The rocky shores near Cana Island on the east side of the Door County Peninsula looking out into Lake Michigan.
Door County, Wis., is a scenic, 500-square mile peninsula that juts off of Wisconsin’s eastern side into Lake Michigan. Door County is primarily a tourist destination with about 30,000 permanent residents, but the number of people on the peninsula can grow to more than 200,000 during peak tourist season.
People are drawn to the small towns that line the hundreds of miles of shoreline for a relaxing and scenic vacation. Even though hundreds of thousands can be there at once, you won’t find any mega-resorts; the charming towns feature smaller hotels and lots of individual dwellings for rent. The peninsula is a little spread out, so you’ll definitely want to rent a car when you fly in to visit. The closest two commercial airports are Appleton and Green Bay, both of which receive commercial service from the large regional airports like Detroit and Chicago. Green Bay is located right at the base of the peninsula and only about 15-20 miles from Door County itself.
The drive in was serene, as this is dairy country after all, and set a great tone for a relaxation-filled trip. I spent the first part of my trip in Ephraim, a town of a few hundred toward the northwest side of Door County. This charming little town sits right on the water, like most all of the towns, and offers beautiful views into Green Bay and across to Peninsula State Park, a 3,700-acre park that is bursting at the seams with activities. Hiking, camping, golfing, beaches, and even a theater make it a hub of activity during the tourism season.
I rented a bike from Nor Door Sport & Cyclery (nordoorsports.com) and explored a big part of the park. The terrain gives just the right balance of rolling hills and shoreline straights to make the biking enjoyable but not too difficult. Nor Door is located right outside of the park entrance making it convenient to explore the park by bike. Also worth a look in the park is the Eagle Bluff Light, an 1868 lighthouse that is now a museum. After my bike into the park, I returned my rental and wandered across the parking lot to Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille (wildtomatopizza.com), offering, you guessed it, killer wood-fired pizzas. It’s location opposite the entrance to the park makes it hard to miss.
The restaurants in Door County are nice without coming across too fancy and Wild Tomato is a perfect example. Try the Fun Guy. Five types of sauteed mushrooms, spinach, and caramelized onions on garlic cream cheese and just $20.95 for a large. I headed back to my waterfront hotel, the Edgewater Resort (edge-waterresort.com) which offers 26 spacious suites, all with fireplaces and whirlpool baths in the self-described asual cottage-style. Edgewater was right in the middle of the small town of Ephraim and made it great to check out the historical side of Ephraim as well as an easy jumping-off point for activities in the north part of the county. The go-to restaurant in Ephraim is Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor. I loved it for the great name alone, but the old-fashioned soda fountain and great burgers will bring anybody back (wilsonsicecream.com).
I was able to visit Orchard Country Winery & Market (orchardcountry.com) where they grow grapes and cherries that they turn in to some wonderful wines. They offer complimentary tastings Friday-Monday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and guided winery tours daily from May to October. If you make it to Door County during cherry season in July, you can actually pick the cherries right off of the tree. The cherries do have pits, but you can test your pit spitting prowess at the cherry spit pit station and see what distance you can muster up.
One of the activities you have to do when you go to Door County is participating in a traditional fish boil! I went to the Square Rigger Lodge in Jacksonport (squareriggerlodge.com) to enjoy this famous experience. Potatoes, onions and locally caught white fish fillets are put ino a large pot of boiling water suspended over a fire just outside the restaurant. As the sun goes down, you warm yourself around the fire as the boil master asks everyone to back up while he throws a cup of kerosene into the fire. A huge flare up and release of heat causes the water to boil carrying with it the fish oil that has collected at the top. What’s left is delicious white fish served in your basket to enjoy with your potatoes and onions. Square Rigger Lodge adds coleslaw, vegetables and rye bead that creates a delicious end to the show you just watched. Another restaurant worth visiting was Galileo’s Italian Steakhouse in Egg Harbor (libertysquareshops.com/Galileos). Galileo’s skews on the nicer side of offerings in Door County but doesn’t feel pretentious at all. Shrimp Scampi was perfectly prepared and Chicken Marsala had just enough of a delectable marsala sauce.
Definitely worth stopping at about 20 miles south of Ephraim. The southern half of my Door County adventure was based in Sturgeon Bay, where I was staying at the Holiday Music Motel. The Holiday Music Motel has as much charisma as any hotel I’ve ever stayed. It has a rockabilly feel to it and is a wonderful retro-chic experience. It underwent an extensive renovation in 2008 and it feels like you’ve stepped back in time, in a good way. Often times, most ‘retro’ places I’ve seen have felt dingy, but the Holiday Music Motel felt really clean and updated. They’ve accomplished just the right balance. It was definitely a refreshing experience, and is the place you have to stay if you go through Sturgeon Bay.
Sturgeon Bay is Door County’s prawling metropolis,making up a significant portion of the permanent residents of the county with a population of just under 10,000. The best way to see the city, and one of my all-time favorite activities, is to take a Segway tour. Segway the Door (segwaythedoor.com) offers a Sturgeon Bay tour that was perfect for getting to know the town. A Segway is a two-wheeled stand-up electric transportation device that will whisk you wherever you want at about 10 mph. They are a ton of fun to drive, and because you drive them on sidewalks, they just aren’t scary at all. The Segway tour was a blast, and Segway the Door’s staff was particularly good. Around downtown are lots of great shopping opportunities and the area is filled with art galleries. I think the artists get drawn to Door County by the visiting tourists, but fall in love with the county’s beauty and down-to-Earth way of life.
Door County, Wisconsin, may sound a little unusual to us Texans, but it’s a vacation staple of people in the Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin areas. It’s the perfect spot for a romantic getaway or a family vacation, and everything was surprisingly affordable. Door County is not a small area, but it is really easy to navigate due to it being on a peninsula and it’s almost always scenic when you are driving around. It was a refreshing break from the traditional southern vacation spots and provided a unique view into this part of America.