Discover Door County
Garlanded by bluffs and blanketed by farmland, the Wisconsin peninsula delivers bucolic beauty and urbane charm in equal measure.
Photos by Brian Flaherty
DOOR COUNTY is often called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” And it’s true that both places occupy a peninsula dotted with picturesque villages, contain a higher-than-average number of fudge shops per capita, and draw convoys of city dwellers on high-season weekends. But the similarities end there.
For starters, Door County smells better. Cape Cod is all salt air and marsh exhalations. Door County, four hours north of Chicago, exudes a more complex fragrance. Roll down your car window and it’ll hit you: northern white cedar, prairie grasses, plowed earth, and that great freshwater ocean, Lake Michigan. One lungful, and you’ll feel something click, like a switch being thrown. That’s your screen-addled, work-dulled senses flickering back to life.
Having spent summers there since I was 8, I’d argue that the peninsula — boasting 300 miles of shoreline and more than a dozen protected natural areas — offers more ways to please the senses per square mile than anyplace in the Lower 48. A typical fall day might include a bike ride between wind-brushed fields of wheat straight out of a Terrence Malick film; a hike along limestone cliffs; a $10 lunch of cold beer and fresh battered perch served by a bartender whose pronunciation of certain vowels will remind you that you’re not in the city anymore; gallery hopping — glass art at Edgewood Orchard or handworked leather at Turtle Ridge — followed by apple picking at Hyline Orchards; and a dinner of, say, roasted duck breast in a blueberry-soy gastrique from Trixie’s. You could probably squeeze in a fudge shop, too.
A BIG PART of Door County’s appeal is the fact that it’s not one place but many. South of the Sturgeon Bay Ship’s Canal, it feels like rural Wisconsin: neat farm fields and a radio dial packed with the “three C’s” — Christian, country, and classic rock. Here in the Southern Door is where Belgian Walloons settled 150 years ago, their names — LeFevre, Chaudoir, Baudhuin — still emblazoned on family-run businesses. North of the canal, though, the landscape changes, the farm plots interspersed with patches of the boreal forest that once covered the region, the local names having shifted to Scandinavian, the roadside billboards advertising wineries and mini golf.
Beyond the shipbuilding town of Sturgeon Bay, the main highway splits in two, mirroring the dual character of the Upper Door. Follow Route 42 along the western shore — or Green Bay side — of the peninsula and you pass through Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Ephraim. This is the Door County to which most of the area’s two million annual visitors flock. These bayside towns — which are strung like beads along the shore as you head north toward Gill’s Rock, the embarkation point for ferries to idyllic Washington and Rock Islands — possess quaint 19th-century main streets and a clutch of high-end restaurants, notably Wickman House in Ellison Bay, that transcend the rural-Wisco surf-and-turf format.
TAKE ROUTE 57 up the eastern — or Lake Michigan — side and you’ll traverse a sleepier landscape of small lakes and one-tavern towns before reuniting with 42 in Sister Bay. This is the Door County of my youth: scrambling along bluffs of Cave Point County Park, fishing in Clark Lake, buying house-made bratwurst from Bley’s Grocery (having failed to catch a fish), grilling said bratwurst over cheap charcoal, and watching the smoke interweave with the smoke from our bratwurst-cooking neighbors. Saturday nights were consecrated to the prime rib special at the Nightingale Supper Club in Sturgeon Bay, preceded by an extended cocktail hour — this rite as sacred to Wisconsinites as the aperitivo is to the Milanese — featuring $4 old-fashioneds for grown-ups, Shirley Temples for kids, and free cheese and crackers for everyone, all enjoyed in swiveling captain’s chairs at the padded-rail bar.
None of that has changed. Okay, a few things have changed: The old-fashioneds at the Nightingale cost $4.75 now, and there’s a craft-beer tap room in Baileys Harbor — the Door County Brewing Co. — that’s giving the divey roadhouse down the street a run for its money. But for the most part, my visits to Door County provide that most elusive quality in modern life: continuity.
I’ve brought friends, including a few skeptical East Coasters, to Door County, and I’ve never once failed to see it happen: that moment when they gulp the air, gaze narrow-eyed at the crisp seam where lake meets sky, and feel something dormant in them awaken — that moment when the switch gets thrown.
Door County by the Numbers
70 miles long • 34 surrounding islands • 11 lighthouses • 5 state parks • 19 county parks • 53 public swimming beaches • 11 golf courses • 7 local wineries • 15 fudge shops • 100+ art galleries, museums, and performing arts venues • 19 ice cream shops • 10 supper clubs • 3,250 acres of orchards
About the author: David McAninch is the author of Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Misadventures in Gascony, France’s Last Best Place, which comes out in paperback from Harper Books in December and was named by the New York Times Book Review one of the Best Summer Travel Books of 2017. His feature writing has appeared in the New York Times, Departures, Chicago magazine, and Saveur, where he was an editor for nine years. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.