Words by Suzanne Wintrob
Until recently, I didn’t know much about Wisconsin beyond cheesehead-topped football fans and heated discussions over Canadian-U.S. retaliatory dairy tariffs. But a recent visit to picturesque Door County (pop: 28,000) – an hour’s drive north of Green Bay – opened my eyes to so much more.
Known as Wisconsin’s thumb, the 112-km-long peninsula boasts 480 km of sensational coastline along Lake Michigan and offers up everything from water adventures and maritime history to a healthy dose of R&R. Whether you’re seeking family-friendly fun or just a breath of fresh air, this is where you’ll find it. Here’s why this city girl was smitten:
1. A place to commune with nature
Door County Visitor Bureau | Schoolhouse BeachDoor County Visitor Bureau | Cave Point County Park
Much like Ontario’s cottage country and almost every New England town, Door County is the ideal spot to unplug and chill. With dozens of beaches and five state parks, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities.
Cyclists and hikers can canoodle with nature along Peninsula State Park’s 16-km crushed limestone Sunset Trail, stopping at Eagle Bluff Lighthouse or a dip in pristine Nicolet Bay. Jump in a kayak or atop a paddleboard, or grab a fishing rod and cast your line for some of the best trout, salmon, whitefish, walleye, northern pike and perch around.
My need for speed found me aboard Door County Adventure Rafting’s inflatable high-speed boat, where local Matt Olson regales his passengers with stories of some the peninsula’s hard-to-reach historic lighthouses. With Captain Matt’s rockin’ playlist and the wind whipping through my hair, city life felt so far away.
2. Explore a shipwreck shoreline
Door County Visitor Bureau | DCMM Shipwrecks of Door County Exhibit
Founded in 1851, Door County gets its name from Death’s Door, the passageway that lies off the peninsula’s tip where the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay converge. With more than 275 shipwrecks scattered along the shoreline (none recently!), a trip to Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Door County Maritime Museum and its new shipwreck exhibit is a must (check out the working periscope and ship’s wheel and “drive” yourself through the canals). Then board the docked 1919 John Purves Tug to get an all-hands-on-deck feel for daily life on the water (Wednesday’s lucky visitors are hosted by swoon-worthy octogenarian docent Bob Purves, whose tales about the tugboat named after his dad will have you giggling) or alight the Chicago Fireboat for a scenic tour filled with local legend and lore. Shipwreck remnants are visible to eagle-eyed divers and boaters (Captain Matt pointed out remnants of sunken ships using a glass-bottomed bucket) though it’s illegal to take anything home as souvenirs. Just sayin’.
3. Dairy and cherry treats abound
Door County Visitor Bureau | Cherry pie ala mode at White Gull Inn
If ice cream and cherries are your thing, you’re in for a treat. Door County is one of the largest producers of tart cherries in the United States, growing between 3.6 to five million kilos annually on roughly 1,000 hectares of land. They’re literally everywhere, with no shortage of pies, cakes, doughnuts, fudge and salsa infused with the juicy fruit.
Check out Seaquist Orchards Farm Market near Sister Bay for all things cherry-related or tuck in to a coffee and a hunk of pie at Fish Creek’s Sweetie Pies (founded by Susan Croissant … really!) where flavours like cherry-rhubarb and apple-cherry ooze the perfect sweet-tart combo. Naturally, ice cream features prominently in a state dubbed "America’s Dairyland."
Family-run, 1950s-inspired Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor on Ephraim’s waterfront is among the favourites thanks to its root beer floats, banana splits and cherry ice cream sodas (all that’s missing are waitresses on roller skates!). Me? I was taken by retro Door County Candy’s signature scoop of sea salt caramel ice cream, though the store’s endless assortment of salt water taffy looked mighty yummy, too.
4. Festivals for every flavour
Door County Visitor Bureau | Northern Sky Theater
Whether it’s music, food or blazing fall colours you’re after, there’s a festival just about every weekend throughout the year – from January’s ice fishing tournament through to December’s Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations (Santa makes an appearance on the Jon Purves tugboat). Still, the population triples in the summer months so the locals show it off.
Annual highlights include Sturgeon Bay’s week-long Steel Bridge Songfest in June, CherryFest in Jacksonport every August and Sister Bay’s big Fall Festival in mid-October.
Be sure to check out Peninsula State Park’s outdoor 600-seat Northern Sky Theater for under-the-stars original musicals that are nothing short of brilliant. Runners love the half marathon in May at Peninsula State Park, the annual triathlon in July and the Fall 50 ultra-marathon in October.
5. Eat up Swedish culture
Door County may be as wholesome as American apple-cherry pie but it also has Swedish roots. The first influx of Swedes arrived in Wisconsin in 1860s and, as such, their influence is evident.
Get your fill at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant (arrive early or face a lengthy lineup), where staff in traditional dress serve up 112,000 lingonberry-topped square pancakes, 309,280 meatballs and 450 kg of herring every year while goats graze on the pitched sod roof (there’s even an online Goat Cam!). In June, owner Lars Johnson (whose parents, Al and Ingert, founded the restaurant in 1960) draws crowds as he parades the animals from a nearby farm to the popular eatery in what he lovingly calls "The Running of the Goats."
Door County Visitor Bureau | Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant Rooftop Goat
You can also curl up around the cauldron at Rowley’s Bay Resort in Sister Bay (home of Grandma’s Swedish Bakery), where a storyteller oversees a traditional fish boil of whitefish, potatoes and onions while dishing up a history lesson dating back to the area’s original Potawatomi settlers.
6. Bring the littles
Door County Visitor Bureau |
Travelling with young ones? No problem! Door County has 53 splash-worthy public beaches as well as lighthouses to climb, nature reserves, cherry-picking farms, ferries, train tours and even a working drive-in movie theatre.
Be sure to stop in at railway-inspired PC Junction restaurant, where the engineer-clad chef loads orders on a miniature train and then clangs the bell, sending kids into squeals of delight as their hamburgers chug down the track to their counter-side seat. Actually, stop in even if you’ve left the kids or grandkids at home. Believe me, their excitement will make your day!
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump continue to battle out their dairy differences, I left Door County feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. And as I passed the gift shop at Green Bay’s airport, I couldn’t help but buy a cheesehead. If you turn it upside down, it’s a chips-and-dip tray … who knew? Just one more surprise uncovered on my first visit to Wisconsin.
Suzanne Wintrob (@newsyoucansuz) is a Toronto-based journalist.
For details on Door County’s numerous spring and summer events and festivals, visit doorcounty.com.