Recently, I went leaf peeping in an unexpected place for a New Yorker, Door County, Wisconsin, a 70-mile thumb of land that juts out into Lake Michigan, an hour’s drive north of Green Bay. Surrounded on both sides by water (Green Bay on the left and Lake Michigan on the right), with 300 miles of shoreline, it’s known as “the Cape Cod of the Midwest,” but has a personality and history all its own.
The county’s odd name derives from the phrase “Portes des Morts,” (Door of the Dead), given by 17th Century French explorers who suffered frequent shipwrecks navigating the treacherous strait between the peninsula and an island north of its tip, now known as Washington Island.
But despite the downbeat origins of its name, Door County—with five State Parks and 12 Lighthouses—turns out to be an upbeat and delightful place to visit. This once fairly remote area is now a magnet for vacationers of every stripe, especially in the summer, when its year-round population of 28,000 explodes to over 250,000.
October, when we were there, is a visitor’s idyll – off-season prices, few tourists, lovely weather and breathtaking scenery.
I stayed in a resort and conference center complex, Stone Harbor, beautifully situated on the waterfront in the village of Sturgeon Bay, where Door County begins. Though more rustic accommodations are available up and down the peninsula, I enjoyed the fact that I could walk to the town’s historic center — with its galleries, restaurants, museums and parks – as well as along the waterfront. In summer, with its indoor and outdoor pool, it would be a perfect place for a family to stay with kids.
Sturgeon Bay is also home to world-class yacht builders, a fact that was brought home when I strolled the waterfront and crossed a downtown bridge near my hotel. On one side, I glimpsed a gleaming red ferryboat waiting for passengers and on the other side, a gleaming, gold hued carbon fiber yacht destined – so I was told – for a Russian oligarch. It was so large that a speedboat – the size of a car — was tucked into its stern. Reputed to accommodate 12 guests, cost $50 million, and require a crew of 15 to 20, I saw the yacht slip silently into the Bay on an early test run later that week. It looked like something out of a James Bond movie.
Door County — like Cape Cod and the Hamptons, is inspiration and home to many artists, and supports an active art-and-gallery scene all year round. In fact, there are over 100 galleries – most in the historic villages of Baileys Harbor, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay, Sturgeon Bay Ellison Bay and Ephraim – although some are tucked into artist’s homes in the countryside. (Pick up a Door County Arts Map to guide you.) In Ephraim The Hardy Gallery, a non-profit venture dating back to the mid-1900s, with its distinctive dockside graffiti-covered warehouse is a well-known landmark of the visual arts in Door County, and a good place to begin your art tour.
I began mine in Sturgeon Bay, where I went to a glass-blowing demonstration at Popelka Trenchard Fine Art Glass Gallery. Owned and operated by two nationally recognized artists, painter Stephanie Trenchard and glass sculptor Jeremy Popelka, the gallery not only exhibits their work (as well as fine art jewelry by others) it also offers glass blowing classes and, by appointment, demonstrations.
Popelka, an accomplished artist and teacher, is nationally renown for his Venetian-technique Murini blown glass pieces, exhibited in galleries and museums across the country. Trenchard’s work is also exhibited across the country. A painter by training, she began working in glass in 1999. I was especially drawn to her beautiful sand cast pieces – — for which she is best known — which combine her painting and glass skills in unusual ways.
Stephanie Trenchard was only one of the many accomplished women I happened to meet on the tourism trail, thriving as artists, naturalists and entrepreneurs.
Particularly impressive was Vicki Wilson, president and founder of Door County Coffee & Tea Company. She is a mid-western fireball – friendly, passionate, tenacious – who 21 years ago dreamt of moving to Door County, starting a business and becoming, with her husband, an entrepreneur. I pulled into her Café, near Sturgeon Bay, for breakfast, enjoyed the best oatmeal of my life (recipe below), and met Vicki.
The Café — a restaurant, bakery and retail shop — is the gateway to her 20,000 sq.ft. empire. Vicky now employs 43 people, the majority of whom are involved with purchasing, roasting and distributing small batches of coffee (100 varieties) throughout the U.S. The company’s wonderfully aromatic factory, which greets you as you enter the café, roasts 3,000 lbs a day of the finest green beans grown in the world—Specialty Class 1 Arabica beans – and sells them not only in Door County but in Bed, Bath & Beyond and Yankee Candle, among many other national retail outlets. It can also be ordered online at Door County Coffee.
Did you know that the darker the roast the less the caffeine, which is why espresso has less caffeine than your average American Joe? One of the facts I picked up, courtesy of Vicki.
Stopping in for the Café’s sinfully rich breakfast or lunch should be on any Door County visitor’s agenda. And tours of the roasting facility can be arranged in advance.
• 2 cups kettle oatmeal
• 1 ¾ cup boiling water
• 2 cups skim milk
• 1-½ cups peeled apples (chopped)
• ¾ cup dried cherries
• ¼ cup maple syrup
• 1-teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon salt
Pour boiling water over oatmeal. Let sit for 5 minutes. Add all other ingredients. Mix up and pour into 8×11” pan, sprayed with cooking spray. Cover with foil. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10 minutes. Serve right away or can be chilled and stored. Serve with heavy cream or skim milk, brown sugar.
In Fall, cruising the main highway is a visual pleasure, but I equally enjoyed crisscrossing back roads between the Bay and Lake, coming across picturesque farms, expansive vistas, out-of-the-way beach coves, and well-tended cemeteries with trees in full fall plumage.
Another good way to get an overview of the area is to board a Door County Trolley Scenic Tour in Fish Creek. In addition, there are culinary, wine, beer, lighthouse and ghost tours. Our driver seemed to fancy himself a local comedian (not!), but the scenery made it fairly easy to ignore his patter.
Door County has long been famous as orchard country: apples, cherries and, most recently, grapes. Though tourism and summer vacationers replaced a lot of orchards in the 1960s, (much as it did potato farming on Long Island), the County is still proud of its agriculture, which now includes a number of new wineries.
Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek is a good place to pick your own apples, and purchase local products at its retail outlet, including a county specialty, Montmorency cherries. The local cuisine is awash in all things cherry: cherry wine, cherry pie, cherry juice, cherry jams, cherry sauces and my favorite, dried cherries – to be found in every local salad. I grew so fond of them that I couldn’t resist buying dried-cherry packages to take home.
There are endless outdoor activities — hiking and bike trails – gorgeous golf courses, historic lighthouses, 11 of which are still working in Door County, and one of my favorites, a naturalist-guided nature walk at The Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve. We were fortunate to have Shannon as our guide. Her passion for the Sanctuary was only matched by her knowledge of the land – wildflowers, birds, mushrooms, creeks, trees, and the medicinal properties of plants – which she could read like a book.
Our best meal was at The Cookery in Fishcreek. It featured refined locally-sourced dishes – whitefish chowder, cherry and apple salad, walleye & pike – and wonderful desserts, among them Sour Cream Chocolate Cake, Apple Streusel and a Salted Caramel Ice Cream equal to the best. A Brut Apple Cider – a bit like a dry Italian Prosecco — was a perfect white wine accompaniment to the meal. The restaurant is open May to October.
Wilson’s Restaurant features food – and the ambience – of America in the 1950s. If you love old fashioned sodas, sundaes and banana splits, in addition to hamburgers, French fries, etc., then this is the place for you. It’s located in the lovely little village of Ephraim, the first community in Door County, founded in 1853 and still a “dry” community. Once a Moravian enclave, there are architectural tours of its distinctive white buildings.
If you love pizza, don’t miss Wild Tomato’s wood-fired pizzas in Fishcreek. . Owned and operated by a couple who returned from San Francisco to their home turf, there’s a sophisticated touch (Turkey and Brie Sandwich) to its menu. The Fun Guy (a mushroom pizza with five types of sautéed mushrooms, spinach and caramelized onions on garlic cream cheese) is terrific.
Finally, no trip to Door County is complete without partaking of something called a “Fish Boil.” The Old Post Office Restaurant overlooking Eagle Harbor (with a spectacular sunset view), is where I watched the event unfold, and enjoyed the results. Reported to have Icelandic or Scandinavian origins, a fish boil involves catching Lake Michigan whitefish and cooking it over an open wood fire. Potatoes and onions are boiled first, then the fish is dropped into a huge steaming kettle. When the oils from the whitefish rise to the top, kerosene is added and a spectacular flame indicates that the fish oils have boiled over and the fish is ready. People stand in line to pick up a plateful of wonderfully delicate fish, small potatoes and onions. Dessert is – what else? – Cherry Pie a la mode. .
As a three-season recreation area (four for dedicated ice fishermen and snowmobile types), Door County offers something for every type of vacationer and every type of budget. I look forward to exploring it further next Spring.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag