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.
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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
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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
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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.
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More Than Just Food: I was in Door County for less than an hour when I first heard about the “goat restaurant,” a.k.a. Al Johnson’s. The Swedish restaurant serves up a mean meatball, but it’s the goats grazing on the sod roof who are the real crowd-pleasers. aljohnsons.com
Scoops: Ice-cream shops abound in Door County. Malibu Moo’s Frozen Griddle makes 21 varieties of frozen custard daily (malibumoofrozengriddle.com). And at Schopf’s Hilltop Dairy, not only can you sample 30 different flavors, you can even milk Cookie the cow yourself (dairyview.com).
Fish Boil: The fish boil is a tradition unique to Door County. Every place claims to have “the best boil in town,” but really, you can’t go wrong. Salted water is heated over a bonfire in a cast-iron kettle. When it comes to a boil, baskets of potatoes and onions are added, followed by a basket of fresh whitefish. Then comes the fun part: the boilmaster throws a pint of kerosene onto the flames and WHOOSH! The kettle boils over, leaving just your dinner, perfectly cooked.
Cherries: Door County is the fourth-largest cherry producer in the United States. Almost every inn, store, and rest stop has a shelf bursting with cherry treats, and restaurants all claim to have the best slice of pie on the peninsula. The only way to find out? Try them all. For a full list of Door County’s markets and orchards, see doorcounty.com/pdf/brochure/OrchardsFarmMarkets.pdf
For a list of fish-boil locations, visit doorcounty.com/where-to-dine/fish-boils.
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Beer is to Wisconsin as plaid shirts are to Portland. So it may come as a surprise that Door County’s wineries outnumber its lone brewery seven to one: Red Oak Vineyard, Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery, Stone’s Throw Winery, Door Peninsula Winery, Harbor Ridge Winery, von Stiehl Winery, and Orchard County Winery & Market all call the peninsula home. There are a couple options for sipping your way through them. One is to take Door County Trolley’s wine tour, which includes four wineries and a gourmet lunch (not to mention an automatic designated driver). Or plan your own tour following the Door County Wine Trail—in which case we’d advise keeping the samples to a minimum. (redoakvineyard.com, simoncreekvineyard.com, stonesthrowwinery.com, dcwine.com, harborridgewinery.com, vonStiehl.com, orchardcountry.com, doorcountywinetrail.com)
As for that lone brewery, it’s housed within Egg Harbor’s Shipwrecked Brewery Restaurant. The microbrewery crafts five varieties of beer in-house, plus a handful of seasonal brews. Door County Cherry Wheat is always on tap, and is worth a try. A little bit malty but still crisp, it’s like a beer cocktail with its splash of cherry sweetness. (shipwreckedmicrobrew.com)
In addition to the wineries and microbrewery there’s the Door County Distillery. Established in 2011, the distillery offers three spirits—vodka, gin, and cherry-infused vodka—
all refined using limestone-saturated waters locally sourced from the Door Peninsula.
Best Photo Ops: County Road B from Sturgeon Bay to Egg Harbor.
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For a relatively small area, Door County is stocked with an abundance of art galleries, ranging in focus from glass to jewelry to paintings. Here are my favorites:
Woodwalk Gallery in Egg Harbor features the paintings of co-owner Margaret Lockwood, plus work from 48 other regional artists. The gallery is housed within a refurbished barn, which serves as the ideal rustic backdrop to Lockwood’s soft, ethereal naturescapes that look more dreamlike than lifelike. woodwalkgallery.com
Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek has been open since 1969, and has achieved national attention for its ever-changing exhibitions, which showcase the landscape and still-life works of more than 150 artists. The gallery is surrounded by gardens, adding to its aesthetic and atmospheric appeal. edgewoodorchard.com
Popelka Trenchard Gallery & Glass Studio: This is the kind of place where parents tell their kids to keep their hands to themselves. Glass is everywhere. But not just any glass: fine-art cast glass, Murrini vases, and figurines adorn every wall, window, and shelf. I highly recommend watching husband-and-wife team Jeremy Popelka and Stephanie Trenchard at work in the attached studio. The vase starts simply, just 84 multicolored glass cubes arranged into a rectangle. Pulling a long metal rod from the 2,500-degree kiln, Jeremy rolls up the pieces with the clear glass blob attached to the end. Then the carefully timed waltz between kiln and the “rolling station” begins. Once the glass is glowing, Jeremy removes it from the kiln and smoothes it using wet newspapers (without gloves on). After the cubes have melted into one uniform piece, Jeremy slowly shapes the vase by blowing into the rod and using gravity (and Stephanie’s help) to make sure it’s evenly proportioned. Once it’s the size he wants it, the vase is clipped from the rod and placed into another, less-hot kiln to settle and cool. This isn’t fine art—it’s superb art. popelkaglass.com
Best Photo Ops: The sculpture garden at Edgewood Orchard Galleries.
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Browse & Buy
What’s a vacation if you don’t double your luggage with souvenirs? I’m personally a sucker for locally made pottery and food—probably the worst collector’s items to travel with, but also the most soul-satisfying. The two best towns I found for shopping are Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor.
In Sturgeon Bay, I meandered down Jefferson Street, the town’s main shopping artery. Houses-turned-boutiques pepper the street. At one-stop-kitchen-shop Cornucopia, I bought an awesome two-bottle wine carrier and would have gladly spent my next paycheck on the colorful array of utensils displayed before me. The obligatory gift for mom came from Bliss, a home-décor paradise. Diane Magolan, owner of the artsy boutique Monticello on Jefferson, informed me that the store carries only American-made products, which made me like it even more. If you have kids, be sure to stop by Child’s Play, a wonderland of books, toys, and clothing. After refuelling with an espresso at Java on Jefferson, I branched off onto Third Avenue to browse the many art galleries (including Popelka Trenchard—see “Get Creative”).
Some of Door County’s best foodie goodies can be found in Egg Harbor. Roland and Donna Jorns’ award-winning maple syrup comes in every size (seriously, from 3.4-ounce bottles to an entire gallon) at Jorns’ Sugar Bush; fresh fruit jams, jellies, and salsas are the specialties at Sammi Rae’s Homemade; handmade fudge and chocolate fills Door County Confectionery; and Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese has more varieties of Wisconsin cheese than I knew existed, each hand-picked by certified cheese educators.
Where to Stay:
Sturgeon Bay: Couples will appreciate the romantic Inn at Cedar Crossing, a B&B with nine elegantly decorated and luxuriously outfitted guest rooms. innatcedarcrossing.com
Egg Harbor: The 40-acre Landmark Resort is a vacation within itself, with multiple swimming pools, sports facilities, and many other amenities. thelandmarkresort.com
For a list of contact information for stores mentioned above, see mnmo.com/doorcounty.