouse keepers residence, and lens equipment. Climb the 97 steps of the spiral staircase and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and the surrounding area.
If you’re going to be in the area on a Friday, be sure to stop at The Coyote Roadhouse for their “all you can eat” Friday Night Fish Fry. Deep-fried grouper is served with homemade coleslaw in a friendly atmosphere on the shores of Kangaroo Lake. Any time of the week, you can treat yourself to their “heaping loaf” of onion rings, enjoy any of their 30 varieties of beer, or order your favorite cocktail.
Located on the Green Bay side of Door County, this village is known for its bounteous fishing: brown trout, walleye, and small mouth bass. It is also home to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik, a log cabin structure with goats grazing on top of a sod roof. The goats started out as a gag gift from a friend of the owner’s, but the novelty caught on and a custom was born. The menu offers authentic Swedish fare: thin, delicate Swedish pancakes served with lingonberries, homemade Swedish meatballs, and a Scandinavian staple, pickled herring.
Sister Bay Bowl, built in 1958 by the Willems family, is a classic Wisconsin supper club with a bonus six-lane bowling alley. Still operated by the family, the restaurant is known for its perch fish fry. It has a full bar, and they make their own bitters to use in the popular Wisconsin state cocktail, a brandy old-fashioned.
South of Sister Bay along State Highway 42 is the town of Fish Creek. A visit to Door County wouldn’t be complete without having a traditional Scandinavian fish boil, and one of the best experiences is found at The White Gull Inn. Outside in the courtyard, over an open fire, white fish from Lake Michigan and red potatoes are boiled in a cauldron filled with water. When the fish oils rise to the surface, the master boiler tosses a small amount of kerosene over the flames, creating a dramatic flare-up that causes the oils to boil over with the water. The fish and potatoes are served with fresh lemon, homemade coleslaw, freshly baked bread, and cherry pie for dessert. The 150 year-old inn, with fireplaces in their charming rooms, is also known for its breakfast, which is included with your stay. Their specialty is Cherry French Toast, a marvelous treat of egg bread with pockets of cream cheese, covered with Door County cherries.
Bayside Tavern has a “Cheers” atmosphere and is the place to go for Wisconsin deep-fried cheese curds, grilled bratwurst, and the ubiquitous brandy old-fashioned with a twist, made with part plain soda and part lemon-lime soda. The owner’s charismatic daughter, Christie MacDonald, is a former Cherry Bounce Queen. She gave us an interesting history lesson on cherry bounce. The cherry liquor has been around for centuries; Martha Washington used to make it for her husband, George.
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country offers wine tasting, a country market, and an art gallery. They have a diverse wine selection – some wines are produced with the cold-hardy grape varietals such as Frontenac Gris and La Crescent, while others are produced with Door County cherries and Honeycrisp apples. The Cottage Row Gallery, housed in the backyard’s red barn, presents original artwork from local artists. Lautenbach’s sponsors the annual “Cherry Pit Spit,” a contest to see who can spit a cherry pit the farthest.
Door Artisan Cheese, a cheese factory, gourmet market, and restaurant, is the vision of Cheese Master Mike Brennenstuhl. Recently opened in the spring of 2017 and managed by Mary Beth Hill, Door Artisan Cheese is already immensely popular with food and wine lovers. The cheese factory’s large picture windows allow patrons to view the cheese making process. The cheese cave will age both classic cheese varieties and creative cheese varieties made from the Cheese Master’s original recipes. Chef Lawrence Hutchinson at the Glacier Ledge Restaurant prepares innovative dishes and shareable plates from the field (roasted yam, pine nuts, and arugula), farm (duck nachos with blue cheese and orange aioli), and sea (pan-roasted shrimp with corn coulis).
There is much more to appreciate in Door County. You can take a ferry to Washington Island and visit the lovely lavender farm, Fragrant Isle; board a trolley in Egg Harbor to experience ghost tours, dining and drinking tours, and shopping tours; explore more lighthouses, more art galleries, and more wineries, including a distillery. Find additional information about this vibrant county at Door County Visitor Bureau.
A portion of my itinerary was made possible by Door County Visitor Bureau, however, all opinions expressed are my own.