Those of us born and raised in the U.S. coastal states, myself included, suffer to varying degrees from a geographic myopia, one that blurs tremendous swaths of our nation into an indistinct mass called “flyover country.” We pay for this shortsightedness when planning summer getaways, often setting our sights on the same overcrowded, overpriced saltwater spots—and bypassing our enviable inland seas, the Great Lakes.
When the last fragment of my own oceanic bias fell away, I was quite literally at Death’s Door—as the beautiful, treacherous strait that connects Green Bay with Lake Michigan is known. I was on a ferry in Door County, Wis., crossing from bucolic Washington Island to the Door Peninsula, a roughly 70-mile-long finger of land that stretches out from the mainland, set prettily between the bay and the lake.
Generations of visitors, mostly from the Midwest, have come year after year to Door County’s small waterfront towns, seeking refuge not just from summer heat but, in many ways, from time itself. Describe a typical long weekend on the peninsula to people who’ve never been there and they might think you’re shamelessly spinning an idealized tale of the all-American summer vacation—the kind mythical grandparents took.
Days are for adventure. There are lighthouses to explore and shipwrecks to find (it’s not called Death’s Door for nothing). You’ll find no shortage of forest trails ending at limestone bluffs overlooking sparkling bays, all waiting to be hiked. Nights are for going to supper clubs for prime rib and brandy old-fashioneds, for seeing regional theater under the stars or for catching a double feature at the drive-in.
But thanks to a new influx of hotels and restaurants—often owned by folks with deep local ties—a contemporary sensibility is creeping in at the margins, attracting new visitors. “Probably more than half of our guests had never been to Door County before,” said
owner with his wife, Sandy, of the year-old Double S Lodge in Sister Bay. It’s the kind of place that has its own coffee blend, copies of the painstakingly hip magazine Kinfolk on the nightstands and a cocktail hour featuring locally made beer and hard cider. “Not many people from the coasts venture here, but Midwestern people love it. They remember their parents’ or grandparents’ talking about Door County,” said Mr. Pjesky.
Many of the places featured in those reminiscences are still going strong. The Edgewater Resort and the Water Street Inn, both in the town of Ephraim, are distinguished by sweeping views of Eagle Harbor from their gracious lawns. More important, they’re each a short walk along the waterfront to Wilson’s Restaurant Ice Cream Parlor, which has been dishing up scoops since 1906.
Breakfast then and now would be at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant Butik in Sister Bay, one of many bastions of the region’s Scandinavian heritage. Waitresses in traditional Swedish folk dresses shuttle trays loaded with crepe-thin pancakes, little dishes of lingonberry jam and Swedish meatballs through the always-packed restaurant while diners waiting for tables browse the adjoining gift shop for Scandinavian-themed kitsch. On the restaurant’s sod rooftop, you’ll find Sister Bay’s most gluttonous residents, a grazing tribe of goats—a tradition that began in the 1970s when Oscar the goat, a birthday gift from Mr. Johnson’s friend Wink Larson, was placed on the roof as a prank.
While lingonberries are the thing at Al Johnson’s, for the rest of Door County, cherries are king. Most any drive along the roads that crisscross the peninsula will take you past cherry orchards—more than 2,500 acres are under cultivation. The August 6 Cherry Fest in Jacksonport is a seasonal highlight. Even in the off season, you should stop at the Door County Wildwood Market for some cherry pie or preserves and a curious slice of history. The market is located in one of the long, narrow pickers’ shacks that housed some of the German POWs who were brought to Wisconsin to work as farm laborers during World War II. Mark and Mary Pat Carlson own the market and nearby orchard (the land has been in Mr. Carlson’s family since 1846). Ms. Carlson said that because Wisconsin had such a substantial German population, “a lot of those young men had relatives who could come visit them on the weekend and bring them cigarettes and magazines.”
Food and history also intersect at one of Door County’s signature attractions: the fish boil, offered by many restaurants. I went to one at Rowleys Bay Resort that is as much folk theater as it is dinner. As potatoes, onions and chunks of fresh-caught whitefish are boiled outdoors in a cauldron over an open fire, Charles Dickson, a spry 90-year-old retired professor, portrays the bay’s namesake Peter Rowley. He banters, finger-wags and spins the history of the fish boil into an engaging tale about the native Potawatomi tribe and the arrival of “Scandihoovian” settlers.
When everything is done cooking, and with great ceremony, the boilmaster tosses a pitcher of kerosene on the fire, causing the flames to jump to bonfire heights and the pot to boil over, supposedly removing all of the fish oil and leaving the whitefish steaks clean tasting (they were). Then they’re eaten with copious quantities of drawn butter from a buffet that is a throwback to resort food of yore (canned peaches and cottage cheese anyone?).
Fortunately, you’ll have as many opportunities to burn calories as to take them in. Though the water in the lakes and bay is usually brisk (locals will try to persuade you it’s “invigorating”), you’ll want to put on a pair of wellies or water shoes and walk through a shin-deep stretch of Lake Michigan to the Cana Island Lighthouse and climb its 100-odd cast-iron stairs.
From there, you’ll get an eyeful of Lake Michigan’s Prussian-blue expanse on one side, and the boreal forests and wetlands of the peninsula on the other. Or, sign up with Lakeshore Adventures in Baileys Harbor for a clear-bottomed kayak expedition, and peer down at the wreckage of a dozen or so 19th-century schooners and other ships, most in less than 15 feet of water.
And though everyone reflexively wants blue skies for their vacation, Green Bay and Hedgehog Harbor as seen from the small Door Bluff Headlands County Park are unexpectedly Instagrammable on overcast days when the water, the sky, the limestone bluffs and driftwood all blend together in a continuous gradation of gunmetal gray. The 3,776-acre Peninsula State Park, the county’s largest, is best seen by bicycle. (Rent an electric bike from Nor Door Sports and Cyclery, just outside the park’s entrance in Fish Creek, to ease those uphill stretches.) If you happen to come across a fellow with an auburn beard and a wicker basket full of buttercup yellow chanterelle mushrooms coming out of the woods, you’ve probably found
the chef from the 4-year-old Wickman House restaurant in Ellison Bay, out for a forage. Confident cooking and a menu that deftly balances old-style classics with more cosmopolitan offerings (fish tacos made with locally caught whitefish or a grain bowl with house-made kimchi) make this an essential stop.
Catch an early supper and you’ll have time to see a performance by the Peninsula Players, in their 81st season this year (they claim to be America’s oldest resident summer theater). Intermissions are spent beside a bonfire in the theater’s beer garden—a bayside grove of cedar trees. Or go to the amphitheater in Peninsula State Park, where Northern Sky Theater presents Americana-themed musicals. This year’s performances include “Lumberjacks in Love” and “When Butter Churns to Gold.”
To go for peak Americana, load the kids in the station wagon and head to the Skyway Drive-In for a double feature. While I was sitting there in the dark between “The Angry Birds Movie,” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” watching vintage ads on the big screen, I began to think of Door County in cinematic terms. The sense of being in a place where time feels almost but not completely stopped—where a current of coolness threads its way through a warm sea of sincerity and where scouting-guide versions of adventure and discovery await—made me think of Wes Anderson’s 2012 coming-of-age romance set on the fictional New England isle of New Penzance. Door County, I decided, is not the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” as I’d often seen it called. It’s the “Moonrise Kingdom.”
THE LOWDOWN // Summering on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula
Staying There: At the Blacksmith Inn, in Baileys Harbor, all rooms come equipped with binoculars, birding guides and views of Lake Michigan, and include free use of the inn’s kayaks and stand up paddleboards (from $245 a night, theblacksmithinn.com). Set back in the woods in Sister Bay, Double S Lodge is a quiet retreat within a quiet retreat. Hot coffee and fresh pastries are left outside your room’s door each morning (from $275 a night, doubleslodge.com). In Ephraim, the Water Street Inn—a landmark hotel built in 1896—features recently renovated rooms (from $145 a night, waterstreetinnephraim.com). Rates listed are for July 2016.
Eating There: No visit to Wisconsin is complete without at least one meal at a supper club, one of the locally beloved family-run restaurants that serve up hearty classic American fare (think prime rib) and stiff cocktails. In Door County, Sister Bay Bowl’s large portions and old-school mixed drinks make it a regional favorite. A few frames of bowling at the six-lane alley behind the barroom should work up an appetite (sisterbaybowl.com). On Washington Island, the specialty at KK Fiske is fried burbot, a codlike lakefish also known as a “lawyer.” The nickname, a waitress explained, came about “because it’s a bottom-feeder whose heart is near its tail” (1177 Main Rd., 920-847-2121). Pick up sandwiches or picnic supplies at Door County Creamery, a gourmet shop in Sister Bay specializing in goat cheese (doorcountycreamery.com). At the Wickman House, in Ellison Bay, you’ll find sure-handed and sophisticated cooking with ingredients from local farms, forests or even the restaurant’s own gardens, as well as a superlative take on the classic brandy old-fashioned. Reservations recommended (wickmanhouse.com).
Drinking There: On Washington Island, Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub, which dates back to the 19th century, stayed open throughout Prohibition by serving Angostura bitters by the shot for “medicinal” reasons. If you knock one back today, you’ll be given a “Bitter’s Club Certificate” on a business card, made official when the bartender dips his thumb into the dregs in your glass, then presses a thumbprint on the card (1201 Main Road, 920-847-2496). Baileys Harbor’s Door County Brewing Company Taproom, housed in a former barn, offers 10 beers on tap made with locally grown barley and “Wisconsin’s finest cheese curds.” The bar often hosts free live music (doorcountybrewingco.com). Bearded Heart Coffee prepares serious coffee in a tiny, yellow-beamed cottage. There’s Kombucha too, if that’s your jam (beardedheartcoffee.com).
Exploring There: Due to high water in Lake Michigan this year, the rocky path to the Cana Island Light Station is frequently underwater, but that makes the walk over no less pleasant. And the view from the 89-foot-tall tower is well worth the $12 admission fee (dcmm.org). Lakeshore Adventures offers two-hour shipwreck-viewing excursions in clear-bottomed kayaks around Baileys Harbor, giving you a chance to see wrecks of 19th-century sailing vessels, as well as local wildlife, including Bald Eagles and egrets (lakeshore-adventures.com).
FIVE SHORE BETS // Other great lakeside getaways for whatever floats your boat
History for the Taking
Sackets Harbor, N.Y.
Sackets Harbor, a time-capsule village on Lake Ontario, served as the U.S. Navy Great Lakes headquarters during the War of 1812. Summer brings period-dress recreations of wartime life at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site. A scenic drive east leads to the upper St. Lawrence River, where Gilded Age barons built vanity castles on private islands amid the archipelago, known as 1,000 Islands (there are actually 1,864). In Alexandria Bay, catch the shuttle to Heart Island to tour Boldt Castle (pictured, top right), built in the early 1900s by George C. Boldt, the original proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, who introduced the world to Thousand Islands salad dressing (boldtcastle.com). Or be your own master of industry at the Singer Castle on Dark Island, the summer retreat of the fifth president of the Singer sewing machine company, where an overnight stay includes dinner and free rein of the island after the last ferry departs at 5 p.m. (from $775 a night, singercastle.com).
STAYING AND EATING THERE: If you’d rather not spring for a night at Singer Castle, more modest accommodations can be found at the Madison Barracks, a 115-acre former U.S. Army compound, which have been converted into residences, restaurants and the lakefront Marina Inn Suites (from $90 a night, marinainnny.com). Within walking distance, the small downtown features early-19th-century manor houses and businesses transformed into museums, shops, BBs and eateries including the Tin Pan Galley (tinpangalley.com), which offers all-day fine dining; arrive early for the crab cakes benedict. On the harbor, the lively Sackets Harbor Brewpub has waterside tables and serves craft ale-laced onion soup and fancy burgers (sacketsharborbrewpub.com).
Presque Isle State Park, Pa.
A peninsula jutting out from the small city of Erie, the 3,200-acre Presque Isle State Park has many miles of boat launches, sandy beaches, hiking trails, bike paths and forested channels for kayaking, canoeing and fishing. On summer weekends, you’ll find a traffic jam of cars and RV’s en route to the park entrance or into Waldameer, a retro amusement park with a 1950s-era wooden roller coaster (waldameer.com). Happily, the peninsula absorbs the crowd, and even on holidays it’s easy to find a quiet patch of driftwood- and sea-glass-littered shore. Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel faces the park across the sailing hub of Presque Isle Bay (from $195 a night, sheratoneriebayfront.com).
EATING THERE: Next to the Sheraton, Smuggler’s Wharf has a waterfront terrace where locals gather for sunset cocktails and lake perch or walleye plates (smugglerswharfinc.com). Three B Saloon, a walk up the bluff overlooking Presque Isle Bay, serves St. Louis ribs, broccoli slaw and cornbread skillets (threebsaloon.com).
Port Austin, Mich.
A summer retreat for families, fishermen and artists, Lake Huron’s Port Austin also lures kayakers, who appreciate the contrasts of farmland, dramatic coastal rock formations (such as Turnip Rock, pictured above) and generally calm water. Port Austin Kayak (portaustinkayak.com) rents kayaks as well as stand-up paddleboards and bikes. Bunk down in one of the recently renovated Little Yellow Cottages, a few minutes walk from the beach (from $600 a week, littleyellowcottages.com) or at Lake Vista Resort, set on a lakefront garden (from $120 a night, lakevistaresort.com)
EATING THERE: For a post-kayak brew, casual Port Austin Kayak’s backyard café and beer garden (paksbackyard.com) offers Michigan craft beers, salads and grilled sandwiches. If you miss the Saturday farmers market in the square at State and Line Streets, sample local ingredients for dinner at the Farm Restaurant in, yes, an antique-filled former farmhouse, 7 miles south of town. Owner-chef Pamela Mary Gabriel-Roth serves up heartland food—red onion soup, stuffed Lake Huron whitefish, Angus rib eye, vegetable strudel and scrumptious desserts (thefarmrestaurant.com)
Isle Royale National Park, Mich.
A summer survivalist paradise—with creature comforts—Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park, accessible by boat or seaplane, consists of more than 450 densely forested islands and receives fewer visitors in a year than Yellowstone gets in a July day. Hiking trails cross spruce forest, marshland, inland lakes and rocky bluffs. There are no bears, so you can safely forage for wild strawberries and blueberries, but keep an eye out for the rare gray wolf. More likely sightings are moose and eagles. The park’s sole hotel is Rock Harbor Lodge, which rents canoes, kayaks and motor boats (from $248 a night, rockharborlodge.com). Ferries depart Grand Portage, Minn., or Houghton and Copper Harbor on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula (isleroyale.com).
EATING THERE: At the Rock Harbor Lodge, you’ll find the only full-service public dining on the island: the Lighthouse Restaurant and the more casual all-day patio Greenhouse Grill; both serve fresh lake fish. Otherwise, you’ll need to bring your own food. You’ll have more options in Copper Harbor, one of the ferry embarkation points. You can stock up on picnic fare—smoked local fish and Finnish bread and pastries—at Jamsen’s Fish Market Bakery, which also has a few lakeside tables (jamsen.biz). Or tuck into grilled Lake Superior trout and triple berry cobbler at Harbor Haus (harborhaus.com).
A Sail Close to the Vine
Traverse City, Mich.
Many people visit Traverse City for the food and wine scene, but it’s also home to the Great Lakes Sailing Co. School (greatlakessailingco.com; four-day sleep-aboard course on a 30-foot cruising sailboat, $895; you can also take daily lessons and sleep on land). A group of up to 10 sailing buddies—or anyone—can book Kirkwood Suite, a sprawling penthouse within the converted 1895 chapel at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a former mental asylum turned upscale mall (thevillagetc.com; from $1,000 per night, including dinner and wine tasting package). Post-course sailors may want to tour the more than 30 wineries of the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas, which sit on the 45th parallel, as do Burgundy and Alsace. If you’re not fully confident in your swirl and spit skills, you can hire a designated car and driver (wineandbeertours.com; half-day from $50). To marinate in more sun and wind, head for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, known for some of Michigan’s—and the country’s—most beautiful fresh water beaches. Drive back through the small towns of Empire, Glen Arbor, Northport (Mario Batali is a summer resident) to Sutton Bay, home to Black Star Farms, which has eight luxurious suites, its own creamery, winery, horseback riding and restaurant serving a farm-produced brandy (from about $337, blackstarfarms.com).
EATING THERE: A mile from the Great Lakes Sailing School’s private marina, downtown Travese City has many fine dining establishments such as European-inspired Amical (amical.com) and the pan-Asian Red Ginger (eatatginger.com).
For details on hotels, restaurants and things to do in Door County, Wis., visit wsj.com/travel.