(This article was originally published on 10/29/08)
Treasures to behold in Wisconsin
Along Route 42, Green Bay is to our left. Rolling rises in the landscape flatten out as we drive north along the peninsula. Just two miles across, to the east, is Lake Michigan. This insulated Wisconsin fingertip is home to breathtaking views, charming villages and not a single traffic light. No chain stores, nor any fast food eateries, can be found. And visitors are so thankful. If you go to Door County, consider going in May when the vast fields of wild daffodils are magnificent, the weather is crisp, summer is peeking around the corner and the tourists are not in residence. I spent four days exploring the charms of the area last spring and if you are looking for a true American mom and pop vacation, Door County, Wisconsin, is highly recommended.
LIGHTHOUSES AND CHERRIES
Door County is home to 10 lighthouses, many of which have stood more than 100 years. The waters of Lake Michigan are treacherous and lighthouses such as the Cana Island Lighthouse in Baileys Harbor is one of the most photographed in the area. Door County got its name from the many ill-fated passages of Indians through the waters of the Great Lakes, specifically at the end of the peninsula, between land's end and Washington Island. So many canoes were overturned and lives lost in these waters infamous for 12- to 15-foot waves that it became known as “Death's Door.” Estimates are that there are also more than 300 shipwrecks in the area's waters. Door County hosts a “Lighthouse Tour” () every May where visitors may climb the stairs and admire the stamina and perseverance it took to be a lighthouse keeper here.
Also in May, the area's thousands of cherry trees bloom, with harvest coming in July. Door County cherries are made into dozens of products, with pie being the most prevalent. But you can also sample the tasty treat in candy, wine, sauces, cakes, breads – the list is endless. Door County produces 4 percent of the American cherry crop and there are plenty of places to see the beautiful trees.
Don't miss a visit to Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant where goats graze on the roof. Years ago, a goat was placed on the roof as a joke. It drew so many comments and visitors that Johnson adopted a herd of rescue goats, planted grass on the large sloping roof and kept the fun going. The gift shop is filled with an extraordinary array of Norwegian and Swedish foods and products. We stopped for lunch at PC Junction where the food is delivered by train – a custom-built locomotive toots around both sides of a bar where hungry diners, and wide-eyed children, sit waiting for baskets of hamburgers, salads, chili and 'Sheboygan brats' to zip by. Be sure to leave room for a double- decker ice cream cone. This is a meal-making memory.
We boarded the Door County Trolley () for an hour-long tour of the peninsula. AJ, the effervescent owner, proudly drove us through the charming villages of Carlsville, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay and Baileys Harbor. AJ hosts a variety of tours focusing on lighthouses, wineries, ghosts and progressive dining. All offer tranquil views of the water and distant views from bluffs overlooking the bays in a clean, comfortable, enclosed trolley.
COFFEE, TEA AND ART
Not only is Door County home to wonderful cherry concoctions of all sorts, at the Door County Coffee and Tea (), you can sample some of the world's finest coffee. We loved the bountiful breakfast of cherry bread pudding, fresh fruit parfaits and Amish oatmeal served on floral china. Vicki and Doug Wilson run an amazing specialty coffee roasting and wholesale operation. The retail shop, bakery and restaurant feature local products and a garden of gifts.
Door County has long attracted artists and you can find more than 50 art galleries and shops. Tucked away off the main road is Plum Bottom Pottery, where Chad Luberger creates one-of-a-kind porcelain and stoneware designs. Luberger grew up in the area, worked in the Hollywood film industry, eventually returning home to begin a career as a potter. Worth the trip.
Wilson's Restaurant in Ephraim () is a classic. Its bright red and white striped awning has been greeting diners since 1906. It is a landmark, with an old-fashioned soda fountain, mini jukeboxes in every booth and homemade draft root beer. This restaurant has greeted generation after generation of families who come back each year to reminisce and enjoy the great food. Do not miss ordering the 'cheese curds on a bed of fries.' A local treat that is divine!
ACROSS DEATH'S DOOR
The pancakes are “as big as Lake Michigan” at the Sandpiper Restaurant where every table has homemade blueberry jam sitting atop checkered tablecloths. My order of pancakes – two of them - were presented on a serving platter! I also spied homemade applesauce, raspberry (locally grown) Belgian waffles and freshly grated potato pancakes pass by.
The privately owned Washington Island Ferry offers daily service across the water, in high season on the hour. Our guide, Beverly Hudson, provided an extended tour of the quiet island, home to a significant Scandinavian heritage. Don't miss the Stairke – a “church of staves-” which was built by volunteers in the tradition of Norwegian shipbuilding.
Many of the island's visitors come to Sievers School of Fiber Arts (), a school for fiber arts and fine crafts. Guests may stay in dorms and enroll in basketry, lace, quilt, embroidery, knitting, jewelry and paper-making courses.
THE FISH BOIL
Having its roots in Scandinavian custom, we enjoyed an authentic fish boil at the White Gull Inn. This dinner experience, dating back to 1959, is unique to Door County and the preparation is more than half of the experience. Guests gather outside on the patio 30 minutes before dinnertime. Whitefish, caught locally, along with new potatoes and bit of salt, is placed in a large cast iron kettle. As the fish cooks, the oil floats to the top. The chef adds a bit of kerosene under the pot, raising the water temperature, which causes a boil over. Dramatic flames last a few moments and supper is ready. Cole slaw, homemade bread and cherry pie complete the delicious meal.
WHERE TO STAY
There are dozens and dozens of hotels, B&Bs and inns in Door County. It would take an entire summer to explore them all. We loved the romantic Eagle Harbor Inn () in Ephraim. Suites in high season are just $250 a night where guests enjoy fireplaces, balconies and whirlpools. The county's “Quiet Side” features Baileys Harbor Yacht Club Resort (www.bhycr.com) where I enjoyed a four-room apartment with a fireplace, a patio and a great view of the pool. Rates begin in high season at just $200 a night.
BE SURE TO
Here is a partial list of the galaxy of unique, locally owned places I saw driving around: bookstores, libraries, an olive oil bar, By the Bay Motel, Fred & Co., the Hide Side Boutique, the On Deck Clothing Company, wineries, a lavender spa, Liberty Square (truly great shopping), gift shops, art galleries, jewelry stores, two outdoor putt-putt parks, outdoor batting cages, the C & C Supper Club, the Fine Line Gallery, boat rentals, parasailing, U-pick farms, the Hands On Art Studio, Fred and Fuzzy's Waterfront Bar and Grill, nature walks, bike paths, the Skyway Drive-In Theatre (in operation since 1950), parks, daffodils, trilliums, tulips, hyacinths, pansies, lilies, ghost tours, walking tours, the Rusty Rabbit, cherries, apples, the American Folklore Theatre, museums, family sing-a-longs, the Good Eggs Restaurant, air tours, carriage and sleigh rides, farms, go carts, bakeries, delis, pubs, the Savory Spoon Cooking School, kayaks to rent, ice cream parlors and homemade fudge. Whew! That sounds like quite a lot but somehow, Door County is a respite for the weary and a haven for families or couples looking for affordable, restorative adventures. For complete information, visit