Unlocking Door County
They call it “Wisconsin’s Cape Cod”—But a trip to the tip of the famed peninsula finds peace and beauty still exist among the fish boils and gift shops.
I WAS IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL when I first learned about Wisconsin’s Door County, a narrow peninsula dotted with coastal towns and jutting into Lake Michigan. The name was printed on a classmate’s T-shirt and embellished with simple drawings: a pale yellow sun, a few pink cherries, and, most certainly, a sailboat. This place must be beautiful, I thought, whatever it is. A real-world Narnia behind a mysterious door. An endless summer of sandy beaches and Popsicles.
Twenty or so years later, I’m some six hours outside of the Twin Cities, rolling into downtown Sturgeon Bay—the largest of the quaint villages about on the county’s narrow, witchy “thumb.” Actually, I’m stopped halfway into a four-way intersection, trying to make a left turn against a steady stream of oncoming traffic. I’ve been warned that Door County isn’t exactly the remote paradise I once imagined it to be. Or, if it is, I’m going to be sharing it with an awful lot of other people. “Don’t send more tourists to Door County,” a friend from Milwaukee advised. “The whole peninsula is so full of shops, condos, and resorts that you’d think it would just break away and sink.”
“Let’s stop here,” my mother says, pointing to a pink building labeled Scaturo’s Baking Co. & Cafe, just outside downtown Sturgeon Bay. The blue-collar bustle of Green Bay has given way to fields and orchards, their trees ripe with a crop of Door County’s famous Montmorency (tart) cherries. A sign advertises “fresh eggs.” Another announces a rock shop—proof of a true tourist destination.
Door County has more miles of coastline than any other U.S. county: nearly 300 wave-lapped miles when the shores of the 75-mile-long peninsula are combined with those of a dozen or so nearby islands. As the area’s fishing and lumbering industries have waned in the last century, tourism has become its major commercial enterprise. Today, Door County’s 28,000-plus residents reel in shoppers instead of trout. In fact, it seems as if the Red Hat Society and its over-50 members may be plotting to colonize the place. My mother, then, seems the obvious choice of traveling companions as I trace the peninsula’s western shore to its tip. She can scour the gift shops for cute napkin rings, while I search for paradise lost.
Scaturo’s is a casual eatery staffed mostly by students on summer break. There are apple stencils on the walls, grape vines decorating the door frames, and waitresses wearing Bucky Badger University of Wisconsin T-shirts. Mom and I take a seat in a knotty-pine booth and split a steak sandwich called the “Guinea Gutbuster,” which leaves us no room for anything from the bakery case: brownies, cookies, or pecan rolls. At least we are adequately fueled to learn more about Door County’s history.
At the Door County Maritime Museum, four galleries worth of artifacts document the county’s nautical heyday. It’s difficult to imagine a time when residents were more concerned with survival than occupancy rates, but the county’s name serves as a reminder of its once-harrowing geography. French voyageurs and Native Americans dubbed the six-mile-wide straits between the peninsula’s tip and Washington Island “Death’s Door,” as its choppy waters, dangerous currents, and hidden shoals sank many a schooner. More than 100 shipwrecks have been documented; many now are cataloged and marked for divers to explore. The 1882 opening of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal closed a hazardous chapter in the county’s history.
I run my hands across the rough wood of a dugout canoe and a few plush animal pelts, souvenirs of the area’s fur-trading days. Boat-building displays show how, in the days before caulk guns and synthetic sealants, craftsmen stuffed strands of tarred plant fibers between a ship’s wooden planks. One of my favorite artifacts is the 1928 Chris Craft, an elegant wooden boat that looks like it would have been captained by a white-gloved Jay Gatsby. A couple of rowdy kids jockey for a look through the museum’s periscope, which makes a hollow, metallic pinging sound. “Boys, don’t go crazy wild in a museum,” their dad advises. “Save that for home.”
We leave the museum, cross over the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal (technically, the peninsula became an island when this shortcut to Green Bay was constructed), and head downtown. Artist-decorated sturgeon—streamlined fish with turned-up snouts—are mounted on posts along the sidewalk. Even our finned friends, it seems, are in the tourist biz.
Mom and I take our new-found knowledge back to the Chanticleer Guest House, a quiet estate on a country road just outside Sturgeon Bay. I unpack my suitcase and notice that the room doesn’t have a phone or an alarm clock. A respite from technology. Mom steps onto our balcony to take in the view: a large red “guest barn” accessorized with a sturdy Clydesdale and a flock of skittish sheep.
On our way to dinner, we stop at a candy shoppe that seems saturated with sweets and lighthouse knickknacks (the first of hundreds we will see this weekend). We swallow our first samples of fudge and then move on to Sage Restaurant & Wine Bar, a contemporary spot with low lights and moody art. At Sage, urban guests can indulge in the kind of global menus they find at home, with such items as Thai pineapple shrimp curry or a smoked duck quesadilla with Brie and a pineapple-fig salsa. The haute cuisine on a small-town street epitomizes the Door County experience: country environs with the comforts of the city—sleeping in a barn on 400-thread-count sheets.
The next morning, I feel well-rested, having spent 20 minutes in the Chanticleer’s oversized-barrel-shaped sauna. “Aren’t you glad we don’t have to go talk to people right now?” I say, happy to be eating fruit from a breakfast tray. No communal tables at this B&B.
Less than 24 hours in Door County and we have succumbed: we’re eating cherry pie for breakfast. It’s a gooey mess of plump, sour sunbursts, held together by a sweet red gel, sandwiched in a flaky crust. It’s not yet 10 a.m. and Mom and I are sitting in the car, passing the plastic box back and forth. When in Vegas, gamble. When in the so-called Cape Cod of the Midwest, start your day with its signature dessert.
We’re in the parking lot at Sweetie Pies—a white clapboard farmhouse with red shutters that turns out nearly 200 pies a day in peak season. The fragrant desserts cool in a glass case; bird-shaped ceramic pie vents perch on a windowsill. In the kitchen, a team of young women roll out crusts and mix berries with sugar. Again we find nostalgia packaged with modern consumer preferences: individual “Cutie Pies” the size of a personal pan pizza. And people are eating it up.
“Did that sign say there were 250 people in Fish Creek?” Mom asks, as we explore the town. “Every one of them must own a gift shop.” She may be right. The main thoroughfare is lined with shoppers young and old, romantic couples, groups of women, and families. The tourists weave through a maze of easels outside Summertime Restaurant, where plein-air painters sketch the building’s bright-orange roof lines and patio umbrellas.
At a white shake house that’s been turned into a shop, a man waits in an Adirondack chair while his wife browses such boutique best-sellers as Jill Seale’s “Nun for the Road” linen line: hand towels featuring Sister Mary Martini and Sister Mary Merlot. Mom holds up a package of cocktail napkins that offer the following advice: “Take aging with a grain of salt—preferably on the rim of a margarita glass.”
Former beach cabins make up a Midwestern marketplace. Each shop seems to have its requisite section of cherry jam, Green Bay Packers garb, Door County sweatshirts, and Red Hat memorabilia. The nautical theme—anchor-shaped clocks, lighthouse everything—supplants Minnesota’s cabin chic. As we window-shop, I point to a T-shirt with a dalmatian carrying a bikini top between his teeth. “Set the puppies free,” it reads. “Whimsy, Rachel,” my mother says. Door County’s restaurants and lodges may be going upscale, but it seems the humor isn’t.
In the town of Ephraim, across from the municipal pier, the red-and-white striped awning on Wilson’s Restaurant acts like a landlubber’s lighthouse. The centenarian restaurant serves burgers and ice-cream cones and is furnished with a Coca-Cola sign and a jukebox—shortcuts to the heart of Americana. If the restaurant has hardly changed in 100 years, the watercraft parked at the pier—Jet Skis and the like—certainly have.
I book a trip on a sailboat captained by Tom Schroeder, who has lived in Door County for more than 30 years. Mom stays behind while I climb aboard with a family of four. As we tour around uninhabited islands, Schroeder offers boxed wine served in Dixie cups to the adults. He tells us about the area, everything from restaurant recommendations to speculations about ships run aground for the insurance money. Too soon, the ride is over. At least it’s time for a fish boil.
Fish boils have been ubiquitous in Door County since the area was inhabited by Scandinavian fishermen. Behind the Old Post Office Restaurant, a group gathers around a fire that’s boiling a large kettle of potatoes and onions. It’s like summer camp, except nearly everyone snaps photos. The “Boil Master,” Earl Jones, dumps a basket of fresh-caught whitefish into the pot and spends the next 10 minutes, er, entertaining the crowd while dinner cooks: “Why are fish so smart?” he asks. “Because they stay in school.”
Jones warns us to ready our cameras, then throws kerosene on the fire. The flames erupt and the kettle boils over, flushing out the fish oil that’s been pooling on the water’s surface. Electronic flashes illuminate the darkening sky. As soon as the flames have been doused, the crowd rushes to form a buffet line. Melted butter is served from a crock pot. Servers help de-bone the fish, deftly picking out the tiny spikes with knife and fork. The whitefish is tasty, with a flavor somewhere between walleye and lake trout, but the real show was outside. Compared to the flames, the meal is anti-climactic.
After a night at the Eagle Harbor Inn in Ephraim, we continue heading north. Sister Bay, population 800, is home to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik, beloved for its Scandinavian fare—but best known for the goats on its roof. “How do they keep them from jumping off, or peeing on the customers?” Mom wonders. While we’re waiting for a table, we explore the Scandinavian gift shop across the street (Mom) and read quirky boat names at the pier (me). We work up enough of an appetite to polish off plates of Swedish-style meatballs and pancakes, served by young women in clogs and traditional Swedish apron dresses. The food tastes authentic, but are we in Wisconsin or at Epcot?
It’s time to pass through “Death’s Door” on the Washington Island Ferry. The ship runs twice an hour in the summer and makes limited trips in winter. A 30-minute voyage takes us to the 22-square-mile Washington Island, one of the first (and few) Icelandic settlements in the United States (lots of Bjarnasons and Jorgensens here). The ferry pitches a bit in the whitecaps, dousing a minivan with spray. Mom, who clearly will need some deprogramming after all the stores, spots a green buoy in the water and says, “That looks like a shopping bag.”
With only 700-some year-round residents, life has a slower pace on the island than on the mainland. On our way to the north end, we pass a few small houses and businesses: Karly’s Bar, Nelsen’s Hall, and the Bitter End Motel. Our destination, Schoolhouse Beach, is covered with white stones polished by waves. Sadly, the few Door County tourists who make it to Washington Island have managed to leave their mark: Schoolhouse Beach has deteriorated as visitors steal the stones.
Leaving the beach, we make a pit stop at the Red Cup, an arty coffeehouse that was once a gas station. Most of the customers appear to be locals; the woman behind the counter tells a policeman to “Have a peaceful day,” and surely he will. A sign on the wall reads, “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks,” and I realize I haven’t seen a coffee chain for at least a hundred miles. We’re out there, all right.
Mom and I check into the Washington Hotel, a century-old building that became the island’s most luxe lodgings after a renovation in 2003. Adirondack chairs preside over a large, croquet-ready lawn. The ground floor houses a restaurant, and tables spill out onto a wide front porch, where a flamenco guitarist entertains evening diners. The guest rooms look as if they’ve been lifted from the pages of Martha Stewart Living, with their spare, tasteful aesthetic. I’ve reserved the least expensive (and smallest) room, which allows just three to four feet on either side of the bed. My claustrophobic mother prefers comfort to historic preservation. “The modern traveler needs her things,” she says. “I’m sorry, but this place is scary.” I agree that $119 seems pricey, especially when you have to share a bathroom. I might feel differently if we were here on a Wednesday, when freshly made doughnuts are served for breakfast.
One more stop before we hit the frontier of Door County. We take a short ferry ride to Rock Island State Park, formerly the estate of Icelandic-born inventor Chester H. Thordar son. As we pull up to the island, four partier-packed cigarette boats—long and low, painted in garish purple and yellow stripes—start their engines. The motors explode like gunshots, shocking the hikers and backpackers among us. Thordarson’s Viking Hall Boat House, a stone structure near the pier, has tall windows, a massive fireplace, a wooden banquet table, and high-backed chairs carved with imagery from Norse myths. Thordarson used the space as a ballroom. Judging from the proportions of the furniture, he may have been entertaining Thor.
A half-mile path leads to the other side of the island, opening on a sandy beach with a panoramic view of Lake Michigan. This is it: the edge of the county, the other side of the door. Mom and I, wearing our bathing suits, plunge into the lake. The water is brisk. Though the tourist trappings have entertained us for days, we’re happy to see that something remains of old Door County.
Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.