A column of red-hot flames leaps towards the sky with a loud hiss and a dense cloud of black smoke as a crowd of onlookers ooh and aah. This fiery spectacle is not a summer bonfire gone wrong, but rather a part of one of Door County’s most beloved culinary traditions: the fish boil.
Brought to Wisconsin by Scandinavians more than 100 years ago, the fish boil began as an easy way to feed large groups of hungry fishermen and lumberjacks, and is now a dining experience that visitors from all over the country come to try.
How does it work? Simply reserve a spot on the restaurant’s list, and then gather around the outdoor fire while the boil master works his magic, adding chunks of fresh, locally caught whitefish to a boiling metal kettle. Once the fish oils float to the surface, he tosses kerosene onto the fire, sparking the climactic boil-over. Then the whitefish is served up with baby red potatoes, white onions, and a slice of toothsome Door County cherry pie.
While there are plenty of places to experience an authentic fish boil in Door County the Old Post Office in Ephraim is particularly popular. A home-style establishment with a view overlooking Eagle Harbor, the restaurant serves coleslaw, bread, and plenty of melted butter along with the rest of the food. “I always say whitefish should swim twice—once in the lake, and again in butter,” says one of the servers.
Both whitefish and cherry pie are characteristic of the area, which has more than 300 miles of shoreline and thousands of acres of orchards, but Door County offers more than delicious food. With activities for all ages and abilities that range from biking and hiking to kayaking and cliff jumping, the scenic peninsula—located northeast of Green Bay—is the perfect summer getaway for outdoor aficionados, for a weekend jaunt or longer stay.
Door County’s considerable lodging options—resorts, vacation rentals, campgrounds, and more—fit any type of traveler. On our last trip, we stayed at High Point Inn in Ephraim (pronounced “E-frum”), which features homey, private suites with up to three bedrooms. Located less than five minutes from the town’s waterfront and the neighboring village of Sister Bay, it also has indoor and outdoor pools, an indoor whirlpool, children’s playground, and more. Each suite is outfitted with a fully equipped kitchen and living room complete with a gas fireplace, so it’s one of Door County’s best places to feel at home.
A visit to Grandma’s Swedish Bakery, located at the Rowley’s Bay Resort in Ellison Bay, is a perfect start to a day. The family-owned bakery is famous for its authentic Swedish treats that range from half-pound pecan and cinnamon rolls to scrumptious cardamom coffee cake and cherry granola cookies. Bring breakfast outside to the patio and enjoy the waterfront view, or grab-and-go to pick up a cup of Door County Coffee to kickstart the morning.
Sightseers can take a charter through the waterway between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, referred to as “Death’s Door” due to the number of shipwrecks lying on the bottom of the lake. (And if you didn’t know, that waterway is how Door County originally earned its name.) These charters tour several nearby islands, including Pilot, Plum, Detroit, and Washington Islands.
A stop on scenic Plum Island is ideal for a picnic and a hike to the lighthouse. But the most memorable part of the trip will likely be viewing the tiny Pilot Island. From a distance, it resembles an abandoned prison, with the forboding silhouettes of dead trees reaching up to the sky. In actuality, the entire 3.25-acre island is overrun by more than 7,000 cormorants, who nest atop the abandoned lighthouse. A buildup of this invasive bird species’ acidic guano has destroyed the island’s once-lush vegetation, creating its barren appearance. The guide may jokingly refer to it as “Alfred Hitchcock’s summer home.”
For hands-on water exploration, Door County Kayak Tours leads kayaking trips touring the cove and caves of Cave Point County Park. Paddle along the stunning Lake Michigan shoreline in a single or tandem kayak to check out sea caves created by the lake’s relentless pounding against the limestone bluffs. There are guided two-hour tours or longer ones that visit less-traveled shores. When there’s time, the kayak guide may even stop and let the group climb the rocky cliffs or jump in to cool off.
Back on dry land, the seven-course zipline at Rowley’s Bay Resort is an exhilarating adventure through the treetops. To the riders new to the activity, never fear—it’s easier and more fun than you’d think! The resort has certified guides and facilitators to teach the ropes (quite literally) every step of the way. The resort’s adventure center also offers kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, and Segway tours through its extensive trail network.
In between adventures, Al Johnson’s is an ideal place to spend a couple of free hours. A Swedish staple of the community, the restaurant is popular for the goats that graze atop its grass-covered roof. While it offers a scrumptious all-day breakfast, its Stabbur Beer Garden is perfect for enjoying an alfresco drink in the evenings.
After dinner, there’s impressive stargazing at Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only wilderness state park and the state’s first International Dark Sky Park designated by the International Dark-Sky Association. A couple tips: Bring a red-light flashlight for navigating in darkness—bright light can over-expose your eyes, and it’ll take at least a half hour for them to regain dark sensitivity. Download the Night Sky mobile app beforehand to help identify constellations, and check for special events. It’s a spectacular way to cap a day experiencing Door County’s delights.
Find even more Door County inspiration at doorcounty.com