Explore Door County

Quaint villages, culinary delights and picturesque fresh waters make this Wisconsin destination a perfect long-weekend getaway

Cana Island Lighthouse, Door County
Cana Island Lighthouse, built in 1869, is a Door County treasure. Visitors can climb the light tower, tour the keeper’s home and explore the grounds. Photos courtesy of the Door County Visitor Bureau

The Cape Cod of the Midwest is what they call this gorgeous sliver of Wisconsin.

The official title of this finger of land — dividing rippling Green Bay from the rest of Lake Michigan — is Door County.

And it’s only about five hours (due east) of the Twin Cities.

Forest-green limestone cliffs border the rich fields of farmers, whose famous cherry trees blanket the land in blossoms each May, while birch and maples create kaleidoscopes of blazing autumn color, all attracting 2 million visitors a year.

Not to worry: There’s room at the inn — and at motels nostalgic of an earlier era, homey B&Bs, country-luxe waterfront suites and classic cottages.

A romantic walk along the beach on Door County’s western coast with the scenic village of Ephraim in the background. Photo Credit: Mike Roemer/DoorCounty.com

On the warmer, more sheltered bay side of Door County, Highway 42 ambles through a succession of small villages — Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim and Sister Bay are the standouts — populated by friendly, laid-back folk, operating family-run cafes and wineries scattered amongst art galleries, craft shops and outdoors outfitters.

It all seems designed to keep you smiling — and gawking at the low, low prices.

Because the tourist season is short and sweet (May through October), chains can’t afford to do business here.

This year’s harvest is expected to start in late July and continue into early August. (Check the bloom and fruit reports at doorcounty.com for current details.)

For a physical overview of the area, rent a bike or kayak or — highly recommended — take a tour aboard a Door County Trolley, based in Egg Harbor, where gregarious guides take folks through Peninsula State Park (one of five state parks in Door County) with its blue blaze of wild forget-me-nots and ivory trilliums carpeting the forest floor en route to Sven’s Bluff. On this knockout of a overlook, you’ll spy just some of the lake’s 34 islands bobbing in the endless blue where sea meets sky. And, while you’re at it, don’t miss the trail to Eagle Bluff lighthouse.

Orchard Country Winery & Market in Door County, established in 1985, resides in a restored dairy barn. Photo by Jon Jarosh

Wine and cheese

If vino’s your thing, eight wineries offer tours and sips (for free). At Door 44 Winery, proprietor Steve Johnson pours flutes of bubbly.

“Sparkling wine is the future of Wisconsin wine,” he declares, then adds a caveat: “Wisconsin drinkers like sweet wine.”

Orchard Country Winery & Market not only produces wines from the winter-hardy grape varietals you may recognize from Minnesota, but also markets juice from the acres of cherries blanketing the property.

Denny Stapleton at Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor turned a coffeehouse into a winery after wine won him over. His best seller? Cherry Crush.

Purchase a bottle for a picnic on his deck, which conveniently adjoins the Wisconsin Cheese Masters shop, where proprietor Jim Pienkoski stocks 50 artisanal varieties, including the bestselling Snowfields Aged Butterkase.

What makes it so tasty?

“Wisconsin winters are good for cows, making their milk heavy with butterfat. Plus,” he instructs, “Wisconsin has the lock on good grass in the U.S. There are two ways to make cheese — fast and cheap, or slow and artisanal.”

For a caffeine chaser, head to Door County Coffee & Tea Co., a café-cum-roastery, which toasts 3,000 pounds of beans a day, said proprietor Vicki Wilson, who’s equally proud of her famous egg bake, gleaned from a church cookbook.

Dilemma: That egg bake or the cream cheese-and-cherry-stuffed French toast at The White Gull Inn, which won Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast award. Warning: Split an order. The full plate is enough to feed a block party. Chase it with a glass of cherry juice.

Chad Luberger is a porcelain pottery artist at Plum Bottom Pottery & Gallery in Door County. Photo by John Nienhuis

Galleries and potters

Brake for art before you break for lunch or dinner. Hands On Art Studio, in Fish Creek, vows to “make art fun” by letting you make your own. Drop-in Picassos can choose between lessons in wood, metal, glass and painting (pottery or canvas).

At Plum Bottom Pottery & Gallery, Chad Luberger invites spectators to watch him at the wheel, turning out — not those clay pots of art fairs — but fine porcelain, the way he learned from master artists in China.

“Potters don’t want to work in porcelain,” the young man defends his favorite medium, “because you have to work fast or it turns to mush. It’s very tricky to work with, but I love it.”

Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek boasts something for every taste and budget. Stroll its woodland sculpture garden for an eyeful.

Culinary arts

At Chives, in Baileys Harbor, the setting’s country-chic to match a forager-forward menu, exciting foodies to summon plates of house-made ramp-and-morel sausage paired with local cheeses; beef cheeks with spaetzle; maple-glazed pork belly; pappardelle with wild leek pesto; whitefish with fiddleheads; and homemade ice cream, including chocolate-cherry.

At The English Inn in Fish Creek, where you’re greeted with olde-tyme suits of armor, the specialty is almost as Medieval — beef (or chicken) Wellington, complete with a slab of rich pate beneath its pastry crust. Start with the kitchen’s legendary spinach salad and finish with homemade pies, if you’re still standing.

Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor offers a more informal “walk down memory lane” with jukeboxes and memorabilia, old-fashioned ice cream sodas (flavor of the day: cherry) and homemade root beer, plus burger and fish baskets for folks looking for hot eats.

The Montmorency cherry — a sour or tart variety — is the most commonly grown in Door County. Though Montmorency cherries can be eaten fresh, they’re more commonly used for pies, cookies and other desserts, as well as for making wine, juice, jams and preserves. The 2016 U-pick cherry season is expected to begin in late July.

Wait, there’s more!

The Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim offers nightly fish boils that begin outdoors over an open fire.

Speaking of fish, you’re not allowed out of the county until you’ve experienced an only-in-Wisconsin fish boil. The Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim provides this dinner-as-theater experience nightly, where its boilmaster walks the talk, heaving logs under a boiling black cauldron while tossing in potatoes, onions, Lake Michigan whitefish and (I’m not kidding) a quart of kerosene, which (cameras ready) he ignites with a flash, just the way loggers and fishermen have done for hundreds of years. The performance continues indoors as guests line up to fill their plates and grab a slice of cherry pie.

At Sweetie Pies, cherry’s the bestseller, of course. The tiny kitchen, housed in a 100-year-old homestead, turns out 11,000 pies a year. Point at your choice from the display, which ranges from apple to forest berry and plenty more, then cart it to the outdoor picnic tables.

And buy another one for the journey home, too.

Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.