By Debi Lander
Most days, I find the soaring temperatures in Florida push me toward air-conditioned activities. If you still feel the need to get outside, especially with children, I found a gorgeous, cool escape you may never have considered. Best of all, it’s affordable. Door County, Wisconsin, occupies the top two-thirds of the 70-mile long Door Peninsula, the part of the Wisconsin map that looks like a left-handed thumb in Lake Michigan. This location gives Door County about 300 miles of breezy ragged, rocky shoreline, dotted with lighthouses and little villages.
To get there, you’ll likely need to fly to Chicago, Milwaukee or even Green Bay. Then, rent a car and make a Wisconsin road trip; feel the stress and tensions fade as you cruise two-lane highways. One of the most enjoyable aspects is the lack of chain stores; most of the villages have strict ordinances that don’t work for giant retailers. Hence, small locally owned restaurants, shops and art galleries flourish.
During my trip, I ate breakfast at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. (Many Door County residents trace their ancestry to Scandinavia.) The Swedish pancakes come with lingonberries and dollops of whipped cream. I highly recommend you add their famous Swedish meatballs. The big draw, besides the fantastic tasting fare, is the architecture. The sod roof acts as home to a herd of goats. Yes, goats on the roof!
For lunch, I suggest a step back in time to a hamburger joint/ ice cream parlor called Wilson’s. Play a tune on the jukebox and enjoy a homemade root beer float with your meal.
A Door Country traditional dinner means a fish boil, whitefish (the local catch), onions and red potatoes boiled in an enormous black kettle over an open fire. The excitement starts when the cooks’ splash kerosene over the flame, creating a fireball that boils over the pot and removes the fishy oils. This event is staged all year-round at many of the restaurants. The fish tastes moist and flavorful.
Summer outdoor activities include exploring the many beaches, hiking in the state parks and boating excursions. Kayaking remains popular, as does sailing, power boating or riding a ferry to Washington or Rock Island. A boat trip across Death’s Door, the Portes des Mortes Passage, moves above many legendary shipwrecks. Stop near tiny Pilot Island, a spot that looks like the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” Approximately 2,000 pelicans and cormorants nest there, their waste killing all plant life. See the dilapidated lighthouse, ruins of the Keeper’s House, and the spindly limbs of dead trees. It’s very eerie, especially in the fog.
If the arts are of interest, you’ll find dozens of galleries or you can drop into Hands On Art where you can create your own. Choose from potter’s wheels for throwing clay, metal and glass craft, mosaic and painting projects. I was amazed at the variety and number of people engaged. All ages, even ornery teens, find something interesting to make.
Theater options include performances under the stars at the Northern Sky Theater or the Peninsular Players Theater going 80 years strong. The indoor Fish Creek facility rests on the lakeshore, making it an ideal spot for sunset viewing.
Cherries are a Door County specialty. Almost all the cherries grown in Wisconsin come from Seaquist Orchards — 10 million pounds last year. Naturally, they’ve created a plethora of cherry products like Bubba Gump did with shrimp. The Cherry Bomb is a jam made with jalapeno peppers and served on crackers. The best cherry pie I found came from Sweetie Pies.
Door Country is what summer vacation used to be: family time, slow down time, simple pleasures and friendly atmosphere. This Floridian loved it.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
Eerie Pilot Island in Door County.