Knock, knock, knocking on Door County’s summer haven
Cruisers who transit the Great Loop—the waterway route around the eastern half of the U.S.—typically travel in a counterclockwise direction, with Lake Michigan as the last of the Great Lakes on their journey. Many follow the lake’s eastern shoreline southward to Chicago, but in doing so, they miss out on a delightful peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan from its western side and offers exploration of 300 miles of shoreline, 34 named islands, 11 quaint communities, 19 county parks, 5 state parks, year-round festivals, bike trails, cultural events—the list is endless. And that is Door County, Wisconson.
Door County is only a three-to-five-hour drive for Midwest urbanites in Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, so roads and accommodations are usually packed with weekend visitors during the summer months. But with many transient-friendly marinas, enchanting coves and shipwrecks to explore on both the lakeside and in Green Bay on the west side of the peninsula, Door County is an enchanting late-summer detour to experience the outdoors and take in the early fall colors before resuming the Great Loop voyage to Chicago and the inland river system.
The Sturgeon Bay Canal bisects Door County and connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan, so cruisers can circumnavigate the county if they wish to see the entire shoreline on one trip. It was built to provide safer access into Green Bay rather than having to navigate the northern entrance, known as the Porte des Morts Passage (Death’s Door), which is riddled with shoals—and shipwrecks—and should be navigated only in good weather with updated charts.
Washington Island on the north end of Door County is the largest of the county’s 34 islands and offers more than 100 miles of roads to explore with your bicycle. For those who are less interested in exercise, rent a moped or take a guided Segway tour. A ferry transports residents and visitors with and without cars from the peninsula. Washington is the only island that’s inhabited year-round; it was settled by Icelanders who were accustomed to the cold winter months.
Scandinavians established Central Door County, and their influence is still evident, especially in dining options. Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, in Sister Bay on the west side of the peninsula, serves authentic dishes by waitrons dressed in Scandinavian clothing. Feast on Swedish meatballs, pancakes with lingonberries, limpa bread, Scandinavian cheeses, and a host of other options. Reserve some time to dally in its huge gift shop; the wooden Dalecarlian horse brought back memories of playing with one at my grandmother’s house when I was a young girl. When you leave, look up! A family of goats grazes on the sod roof, and it’s quite a sight!. (aljohnsons.com; 920-854-2626)
Rowley’s Bay Resort and Restaurant host a traditional “fish boil” that began as a way to feed large groups of lumberjacks and fishermen. The boil consists of whitefish caught from Lake Michigan, combined with salt, onion, red potatoes, and butter cooked in the same manner as the early settlers during which the liquid “boils over” in a fiery show.
While the ingredients are cooking in a big cauldron over an open fire, a storyteller regales the audience with tales and history of the early settlers. Make reservations for the all-you-can-eat dining event, and order a slice of Door County cherry pie for dessert. (rowleysbayresort.com; 920-854-2385)
Door County, Wisconsin, ranks fourth in the nation for cherry production after Michigan, New York, and Utah. In fact, more than 10,000 acres of cherry groves were planted in the 1890s; the surrounding waters make the climate an ideal environment for the crop. Cherry blossoms appear during the middle of May, and the crop is ripe by the end of July, but that all depends on the weather so dates vary. No matter where you dine, cherries will be part of the menu and offered in many forms—cherry wine and cherry salsa are particularly tasty— especially during Jacksonport’s Cherry Fest in early August.
If you prefer to cook your own food while cruising, the farm-to-table movement has caught on in Door County, and farmers’ markets are plentiful through mid-October in nearly every town or community. You’ll find much more than just raw vegetables and fruit. The locals sell many items you enjoy in their restaurants: homemade jams and jellies, bakery goods, cheeses, mustards, fudge, and Norwegian lefse.
If you stay until mid- or late September, take advantage of the Honeycrisp apple harvest. These apples are good for eating, cooking, baking, sauces, salads, and have a very long shelf life, so you’ll still be enjoying them when you reach the Gulf!(doorcounty.com/events)
In case you’ve indulged too much on the local bounty, Door County’s 24 parks offer a multitude of hiking paths with a variety of landscapes and views. Are you a birding buff? Bring your camera and binoculars to Whitefish Dunes State Park in Sturgeon Bay, which has many different habitats for a variety of species; the park office even provides a species list so you can check them off in your birding brag book. Wild about wildflowers?
Another list categories them by season, non-flowering plants, beach grasses, and shrubs. Just make sure you stay on the trail to avoid poison ivy and don’t pick the flowers; there’s a $250 fine. Do you fawn over fungi? Mushrooms grow throughout the park and while it’s legal for you to gather them, the list they provide does not delineate those that are edible from those that are poisonous. So, unless you’re a bona fi de fungi expert, it’s safer to leave them alone. (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/whitefish/)
Can’t get enough of the outdoors? Northern Sky Theater gives performances under the night sky surrounded by pine trees in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek. The very talented cast enacts several different plays each season so that visitors can enjoy multiple shows during their visit.
The summer presentations run about 90 minutes with no intermission, and subject content and humor are appropriate for all ages. (northernskytheater.com)
Cruisers who take the time to visit Door County, Wisconsin and all its delights will undoubtedly be glad they did, even if they don’t care for cheese!
Alibi Marina, Fish Creek
(920) 868-3789 • alibimarina.com
Egg Harbor Marina, Egg Harbor
(920) 868-2048 • eggharbormarina.com
Fish Creek Marina,
Downtown Fish Creek
(920) 868-3476 • fishcreektowndock.com
Kap’s Marina, Washington Island
(920) 847-2640 • kapsmarina.net
Sister Bay Marina, Sister Bay
(920) 854-4457 • sisterbaymarina.com
SkipperBud’s Yacht Center
at Quarterdeck Marina, Sturgeon Bay
(920) 746-8200 • skipperbuds.com
Bay Shore Outfitters
Door County Adventure Rafting
Door County Trolley
Nor Door Sport & Cyclery
Liz Pasch, Southern Boating Magazine July 2017
Photos: Door County Visitor Bureau.