By Trent Modglin
My family and I travel a lot — as much as possible, really — and for some reason, we never experienced Door County until my parents took the entire family up three years ago to celebrate their 50th anniversary. We quickly fell under its spell, all the while wondering why we waited so long to visit. Regardless, we now have it securely locked into our annual summer getaway plans.
The area is touristy, sure, but it’s quaint, approachable and not overdone. And did we mention beautiful? Sightsee, swim, fish, hike, shop, kayak, golf, dine and winery hop till your heart’s content. Or just kick back, unplug, relax and watch the clouds drift by. The choice is yours. One piece of advice, though: Take a drive and hit as many of the small towns that line the water as possible (Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek, Baileys Harbor, Gills Rock, Whitefish Bay, etc.), as each one possesses its own unique charm.
Here are a few highlights:
Narrated boat tour via Door County Boats
Sadly, out of the two million people who visit Door County every year, somehow only five percent of them get out on the water during their stay. That’s mind-boggling, considering the pristine waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan that surround the peninsula are just begging to be explored.
“The water is what we’re all about,” our guide aboard Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours told us. “You just get a different perspective out here… and there aren’t any gift shops. Welcome to the club.”
Turns out he was quite the storyteller, too, entertaining us about the ghost of his grandmother who haunts a nearby lighthouse, the history of the islands we passed, and the return of the white pelican (and its potential 10-foot wingspan) to the area.
Our cruise, departing from downtown Sister Bay, was aboard a double-decker, 149-passenger boat that allowed us to duck underneath and grab a cocktail when a brief storm passed through before returning to the top to enjoy the sun and views once the skies cleared up. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, Death’s Door and the many islands and bluffs that surround Door County — it’s all there for the taking.
Next time: We’ll hit their sunset live music cruise for a nice change of pace.
Daily tours range from 75 minutes to two hours and start at $29 per person, with kids 12 and under costing just $5. Located in Sister Bay Marina (with other cruises departing from Fish Creek, as well as well as an assortment of boat rental possibilities). 920-421-444. DoorCountyBoats.com
Peninsula State Park
Established way back in 1909, this 3,776-acre gem offers up an endless array of recreational opportunities like hiking, biking, swimming, fishing and, in the winter, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoeing. If you’re looking to sleep under the stars in one of the park’s 468 campsites, try to reserve your space well in advance, as it’s the state’s most popular camping destination. The sandy beaches, professional summer theater performances, White Cedar Nature Center and an 1860s lighthouse only add to the allure. 9462 Shore Road in Fish Creek. DoorCounty.com
Peninsula State Park Golf Course
And did we mention a challenging 18-hole golf course (opened in 1921) lies within the park, boasting some of the most picturesque views and majestic elevation changes you’ll find anywhere in the Midwest? The conditions are pristine; the rates reasonable as well. 920-854-5791. PeninsulaGolf.org
Historic fish boil at the Old Post Office
Fish boils are as synonymous with Door County as clam chowder or lobster are to New England and deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. There are a plethora of fish boils scattered throughout the peninsula, but the more we asked locals, the more we were consistently steered toward the Old Post Office in Ephraim. Make your reservations early and then head to the back of the newly restored building that used to house the town’s post office in the early 1900s. There, you’ll find a giant bonfire to gather around for some stories about this rustic Scandinavian tradition that was designed as an easy way to feed dozens of loggers at a time.
“Torch,” the cook, personally hosts some 400 boils per summer, preparing more than 30,000 pounds of fresh-caught whitefish in the process. After the flames die down, head inside the restaurant for a meal you won’t soon forget. Believe me, it’s essential Door County. 10040 Water Street, Highway 42 in Ephraim. 920-854-4034. OldPostOffice-DoorCounty.com
No trip to Door County would be complete without a hike around Washington Island, located off the northern tip of the peninsula. The ferry — able to carry passengers, bikes and cars — departs several times per day to the island. Upon arrival, hop aboard the Cherry Train for an easy tour of the area, including a stop by the lavender farm for a photo op.
Don’t forget: Combination tickets are available to Rock Island State Park. And there is free parking at the Northport ferry terminal. 215 State Highway 42 in Northport. 920-847-2546. WisFerry.com
Stone’s Throw Winery
Premium California grapes make their way 2,500 miles east to this hidden gem in the middle of Door County, where they have been taking the traditional barrel-at-a-time approach to producing a tasty variety of wines for more than two decades. Sample a flight in the tasting room, dine in one of their two restaurants, or purchase a bottle to enjoy on the beautiful patio. 3382 County E in Baileys Harbor. 920-839-9660. StonesThrowWinery.com
Just next to the Stone’s Throw Winery is this lively pub that claims to have the best burger in Door County. They may have undersold themselves a bit there, as it’s possibly one of the best burgers we’ve had anywhere. Try the massive walleye sandwich, deep-fried corn or decadent Beef & Boomer burger, which comes topped with sautéed mushrooms, melted Swiss and a hefty portion of shaved prime rib. If you’re wondering if it’s as good as it sounds, it’s actually better. Intersection of Highway A and Highway E in Baileys Harbor. 920-839-2141. PeninsulaPub.com
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik
Arguably the most popular restaurant in all of Door County, this family-run, breakfast lover’s haven is known for having goats spend the day meandering about its grass roof. Yes, you read that correctly. Goats. On the roof. Offering an assortment of Swedish cuisine and décor for nearly 60 years, they know a thing or two about serving up specialty dishes like Swedish pancakes with fresh lingonberries, meatballs or local perch. 10698 N. Bay Shore Dr. in Sister Bay. 920-854-2626. AlJohnsons.com
Stabbur Scandinavian Beer Garden
Located next door to Al Johnson’s (and owned by the same family) is this beautiful green space and outdoor bar made of Norwegian logs. A rotation of 20 draft beers with a Wisconsin and Midwest focus is available, and giant TVs and lawn games add to the family-friendly fun. From the kitchen, try the tenderloin sliders or Friday fish fry. 10698 N. Bay Shore Dr. in Sister Bay. AlJohnsons.com
Wilson’s Ice Cream Parlor
A throwback to simpler times, Wilson’s has been the landmark of the village of Ephraim since 1906. Enchanting would be an accurate description, with its old-fashioned soda fountain, home-brewed root beer, burgers hot off the grill, jukebox and — not to be overlooked — splendid ice cream creations. Don’t be turned off by a line of customers outside, as it moves quick. If you’re stopping after dinner, take your ice cream across the street to enjoy the sunset on the water. 9990 Water Street in Ephraim. 920-854-2041. WilsonsIceCream.com
One Barrel Brewing Company
This Madison brewery established its second location recently in Door County, and the massive outdoor patio is ideal to kick back with a cold craft beer on a warm afternoon or evening. The modern taproom is inviting as well, as are the Wild Tomato pizza options if the hunger pains hit. Try the hoppy Penguin Pale Ale, refreshing Kolsch or the Banjo Cat, a rich and malty black porter. 4633 Market Street in Egg Harbor. 920-868-5262. OneBarrelBrewing.com
Blue Horse Cafe
We stumbled upon this great little breakfast and sandwich spot while driving through downtown Fish Creek on our way home, and wished we had found it earlier. Grab a sausage egg biscuit, curry chicken salad sandwich, giant cinnamon roll (c’mon… you’re on vacation) or iced latte to enjoy from the backyard or front porch overlooking the water. 4113 Main Street in Fish Creek. 920-868-1471. BlueHorseCafe.com
Door County Adventure Center
Looking for adventure of all kinds? This company provides kayaking, zip lines, paddleboards, rock walls and more. Tours or rentals are available at several locations, and if you book two tours, you can save $10 per person on the second go-round. 4497 Ploor Road in Sturgeon Bay. 920-746-9539. DCAdventureCenter.com
Pirate’s Cove miniature golf
Take the kids on a miniature golf adventure through mountain caves, under waterfalls and across foot bridges. Just don’t let them beat you. 2502 Highway 42 in Sister Bay. 920-854-4929. PiratesCove.com