Jutting into Lake Michigan like a pointed thumb, Door County, Wisconsin, is widely hailed as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Perhaps it’s the succession of sparkling bays scalloping the peninsula’s 300 miles of coastline that account for the moniker. Or maybe it’s the waterfront villages laced with white clapboard cottages that give this area a distinctly New England feel.
County Bounty // Cherry trees (left) are a significant crop in Door County; Standing at 89 feet-tall and more than 140 years old, the lighthouse (center) shows a sweeping view of Lake Michigan.; Lake Michigan Beach beckons; Cana Island (right) is home to one of the most popular lighthouses in the county.
As on the Cape, there’s a familial charm to the many locally owned inns, shops, and restaurants here. Outside of Sturgeon Bay, the county seat, you won’t find any chain restaurants on the 70-mile-long peninsula. “Repeat visitors, who get to know the owners of their accommodations, don’t say they’re staying in such-and-such a lodging,” notes Jon Jarosh, the director of communications and public relations for the Door County Visitor Bureau. “They say they’re staying with so-and-so.”
Highway 42, which traces the west side of the county, runs from the shipbuilding center of Sturgeon Bay to the tip of the peninsula. Along the way, the road strings together the villages of Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, and Sister Bay like bright beads, each with their white-steepled churches, boat docks, and marinas. County roads, named with letters rather than numbers, crisscross the interior of the peninsula to the Lake Michigan side, so that a short drive enables you to catch a sunrise and a sunset over the water without leaving the county.
A grim story hides behind the county’s name. Before the first Europeans arrived in 1634, the area was inhabited by the Potawatomi and Winnebago Indians. In an early battle over the land at the northern tip of the peninsula, both tribes lost many men in the treacherous crossing that separates the mainland from Washington Island—a passage the Potawatomi dubbed the “Door of Death.”
In the 1600s, French explorers sailing through the strait translated the Indian name to “Porte des Morts,” or Death’s Door, owing to the perilous currents churned up when the cold water of Lake Michigan meets the warmer water of Green Bay. This passage spelled the end of many a ship. To modern divers’ delight, more than 200 shipwrecks litter the bottom of the lake, despite the guiding beacons of the 11 lighthouses (four of which are open to the public) that dot the coast.
These days, ferries, which boat out from the Northport Ferry dock at the northern tip of the peninsula where Highway 42 ends, make the 30-minute crossing to Washington Island much easier. The largest of the 34 outlying islands and home to 700 year-round residents, Washington Island was once the site of the largest Icelandic settlement outside Iceland. Today the 35-square-mile island preserves its Nordic heritage in sites such as the Island Stavkirke, a recreation of a Norwegian church, circa 1100.
In summer, families head to Schoolhouse Beach, set in a quiet cove and paved with smooth white stones. A couple of miles south, acres of lavender line the fields surrounding the 1916 Historic Island Dairy, which chronicles 50 years of Washington Island’s dairy industry.
More of Door County’s Scandinavian heritage is celebrated back on the mainland at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay. You’ll recognize the log structure by its distinctive sod roof, where goats graze in summer. Drop by for the restaurant’s famous Swedish pancakes and browse the adjoining shop for a smorgasbord of Scandinavian gifts.
A Kingdom So Delicious
In the late seventeenth century, French fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson was so impressed by the abundance of food and game on the peninsula, that he described them in his journal as “kingdoms . . . so delicious.” That description still holds true, especially if you like cherries.
In the county’s agricultural heyday, from 1930 to 1960, Door County reigned as Cherryland U.S.A., producing some 13 million pounds of cherries on 10,000 acres of land—or 95 percent of all the tart cherries produced in the United States. The county sits atop the Niagara Escarpment, a glacier-carved limestone formation lying beneath a shallow (10 inches or so) layer of nutrient-rich topsoil. Coupled with the moderating climatic influence of the surrounding water, these conditions create an ideal environment for growing cherries. Tart Montmorency is the predominant variety, making up 99 percent of all the cherries grown on the peninsula.
As tourism began to take agricultural land for lodgings in the 1960s, the cherry industry waned. Today Door County ranks fourth in America’s cherry production, after Michigan, Utah, and New York. Despite this fall in production, each May a blizzard of pale pink blossoms blankets the rows of trees in the county’s 2,500 acres of orchards.
An average cherry tree yields about 7,000 cherries—enough to make 28 cherry pies, Door County’s signature dessert. To pick your own fruit for the freshest pies, come in July during the cherry harvest. You’ll find that cherries also figure prominently in libations made at the eight local wineries and three breweries.
Local waters play an equal part in the area’s cuisine. A meal of necessity in the county’s early days, the Door County fish boil was a way for Scandinavian immigrants to feed large crews of lumbermen who harvested timber here in the nineteenth century. Think of it as the Midwest version of a New England lobster boil, but with fresh-caught Lake Michigan whitefish. For first-time visitors, attending a fish boil is a must. Several local restaurants, including the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim and the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, offer this traditional experience (reservations recommended).
Wisconsin is synonymous with cheese, and Door County holds its own with three local cheesemakers. Among them, Renard’s in Sturgeon Bay is the oldest. Founded in 1961, the family-owned business is now on its third generation of cheesemakers. Their repertoire includes ten different types of cheeses, not the least of which is Wisconsin’s ubiquitous cheese curds. Locals snack on cheese curds straight from the bowl, and also enjoy them breaded and fried. You know cheese curds are fresh if they squeak against your teeth when you eat them.
In Egg Harbor, you can chat with cheese masters at the recently opened Door Artisan Cheese Company, and sample or buy a selection of the state’s most distinctive artisanal cheeses in the retail shop at Wisconsin Cheese Masters. Up in Sister Bay, Door County Creamery stocks cheese, gelato, and soap all made with milk from the goats the owners raise on their nearby farm.
Harbor View Grill
A rooftop deck makes this casual place overlooking Horseshoe Bay a popular choice in warm weather. Local cherries highlight many of the tasty menu items, such as pork loin glazed with cherry barbecue sauce. 7821 Horseshoe Bay Rd, Egg Harbor. (920) 868-5064, theharborviewgrill.com
Parador Inspired by a 2010 trip to Spain, owners Larry and Rebecca Majewski celebrate the tapas tradition in Door County. Think fiery patatas bravas, hand-carved serrano ham, and an oversized organic pork meatball called la bomba. 7829 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor. (920) 868-2255, paradorwisconsin.com
Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor Although this vintage (1906) ice-cream parlor serves burgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches for lunch and dinner, Wilson’s is best known for its soda-fountain specialties and house-brewed draft root beer. 9990 Water St, Ephraim. (902) 854-2041,
Boating, fishing, diving, kayaking, bird-watching, hiking at five state parks, and golfing at 11 public courses will keep even the most avid outdoorsman busy. If you’d rather have someone else captain your vessel, boat tours spotlight the profusion of what Jarosh refers to as “starter castles” along the waterfront.
Of the five state parks in the county, Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek is widely regarded as the crown jewel. A ride through the 3,776-acre park in spring reveals a wonder of wildflowers. Clouds of blue forget-me-nots settle like fairy mist between the trees, while patches of snowy trillium snuggle along the roadside. Lookout points, like that from Seven’s Bluff, the highest point in the park, offer panoramas of offshore islands and the glittering waters of Green Bay.
More than 50 public beaches pock the coastline, with those on the west shore claiming warmer and calmer waters. Nicolet Beach in Peninsula State Park boasts some of the warmest waters, while Whitefish Dunes State Park, on the Lake Michigan side, is popular for its mile-long beach.
Although Door County’s population of nearly 28,000 more than doubles with the arrival of summer visitors, you can still find places to avoid the crowds. “With so much land dedicated to outdoor recreation,” Jarosh alleges, “even on the busiest weekend of the year, there are lands here you can go where you’ll be completely alone.”
Few can resist the lure of the “big water,” as Jarosh calls the expanses of Green Bay and Lake Michigan that surround the peninsula. Locals, he says, get a chuckle out of the countless visitors who refer to Lake Michigan as “the ocean,” but that’s the feeling you have seeing it for the first time. Like Cape Cod, with a cherry on top.
Adoring Door // (center) The beautiful coastline along Lake Michigan in Cave Point County Park; Wilson’s old-fashioned ice cream parlor (left) has been servicing locals and tourists for more than 100 years; cherry orchards, like the grove in Egg Harbor, dot the landscape of Door County. The climate and soil offer perfect conditions to accommodate 2,500 acres of cherry trees (right).
Hillside Inn of Ephraim Peering down over Eagle Bay, the Hillside Inn survives as the last of the grand hotels that housed visitors to Door County in the late-nineteenth century. Now a B&B, the inn cossets guests in five lovely, wildflower-themed rooms with gas fireplaces, large corner showers, airy balconies, and water views. 9980 Water St, Ephraim. (902) 854-7666, hillsideofdoorcounty.com
The White Gull Inn Welcoming visitors since 1896, the White Gull Inn oozes New England charm. Rooms in the main inn and adjacent buildings all have private decks or screened-in porches. Rates include a full breakfast in the inn’s restaurant—don’t miss the Door County cherry-stuffed French toast. 4225 Main St, Fish Creek. (920) 868-3517, whitegullinn.com
Door County Trolley A narrated scenic tour in a red trolley car is a perfect way to introduce yourself to Door County. Themed tours range from relishing local food and wine to rousing the county’s ghosts. 8030 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor. (902) 868- 1100, doorcountytrolley.com
Edgewood Orchard Galleries Run by J.R. Jarosh and Nell, his wife, the main gallery here fills a restored 1918 barn with the work of 160 artists from across the United States. Check out the lovely sculpture garden that winds through the woods outside. 4140 Peninsula Players Rd, Fish Creek. (902) 868-3579, edgewoodorchard.com