Shore to shore in Wisconsin’s Door County
August 6, 2008
DOOR COUNTY, Wis. ” If it hadn’t been for Mary and Gary, my friends from Madison, I might never have heard of Door County, Wis. But they are excellent goodwill ambassadors of the state they call home. So, when they knew I was looking for a location for a family reunion, they were quick to say, “do we have the place for you!”
A few weeks ago, I checked out the area an hour’s drive north from Green Bay that heartland Americans call “The Cape Cod of the Midwest.” In some ways the 75-mile thumb-like extension of the mainland, wedged between Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west, does resemble the Cape. Both places attract visitors to seemingly never-ending shorelines and the exhilaration of being near, or in the water. But unlike the frenetic tourist scene that characterizes New England’s Cape, a more laid-back experience greets visitors to Door County. Perhaps it was the peninsula’s first settlers, quiet, hard-working Scandinavian farmers and fisherman, who defined the area’s gentle pace.
My own pace was perhaps less gentle as I tried to explore most of the county’s most popular areas and attractions in four days. But from Sturgeon Bay, the county’s unofficial southern gateway, to Washington Island, its northernmost tip, I truly did find the “something-for-everyone” destination I had in mind. Tucked into 250 miles of jagged coastline, I found 19th-century lighthouses, pristine beaches, state parks, sand dunes and postcard-perfect villages like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim and Sister Bay.
I found bike paths and nature sanctuaries. I found farmer’s markets offering locally grown apples and cherries and wine tastings. I found cooking schools and art retreats, golf courses and galleries. I found quirky reminders of bygone days, like juke boxes and a drive-in theater. I even saw goats grazing on a grass-covered roof.
To be sure, my 92-year old mother-in-law, my 5-year-old grandson and everyone between are sure to be happy with the rich variety of outings and attractions I found in “The Door.” Here are a few of the best things to remember for our return visit.
Because many of us love road-biking on country roads, I made sure to seek them out. There’s no need in Door County to join the car traffic on routes 57 and 42.
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So, I tell my relatives, we can head inland on roads with only gentle elevation changes. Among bucolic settings, there are vintage red barns serving as galleries and antique stores. We can follow “Valkommen” signs that invite us to pick tart Montmorency cherries from a field, or to sample farmers’ market offerings that include “Sheboygan brats” and smoked fish.
Because the peninsula at its widest is no more than 12 miles across, we can compare the more populated west-side “strip,” where villages are five miles apart, to the more rural east side ” all in the same day.
When we crave cool, green woodlands, we can head to one of the county’s five state parks. Peninsula State Park’s 10-mile loop Sunset Trail winds through thickets of hardwoods and conifers, with glimpses of wildlife-filled marshes in between. Within the park, we can visit Eagle Bluff Lighthouse (one of nine in the county) and climb 75-foot Eagle Tower for a spectacular view across Green Bay and the islands beyond. If we need to cool off, we can head to the popular beach called Nicolet Bay, named after the first European explorer to reach Wisconsin’s shores.
On another day, we might pedal over to Ridges Sanctuary near Bailey’s Harbor for a “treasure hunt” to find some of the 25 varieties of native orchids found along seven miles of trails. Ferns, sedges, grasses and miniature shrubs blanket the velvet-like forest floor. Boardwalks and bridges cross the wetlands, giving the unique ridged terrain the look of a manicured Japanese garden. For tired cyclists like us, this tranquil refuge will provide a perfect interlude.
There’s a solid week’s worth of shopping and gallery-hopping for my group in Door County. But that’s not the only kind of art experience I want them to have. I hope everyone will want to get their own creative juices flowing and bring home a masterpiece made with their own two hands.
One of the liveliest places for this is Hands-On Art Studio in Fish Creek. Hosts Cy and Karon provide a free-wheeling, walk-in art experience at their eclectic farm, with classes in ceramics, metal sculpture, mosaics, wheel-thrown pottery and fused glass. Should one of our projects take all day, there’s also a “do-it-yourself” cafeteria, where sandwich-making can be as creative as the mosaic table top or garden sculpture we fashion in the barn next door. This is a not-to-be missed experience for even those in our group who insist they have neither talent nor interest.
I wanted to sign on immediately for a class at Sievers School of Fiber Arts on Washington Island. The school offers week-long and weekend classes in a host of weaving, beading, quilting and basketry techniques. Its catalog offers choices that would be high on any craft-loving lady’s wish-list.
I didn’t have a chance to visit all the arts and learning centers in the county, but they are legion. At The Clearing, a 128-acre historic farm and “folk school,” students study traditional crafts such as wood carving and furniture making, or hone their writing and photography skills, or learn specialty arts such as Norwegian rose-maling and Danish cross-stitching. At the Peninsula Art School, art-lovers of all ages can take day- or week-long, year-round workshops in painting, drawing, pottery, jewelry, photography and more. And for those interested in tweaking their culinary skills (hopefully some in our group will choose this option so that the rest of us can partake) there are two cooking schools that offer various options, from demonstrations to meals they can prepare themselves.
And those goats I mentioned munching on a sod roof-top? They can be found at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay. Touristy, maybe, but worthy of a breakfast layover for Swedish pancakes, lingonberry syrup and a photo opp.
Great food and family fun come to mind when I recall my lunch stop at PC Junction at the corner of County Roads A and E. The train-themed restaurant has interesting features including a counter made of old doors topped with a train track. There are sure to be squeals of delight when the train delivers the kids’ burger or chili, then waits while they unload it themselves.
Wilson’s, across from the harbor in downtown Ephraim, has been a local favorite since 1906. Red-and-white-striped awnings shade the outside patio, and matching petunias cascade from flower boxes galore. Along with Wisconsin favorites like cheese curds and cherry-filled sodas and sundaes, Wilson’s specialty is home-brewed draft root beer, creamy and icy cold. And mini-jukeboxes at each booth promote a distinctly ’50s atmosphere.
Speaking of nostalgia, how about the Skyway Drive-In Theatre in Fish Creek? From our car, we can view blockbuster films under the stars. Now there’s an experience the kids will write home about.
One Door County must-do is a visit to the serene island across a channel of water known as Death’s Door. Named for the more than 200 shipwrecks that occurred during the last century in this narrow passage where Lake Michigan and Green Bay merge at Door County’s north end, the water route is now served by both car and passenger ferries several times a day. The crossing takes 30 minutes.
Cycling on the island would be a good option, for there is virtually no traffic and the roads are nearly flat. An inland tour would get us to places inaccessible by the open-air tram that serves those on foot.
The 36-square-mile island is home to 600 year-round residents including the oldest Icelandic community in the country. There is no real “town,” but Scandinavian heritage is visible in landmarks such as “Den Norske Grenda,” a cluster of building with grass roofs, and the Stavkirke (Church of Staves), a reproduction of traditional Norwegian churches built of vertical timbers (to resemble ship masts) centuries ago.
There are gems to be found by those who adventure beyond the town dock. One is Schoolhouse Beach, a peaceful crescent-shaped strip covered with tons of water-polished limestone rocks. The smooth, oval stones are so prized that a $250 fine is slapped on anyone who attempts to take one home. (Note to Gran: check kids’ pockets before we leave the beach!)
Another treasure is Jens Jacobsen’s tiny log cabin museum, which boasts a wealth of early island artifacts. A friendly docent there regales her audience with shipwreck stories from days gone by. Likewise, her stories of island hardships before the age of ice-cutting vessels make that era of history come alive.
For an afternoon libation, we might try Nelson’s Hall, where the drink of choice is Angostura bitters. During Prohibition, the bar’s owner skirted liquor laws by arguing that bitters are a medicinal tonic. No doubt some of us with strong stomachs will saddle up to the bar for a shot of the gooey stuff.
The overlook at People’s Park provides a perfect setting to catch the sunset over Green Bay. I tested several harbor and marina locales in the county for this nice family ritual, and they were all first-class.
What began as an economical way to feed hungry lumberjacks and fishermen has evolved into a Door County tradition. At least nine county restaurants feature nightly “fish boils” during the summer months, fewer in other seasons.
I arrived at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek just as the hoopla was starting on the back patio. Amiable boil-master Tom Christianson kindly explained the mechanics as he went along.
First he set a huge kettle over a blazing wood-fire. When the water boiled, he lowered baskets of potatoes, onions and chunks of locally-caught whitefish into the kettle along with plenty of salt. At the end of the cooking period, he advised everyone to step back as he grabbed a can of kerosene and tossed the contents onto the fire ” KER-POW! Flames engulfed the kettle as the spectators cheered. More drama occurred when Christianson yelled “boil over” and a geyser of water spewed above the pot’s rim.
According to Christianson, fish oils and other impurities float on the foam, so the idea is to remove them as the mixture erupts.
When the excitement was over, the hungry diners followed Christianson inside and piled our plates high with chunks of steaming fish, vegetables, coleslaw and cherry pie.
No one goes home hungry from a Door County fish-boil!