This bucolic 70-mile-long peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin combines natural beauty and outdoor recreation with art galleries and traditional Scandinavian cuisine
Door County, Wisconsin, has been a popular vacation spot for Midwesterners for years. However, if you live in other parts of the country, it’s quite likely you’ve never heard of it.
If you look at a map of Wisconsin and go to the northeast tip, you’ll see a peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. That peninsula is Door County, and all along the shoreline, up one side and down the other, you’ll find a number of quaint waterfront towns and villages, each with their own special attractions.
“The very first tourists up here were wealthy folks from Chicago and Milwaukee who would hop on a steamship and steam up here to get away from the summer heat,” explains Jon Jarosh, with the Door County Visitor Bureau. “They would go to Fish Creek and Ephraim. Those were two of the first places that people started visiting.”
Popular spots today include Egg Harbor, Sister Baby, Ellison Bay and others. These small waterfront communities offer swimming, sailing, kayaking, charter boat fishing and guided boat tours to view the bluffs and some 11 lighthouses throughout the region.
“The county is about 70 miles long,” notes Jarosh. “It consists of the county itself, but then the surrounding islands. We’ve got 34 named islands up here in Door County, with the largest being Washington Island. That’s our only year-round island community. It has about 700 residents.”
While the shoreline and the islands offer many recreational activities, the area’s charm extends beyond the water. There’s something appealing about the relaxed lifestyle, the warmth of the people who live here and the way they do business. As you drive through Door County, you’ll find unique shops, restaurants, wineries, distilleries and one-of-a-kind artists. There are no chain restaurants, chain convenience stores, or even chain grocery stores. Sturgeon Bay, the area’s only incorporated city, may be the one place you see a business or two you recognize. There is a Walmart here, but it’s the exception and not the norm.
The small specialty shops offer the opportunity to take your time, ask questions and learn more about what you’re seeing or buying. For example, everyone knows Wisconsin is famous for its cheese — it produces more than 25 percent of all cheese made in the U.S. So, it’s nice to pop in to a store like Wisconsin Cheese Masters in Egg Harbor, and take the time to find out more about the history and what’s uniquely available. Cheeses here are all handmade. There are only 52 Master Cheese Makers in the world, and all of them are in Wisconsin.
Most operations in Door County feature a friendly feel. You’ll note that in area restaurants you often get to speak to the chef or the restaurateur while you dine. If you make it to a traditional fish boil — and you absolutely should — you may hear from the boil master himself as the meal is prepared. You’ll learn how locals have, for years, prepared this popular dish made with whitefish caught in nearby waters. The boil master adds salt, potatoes, onions and then the whitefish, and finally throws kerosene on top, burning it off in a magnificent fiery blaze. And after you eat the entrée, you’ll want to top it off with a piece of cherry pie.
Cherries are a big deal in Door County. You may notice the many cherry orchards in the area and even stop to accept an invitation to pick some. In the mid-1900s, the region was the largest producer of tart cherries in America. Today, it’s the fourth largest. Part of the fun of your visit might just be the many cherry items you’ll get a chance to sample while you’re here. There’s a wide array of cherry-flavored foods and sauces, as well as cherry wine, cherry vodka, cherry brandy and much more.
Whether it’s the inspiration of the scenic surroundings or the longstanding support from throughout the region, artists seem to be drawn to Door County. And once they come, they tend to stay. As you travel from town to town, you’ll come across out-of-the-way studios and galleries showcasing a variety of artists, some of whom are doing cutting-edge work you won’t see anywhere else. Jeremy Popelka and Stephanie Trenchard are masters in the field of glass art. They own the Popelka Trenchard Glass Gallery in Sturgeon Bay, where you can take classes or watch Popelka blow and design glass right in front of you. You can also see pieces Trenchard has designed that involve first sculpting a figure from glass, then encapsulating it inside another, bigger glass structure. They’re called sandcast glass with inclusions.
“I sculpt the interior piece first on a blow pipe,” she says as she describes the process. “I either sculpt it with Jeremy’s help or he sculpts it with my help. You start out with a blob (of glass) and all of a sudden you see a figure. You see a personality.” She paints the figures with glass paint, then later creates the larger glass structures to house them.
Chad Luberger is a porcelain artist in Egg Harbor. He traveled to China, the home of porcelain, to learn his craft. “Porcelain is a raw material that comes from millions of years of erosion in rocks. One of the things I love about the material is the vibrancy of color I get with the glazes, as well as the thinness I can get because of its strength.”
His Plum Bottom Pottery & Gallery, like many studios and galleries in Door County, features the work of both local artists and artists from around the country. As he points out, loyal customers know that and come back year after year.
Many who visit this part of Wisconsin do return. For RV owner Jim Wagner of McHenry, Illinois, this was his first visit after hearing so many good things over the years. He, too, is likely to come back.
“It’s a relaxed atmosphere, there’s a lot of fun stuff to do. We’ve seen a lot, like the lighthouses and state parks.”
Wagner added that he’d also been to a traditional fish boil and had sampled cherry doughnuts, confirming, “There’s everything cherry up here.” And while there are some narrow roads when driving through some of the smaller towns, Wagner says he hadn’t had any problems with an RV.
“Obviously, some of the towns have two-lane highways so you’ve got to be a little careful, but other than that I haven’t had any trouble at all and I’ve got a big rig.”
Wagner stayed at the Egg Harbor Campground and RV Resort, but Door County has a number of campgrounds available. Other full-service RV parks in the area include Baileys Grove Campground, Fish Creek Campground, Quietwoods South Camping Resort and Rustic Timbers.
When planning a visit to the area, be aware that the peak vacation season stretches from May to October and that many local shops, businesses and restaurants are closed during winter.
Autumn is a great time to take in Door County’s fall foliage or one of the many harvest festivals, including the Fall Fun Fest & Cider Pressing Party (October 7-8), the Pumpkin Patch Festival (October 7-8), and the Sister Bay Fall Festival (October 13-15). Peak fall foliage occurs in mid-October.
For More Information
Baileys Grove Campground
Door County Visitor Bureau
920-743-4456 | www.doorcounty.com
Egg Harbor Campground & RV Resort
Fish Creek Campground
Plum Bottom Pottery & Gallery
Popelka Trenchard Glass Gallery
920-743-7287 | www.popelkaglass.com
Quietwoods South Camping Resort
920-825-7065 | www.quietwoodscamping.com
Rustic Timbers Door County Camping
920-868-3151 | http://rustictimbersdoorcountycamping.com
Wisconsin Cheese Masters
920-868-4320 | www.wisconsincheesemasters.com