Editor’s Note: Wickman House announced it was for sale Nov. 22 after this issue of Evansville Living had published.
There are few Midwestern vacation destinations more postcard-worthy than Door County, Wisconsin. Just ask the estimated 2.5 million visitors the Lake Michigan peninsula attracts annually.
Our group of journalists came from all corners of the U.S. — only two hailed from the Midwest — and delighted in Door County’s rugged natural beauty, traditional hearty meals, friendly hospitality, and expertly crafted drinks on a chilly, clear December weekend. The peninsula is known for its sea of cherry blossom orchards each spring and 300 miles of sunny, pristine shorelines in the summer. But we found that late fall and early winter — with their break from throngs of seasonal vacationers and cooled-off temperatures hovering around 30 degrees — are perfect seasons to get to know the real Door County and the people who call it home year-round.
Sturgeon Bay, its largest city at 9,600 residents and the unofficial entrance to Door County, is 160 miles from Milwaukee’s Mitchell International Airport and about 50 miles from Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport. Most of Door County’s personable villages are spread along the shores of the 492-square-mile peninsula’s northern half, which is where our journey begins.
GET TO KNOW THE DÖRR
Driving north from Milwaukee, we veered east of the city of Green Bay in favor of a quiet but activity-filled three days exploring the peninsula’s shipbuilding history, artisan shopping, craggy cliffs, and esteem for friluftsliv, a Norwegian expression meaning open-air living. The latter is within reason: Originally home to Native Americans in the 1600s and settled by the French in the next century, Door County has a strong Scandinavian heritage that emerges in its cuisine and extreme respect for the environment. In fact, visitors are encouraged to join the county’s Leave No Trace initiative by practicing ethical outdoors behavior.
Chain hotels aren’t common on the peninsula, so prepare to bunk at a mix of rustic, family-run inns and comfortable resorts. The Landmark Resort, a sprawling bayside campus in Egg Harbor, is a storied property offering private balconies overlooking a quiet natural setting. Pheasant Park Resort in Sister Bay exudes “White Christmas” chic in a Queen Anne-style lodge with an indoor swimming pool. Across town, The Dörr is a sleek new waterfront hotel that stokes a congenial spirit among guests with fire pits and happy hours.
SEEING THE SIGHTS
The peninsula is beloved for outdoor activities, from winter hiking trails through the 3,700-acre Peninsula State Park facing Green Bay, to the jaw-dropping Whitefish Dunes cliffs at Cave Point County Park on the Lake Michigan side. But a crown jewel is The Ridges, a 1,600-acre sanctuary that doubles as Wisconsin’s original nature preserve and important natural landmark. Visitors can survey up to 800 years of natural history through five miles of trails and bridges between Baileys Harbor’s range lights. Each December, The Ridges invites visitors to enjoy holiday music, cider, and naturalist-guided hikes in the crisp winter air at its Natural Christmas event.
Door County also brims with culture, and Björklunden vid Sjön bridges the gap between nature, history, and art. Swedish for “birch grove at the lake,” it was built as Door County residents Donald and Winifred Boynton’s summer home and since 1963 has housed Lawrence University’s north campus on 441 quiet acres on the shores of Lake Michigan near Baileys Harbor. The campus balances learning opportunities for students with public seminars and retreats. Its Boynton Chapel, a small wooden church built in a late 12th-century Norwegian Stavkirke style, contains 41 hand-painted frescoes and breathtakingly detailed wood carvings.
The legends of Door County’s waters get their due at Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Maritime Museum, which explores Lake Michigan’s significance on the county’s economy and ecology, as well as the formerly treacherous straits known as Death’s Door that top the peninsula. So narrow and hazardous was crossing them that the Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal was opened in 1881, effectively turning the northern half of the peninsula into an artificial island.
Art flourishes at galleries and boutiques such as Plum Bottom Gallery, Sister Golden, Fine Line Design Gallery, and Blue Dolphin House & Studio, which are filled with paintings, pottery, handcrafted jewelry, and more one-of-a-kind treasures. Holiday shopping takes a special turn in December with the Sister Bay Historical Society’s Christkindlmarkt, a popular rite imported from Europe and featuring traditional huts selling handcrafted goods, Nordic foods, and steaming mulled wine in collectible mugs. The year-round Tannenbaum Holiday Shop – housed in a New England-style former church on the northern edge of Sister Bay – is a winter wonderland of artificial trees, ornaments, tree toppers, and more seasonal decor.
Consider capping your night with a show at Third Avenue Playworks. The 12-month performing arts center opened in 2012 and presents plays — including “It’s a Wonderful Life” this Christmas — in an intimate, 84-seat theater.
EAT, DRINK, AND BE CHERRY
There are two finer points about dining on the upper Door County peninsula. First, a great meal is hardly more than a 15-minute drive. Second, everyone from restaurateurs to distillers love infusing their menus with seasonal ingredients as well as some of the 8-15 million pounds of tart cherries harvested annually in Door County.
Two popular breakfast jaunts are Door County Coffee & Tea Company near Carlsville and Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. The former was started by Door County transplants Vicki and Doug Wilson and has grown into a 40,000-square-foot behemoth cranking out 100-plus varieties of coffee from Specialty Class 1 Arabica Beans. The latter eatery is famous for its sizeable all-day breakfasts served with lingonberries, attached “butik” selling Swedish trinkets, and goats grazing on the sod-lined roof each summer. (Enjoy watching the restaurant’s goat cam if you can’t visit from June to October.) New on the scene is Sip, a colorful Ephraim, Wisconsin, eatery offering a coffee bar and an eclectic menu of flatbreads, grain bowls, and loaded toast, many available starting at 7 a.m.
Wisconsinites’ love of supper clubs extends to Door County, but so do fine and family-style dining. Wickman House, a 2023 James Beard Foundation semi-finalist, serves elegantly plated food from a seasonally changing menu in a relaxed, upscale setting. Half shell oysters pair well with the popular creamy parsnip soup and flourless chocolate cake. Like many restaurants on the peninsula, Wickman House scales back its hours through the holidays and closes during the brunt of winter, when tourism dips to its lowest.
No matter the temperature, a traditional fish boil always is in season. Every bit as revered as a traditional Wisconsin fish fry, a boiling barrel of Lake Michigan whitefish draws hungry patrons to White Gull Inn on Fridays in aptly named Fish Creek. Down the street, bar snacks and sandwiches like the candied pork bahn Scott are served with beach-themed drinks and a rotating beer and wine selection at Hill Street, which maintains its noodle bar origins from 9 p.m. to midnight. A middle of the road option is Sonny’s in Sturgeon Bay, known for its four options of pizza crust thickness, extensive pasta menu, and even fried perch and cod on Fridays.
Door Countians unwind at places like Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor, which takes particular pride in its cherry-laden fruit wines. Nearby Hatch Distilling Co. seats patrons around a welcoming open bar and invites them to sample its wide range of spirits, including apple brandy, limoncello, honey barrel bourbon, and mead. Across the street from Door County Coffee, Door County Distillery’s small batch whiskey, gin, and vodka are served in a former schoolhouse it shares with Door Peninsula Winery.
Easing your car south back toward mainland Wisconsin, there’s one more stop: Renard’s Artisan Cheese, a Sturgeon Bay mecca stocked with more than 100 varieties – including nearly 50 cheddars – made at nearby Rosewood Dairy. Our group scooped up packages of a 15-year cheddar, blue marble jack, and cheeses blended with sriracha, Wisconsin hops, cherry chipotle, and chili lime. When asked if area airports would allow multiple thick blocks of cheese through security, the Renard’s clerk didn’t bat an eye when she retorted, “They see it all the time.” But don’t confine Wisconsin’s famous squeaky cheese curds to your carry-on: Those are best consumed hot and fresh.