If you’ve ever been to Door County, the “thumb” of a peninsula that sticks out of Wisconsin’s mainland into Lake Michigan, you know how popular a destination it is.
In the summer, crowds can mean waits at restaurants and a tough time finding solitude in the peninsula’s abundant parks and nature preserves.
But in winter, it’s an entirely different story. Ice blankets the bay. Pristine snow covers the cherry orchards and lavender fields. And the tourists? Most of them are at home or somewhere warm.
I spent a long weekend in Door County this month and was utterly charmed by the sleepy nature of the villages up and down the 80-mile-long peninsula when most of the tourists are at home or somewhere warmer.
Though many businesses choose to close during the colder months, there’s still plenty to do and see. Lodging is less expensive, restaurant waits are pretty much non-existent and you’ll have the hiking trails mostly to yourself.
Here are some of the highlights from my trip, which was sponsored by Destination Door County.
One of the things that keeps me sane during winter in the Twin Cities is bundling up and getting outdoors when the weather is good. By good, I mean above 10 degrees. And Door County offers plenty of places to hike (or snowshoe at times when there’s more snow), cross-country ski or even e-bike during the winter months. Ice fishing is also popular, though this year, the ice on the bay was too thin for us to check out that activity.
• If you’re looking for some low-key activity and enjoy birds, Open Door Bird Sanctuary (4114 County Highway I, Jacksonport, Wis.; opendoorbirdsanctuary.com) is a relatively new oasis for birds who can’t survive in the wild. The mostly outdoor facility houses a golden eagle, a bald eagle, a Peregrine falcon and a handful of owl species, including a barred owl and the adorable long-eared owl. Executive director and founder Rob Hults is passionate about these majestic animals, spending his time tending to them, talking to them and building their spacious enclosures. Hults is a contractor by day, and his skills have produced beautiful aviaries for these lucky birds. Hike a short path around the serene grounds to see the birds — most of which are housed outdoors even in the coldest of weather. (They do have heated water bowls and perches, should they choose to use them.)
• For a look at what makes the county’s geography so unique, hike at The Ridges Sanctuary (8166 State Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, Wis.; ridgessanctuary.org), which preserves 40 acres of ridges and swales, carved by the lake over hundreds of years. Trees grow on the ridges, and marshy areas and creeks fill the swales. It’s home to 500 species of plants, including 25 native orchids, and more than 60 kinds of breeding birds, including 12 threatened or endangered species, and the federally endangered Hine’s Emerald dragonfly. Of course, many of those aren’t visible in the winter, but the snow fills into the swales and makes for a beautiful photo, and we did see two deer in very close range. Two range lights, one in a small lighthouse and the other atop a house that used to be home to the lighthouse keeper, still guide ships safely through a dangerous reef into Bailey’s Harbor, and you can hike to each of them. Guided tours, highly recommended, are available a few times a week. Check the website for dates and times.
• Visit Newport State Park (475 County Road NP, Ellison Bay, Wis.; dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/newport) at night. Newport is a Dark Sky Park — a designation from the International Dark-Sky Association. The park is one of just 18 in the United States and only the second in the Midwest. What that means is that the plot of land is remote enough and is afflicted by so little light pollution that on a clear night, the stars are breathtakingly bright. Hike through the trees and experience the light dancing behind the stark branches, and emerge near the shore of Lake Michigan, where the sky opens up like a dark cape covered with twinkling sequins. We were lucky enough to visit on a night when volunteers placed candles all along our path to guide us, but the trails are wide and well-marked enough that with the flashlight on your phone you could find your way without them.
• There’s not much to do in the winter at Horseshoe Bay Farms (7212 Horseshoe Bay Road, Egg Harbor, Wis.; horseshoebayfarms.org) but if you’re looking for an Instagram-worthy snap, go see Stickwork, a giant art installation made from Door County brush willow.
Once you get past Sturgeon Bay, the biggest city on the peninsula, you won’t find a single chain restaurant. Pretty much all the businesses are family-owned, many of them for generations.
• If you’re feeling peckish on the way up, stop at Renard’s Artisan Cheese (2189 County Road DK, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; renardscheese.com), which is just a few miles before you reach Sturgeon Bay. The family-owned, third-generation creamery is making some really special cheeses. Order a sandwich from Melt Bistro — they all feature the creamery’s cheese, of course — then sample before you buy bricks of their cheese. We loved the Terrific Trio, a blend of gouda, cheddar and Parmesan that is sure to please almost any palate.
• The famous goats that adorn the roof of Al Johnson’s (10698 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, Wis.; aljohnsons.com) aren’t there in the winter, but you can still get crepe-like Swedish pancakes with a side of Swedish meatballs and check out the restaurant’s very Scandinavian gift shop. They own another, more sizable gift shop next door, too. This second-generation business is beloved by visitors and locals alike.
• Supper Club culture is alive and well in Door County, and at Sister Bay Bowl (10640 N. Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay; sisterbaybowl.com), you can bowl the vintage lanes before ordering a traditional lake perch dinner or juicy ribeye. Don’t forget the Wisconsin-style old-fashioned, a must if you’re in the eastern part of the state. The second and third generation of the Willems family is running Sister Bay Bowl, and the care and attention to detail is apparent.
• If a view is what you’re after, Sonny’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria (129 N. Madison Ave., Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; sonnyspizzeria.com) is your spot. Abundant windows allow views of the historic Michigan Street Steel Bridge and the marina. Sonny’s serves traditional Midwestern-style or Neapolitan pizzas with creative toppings in addition to giant bowls of pasta and enormous desserts. The red velvet cheesecake is especially delicious, and one slice could feed a family of four.
• Perhaps the most iconic Door County dining experience is the fish boil, and the historic White Gull Inn (4225 Main St., Fish Creek, Wis.; whitegullinn.com) is probably the best-known spot for it. The fish boil, a tradition started by Scandinavian settlers on the peninsula, starts with an enormous pot of water, brought to a boil over an open flame. Potatoes and salt are added first, followed by whitefish caught in Lake Michigan. When the fish are ready, the cook causes a “boilover,” during which he pours a small amount of kerosene onto the fire, which causes it to shoot flames at least 10 feet into the air. The water boiling out of the kettle puts out the flames. Diners are invited to watch the process — and feel the heat. It’s a pretty welcome thing in the middle of winter, and the fish is delicious to boot. Save room for the slice of cherry pie served a la mode with your meal.
• If you’re bumming around Fish Creek, you might miss the Shiny Moon Cafe (4164 Main St., Fish Creek; shinymooncafe.com), above Fish Creek Market. It’s worth climbing the stairs for the tasty sandwiches, soups, salads and skillets. They have a full coffee program as well.
There’s a whole lot of wine being made from the county’s abundant cherry and apple crop, but if sweet wine isn’t your thing, rest assured there are beverages — alcoholic and non-alcoholic — for everyone in Door County.
• If you are into fruit wines, Door Peninsula Winery and Door County Distillery (5806 Highway 42, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; dcwine.com or doorcountydistillery.com) has you covered with an extensive portfolio of fermented fruit beverages, including cold-weather-grape wines. They’ll let you try them all before you buy, too — use caution if you’re driving. The distillery part of the business was of more interest to me. If you like brandy, they make a delicious one, but also decent whiskey and the bottle I brought home, a smooth, barrel-finished gin.
• Below Sonny’s in Sturgeon Bay resides BridgeUp Brewing (129 N. Madison Ave., Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; bridgeupbrewing.com), a craft brewery that serves a small array of ales and lagers. The space is decked out with vintage furniture and even features a corner where guests can play vinyl records, and the brewery has a lot of them. Both beers I tried — a clean, crisp Zwickel lager and a Citra hops-infused pale ale — were excellent.
• My favorite discovery, near the tippy top of the peninsula, was Island Orchard Cider (12040 Garrett Bay Road, Ellison Bay, Wis.; islandorchardcider.com), which makes and serves drier French-style ciders. Island Orchard grows all the cider apples for its products on its Washington Island farm and hand picks those fruits for best quality. The ciders range from semi-dry, plain or infused with flavors like fresh ginger, Door County cherries and lavender, to bone-dry ciders, some of them barrel-aged. In my opinion, the drier versions, including a stunning, lightly sparkling reserve, are really special. I bought a bottle to share with loved ones.
• If you want to shop for cherry-related gifts, Lautenbach’s Orchard Country (9197 State Highway 42, Fish Creek, Wis.; orchardcountry.com) is home to an extensive cherry orchard and has plenty of cherry foodstuffs as well as award-winning fruit wines, available for sampling. You can also see how far you can spit a cherry pit at the orchard’s Cherry Pit Spit attraction.
• The award for prettiest cafe I’ve ever been in might just go to Sip (10326 N. Water St., Ephraim, Wis.; sipdoorcounty.com), which sports saturated wall colors, bold wall art and striking chandeliers. The cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a full coffee program.
• If you’re a coffee aficionado, Door County Coffee (5773 Highway 42, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; doorcountycoffee.com), which roasts a stunning amount of coffee for such a small community, is worth a stop. They are really known for their flavored coffee — you can find everything from simple hazelnut to German chocolate cake or toffee pretzel. If you’re like me and prefer coffee-flavored coffee, the roastery’s light, medium and dark roast varieties are fresh and delicious, and there’s a cafe that serves baked eggs, quiche, breakfast burritos and more for breakfast and soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps for lunch.
Galleries and gift shops abound on the peninsula, and though many close during the winter, we still found plenty of places to browse locally-made gifts.
• For stunning wall art, pottery, blown glass and jewelry, Plum Bottom Gallery (Three locations: 4999 Plum Bottom Road, Egg Harbor, Wis.; 7813 State Highway 42, Egg Harbor, Wis.; and 4175 Main St., Fish Creek, Wis.; plumbottomgallery.com) is a must-stop. Beautiful, locally made paintings adorn all the walls, and there’s jewelry to fit any taste.
• If you’re looking for outdoor wear or just stylish casual wear, On Deck Clothing Co. (Three locations: 10635 North Bay Shore Drive, Sister Bay, Wis.; 4168 Main St., Fish Creek or 265 N. Third Ave., Sturgeon Bay; ondeckclothing.com) is a good bet. The store has great sales in the off-season.
• Though you can’t take in the fragrant lavender fields during the winter, Island Lavender Co. (10432 Highway 42, Ephraim, Wis.; islandlavender.com) still offers plenty of gifts and free sniffs. Everything from soaps and lotions to caramel corn and pork-chop seasoning is infused with the purple buds. You can buy dried bouquets here, too.
• I can’t make a trip to Wisconsin without trying (and buying) some cheese, and Wisconsin Cheese Masters (4692 Rainbow Ridge Ct., Egg Harbor; wisconsincheesemasters.com) offers a lovely array of some of the best artisan cheeses being made in the state. Did you know more than half of the artisan cheese in the U.S. is made in Wisconsin? I learned that from the cheesemonger here. I also learned how to pronounce Marieke, the name of one of my favorite cheesemakers in the state. Marieke Gouda is located in Thorp, Wis., but Wisconsin Cheese Masters carries many of their products.
• If you make it way up north on the peninsula, stop at Turtle Ridge Gallery (11736 Mink River Road, Ellison Bay, Wis.; turtleridgegallery.com), known for owner and artist Mary Ellen Sisulak’s nature-focused wall art, much of it made from leather stretched over a piece of wood and worked, painted and studded with stones and other materials. Sisulak started out making leather bags and still sells handmade purses and such in the shop, though employees she has trained now do that work.
There are lots of independently owned inns, resorts and bed and breakfasts on the peninsula, and many offer deals during the off months.
Doorcounty.com offers a search of most of the available properties — just put your desired travel dates into the search engine.
I stayed in a lovely, lake-facing suite at Westwood Shores Waterfront Resort (4303 Bay Shore Dr, Sturgeon Bay; westwoodshores.net) which features full kitchens, living rooms with fireplaces and an indoor pool. (There’s also an outdoor pool near the lakeside that operates in the summer.)
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