Cool Travels To Door County, WI
The Door County peninsula, jutting out from eastern Wisconsin, contains a string of little villages, with Lake Michigan to the east and the waters of Green Bay to the west. The charming “necklace” that runs along the shoreline is an escape from big cities, big-box stores and chain restaurants. In the summertime, it’s also an escape from the heat.
Though a rural retreat, Door County is well equipped to welcome tourists. In fact, tourism is its largest industry, yet there are no shades of tacky souvenir shops with mass-produced T-shirts and short-lived souvenirs. Instead, you’ll find fine art and craft galleries, symphony and theatre, along with plenty of outdoor activities. Dining and lodging are reasonably priced, leaving more spending money to use for fun.
At the base of the peninsula is Sturgeon Bay, the county seat. It’s the only place in Door County with a large enough population for a Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, but it retains its historic roots. A stroll or jog along the “downtown” streets, on either side of the bay, reveals an abundance of historic storefronts, government buildings and homes in a smattering of architectural styles.
Lodging with character in Sturgeon Bay is the Holiday Music Motel, where retro style meets modern convenience and comfort at a reasonable price (and it’s even pet friendly). As I settled in to my room on a cool Wednesday evening in June, I heard the crooning and strumming of a guitar player outside, with a small but appreciative audience gathered around a fire pit.
I wandered away from the motel, called by the Pied Piper to more outdoor music wafting down the city streets, and discovered Harmony by the Bay, Sturgeon Bay’s free outdoor concert series.
An extended stay on the 75-mile long Door County peninsula is best navigated from home base in one of the centrally located smaller towns. In Egg Harbor, Fish Creek or Ephraim, the area’s many sights and sounds are more easily accessible, yet fun shopping and satisfying dining are close at hand.
Dining & Drinking
Tart and healthful Montmorency cherries are a local specialty, making Door County the third largest producer of cherries in the U.S. and setting the stage for a plethora of cherry products throughout the area, from pie and other desserts to jams and sauces to beer and wine. The season begins in July and extends for several weeks thereafter.
Cheese is of course a Wisconsin specialty (a well-known fact, thanks to the Green Bay Packers cheeseheads), and commonly shows up on Door County menus as cheese curds. The soft curds, a result of the cheese-making process, are often fried and served with a Ranch dipping sauce.
One microbrewery makes its home here, selling its products at its brewpub and at retailers and restaurants throughout the county. Shipwrecked Restaurant and Brewery features five regulars and several seasonals.
With seven wineries, Door County has the most of any Wisconsin county, with tours and tastings, all open year round. At Lautenbach’s Orchard, Country Winery & Market, you can taste the wines and enjoy their fresh produce as well.
Whitefish commonly shows up on Door County menus as well, harvested from Lake Michigan or Green Bay, and is the featured guest in the traditional fish boil.
If you want to experience “native” traditions, then a fish boil is a must, though not necessarily a romp in culinary heaven. This Scandanavian-based cooking presentation has been a part of Door County heritage for over 100 years. The one-pot meal is prepared over open flames in a fire ring, with potatoes, onions, and chunks of white fish. Kerosene is added to the fire at the end of the process, and a thick column of flames encircles the pot and the water boils over, looking like a big orange dragon bursting from the ground, roaring as he spews nasty black smoke skyward. This is your dinner, lifted from the fire ring and served with lots of butter, rye bread, cole slaw, and cherry pie.
Three perfect dining options for quality food with local ingredients are The Cookery, Wild Tomato, and Bistro 42.
Since The Cookery in Fish Creek features the products of regional farmers and producers, trying local favorites here is a breeze; since the chef prepares fresh, delicious, and creative cuisine, trying local favorites is a joy; since the restaurant also emphasizes sustainable, organic and green, in its food and its building, trying local favorites is guilt free—that is, as long as you ignore the calories and/or partake of the calorie-burning outdoor activities the next day. The upstairs loft features a wine bar, serving wines and fine appetizers with a view of the bay.
My experience at The Cookery included the Wisconsin cheese plate (divine!); a local whitefish basted with pesto, broiled, and served with roasted red peppers and whole grain rice (light but heavy with fresh flavor); and sour cream chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream (amazing!). Okay, so I passed up the cherry pie and cherry crisp because of the siren call of chocolate, but I did enjoy a Wisconsin beer—Snake Hollow IPA by Potosi Brewing Company, which donates proceeds to charitable causes. The beer list overall is very good, with over a dozen impressive beers, including locals, and the wine list is extensive, with organic, sustainable and local wines.
Another worthwhile restaurant is Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille in Fish Creek. It also has a community-activist, sustainable attitude, and uses fresh local ingredients in creative dishes. The cheese curds here were perfect, lightly fried without being greasy, and the creative mix of ingredients in the salad was bursting with freshness. The specialty pizzas are truly Wild, with some surprising combinations. For local flavor, try the “Sconnie,” with roasted chicken, bacon, grilled broccoli, spinach, and Wisconsin cheese curds. Ranch dressing is served on the side, for that added Wisconsin flavor. The “Fun Guy” features five types of mushrooms, spinach, and caramelized onions on garlic cream cheese. The sausage and pesto pizza, also with Roma tomatoes and fresh basil, is made with a superb Italian sausage.
Wild Tomato also features a healthy variety of wines and beers. Beers include Belgians and microbrews, such as Hinterland, O’So, Avalanche, Rogue, Founders, Crispin, Chimay, and Framboise.
Bistro 42 is a semi-casual setting with fine-dining presentation. The mushroom strudel managed to find the balance between light, not filling and heavy with taste, thanks to its blend of exotic mushrooms, spinach, dill havarti cheese, and fresh herbs rolled in filo dough and accompanied by fresh vegetables and risotto. Even the risotto, which is often overly rich and heavy, was light and tasty.
The grounds of Bistro 42 will soon be home to the county’s only distillery, so be sure to put that on your “maybe to-do” list.
Gay Lumberjacks and Other Door County Arts
Of the many opportunities to enjoy performing arts in Door County, the most distinctive is the American Folklore Theatre, where professional actors and musicians perform original musicals that were written specifically to celebrate the life and history of the region. In the rotating stock of shows are plenty of inside jokes that the locals will especially appreciate, but an open-minded outsider will not fail to enjoy the local color as it highlights the show. Summer performances (mid-June through August) take place under a pine canopy at Peninsula State Park with a background of crickets, frogs, birds and sometimes rumbling thunder. Fall performances (September and October) are sheltered from the vagaries of the weather at a local auditorium.
Of the three rotating shows playing in summer 2011, I saw two: BING! The Cherry Musical, a humorous and touching tale of family, friends and real estate development; and Lumberjacks in Love, the story of four loggers isolated from women and love.
Subtle gay undertones that accompany the otherwise straight Lumberjacks in Love make for extra humor and reflect the friendly, open-minded region. Of the four loggers, the preferences and ultimate romantic fate of two is left dangling. Another suspects he is falling for a man—despite his initial angst, he begins to accept his feelings as inevitable and acceptable. The story’s kinks and curves are like a Shakespearean plot (if Shakespeare had been from Wisconsin) with plenty of laughs, toe tappin’ music, lovable characters, and warm fuzzies.
Other performing arts in Door County are the Birch Creek Music Performance Center (classical and jazz concerts, mid-June through mid-August), the Peninsula Players Theatre www.peninsulaplayers.com (professional classic and contemporary productions, mid-June through mid-October) and Woodwalk Gallery (this contemporary art gallery housed in an 1890s barn holds Friday night concerts of acoustic artists from mid-June through early September).
Like many rural counties with exceptional scenery plus tourism and trade, Door County has experienced the muse effect. Galleries, museums, and working studios are scattered throughout the county, with painters, potters, sculptors, and crafters.
My visual art experience in the county was limited, but I did have the chance to experience Edgewood Orchard Galleries (open May through October), and it took my breath away. In addition to the paintings, glass, jewelry and other art work inside the 1918 restored fruit barn is a wooded sculpture garden of outdoor art. All work was available for purchase, and most of it I wanted to take home.
Woodwalk Gallery, mentioned above as a concert venue, presents the work of 47 regional contemporary artists. Though contemporary art isn’t my favored style, owner Margaret Lockwood, whose straw-bale studio is perched in the barn’s upper loft, creates large-scale ethereal landscapes that perfectly capture for me the therapeutic peace of forests, tree trunks, and skyscapes. The soft edges and tranquil colors fill me with peace, much like their parallels in reality.
Outdoors in Door County
This Wisconsin peninsula exists because of the Niagara escarpment, a band of cliffs running from New York in the east, swinging to the north in a semicircle to end a little past Door County. These cliffs add to the area’s scenic beauty and its intrigue, providing high bluffs for expansive waterscapes from landlubber view and rugged landscapes from water traveler perspective. The hard, erosion-resistant limestone rocks have led to formation of must-see landforms like the picturesque sea caves at Cave Point County Park and towering, rocky waterside bluffs up and down the coastline.
The pleasant temperatures in Wisconsin from spring to fall provide an ideal setting for outdoor play, enhanced by the county’s attention to creating and maintaining recreational opportunities: five state parks and 19 county parks, with numerous golf courses, miles of hiking and biking trails, boat access, campgrounds and wildlife sanctuaries.
Bikers of all levels can enjoy the well-maintained trails at the state parks. Twelve miles of off-road bike trails traverse rugged, unsurfaced terrain at Peninsula State Park. Scenic, 35-mph speed-enforced country roads provide miles of routes for training, exercise or simply enjoying Door County beauty.
Water activities beckon from Green Bay or Lake Michigan, as the county’s 300 miles of shoreline and five inland lakes present opportunities galore. On my sea kayak trip near Garrett Bay, I saw the skeleton of the Fleetwing, shipwrecked in 1888, and Indian pictographs. I even went parasailing, seeing from 350 feet above the water the sights I’d seen on my earlier scenic cruise of Green Bay , floating effortlessly above the currents of Eagle Harbor.
A Door County vacation is quiet and rejuvenating, a rural retreat with outdoor activities, yet with fine visual and performing arts and spectacular dining. It can be your door to a great time.
Annie Tobey is a freelance writer and editor living in Richmond, Virginia. For six years, she’s shared her philosophical passions through V Magazine for Women, combining love for life, the diversity of women, and a celebration of success in all its forms, on the printed page and online, now at www.MyVMagazine.com. She also shares her joie de vivre as a travel writer at www.ActiveWomanTraveler.com. She welcomes freelance opportunities for writing and editing, helping businesses present a polished written message that builds a quality brand. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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