This Enchanting Great Lakes Enclave Is Known as the Nantucket of the Midwest
Among the shores, orchards, and fish fries of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, Peter Richmond uncovers the summer riches of this below-the-radar Great Lakes gem.
What happens when you take a coastal paradise overflowing with local history, brimming with great seafood, dotted with luxurious lodgings, and guarded by 11 historic lighthouses overlooking 300 miles of shoreline with stunningly blue waters and put it all in … Wisconsin?
It all becomes Midwestern and, perhaps by extension, comfortingly American (in the best sense of the word). Which means that on the Door Peninsula—a 70-mile-long reach of sand- and
limestone-rimmed shores stretching like a skinny, tapering thumb of the state’s left-hand mitten into Lake Michigan—life comes at you slower. And embraces you with an earnest, heartfelt hospitality.
Door County—which makes up most of the land mass of the peninsula that shares its name and is therefore nearly interchangeable—makes you drop your baggage at the threshold and welcomes you with a cherry pie in hand as if you were the new couple who just moved in down the street.
It doesn’t matter if your inn is going to be the charming colonial Blacksmith Inn on the Shore or the very functional Lull-Abi Inn just down the road. (Unless the A-framed Chal-A Motel more suits your fancy.) It won’t matter whether your taste buds crave the chicken-and-goat-cheese wontons with apricot preserves and sriracha at noted restaurateur J.R. Schoenfeld’s Chives restaurant or a meatball pancake from Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik. (It’s the place with the goats grazing on the roof.) Or whether your evening plans include serious drama and top-flight musicals at one of the county’s three professional theater companies, or a double feature at the ancient-pine-tree-nestled Skyway Drive-in Theatre (the oldest continually operating drive-in in the state known as “America’s Dairyland”).
In Door County, third-generation fishermen will welcome you to their ancestral land as earnestly as the first-generation hosts of top-end B&Bs. You’ll see a huge American flag draped on a perfectly restored barn a few miles from a food truck doling out fried-perch sandwiches that would make the hippest Brooklynite weep.
Imagine, then, a place where the elite do not meet. Just friends, old and new. Well, it is the Midwest.
Welcome to Door.
A Door and a Tale of Two Shores
The Door Peninsula wasn’t named for being a doorway to a land of plenty. Or even for some old guy named Door. In a wonderful twist, the place was named for a narrow channel at its northern tip. Early French explorers who used the passageway to sail from Lake Michigan in the east around to Green Bay to the west encountered a perilous widow-maker of a strait and named it Porte des Morts. Death’s Door.
(They weren’t wrong. Legend has it that there are more wrecks here than any other freshwater graveyard on the globe. By the time an east-west canal was dug mid-peninsula in 1881, several hundred schooners had gone down.)
And as local waters have inspired the very name of the peninsula, they also define its western and eastern shores. Along the calmer, more protected Green Bay side, you’ll spy modest 1950s clapboard family cottages and grand, newly built vacation homes nestling up to the soothing, meditative soundtrack of lapping freshwater. People seek—and find—relaxation and ease here. If you’re a lover of the weekend boating pleasures of a Chris-Craft Catalina 30, of tying up at small docks and propping your feet up on a cooler to watch the sun set over the water, the enclaves of Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, Sister Bay, and Ellison Bay are your Door County.
If, on the other hand, you think the coolest boat you can ever have is a 1948 gill-net Marinette fishing boat, then the lakeside is your domain. Just ask Dennis Hickey of Bailey’s Harbor Fish Company, a fifth-generation commercial and retail fishery on the peninsula (its last operating one, in fact). Hickey—now retired from the family business but happily overseeing his grandson in the trade—has restored two classic gill-net boats and has photos of them lining the walls of his small office.
“We’re the cool, quiet side,” Hickey says of the eastern shore communities that include Jacksonport and Rowleys Bay along with Baileys Harbor, the lakeside’s main village. With trickier reefs, rougher water, and the occasion of thick maritime fogs that can blanket everything from rocky shorelines to the tips of pine trees, the lake coast of Door Peninsula selects for a specific breed. Hickey sums it up with the knowing shorthand of a man whose grandfather was a founder of Baileys Harbor back in 1860: “The tourism started over on the warmer side,” he says. “That’s where the city people like to stay.”
Related: 10 Secret Islands in the Great Lakes
While there may be a tacit sense of differentiation between Door County’s bay and lake folk, the peninsular year-round population of around 28,000 nonetheless exhibits a gracious sense
of being all in it together. “It’s live and let live,” Bryan Nelson says, sitting in the comfortable lounge space of the Blacksmith Inn on the Shore in Baileys Harbor. The Blacksmith, named for blacksmith August Zahn, whose 1905 shop lies next door, is a terrific example of the best that Door has to offer: unassuming luxury. “Everyone is very accepting and open-minded,” he says.
“Everyone knows everyone. It’s hard not to like someone you know,” says his wife, Joan Holliday. “We’re not the Cape, or Martha’s Vineyard. It’s not crazy busy, and it doesn’t feel crazy busy.” She’s saying this in the highest point of high season here—late July—but she’s absolutely right: Even now, the main activity out on the sidewalks is a handful of painters
at their easels, taking advantage of the distinctly coastal light. They’ve traveled from across the country for the annual Door County Plein Air Festival sponsored by the Peninsula School of Art.
Carol Strock Wasson, one of the festival’s dozen featured artists, brings her paints up from Union City, Indiana, every year, and not just for the landscapes. “It’s not only a beautiful place to paint,” she says, acknowledging Door’s pastoral abundance of water, trees, farms, hills, valleys, and flowers. “It’s that everyone is laid-back. I think people come up here to forget life, forget their troubles. They just come and enjoy.”
The Perils of Water and the Pleasures of Fish
With that shipwreck legacy deep in its DNA and informed ongoingly by life and livelihood tied to the water, the peninsula practically vibrates with maritime history. For a thorough immersion, the Door County Maritime Museum down in Sturgeon Bay (a lively town named for the narrow bay that reaches eastward into the peninsula from Green Bay) is a good place to learn about all things locally nautical. If you’re lucky, there’ll even be a Great Lakes freighter, like the 615-foot M/V American Courage, docked at Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding for a check-up. From 17th-century schooners to these 21st-century goliaths, it’s a potent reminder of the power and primacy of the Great Lakes’ role in feeding and fueling the Lower 48—and beyond.
For a smaller, but even more powerful testimony to the risks and rewards of life in the fisheries, one needs to venture up to the northernmost tip, to the small fishing village of Gills Rock and the Death’s Door Maritime Museum. Here, you bear witness to that legacy. Shipwreck artifacts pried loose from the frigid grasp of lake bottoms remind of lives lost. A replica net shed set with fishing boxes, net reels, and other ephemera puts the rough edges of a fisherman’s toil into your hands. And the museum’s restored 45-foot fishing tug Hope opens her decks above and below to offer a feel of life on these often-turbulent waters in pursuit of the jewel of the Great Lakes: sweet, delicate whitefish.
And what a treasure that is. You think you know and like whitefish, and then you come to Door County and you fall under a fresh-caught spell. And happily, from one end of the peninsula to the other, you find those flaky, mild wonders are everywhere.
It might be that Friday Fry perch sandwich from one of a trio of Chives’s food trucks parked here and there on the peninsula and lending a taste of the hip foodie scene. Or maybe, a little more conventionally, you’ll feast on a walleye fillet that elevates a humble fresh fish into a feast, invariably served with a mountain of mashed potatoes, in old-fashioned eateries with Formica tables and printed paper place mats.
It’s all fresh, nuanced, and delicious, which might be enough for any traveler. But to achieve the whitefish sine qua non, you have to attend a fish boil—a culinary phenomenon that is part dinner preparation and part performance art. The fundamentals are simple: Bring a large cauldron filled with water to a fire-stoked boil, dump in a few onions and potatoes, and add 35 pounds or so of whitefish. Then, with a flair both ancient Scandinavian and 2019 Burning Man, douse the flames with enough kerosene to engulf the cauldron in a fiery finish.
“This would have been a good way to feed hordes of immigrants, back when they were clearing the forests,” boil master Jeremy “Torch” Klaubauf of the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim tells an attentive audience gathering in a circle of wooden benches one evening. About a dozen restaurants throughout the peninsula do fish boils regularly throughout the summer, and boil masters are revered for their ability to cook and entertain in equal measure, night after night.
Klaubauf’s 35 pounds of fish were sliced into steaks just minutes ago. The water now boiling, he hovers over his cauldron like a witch in Macbeth, stoking the fire beneath it, spinning his own spells of Door Peninsula history and lore until it’s time for the big finish.
In a flourish that fills the air with blast-furnace heat and the unmistakable tang of kerosene, Klaubauf releases the “boil over,” which not only caps the performance but also signals that the fish is done. Poured over with melted butter and served with potatoes, onions, locally made breads, freshly shredded coleslaw, and cherry pie for dessert, it makes for more than a meal.
Is it haute cuisine? Nope. Is it a delightful example of the distinctly Midwest experience that Door offers so delightfully, at every corner? Yep.
And indeed, it’s a perfect way to serve our happy horde.
The Big Power of a Small Fruit
As compelling as the whitefish lure of Door County is, in late July it’s about something tiny, land-borne, and singularly alluring. This is cherry season, and Door is ground zero for the fruit that explodes in your mouth with a taste that no back-home supermarket could ever provide. Here you find the region’s renowned tart Montmorencies along with Ballantines and a variety of other sweet cherries captured in pints, quarts, gallons, and, for the restaurateur or true fanatic, 50-gallon containers.
The overflowing baskets at farmers’ markets up and down the peninsula make it easy to get a bit of Door County cherry culture into your life (and popped into your mouth) during fresh picking season, but to get a true glimpse of the soul of the industry, take the back roads about three miles north of Sturgeon Bay to Choice Orchards. For here lies a bit of Door County cherry history.
Choice, a 30-year-old family farm, sits on the site of the original Martin’s Orchards. “Martin’s used to be the biggest tart cherry producer in the country, maybe the world,” says Glen Musil, Choice’s manager of 30 years, in the back office of Choice’s low-key digs. He wears a well-worn flannel shirt. The prime decorative enhancement in his office is a collection of toy tractors. It’s clear he’s a cherry man through and through.
It’s hard to imagine, among the near-sleepy digs at Choice (where cinder-block decor is good enough for the sales room), that this land was once as busy in season as a Walt Disney theme park. At its height in the 1940s and ’50s, Martin’s Orchard had 1,260 acres of trees in cultivation, housed 1,450 workers, and yielded 250,000 pounds of hand-picked cherries a day. An aging Picker’s Shack that still has a woodstove and bunks remains to remind of the human contribution—a complex relationship—that attends agriculture of this kind of scale: The shack’s last inhabitants were migrant workers from Mexico.
Related: 6 Crazy Things You Never Knew About the Great Lakes
“They brought in pickers from everywhere,” Musil says of the orchard’s peak productivity years, describing camps of Native Americans, Black Americans, Caribbean and Mexican migrants, and “kids from Milwaukee and Chicago coming up in trucks,” he says. “And that doesn’t count the POWs.” Musil is referring to a little-known bit of history: In 1945, more than 1,000 German POWs, including captured members of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps, were installed as paid labor (under the Geneva Convention) to make up for the shortfall of local pickers brought on by the war. Some 350 Germans worked in Martin’s Orchard.
The mantle of Door County cherry domination has since passed to the Seaquist family, whose 1,000 acres produce and plant processes not only their own fruit but those from about 25 other local growers (including Choice). And with that bounty comes a product line of everything from cherry syrup, hot cherry salsa, cherry-horseradish spread, and cherry butter to cherry goat cheese, cherry balsamic vinegar, cherry–poppy seed salad dressing, and cherry caramel topping. Everything is pleasingly lined up for sale (along with cherry inflatable life preservers) at the Seaquist Orchard Farm Market in Sister Bay.
Meanwhile, Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek counterpunches with its own brightly lit emporium of stone fruit delights, including the orchard’s own cherry wine (a tad sweet, but who’s counting?). Spend a day hunting and gathering at Door County’s agricultural Macy’s and Gimbel’s and you’ll have stocked your pantry with ways to tuck cherries into every course, from breakfast through lunch, happy hour, supper, and dessert.
What crowns Door County cherry culture has to be that most American of after-dinner treasures: cherry pie. While you can enjoy it from peninsular south to north and west coast to east, the best of all is to be found at Bea’s Ho-Made Products up in Ellison Bay. At this
humble, white-clapboard little establishment, jams, jellies, and pickles are made in small batches on a stovetop, and they’ll bake a cherry pie just for you if you give them two hours’ notice. Here at the near-end of the road in the northern peninsula, where the Landin family occupied the homestead in 1884 and began selling cherries from a picnic table in 1961, the connection between farm cooking and hospitality imbues every bite of that pie. It’s unforgettable.
The Arts and Artful Vacationing
The upscale fare to be found at Seaquist and Lautenbach’s is a good indicator of how life on the bay side goes. Over here, amid the marinas and shops, things are a little more in tune with what the summer visitor who’s just docked the boat for a few days is looking for in a summer-coast experience.
That’s not to say that tourism solely sets the tone on the bay side. Over here, an energetic and serious art scene is everywhere you turn. In Fish Creek, for example, Peninsula Players Theatre, set amid pine glades on the bay, is in its 84th year. At nearby Door Community Auditorium, A-list musicians perform within overhearing distance of more than a half-dozen galleries.
“Door County’s emerging. It’s not a place that just depends on tourism and antiques,” says Sandy Pjesky in the living room of the Double S Lodge in Sister Bay, a vintage log cabin hideaway that she and husband Steve redid and reopened five years ago. The couple were drawn to Door County from their home in Phoenix by Sister Bay’s beauty and sense of generational continuity. “It’s filled with so many family members,” she says. “Kids who grow up, wander away, and then come back.”
One could argue that the Sandy and Steve also saw an opportunity to introduce rustic luxury quietly to this under-the-radar destination. “Our niche is very personal high-end service,” Sandy says, “but very mellow.” True to the local farm-to-table mantra, a chalkboard outside the kitchen lists the inn’s 19 local purveyors, from high-end wineries and breweries to locally ground coffee and locally grown flowers.
The ingredients find their way into what might be the best breakfast in Wisconsin: on one summer morning, a Southwestern omelet and a soufflé, hash browns, and a green pepper bread with orange and sunflower seeds. (For early birds, there’s dawn delivery of coffee and freshly baked pastries.) And as is so often the case, a shared table in the sunlit inn adds even more illumination. “We came to the Double S for the Double S,” a fellow guest confesses, “and Door County happened to be here.” Expect more of that brand of discovery to come.
The infusion of new explorers like my tablemate add to a community that makes Door unique, says Dianne Taillon, a Realtor and the proprietress of the circa-1863 Historic Hillside Inn of Door County down in Ephraim.
“It’s an interesting group—well-educated, well-traveled,” she says, watching the sun set over Eagle Bay from the balcony of one of the Hillside’s suites. “It’s like old America. We sit on the front porches. We chat. We take care of everybody.” Beneath us, the sun is rippling on the bay, and a breeze carries the ozone-rich promise of freshwater and of all things summer.
“It’s enchanting, isn’t it?” she says, and there’s no need to answer.
Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a one-hour drive from centrally located Sturgeon Bay. Appleton International Airport is one hour and 20 minutes away, and Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport is two hours and 30 minutes away.
On the shores of Lake Michigan in Baileys Harbor, each of the 15 rooms of the adults-only Blacksmith Inn on the Shore’s two buildings has a water view as well as an assured, upscale B&B design charm. In the historic Zahn House, third-floor balconies come with hammocks, while every room of the Harbor House has a balcony hammock. Rates start at $145; theblacksmithinn.com.
The Double S Lodge—a rustic-luxe log cabin that’s a short bicycle ride to the old-fashioned charms of Sister Bay and a mile from the beach—is a modern, nostalgic hideaway with four guest rooms, superlative breakfasts, and fishing rods on offer along with beach towels and umbrellas, great wines, beer, and coffee, and a s’mores kit at check-in for use at the evening campfire. Rates start at $295; doubleslodge.com.
In Ephraim, the white clapboard and gracious Historic Hillside Inn offers five luxuriously updated guest rooms in the historic main building, as well as two cottages with shaded front porches that overlook the bay. Rates start at $287; hillsideofdoorcounty.com.
In downtown Baileys Harbor, Chives Restaurant is home to one of the region’s best farm-to-table menus, as well as a food truck that puts the hip in Door County. Also in Baileys Harbor, Door County Brewing Company’s Music Hall hosts year-round live music and takes the
party outside in the summer to a backyard beer garden that proffers locally sourced plates
and top-shelf Wisconsin artisanal cheese. With its sod roof, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay not only provides a crazy place for goats to hang out, but also makes a mean Swedish meatball and Swedish pancakes with lingonberries.
For your requisite fish boil, hit the circa 1874 Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim. (Call 920/854-4034 to reserve.) Nearby, the red-and-white striped awnings of Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor mark its landmark status, and the house-brewed root beer is fantastic.
For cherries, visit Choice Orchard in Sturgeon Bay for marvelously low-key offerings on a historic Door County site, while Seaquist Orchard Farm Market in Sister Bay and Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek offer plentiful cherry wonders of every variety. For the best cherry pie on the Door Peninsula, make the pilgrimage to Bea’s Ho-Made Products in Ellison Bay. (Get the pie.) For a full listing of cherry orchards and farm markets, check out doorcounty.com.