Within minutes of arriving, we understood why this was such a destination for all of us Midwesterners. We were entirely immersed in natural beauty as we drove up the peninsula. This was broken up by charming small towns on the lakeshore. Surely I am one of millions to wax poetic about Door County, but in spite of its notoriety we were surprised by it's timelessness charm in unassuming character.
|Egg Harbor sunsets...|
Admittedly I had some trepidation about spending 4 days at such a well-known location. We typically prefer unknown and out-of-the-way locations. Our wariness was quickly replaced with awe as we drifted further and further away from our Midwestern metropolis.
There's a lot that could be said about Door County that is already quite obvious. What was not evident to us prior to our visit was the sheer vastness of it all. With 5 state parks and 14 county parks, I don't think that I've been a place that has such a high concentration of natural areas. In fact it reminded me a lot of Sedona, Arizona; It was effortless to get onto a rugged wilderness trail or sit quietly by the lake side without the obtrusiveness of civilization. Nevertheless, each town has its own unique character and draw. There are those that seem to be suspended in a time when Wisconsin was almost entirely agricultural. Others were reminiscent of lobster towns that I used to frequent in Maine; posh though still quite accessible to the casual wanderer.
It is hard to say whether we would have had a better experience in a different town, but we felt that Egg Harbor was the best choice for us. It has a secluded public beach where we elected to park our chairs and idle our time though we could have rented kayaks. Downtown had plenty of restaurants and a fully stocked grocery store. It was also central to all the places that we wanted to go on both the Green Bay side as well as the Lake Michigan side. Last year, my in-laws stayed in Sister Harbor and had an equally great experience. Fish Creek would have been a close second for us. We found Fish Creek to be surrounded by the cliffy wonders that are so frequently photographed in Door County. The downtown area was also very chic and we spent plenty of time poking around the shops and bistros. My impression was that Jacksonport, Baileys Harbor and the northern Peninsula would have been perfect for a cozy long weekend in a cabin in the woods. I don't think you could go wrong spending time at any of those little towns though each would be an entirely different experience.
In true Wisconsin fashion, every local we met was friendly and unpretentious. Door County has been a travel destination for over 50 years and it remains steadfast in it’s warm and welcoming personality. I've traveled to many places in the country that I would describe as glorious, though fraught with aloof locals wanting to keep it hidden and detached. There is no such attitude in this part of the country!
Gastronomy and Libations
Gosh, where do I begin?
There’s a few basics that are important to know about eating in this part of the Midwest. First of all, the great tradition of a Fish Fry and Supper Clubs is the why-go-to-Egypt-and-not-see-the-Pyramids experience of Wisconsin. Like many parts of the Upper Midwest, there's also a particularly heavy influence of Nordic culture. Naturally, breakfast food is decadent and filling. Al Johnson's Swedish restaurant is often cited as the favorite breakfast experience on the peninsula. Had we not been there in the early season, it is often a several hour wait.
|Nordic States of America|
We loved the Nordic cuisine but our favorite restaurant was actually a Southern-European place called Parador in Egg Harbor. There are those out there who would say can't get a good tapa outside of Spain. But when the farm that sourced the meal is practically two blocks down the road from the restaurant, that is pretty hard to beat. And believe me, I've had some great Tapas in Granada, Spain (they basically invented Tapas). Later in our trip, we literally visited the creamery and farm that produced our charcuterie and cheese plates.
It almost goes without saying that the meals are hyper-local. The same goes with spirits and beer. Though it might not be obvious on a map, Door County is an ideal environment for the growth of apples, cherries and even grapes. The farm tour of Lautenbach's Orchard was well worth the nominal fee. On the tour, we learned a lot about how the combination of the comparatively temperate climate created by Lake Michigan along with the ideal soil created by the Niagara Escarpment essentially makes this a Napa Valley of cider production. Our favorite cider that we tasted was the Island Orchard Apple lavender cider produced by Farms on Washington Island. It is Wisconsin summer, bottled.
|Our favorite restaurant in Egg Harbor|
|A fairly accurate photo of how much we enjoyed our Wisconsin tapas|
As for other spirits, we were never far from a vineyard nor a microbrewery. After one of our hikes, we stumbled upon Door County Brewing Company in Baileys Harbor. Ever the connoisseur of darker beers, I gravitated towards the Polka King Porter; Rich and earthy, toffee notes without being overbearing, it almost had a tobacco like finish. Dee who is an unapologetic hophead appreciated the In a Factory Downtown which was only available on tap at the time. The tap room is a great spot for a flight or a pint- I wished we had brought back a growler for the stuff you can only get on draft.
As for liquor, Door County Distillery is a good stop on the way in or out in Sturgeon Bay. The bourbon is an interesting take on the Kentucky classic.
|Apple Lavender Cider|
|"Keep Wisconsin Beer'd"|
Hiking and the Outdoors
Our thought was, “Well if we're going to be spending so much time eating meats and cheeses in washing them down with local beer, we better be doing something to deserve it!” We love hiking anyways and the peninsula did not disappoint. After striking up several conversations with locals, it was clear that Peninsula State Park is the main attraction in the way of hiking. Our favorite hike of the entire trip was to Eagle Trail- Steep and rugged enough to be a workout, the effort is rewarded by sweeping views of Ephraim Bay and 10 story tall Cliffs. Road and mountain biking is also a popular pursuit within the park. I enjoyed our drive on the Skyline Road, especially the classic view of Green Bay from Sven’s Bluff. To top it all off, there's a quaint Lighthouse open to the public in the High season.
|Peninsula State Park|
North of Peninsula State Park and also on the green Bayside are Ellison Bluff State Natural Area and Door Bluff County Park. Both parks are characterized by panoramic views that are easily walkable. The hike to Deathdoor Bluff does involve a little bit of ruggedness. However you could get to it within about 15 minutes.
Another hiking destination that is often cited as the favorite of locals and regular Travelers is Cave Point County Park. I don't think I've been anyplace where County parks have such a high distinction. Typically I am avoiding them for the lure of national and state parks. Do not mistake the modest title as being any less deserving of a visit to the state parks. Cave Point County Park is perhaps one of the best photography locations and an excellent place to kayak. Facing the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, the place is marked by extremely clear waters and rugged Cliffs. I would say that most of the top photographs of Door County come from Cave Point County Park. It is nestled Within Whitefish Dunes State Park which is also a great place to hike. With just a 10-minute walk along the coast, we were able to leave any sign of a crowd behind and felt like we had the park to ourselves. It's a pleasant feeling to have a place like this to ourselves.
|Cave Point County Park|
|Ellison Bluff State Natural Area|
|Deathdoor Bluff County Park|
At the northernmost tip of the Peninsula, Washington Island creates the namesake of Door County. Many who visit wonder why it is called “Door County” and in spite of the pleasantness of it, the name of the county is actually from the French name “Porte des Morts” (Death’s Door). Porte des Mortes is the narrow channel that weaves between Washington Island and the mainland and it connects Lake Michigan with Green Bay. In the much earlier days of sailing in the Great Lakes, this notoriously treacherous strait cut travel time by as much as a day at the cost of the risk of a shipwreck. Although the “ Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” has made the general populace aware of the sailing hazards in the Great Lakes, Death's Door was much more notorious in the two centuries prior to the famous song.
Fortunately, with modern Lake going vessels, it is a less dangerous trip. In fact we loved our crossing by the car ferry to the hamlet of Washington Island. There are several things that cannot be missed by visiting this isolated place. The first is the moped rentals which is an appropriately European way of traversing the island. The little downtown area of the island has several shops and amenities. However we preferred the several beaches that were extremely photogenic. The first one we stopped at was Sand Dunes Beach. Again we were amazed that we had such a beautiful place to ourselves. We had lunch at one of the picnic tables and listen to the sound of the lake. Naturally there was plenty of tomfoolery with running up and down the dunes.
The lavender farm on Washington Island, is one of the largest in the country. You can smell the lavender from a mile away prior to arriving. You can essentially get anything and everything Lavender in the little shop. Our favorite part of the farm was wandering through the actual lavender Fields.
Continuing with the theme of island hopping, Rock Island State Park is another can't-miss destination of this part of Wisconsin. A small passenger Ferry brings you to the entrance of the State Park, and the hiking opportunities are abundant. It is a very well-preserved wilderness with plenty of opportunities for more strenuous hiking or careless beachcombing.
My absolute favorite destination on Washington Island was the Mountain Wayside Park. A wooden stairway leads to the summit of the island where there is a old fire lookout with a 50-mile view at the top. On a clear day you can see the entrance of Green Bay as well as a massive portion of Lake Michigan. The state of Michigan can be clearly seen as well. The Summit is an excellent place to see the rural beauty of the island.
The last destination of our tour of the island was Schoolhouse Beach, frequently cited as the most scenic beach of the Great Lakes (if not the country). I could not keep my camera in my pocket, everything looks so tropical. Crystal blue waters and white stones created an ethereal look. I wished I could have spent all day lounging on the shoreline.
Door County is a special place. This is news to nobody, but it is a special place nonetheless. For us, it was one of those rare well-known places measured up to its reputation. (We have been disappointed by places with similar notoriety such as Niagara Falls, Cape Cod and Oahu). The congeniality of the locals, the characteristically glorious and craggy shore line of Green Bay and Lake Michigan and the intensely local flavor of the food and spirits all contributed to the timeless feel of our vacation. I hope that we can return again, perhaps to catch the fall foliage.
Door County, your reputation for travel is well deserved!