Door County: All American in All Kinds of Ways

Patriotic holidays like President’s Day, Memorial Day and July 4th are not just about celebrating America’s history and heritage, but also indulging in nostalgia and a simpler way of life, including some things your grandparents remember growing up with. Other destinations have restaurants and businesses that reinvent the rural-American lifestyle in a modern and colorful way. A few blend the best of both those worlds, along with an interesting mix of landscapes and attractions.

Door County, Wis., happens to be one of those places, and one ideal for multigenerational family travel. It starts at about an hour outside of Green Bay by car and works its way north through the state’s iconic peninsula. It is often dubbed the New England of the Midwest, defined by its shoreline and its lighthouses as much as it is by its farms and small towns. Activities such as winter ice fishing and cozy fish boil dinners add an extra North Woods flavor reflecting the imprint early Scandinavian, Belgian and German settlers made along the peninsula.

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© Elyse Glickman

Door County’s high season is fall, when leaf peepers and color seekers ascend from Milwaukee, Chicago and other driving distance cities. However, what makes the area stand out is it truly is a year-round destination — and a lively one at that. Door County got its name under unfortunate circumstances over two centuries ago (French explorers and Native American tribes referred the rough waters separating the main peninsula from Washington Island as the “doors of death”). Shipwrecks and lighthouses scattered around the peninsula and the islands; however, act as doors into various pockets of American history and culture.

The same holds true for many of the bed-and-breakfasts, guest cottages and country inns anchoring Sturgeon Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek, Algoma and other towns. In many instances, they are historic landmarks in their own right. Innkeepers have done a good job maintaining a historic feel true to the region and architectural structure while accommodating the tastes and needs of modern travelers with various interior design upgrades and updated amenities.

The Victorian-flavored White Gull Inn stages a popular “fish boil dinner,” with Lake Michigan whitefish cooked outside over an open fire. The tradition began with Scandinavian settlers over a century ago and was carried on by local churches for fundraisers. Eagle Harbor Inn, established in 1937, offers home-y accommodations for everybody from honeymooning couples to large family reunions. Its breakfast is a celebration of all things crafted from cherries (even in the middle of winter) and exquisite fresh-baked pastries. In the main house, rooms and suites are named after prominent businesswomen of the area’s early days.

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© Elyse Glickman

The Whistling Swan Inn, Door County’s oldest operating inn, was the “Ritz Carlton” of the county at the turn of the last century and remains one of the peninsula’s most elegant addresses. Built in Marinette, Wis., in 1887, the original house was moved across the ice of Green Bay by teams of horses in 1907 to be integrated into Dr. and Mrs. Welcker’s Resort and Casino. Today, it is also known throughout Door County as a foodie destination under the direction of executive chef Ryan Klawitter and sous chef Dustin Keranen, who craft modern, American-style cuisine with an emphasis on produce and ingredients from Door County.

Beyond the inns, there are many intimate historic homes, such as Alexander Noble House, heritage villages and specialized museums packed with interesting artifacts and displays. Numerous active historical societies from the different towns offer a full docket of tours and programs throughout the year in addition to maintenance of the historic sites. Prime examples of this include Heritage Village in Sturgeon Bay, known for its live blacksmith demonstration and tours to Washington Island via the ferry (or icebreaker during the winter) covering its rich Icelandic heritage and preserved maritime landmarks.

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© Elyse Glickman, Maritime Museum

Another must-do for landlubbers and seafarers alike is the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. The building has four main galleries outfitted with lighthouses, model ships and boats, shipwrecks and relics from the area’s numerous shipbuilding companies. There is also an in-water exhibit of a completely restored 1960s-era tugboat built in 1919 and served until early 2000. The museum is located along Sturgeon Bay next to the historic steel bridge. Bay Shipbuilding, across the bay from the museum, can be seen through a submarine periscope inside. Across the street, Sonny’s Italian Kitchen and Pizzeria (transformed from a chain restaurant) serves flavor-packed Italian pizza, alongside pastas, fried cheese curds and a boatload of other goodies.

Ice fishing, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling are draws during the winter. And there’s something delightfully cozy about indulging your inner “Etsy” at the county’s many hands-on art studios or the Peninsula School of Art, with classes for different age groups. Fashion-minded visitors in their teens and older can book a leather-working class at the stylish Turtle Ridge Gallery to admire artist-owner Mary Ellen Sisulak’s high-end handbags and accessories for inspiration (or purchase) before crafting their own statement piece.

Door County’s abundance of outdoor activities during the warmer months, meanwhile, may be overwhelming. There is about 300 miles of shoreline with public beaches and parks, as well as an equally impressive number of trails for walks, hikes, bike rides and horseback riding. Thankfully, the Door County Land Trust and Nature Conservancy offer additional information and assistance at no charge when you plan your trip. Visitors who want to experience the outdoors at a slower pace, meanwhile, can visit area orchards for a fruit-picking session or attend outdoor concerts and shows.

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© Elyse Glickman

The agriculturally rich area not only means there are numerous cheese shops, farms, fisheries and winery to explore, but also an influx of artisanal expressions of foods crafted from cherries, apples, dairy and grains. At the Door County Coffee & Tea Company, guests can not only sip and purchase small-batch coffees ranging from classic (Premiere Select, Intense Dark and Elite Espresso) to exotic (flavored Cherry Crème, Raspberry Butter Crunch and Caramel Pecan Scones), but also indulge in fresh baked goods and savory original breakfast plates that are baked (including the hash browns and bacon). Julie’s Park Café is another excellent bet for brunch, while Wisconsin Cheese Masters is the ultimate stop for internationally award-winning and rare cheese selections.

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© Elyse Glickman