Choose Your Door
(page 1 of 2)
Lush vineyards and farmland fill the gaps between the villages of Door County, each boasting an array of specialty shops and two-lane streets perfect for casual summertime strolls. I’d heard people paint Wisconsin's peninsula as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, but I'd always assumed they were exaggerating. Turns out, they were right.
Lake Michigan and Green Bay hug the 43-mile-long peninsula, their dangerous waters the source of its original name: Death’s Door Territory. Whether coined by Potowatomi Indians or French seamen matters little now. All that counts is that the riotous stretch of water where the bodies meet, between Washington Island and the mainland, caused so many ships to sink that the best way to refer to it was as a death trap.
It’s easy to forget that such dangers once kept people from Door County. Today, the question isn't whether to go, but what to do while you're there. Instead of trying to cram everything into one trip, simply follow this little tutorial on how to successfully enjoy Wisconsin’s most beloved and beautiful vacation destination. I’ve done the tasting, touring, hiking, and exploring for you—all you need to do is choose your door.
CHOOSE DOOR NO. 1
Trolley Tours: Really get to know the peninsula on one of the Door County Trolley tours. From a trolley that looks identical to that of Mr. Rogers’s, you'll see some of the county's most photogenic spots while getting a dose of trivia. Tours range in focus from scenery to ghosts to wine. doorcountytrolley.com
Hands On Art Studio: You could collect a bunch of shells to commemorate your visit, or you could make your own art. Pottery, mosaics, and glass-fusing are just a few of the options. handsonartstudio.com
Wilson’s: Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim is the quintessential mom-and-pop shop, and it has been since it opened in 1906. The old-fashioned soda fountain serves home-brewed root beer and sundaes made from local ice cream and keeps things retro with individual jukeboxes at each table. wilsonsicecream.com
Best Photo Ops: The Island Overlook on the scenic trolley tour.
Lighthouses: Scattered along the peninsula’s 300 miles of shoreline are 11 lighthouses, each with its own character and story. My personal favorite is Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park. The tour includes the tiny house where the second keeper, William Duclon, and his wife raised their seven boys and lived for 35 years. Your best chance to see the lighthouses is the second weekend in June, when the Door County Maritime Museum hosts its annual lighthouse walk. It's the only time many of the lighthouses are open. dcmm.org
CHOOSE DOOR NO. 2
The closest you can get to travelling back in time is to visit the township of Ephraim. Located on the edge of Eagle Harbor, the village today looks much like it did more than a century ago. On the guided walking tour, I learned facts ranging from informational (Norwegian Moravians settled it in 1853) to surprising (it’s the only dry township in Wisconsin). Even if you opt out of a tour, it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in the past here: 30 historic sites pepper the tiny town, 11 of which are on the National Register of Historic places. ephraim.org
Where to Stay: Hidden at the end of a winding driveway is Eagle Harbor Inn, both a high-end resort and a comfy-cozy retreat. An indoor pool and five-acre lot set the inn apart from other B&Bs in town, as do its private whirlpool suites, located in cottages separate from the main house. Be sure to try co-owner Natalie Nedderson's cherry granola; it's delightful. eagleharborinn.com
CHOOSE DOOR NO. 3
The Great Outdoors
Peninsula State Park: With 468 campsites, an 18-hole golf course, 8 miles of shoreline, Eagle Harbor Lighthouse, bike trails, and a sweeping view of the bluffs from the 75-foot Eagle Trail tower, this state park speaks for itself. dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/peninsula/
Whitefish Dunes State Park: The park’s namesake dunes are just part of the fun here, where white-sand beaches make for sunbathing heaven and trails galore cater to those itching for an adventure. dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/specific/whitefish/
Kayak: Door County is surrounded by water, so it only makes sense that the best way to get acquainted with its miles of shoreline, islands, and caves is by boat. Kayaking Adventures Door County rents out kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards, plus offers specialized tours and trips. kayakingadventuresdoorcounty.com
Bike: Like to stop at every shop and potential photo-op? It’s easier to pull over when you're on a bike. nordoorsports.com
Best Photo Ops: Rock Island, a short ferry ride from Washington Island.
Washington Island: After surviving the ferry ride to Washington Island (I am the queen of motion sickness), I was adamant about making the most of the trip. Turns out, I didn’t have to try very hard. The island is the largest in Door County as well as the only one with a year-round population, which means there’s plenty to do. While I could have biked or driven myself around, I opted to board the Cherry Train (trolley cars pulled behind a vintage SUV). From my bench, I saw most of the island’s key spots, including Schoolhouse Beach, filled with smooth limestone rocks; the strangely intriguing ostrich and exotic-animal farm (on an island, in Wisconsin—yep); and the awe-inspiring Stavkirke Church, a lesson in Norwegian architecture and Norse tradition. And that's just a snippet of what there is to do here. There’s the Art and Nature Center; Mountain Park’s lookout tower; Rock Island State Park, home of Potawatomi lighthouse, the oldest in Door County—enough to occupy an entire day or more.
For more information on Washington Island, visit washingtonisland-wi.com.