The first time I heard someone describe Door County Wisconsin, as "The Cape Cod of the Midwest," I rolled my eyes. I'd spent a week on the Cape nearly every summer of my childhood, and had serious doubts about the comparison. But as I stood in Peninsula State Park and looked across the water at the charming village of Fish Creek, I had to note a resemblance. The constant presence of water, strong maritime history, fishing boats, bike paths, and lighthouses made this place I'd never seen before look a bit familiar.
Of course, you'd never mistake the one peninsula for the other. For one thing, Door County isn't built up nearly so much as the Cape. And Door County has quirks that make it unique, such as its Scandinavian heritage, the ever-popular fish boil, and the huge emphasis on the local cherry crop (not to mention cherry wines, cherry preserves, cherry pie, dried cherries, and other treats). In all, it's a winsome, relaxing place that doesn't seem to have grown cynical yet about its appeal to tourists. It's also a good value for your vacation dollars.
Visitor InformationBefore you go, contact the Door County Visitor Bureau (tel. 800/527-3529; www.doorcounty.com) and ask for a copy of the Official Visitor Guide, which has comprehensive listings of events, dining, accommodations, shopping, and profiles of the main Door County communities. The main office in Sturgeon Bay (1015 Green Bay Rd.; tel. 920/743-4456), has a lobby and informational kiosk open 24 hours. All the major villages operate welcome centers as well; visit the website for locations.
What to See & Do
Door County's primary attraction is its natural beauty. If Wisconsin is a mit, Door County is the thumb -- a cape jutting northeast into Green Bay and Lake Michigan. The county's 300 miles of shoreline and five state parks afford plenty of ways for outdoorsy types to exhaust themselves, including hiking, biking, fishing, sailing, kite surfing, horseback riding, diving shipwrecks, and more. Contact the Visitors' Bureau for information on the many options available in addition to the highlights below.
I highly recommend the 10-mile Sunset Bike Trail at Peninsula State Park (9462 Shore Rd.; Fish Creek, tel. 920/868-3258). The easy-to-moderate trail takes you through marshes, forests, past the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, and along the coastline, with beautiful views across the bay. The park also offers mountain biking and hiking opportunities, plus a sandy swimming beach and even an open-air theater. We rented our hybrid bikes from the friendly folk at Nor Door Sport & Cyclery, just across the street from the park entrance (4007 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; tel. 920/868-2275; www.nordoorsports.com). They distribute maps, advice, and a selection of good quality mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids, kids' bikes, recumbents, and trailers.
Another great place for a stroll in the woods is Ridges Sanctuary (8288 Hwy. Q, Bailey's Harbor; tel. 920/839-2802; www.ridgesanctuary.org). It's especially lovely in spring, when wildflowers are in bloom. The hundreds of species that grow there include Trailing Arbutus, Marsh Marigold, Arctic Primrose, Hepatica, and more. The sugar maples, beech, and birch trees put on a magnificent show in the fall.
Get out on the water with Door County Kayak Tours, off Hwy. 42 just south of town (4690 Rainbow Ridge Ct., Egg Harbor; tel. 920/868-1400; www.doorcountykayaktours.com). You'll meet up with your guide, who'll talk to your group about the day's water conditions and assess skill level (beginners are welcome) and interests before selecting a location. Your guides will load up the equipment and take you to the launch site, where you'll get a brief lesson before heading out. Total trip time is 3 to 4 hours, with about 2 hours on the water. Single and double kayaks are available.
Those who prefer a less active vacation have plenty of options too -- shopping and gallery hopping in particular (Fish Creek is an especially good destination for browsing).
Lighthouse buffs will go nuts in Door County, which has ten lighthouses within its borders. The third weekend in May is the annual lighthouse walk, which offers transport to the lighthouses and special tours not available the rest of the year (usually just three of the lighthouses are open to the public). The must-see is Cana Island Lighthouse, near Bailey's Harbor. It's a bit of a hike to reach it, but it's worth the haul -- this is the only lighthouse in Door County you can climb, and you can also walk the catwalk. For more information on lighthouse visits, contact the Door County Maritime Museum (tel. 920/743-5958; www.dcmm.org).
Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery & Market (9197 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; tel. 866/946-3263; www.orchardcountry.com) conducts tastings and tours of the facility, and the large gift shop sells wines, gourmet foods, preserves, cheeses, and some baked goods. It's also the meeting point for the Door County Trolley overview tour (see "Getting There & Getting Around," below).
Creative types should check out Hands On Art Studio (3655 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek; tel. 920/868-9311; www.handsonartstudio.com). In addition to the usual pottery painting, Hands On helps you create your own mosaics, fuse glass, and weld all sorts of metal bits together to create a one-of-a-kind sculpture (they can also ship your finished pieces home if you wish). If all that creativity makes you hungry, you can grab a sandwich or pizza on site.
Where to Dine
Coffee fiends should start their day at Door County Coffee & Tea Co. (5773 Hwy 42, Sturgeon Bay; tel. 920/743-8930; www.doorcountycoffee.com). You can watch staff members roast and pack gourmet coffees to be shipped all over the country. Then head to the cafe to sample the brew along with breakfast treats such as egg sandwiches, waffles, quiche, pastries, smoothies, and more. You can also buy a light lunch here (salads, sandwiches, and wraps).
Anyone traveling with kids should make a beeline to P.C. Junction, at the crossroads of Hwy. A and E (tel. 920/839-2048; www.pcjunction-doorcounty.com). The menu is simple: well-prepared burgers, chili, brats, fish sandwiches, a daily special, a kids' menu, and not much else. The big draw for kids is the central counter, where a multi-car train circles around to deliver your meal. Competition is fierce for the train table seats, so be ready to wait (the playground outside should help you pass the time). After your meal, head to the attached Sugar Shack for ice cream.
Wilson's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor (9990 Water St., Ephraim; tel. 920/854-2041; www.wilsonsicecream.com) has been around since 1906, so they must be doing something right. This classic, old-fashioned place has the type of menu you'd expect: burgers, fries, and sandwiches, for the most part. It's simple, but tasty and well-prepared. It's a great place to sample fried cheese curds if you haven't already. The house-brewed root beer is a treat as well. And definitely save room for ice cream.
Bistro at Liberty Square (7755 Hwy 42, Egg Harbor; tel. 920/868-4800; www.libertysquareshops.com) offers sophisticated breakfast, lunch, and dinner options from a sprawling white dining and shopping complex on the main drag in Egg Harbor. You can sample a pastry for breakfast, or try an egg dish such as a strata or breakfast wrap. Choices such as a walnut burger or a turkey bruschetta panini liven up the lunch menu (which also includes more traditional sandwiches, salads, and burgers as well). At dinner, choices include a moist baked salmon with a delicate orange and dill sauce, or bacon-wrapped pork loin with blueberry reduction sauce. (And don't miss the melt-in-your-mouth savory scones in the bread basket.) Browse the selection of jewelry, gifts, stationery, art, and more before or after your meal in the Liberty Square shops, and pick up some wine and cheese in the gourmet food shop to take back to your hotel.
Traditionalists will love C&C Supper Club (4170 Main St., Fish Creek; tel. 920/868-3412; www.ccsupperclub.com). Entrees include such classics as prime rib, crab legs, steaks, ribs, and lobster tail. It's not groundbreaking cuisine, but it's delicious. I particularly recommend the seafood-stuffed mushroom caps, the tender calamari, and the black-n-bleu sirloin (blackened Angus sirloin served with a cognac gorgonzola sauce, sautÃ©ed mushrooms, and bleu cheese crumbles).
If you're looking for something a bit outside the Door County norm, Restaurant Saveur (5041 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor; tel. 920/839-2708; www.restaurantsaveur.com) delivers. Husband/wife owners William (also the chef) and Loreto Marks describe the cuisine as having a basis in classical French techniques, but with strong international influences (particularly Latin). I had a heavenly soup with shrimp, scallops, mussels, and chorizo in a saffron broth, followed by osso bucco so tender it fell off the bone. The menu changes seasonally (and fish courses change daily), but other options might include grilled rack of pork served with sweet potato and pecan ravioli or fresh Hawaiian day-boat Hebi grilled with a wasabi and plum glaze. The setting, inside a converted house, is homey and relaxed, but it's still a great choice for a special occasion.
The fish boil is a 100-year-old Door County tradition, started by local Scandinavian settlers of the peninsula. There are plenty of fish boil operations on the peninsula, but you can't go wrong at The White Gull Inn (4225 Main St., Fish Creek; tel. 920/868-3517; www.whitegullinn.com). You'll stand outside in the courtyard and watch the Master Boiler cook your dinner: Lake Michigan whitefish is cut in chunks and boiled over an open flame in the courtyard in salty water. The oil from the fish rises to the top of the cauldron, and when the fish is cooked, kerosene is splashed on the fire beneath the cauldron. The huge burst of flame (have your camera ready) makes the cauldron boil over, taking the fishy oils with it. The meal is served with potatoes, coleslaw, and Door County cherry pie for dessert. The fish is moist, tender, and very mild, but it is also very bony; definitely get your server to help you remove the bones before you dig in. I admit I was skeptical about this one -- I just couldn't get too excited about boiled fish -- but I'm a convert. It's a fun experience and a very tasty meal. Reserve well in advance.
Where to Stay
Country House Resort (715 N. Highland Road, Sister Bay; tel. 800/424-0041 or 920/854-4551; www.countryhouseresort.com). This retreat, on 27 wooded acres fronting Sister Bay, affords plenty of room to spread out and relax. The park-like, landscaped grounds encompass a pool, sun deck, and tennis courts, and a meandering shoreline nature trail that's perfect for a head-clearing walk. Many of the spacious, attractive rooms and suites have private balconies with views of the bay. The huge (1,600 sq. ft.) penthouse suite has two bedrooms (plus additional sleeping space on sofa beds), two full bathrooms, a sitting room, a full kitchen, large dining table, large living area with fireplace and cathedral ceilings, and a generous balcony with beautiful bay views. An ideal place for a group gathering, it's a good value -- especially if you're splitting the cost among two or three couples. Children must be 13 or older to stay at the resort. In-room amenities include TV with DVD, A/C, refrigerator, hair dryer, iron/ironing board, and wireless Internet access. Doubles $94-$118; suites $117-$267; penthouse $186-$317.
Beachfront Inn at Bailey's Harbor (8040 Hwy. 57, Bailey's Harbor; tel. 866/251-0750; www.beachfrontinn.net). Tammy Bourke, who owns Beachfront Inn along with her husband, Terry, will be the first to tell you this place isn't for everyone. It's a simple motel, and doesn't pretend to be anything else. Rooms are clean and well maintained, but there's nothing fancy about them; they do have TVs, but no phone. The real draw here is the location: right on Bailey's harbor, with a sandy beach that's great for swimming just out the back door. The indoor heated pool is a welcome option when the Bay is chilly. Most of the rooms have spectacular views -- you can relax in your room and watch the kitesurfers on the bay. The Bourkes create a welcome atmosphere, with pit fires on the beach (complete with s'mores fixings) every night, and a resident housedog, Max, to greet guests (the unit across the street from the Bay is pet-friendly). They have a lot of repeat guests, and in the four seasons they've owned the place, their business has doubled -- a testament to their hospitality and the amount of work they've put into this place. Lakeside rooms go for $67 to $154 per double depending on size and season.
When to Go
Summer is high season in Door County -- especially July, when the weather is warmest and the cherry harvest takes place. It's also gaining popularity as a leaf-peeping destination, so fall is also an optimal time to come. Some businesses close for the winter.
Getting There & Getting Around
The closest major airport to Door County is Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay (www.co.brown.wi.us/airport/). You'll really need to rent a car to explore Door County (Avis, Enterprise, Hertz, and Alamo all rent from the airport). From Green Bay, you have a few options for getting to Door County: Take Hwy. 57 north, or take Highway 310 (Two Rivers) east then Highway 42 north. In Algoma you can either continue on Highway 42 or take County Road S north.
For a fun, informative tour of Door County, contact Door County Trolley (tel. 920/868-1100; www.doorcountytrolley.com). The Narrated Scenic Tour is your best bet for a general overview with historical information and local legends. The company also offers a lighthouse tour, a wine tour, and an evening ghost tour.
Note: Frommer's Senior Editor Christine Ryan was a guest of the Door County Visitor Bureau.