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After canvassing all coasts for towns with seaside charm, a lively beach culture, and good housing, these are our top spots for planning quick trips or finding a new place to live.

So You Want to Live in ... Sturgeon Bay

Water dominates work and play on this irresistible Wisconsin peninsula.

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I've lived in New York, in South Korea, and in Saudi Arabia," says Jane Luebker, "and we chose to move here to the Door Peninsula." As she speaks, she writes the day's menu on a chalkboard at Bluefront Cafe in downtown Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Soon, this sun-drenched, high-ceiling room will fill with customers and the scents of herbs and olive oil.

The fingerlike Door Peninsula tickles Lake Michigan just east of the city of Green Bay. Jane and her husband came here after he retired from the military a few years ago. She says they like Sturgeon Bay's distinctly maritime nature, its working farms dotted with silos and old wooden barns, and its resident artists and creative flavor.

The term "maritime" probably sounds very un-Wisconsin to most ears. Still, seagulls do wheel here. The local shipbuilding industry turns out 1,000-foot tankers and repairs such major vessels as Staten Island ferries. Sturgeon Bay's Door County Maritime Museum displays Great Lakes exploration maps dating from the 1600s, a reminder that these vast bodies of water have long been busy shipping routes.

Lake Michigan's influence extends everywhere. It shows up in the Friday fish fries and summertime Scandinavia-influenced fish boils. In winter, dramatic expanses of ice hem in tankers and spread beneath the two main bridges over the ship channel. In snowy weather, Door Countians gather for biweekly moonlight skis in the county's four state parks. DC Bikes, a home-grown shop downtown, rents skis and snowshoes.

The clear, mild summers and bright, leafy autumns remain Sturgeon Bay's most popular seasons. Hikers head into the state parks, and kayakers ply Lake Michigan's aquamarine waters, exploring limestone coves.

Sturgeon Bay is an easy place to get comfortable, says Barbara Marcussen, a lifelong Lake Michigan resident. She works as a cook and server at the retro Perry's Cherry Diner, known for cherry pie produced from local fruit. Roadside stands sell quart after quart of cherries in summer, when city dwellers escape to the peninsula's cool breezes.

After all, it can be hard to find a lake breeze in the city. Or in Saudi Arabia.

(published May 2006)

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