Cherries are a big deal in Door County, Wisconsin. So are wine, cheese, recreational activities, shopping, dining, vacationing … did I mention cherries? Cherry cheddar makes some wonderful grilled cheese sandwiches and combines the best of two foods. Wisconsin is the first place I’ve been to where you can buy either at the corner store AND the airport.
Memorial Day weekend is the traditional start to the tourist season for the “thumb” of Wisconsin that juts out into Lake Michigan. I was lucky enough to visit the weekend before, when the cherry trees are in full bloom, restaurants were still taste-testing new menu items, and the crowds of tourists were relatively small. With a plethora of resorts, bed-and-breakfasts, and mom-and-pop establishments, Door County is a popular destination for all types of folks. I counted no less than four bachelorette parties whooping it up, from shots at a local brewery and grill to the more refined experience of wine and cheese tasting.
Founded in 1851, Door County gets its name from the passage of water off the tip of the peninsula known as Death’s Door; the water along the coast can be treacherous and 11 lighthouses were built to guide sailors of the past through rough waters. There are literally scores of shipwrecks on the bottom of the lake.
From April to June, the county celebrates the Season of Blossoms. Cherry and apple orchards flourish here due to the Niagara Escarpment, a limestone shelf covered by a relatively shallow amount of rich soil. Cherry trees have short roots and do not need a lot of dirt to grow in; the fertility of the land is not only apparent in the trees but also numerous vineyards and wildflowers. The visitor's bureau has helped build the beauty of the flora by giving out more than two million bulbs that residents have planted all over the area. One can just be driving down some random back road which is suddenly populated with daffodils and tulips in addition to local wildflowers such as irises, trillium, forget-me-nots, mayflowers, starflowers, and Jack-in-the-pulpit, to name a few. The lush forest and geography gives the feeling of being in mountain wilderness. The architecture is unique as well; traditional barns dot the country with some residents opting to design their homes in the same style.
There are numerous festivals held throughout the year, on land and on water, such as fireworks displays shot off barges. Door County has 11 golf courses with a total of 186 holes. That’s a lot of golf. The area receives more than 2 million visitors a year, and for good reason. There is even a Scottie Rally! We were stopped in traffic as bagpipers and drummers in kilts led a parade of Scottish terriers dressed in sweaters and costumes. For details on all that there is to do, visit doorcounty.com.
What to do
Door County Trolley
Familiarize yourself with Door County by hopping on a trolley from Door County Trolley, Inc. The company was started in 2000 by A.J. Frank and now operates 13 trolleys out of a new trolley station outside of Egg Harbor. The company offers 12 different, unique tours, such as lighthouse tours, wine tours, food and drink tours, haunted tours and the new Wisconsin Supper Club Tour. We took the Narrated Scenic Tour and the area is truly breathtaking. Our conductor for the day was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and I recommend this ride as a great way to get an overview of the county and its little towns. Doorcountytrolley.com.
Wisconsin produces 13 million cherries a year, eight percent of the world total. Cherry trees are very hardy and grow in 10 inches or less of topsoil here, with 2,500 acres of trees growing in Door County. An average of 7,000 cherries per tree can make 28-30 cherry pies or 30 bottles of wine. The trees bloom from middle to late May and are harvested in July and August by a shaker, which shakes each tree for 10 seconds, dropping the fruit onto a tarp. Each tree produces 60-80 pounds of fruit which are usually immediately dropped into cold water. Ninety-nine percent are Montmorency (tart) cherries, which you can do more with. They are made into wine and juice here and, of course, into a number of creative dishes and desserts.
Peninsula State Park
Fish Creek runs through Peninsula State Park, 3,776 acres of mostly undeveloped land with eight miles of Green Bay shoreline. It is the most popular camping destination in Wisconsin (with 470 campsites!) and offers a variety of both summer and winter activities: biking, hiking, boating, swimming, fishing, golfing, birdwatching and wildflower viewing in the summer and fall, and snowmobiling, sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. There is also an amphitheater which hosts musical comedies in the summer, a nature center, and numerous volunteer opportunities. Sven’s Bluff overlooks the bay and nearby Washington Island. In the summer, Nicolet Beach across from the boat launch is extremely popular as it has the warmest water in the county; in the winter it's a destination for ice fishing. The park is also known for its exquisite fall foliage.
Eagle Bluff Lighthouse
This 43-foot-tall lighthouse is on a bluff in Peninsula State Park and is open to visitors from June to mid-October. It was built in 1868 at Strawberry Pass in response to the number of ships sailing through with lumber to Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire. The water in the area is dangerous due to its shallowness around the islands. The keepers initially used lard to run the lantern, which had to be lit every hour or so. It is now solar powered. The second keeper, Captain William Duclon, raised seven sons with his wife there with no heat or running water. It was run until 1926, and was taken over in 1960 by the Door County Historical Society in order to manage it and restore it over the course of three years. It houses a museum and small store. The youngest of the seven Duclon sons, Walter, donated some of his family’s original items and helped collect others to make the fascinating museum as authentic as possible. Eagleblufflighthouse.com
Cana Island Lighthouse
Located in Bailey’s Harbor, Cana Island Lighthouse is on an 8.7-acre island. It was built of brick in 1870 which deteriorated quickly and was clad with steel in 1902. We waded through a choppy causeway to get there, but hitched a complimentary ride over the water on the way back. The picturesque, 89-foot-tall light tower was originally lit with lard or whale oil, with the light finally electrified in 1945. Dare to climb its 97 spiral steps to reach the outside deck with a sweeping view of Lake Michigan and the Door County peninsula. It being a windy day, being at the top of the tower was quite an experience! This lighthouse also houses one of three Door County Maritime Museum locations. Dcmm.org/cana-island-lighthouse
Door Artisan Cheese Company
Newly opened in April 2017, master cheese maker Mike Brennenstuhl owns and operates this marvel of a store, where the cheese-making equipment is visible through glass walls above a traditionally built cheese cellar. At the time I was there, they were producing 120 different cheeses and could produce up to 1,000 pounds a day! The brothers have 46 years of cheese making experience and exhibit a Belgian influence from Green Bay, such as soaking their cheese in beer. Among their myriad cheeses, they offer 10-12 American originals at any given time. The entire operation encompasses 18,000 square feet, with 8,000 feet of it as cheese caves, where cheese is aged for up to a year. The three caves are computer-controlled for conditions such as humidity, but still give an old-world appearance. The caves are available for private events with catering provided. Doorartisancheese.com
Wisconsin Cheese Masters
Taste the finest Wisconsin has to offer at Wisconsin Cheese Masters, which carries exclusive cheese selections you can't find anywhere else. The many delicacies offered here are made by certified master, artisan and farmstead cheese makers from around the state. This place is extremely popular with tourists as bus loads descended, all eager to sample and purchase the wares. Pick up some recipe cards for tasty ideas. wisconsincheesemasters.com
There are eight wineries in Door County, the highest concentration in the state of Wisconsin. There are also three breweries.
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery
Founded by Bill and Ruth Lautenbach in 1955, the 100-acre vineyard and orchard makes grape and fruit wines, ciders, and juices in a 1918 barn they restored in 1985. It also houses an art gallery, Cottage Row Framing and Gallery. Our enthusiastic tour guide gave us some history about the cherry groves in Door County, starting with how cherries were originally harvested. They were handpicked by day laborers and German POWs when the male orchard owners were off at war. The prisoners were given government rations that the wives and children of American soldiers were not, so they not only provided the labor but the food to keep these families going. Technology invented in the 1960s changed the way cherries were harvested, and led to Michigan ultimately taking over Wisconsin as the number one producer of cherries in the United States. The winery not only grows apples and cherries that customers are invited to pick on their own but grapes, raspberries and pears. They offer a walking tour and free wine and food tastings. The country store carries a large assortment of wine, cheese, specialty foods, kitchen goods, souvenirs and gifts. Orchardcountry.com
Harbor Ridge Winery
With the motto of "Solving the World's Problems One Sip at a Time," Harbor Ridge Winery is located in Egg Island next to Wisconsin Cheese Masters. Owner Dennis Stapleton said that the winery was originally a coffee house for four or five years. They serve 15 locally produced wines, including their own made in a large barn behind the warm log cabin atmosphere of the storefront. The winery stocks a total of some 300 wines, and has a cozy upstairs loft for wine tastings and private parties. The winery's own award-winning products are cleverly named, such as Call Me a Cab and Gimme One Good Reisling.We sampled up to 11 different wines, ending with the yummy Chocovine, a dessert wine. The winery also houses Door County Soap, with handmade soaps, lotions, scrubs, aromatherapy, etc. made by Stapleton’s wife Sandy (doorcountysoaps.com). The winery delivers to 37 states: harborridgewinery.com
Originally, we were going to kayak along Death's Door Bluff in glass-bottomed boats in order to see shipwrecks and other local points of interest, but rain and wind was forecast so we opted to kayak inland. What a lovely, peaceful way to start the day! We met our friendly, enthusiastic guides near a creek that meandered here and there through marshland and spent about 30 minutes following the waterway before reaching Mud Lake. I had never kayaked before, but with my capable guide, I was in good hands and learned the basic moves to navigate the many twists and turns of the creek. doorcountykayaktours.com
Where to Eat
White Gull Inn
In 2010, “Good Morning America” named White Gull Inn in Fish Creek as having America’s Favorite Breakfast, and rightfully so. Their cherry-stuffed French toast is heavenly: two slices of French toast enveloping a cream cheese and tart cherry pillow of deliciousness. You can opt for the cherry pancakes; both come with a side of breakfast meat. The bed-and-breakfast was founded in 1896 and went through many iterations before becoming the White Gull Inn in 1959. The bedrooms and cottages are meticulously maintained to recreate turn-of-the-century décor with all the modern comforts. The inn offers candlelight dinners and fish boils in the summer and fall, and progressive dinners in the winter. Whitegullinn.com
Grandma’s Swedish Bakery
Grandma's Swedish Bakery is owned by the youngest of 12 children who grew up at Rawley's Bay Resort as the children of the owners, and we got to sample its wares on the first morning of the year it was open! Delectable pastries such as huge sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, and turnovers fill the glass counters, and we got to hear a little bit of the history of the largest resort in Door County from owner Jewel Peterson Ouradnik. Nearby is Newport State Park, the only designated rustic wilderness park in Wisconsin. It is a backpack-camping-only park with 2,370 acres of forests and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Rowleysbayresort.com
Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor
In the heart of Ephraim, Wilson's Restaurant is a local favorite and has been since 1906! Adorned with old-time memorabilia such as tin signs and jukeboxes, this cozy diner features an old-fashioned soda fountain, home-brewed root beer, decadent ice cream treats, and souvenirs for sale. It was started by the Wilson family as a homemade ice cream and sweets shop and has expanded greatly through the years, housing a number of other businesses along the way. No matter what you order, you'll be satisfied, and save room for dessert. Enjoy a meal inside or out on the deck, watching the bustle of the town go by. Wilsonsicecream.com
Shipwrecked Brew Pub
The Shipwrecked Brew Pub in Egg Harbor prides itself on serving only hand-crafted Door County beers. Brewmaster Rich Zielke and head brewer Sam Koelling produce up to 37,000 gallons per year! This year they celebrate 20 years in business and have been bottling beer for the past six. Try a Plank o' Beer Sampler, local spirits or a brandy slush, a local favorite made of brandy, tea, orange juice or lemonade, and lemon-lime soda. The food is delicious here as well. The most popular dishes here are fish and chips, Carolina pulled pork, seafood chowder, and Pete's green bean stir fry, a spicy appetizer. I can personally vouch for the cherry-smoked ribs and the friendly service with a smile. shipwreckedmicrobrew.com
The Harbor View Grill
Our first night in Door County, we were joined by Door County Visitor Bureau’s President/CEO Jack Moneypenny and Director of Communications Jon Jarosh for a private tasting dinner at the Harbor View Grill in Egg Harbor. You may choose to dine inside the robin egg blue-colored interior or climb to the rooftop terrace to enjoy a meal overlooking the harbor. Owner Christy Robers and her husband, Patrick, pride themselves on using fresh, local food when possible. For parties of six or more, they offer a family-style tasting menu for lunch or dinner, and also offer a variety of picnic baskets to go as well as afternoon tea. We started off with sharing boards of naan with three dips: a cream cheese-based dip with cherries and walnuts, hummus with hot sauce, and pimento cheese from local cheesemaker Renard’s. The next appetizer was, of course, cheese curds, these crusted with potato, bacon and chives, like a mini, stuffed baked potato. We dined like royalty on butter dinner rolls, salad, sautéed carrots, two kinds of pork tenderloin – one with cherries and the other with a bacon-maple glaze, and local grilled whitefish with a sauce of lemon, dill and capers. Stuffed to the gills, we managed to have enough room for the delectable cherry cobbler. Theharborviewgrill.com
This restaurant had just opened a month earlier when I had the pleasure to dine there, and the name was inspired by Cave Point. Helmed by Chef Lawrence Hutchinson from California, it is co-owned by Mike Brennenstuhl who also owns and runs the Door Artisan Cheese Company next door. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner, visiting with Brennenstuhl in the beautiful, spacious interior and sampling a number of delicious dishes. There is also an inviting outside deck that seats 60. For appetizers, we tried the freshly made cheese curds with dipping sauces, daily cheese and charcuterie boards, and falafel board with dips and salad. Entrees include burgers, tacos, chicken shawarma, salmon, pork tenderloin, and beef. All delicious! Facebook.com/glacierledge
Fish Boil at The Old Post Office
The Scandanavians who migrated to the area found an easy way to feed a bunch of hungry lumberjacks, by boiling local whitefish with vegetables in pots over firepits. Allowing boil over gets rid of the fishy flavor of the fish. Potatoes and small onions are first added to the boiling water, then chunks of fish. The cook, who also narrates the history of the meal, finishes by adding kerosene to the flames, causing the pot to boil over and getting the fish oil to overflow. At the Old Post Office in Ephraim, the buffet-style dinner is then served with rye bread, coleslaw, cherry pie, and lots and lots of melted butter to pour over the fish and vegetables. Skilled attendants quickly work their way around the table, removing the delicate bones from the fish so diners can enjoy. Many restaurants around the area partake in this historical tradition with lots of storytelling along with a tasty local dish. Facebook.com/oldpostofficerestaurant
Where to stay
I stayed in the small town of Jacksonport at the Square Rigger Lodge. Checking in on Thursday afternoon, a fellow writer and I found out that we were the very first guests of the year! It is located directly on the Lake Michigan beach, and at the time was very quiet and cozy. Early morning risers will enjoy the spectacular sunrise over the water, and each room is uniquely decorated. There are also cottages with full kitchens onsite, and a coffee shop that is open daily from 6 a.m.-2 p.m. A grocery store and restaurant are just a stone's throw away. The lodge is open May 1-Oct. 31 and prices range from $60 for a single bed in the spring to $1,495 for a week in their three-bedroom cottage. squareriggerlodge.com