November 13, 2018
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Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Where do you go when you need to steal away?
For the full feature see page 38 in the November/December issue of Evansville Living.

Do you seek the refuge of the mountains, a cultural destination with a dash of southern hospitality? Or do you pursue the serenity of the warmth of the sun and the repetitious sound of crashing waves? Or do you wish to escape to the wildness of the west where rock formations are frozen in time? Whether your dream excursion is large or small, daring or relaxing, we have an experience to inspire you. Evansville Living shares five of our personal favorite getaways that will feed your body and soul.

Natural Beauty

Door County, Wisconsin, offers a blend of seaside charm in the heart of the Midwest

By Kristen K. Tucker

How Door County, Wisconsin, is on my very short list of favorite vacations — the slim finger of a peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan I’ve visited only twice — is best told by a Door County Trolley (doorcountytrolley.com) Lighthouse Tour Guide wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

The gregarious tour guide, John Berns, introduced himself to our group at the Cana Island Light House. Earlier in the day, we had toured the county on a trolley (a large operation) on the Scenic Tour. Berns had brought a group to the lighthouse and was departing as we arrived.

“Travel writers!” said Berns. “I can tell you my best Door County story real quick. A few years ago I was visiting Hawaii, my wife and I were at a Tower Records store in Honolulu where a guy saw me wearing a Packers shirt and asked me where I was from. Well, to make it easy, I just said, ‘the Green Bay area.’ Well, he said, ‘No, where exactly are you from?’ And, I said, ‘My wife and I are from Door County.’ ‘Door County!’ he said, ‘My is that beautiful. What are you doing here?’”

The Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor offers stunning views from its many paths and patios. Photo by Wesley Teo. Below, the Cana Island Lighthouse north of Bailey’s Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin, with its 89-foot tower serves both as a navigational aid and a museum. Visitors walk across a causeway to reach the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Jon Jarosh/Door County Visitor Bureau.

Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations at the Door County Visitor Bureau (doorcounty.com), describes the allure of the county where he lives with his family and works:

“A bucolic sliver of land that juts into Lake Michigan in Wisconsin’s northeast corner, Door County offers seaside experiences in the heart of the Midwest. Few places in the Midwest provide a combination of natural beauty, small-town charm, and a sense of history as rich as Door County. Amidst its scenic beauty are waterfront villages offering museums, performing arts venues, boutique shops, galleries, golf courses, and restaurants. Along with the county’s 300 miles of shoreline, five state parks and 19 county parks combine to make Door County a wonderfully special getaway destination.”

From Evansville, Indiana, driving to Door County will take you about nine hours straight up Interstate 57 or U.S. Highway 41-N. I flew to the Appleton International Airport (connecting through Detroit from Evansville). From the airport, it’s about a 90-minute drive to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, at the southern end of the county.

Roughly three quarters of Door County’s 2 million annual visitors come between early May and late October, but the shoulder seasons are becoming increasingly popular thanks to the abundance of winter sports and leisure activities available (ice fishing, snowmobiling, and snowshoe hiking), as well as the quiet serenity of the winter peninsula.

The Lay of the Land

Founded in 1851, Door County is named for Death’s Door, the aptly named water passage that lies off the tip of the peninsula where the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay converge. Death’s Door is the English translation of Porte Des Morts, the name given to the treacherous water passage by early French explorers based on Native American stories they heard and their own perilous experiences. By the late 19th century, Lake Michigan was the nautical superhighway for schooners and freighters. A journal kept by the Cana Island lighthouse keeper in the late 1800s noted that in one summer he counted more than 4,000 passing ships. With the clashing waters of the bay and the lake, not all ships passed safely — the waters around the county hold more than 200 registered shipwrecks; experienced divers say there are more than three dozen shipwrecks that can be explored.

Door County has 11 historic lighthouses that dot the peninsula’s shores, one of the largest concentrations of lighthouses for any county in the U.S. Three are open for tours. As Jarosh noted, the county has five state parks, 19 county parks, as well as a large number of local parks, nature preserves, and state natural areas — more than 23,000 acres of public and preserved land. The county has beaches galore — 54 Lake Michigan and Green Bay public swimming beaches with around 6.5 total miles of sandy shoreline.
Despite development pressure of recent decades, the vast majority of Door County’s land mass remains undeveloped. Outside of Sturgeon Bay, the county seat, visitors see no chain hotels, restaurants, or gas stations. In fact, you won’t hit a single stoplight leaving Sturgeon Bay and driving north to the tip, on either the bay side or the lakeside of the peninsula.

Which Door to Explore?

You don’t have to choose which Door County communities to explore; you’ll want to get acquainted with all 14 towns, four villages, and one city along the 70-mile long peninsula covering 492 square miles. Each community has its own tone and style, yet the overarching culture and hospitality unites the 28,000 residents of the peninsula and its visitors. Here, I’ll highlight the communities I recently visited.

Sturgeon Bay (sturgeonbay.net), population 9,100, at the southern end of Door County is a year-round waterfront community dating to 1835. The city is located on the bay of Green Bay, which flows into Lake Michigan through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal, dug between 1872 and 1881.

Be sure to visit the Door County Maritime Museum (dcmm.org) on the busy Sturgeon Bay waterfront. Our docent, Jon Gast, a retired newspaper manager and editor who now owns Edible Door magazine (edibledoor.com), gave an excellent tour of the museum’s four attractive and interactive galleries, and its recently restored Tug John Purves, an immaculately restored 1960s era Great Lakes tugboat. (The tug was built in 1919 as an ocean-going tug.)

Don’t leave Sturgeon Bay without stopping in Door County Coffee & Tea Company (doorcountycoffee.com); visit at breakfast or lunch so you can enjoy their delicious menu. Call in advance and bring a small group, and owner Vicki Wilson will make a delightful presentation in the Coffee College conference room about the history of coffee beans and the company’s efforts to source only the highest quality coffee, which is roasted and flavored in-house. Who knew that in ancient Turkey, not offering a wife sufficient coffee was grounds for divorce!

The Eagle Bluff Lighthouse is located within the Peninsula State Park. Bottom, bakery treats at Scaturo’s Baking Company and Café in Sturgeon Bay tempt diners. Photo by Kristen K. Tucker. Photo of Eagle Bluff Lighthouse by Jon Jarosh/Door County Visitor Bureau.

Sturgeon Bay is a working town, still involved in shipbuilding and fishing. Eat like a local at Scaturo’s Café and Baking Co. (scaturos.com); it’s not uncommon for it to open at the crack of dawn to serve fishermen.

Egg Harbor (eggharbordoorcounty.org) was the location of my accommodations, Best of Door County perennial winner the Landmark Resort (thelandmarkresort.com), also the largest resort in the county with 294 suites. The resort is located just south of the town, on a bluff with fantastic views of the bay of Green Bay, foliage, and the Alpine Resort and Golf Course (36 holes). It’s about a 15 minute walk to town — remember once you walk down the steep road that is Highway 42, you have to walk back up to the resort; it’s a workout.

Dine at the Shipwrecked Brew Pub (shipwreckedmicrobrew.com), a tavern since 1882, and an inn, too, since 1904. In the 1920s, it was a favorite hideaway of Al Capone, because tunnels (now closed) ran under the building and all through Egg Harbor. Today the brewpub prides itself on offering nothing but 100 percent handcrafted Door County beers, including the beers brewed on site.

The village of Fish Creek (visitfishcreek.com) will charm you. Evansville resident and travel writer Tracey Teo remarked that the town reminded her of Maine’s coastal villages. It’s in Fish Creek that you will find the entrance to Peninsula State Park (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/peninsula).

High bluffs and sandy beaches, a 1860s lighthouse, an 18-hole golf course, and professional summer theater performances make this 3,776-acre park a destination. Hiking and bicycling are the preferred ways to explore trails that wind through the interior of the park and offer outlooks from the 200- to 300-foot bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment (geological formations stretching through Door County and creating its dolomite rock bluffs). Visitors may also tour and climb the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse at the park.

Door County is among the top cherry producing regions in the country with more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards and annual cherry harvests from 8 million to 12 million pounds of cherries. Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek (orchardcountry.com) has been planting, harvesting, and producing quality fruit products in Door County since 1955. Situated on 100 acres of blossoming orchards and lush vineyards, the family estate is home to a winery, cider mill, and farm market. Come during one of Orchard Country’s three festivals and try your hand at the cherry pit-spitting contest. The orchard offers guided winery tours daily May through October; you can warm up with wine and cider tastings daily through the year, including winter.

Villaggio’s (villaggios-doorcounty.com), with a Fish Creek address but really in the tiny of settlement of Juddville, is the Door County destination for authentic Italian dining. Try the ravioli special, always stuffed with fresh seasonal ingredients. I ordered mushroom stuffed ravioli with a glass of Chianti.

Sister Bay (cometosisterbay.com) is home to what is arguably the most well known Door County restaurant — Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. Al Johnson’s is an authentic Swedish family-owned restaurant with goats grazing its sod roof. While the goats don’t come to work in the winter, Al Johnson’s goat cam is always on, so come spring, check it out (aljohnsons.com/goat-cam). Inside the casual dining room, servers in Scandinavian garb offer limpa bread, Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, and Swedish meatballs. The restaurant and its gift shop pay homage to the Scandinavians who immigrated to Door County two centuries ago.

Also stop in Grasse’s Grill (grassesgrill.com) and meet owner and chef Jimmy Grasse and his wife Jessica, who have turned their building, a former dairy carrying the family name, into a restaurant with thoughtful food preparation and community mindedness.

You’ll want to explore Door County from land and water. From the Sister Bay Marina, take an excursion onto the bay of Green Bay with Shoreline Charters (shorelinecharters.net) offered daily (in season, before the bay freezes). The company’s captains and crew will show you cliffs, caves, lighthouses, shipwreck locations, and waterfront estates, and will share local history and nautical folklore. 

Bailey’s Harbor (baileysharbor.com), on the eastern shore of the peninsula, is home to the Cana Island Lighthouse (dcmm.org/cana-island-lighthouse). In season, ascend the 97 steps of the tower, 80-feet up, to the open observation gallery and a view of the lantern room containing the lighthouse’s lens (first lit in 1870), which is a third order Fresnel lens built in Paris. Bailey’s Harbor also offers a unique hiking opportunity — a naturalist-guided walk at The Ridges Sanctuary (ridgessanctuary.org), Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve, so named because the preserve is dominated by a series of 30 ridges formed by the retreating of post glacial waters that began nearly 1,200 years ago. The Ridges recently opened a beautiful new interpretive center, the first LEED certified commercial building in Door County.

Guests stand back for the dramatic boil over before proceeding to the buffet. Photo by Wesley Teo. Below, Jewel Ouradnik, owner of Rowleys Bay Resort and Restaurant, shows off the steaming whitefish, potatoes, and onion from the fish boil. Photo byJon Jarosh/Door County Visitor Bureau.

A taste of Door County’s finest dining can be found in Bailey’s Harbor at the Harbor Fish Market & Grille (harborfishmarket-grille.com), serving New England style seafood with white tablecloths and amazing views of Lake Michigan. For a cocktail, try a Door County Mule, made with tart cherries, Grey Goose Vodka, and ginger beer, and served in a chilled copper mug.

Long ago, when settling Door County, Scandinavian immigrants brought with them an ingenious method of feeding lots of people, on the cheap. Today, coastal communities dotting the shores of the county carry on the tradition that is part meal, part spectacle — the fish boil. Your trip to Door County is not complete without experiencing it.

From May to October, as many as 15 restaurants offer fish boils several times a week. It’s best to make reservations. I visited Rowleys Bay Resort (rowleysbayresort.com), located on Rowleys Bay, for one of its last fish boils of the season. Guests gather around as the resort’s master storyteller (a retired English professor) spins the history of Rowleys Bay and the fish boil while the boil master tends to the flaming fire under the huge iron cauldron, filled with freshly caught Lake Michigan white fish, onions, and red potatoes. Guests then enjoy the purest tasting white fish they’ve ever tasted, of course with as much melted butter as desired.  

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