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Door County, Wisconsin
Sun, sea and sand – Midwest-style
by Anne-Marie Macloughlin

If anyone had said that some of the prettiest seaside vistas, sand dunes and lighthouses – never mind water sports and sailing – were to be found in the cheese capital of America, I would have taken that with a grain of sand. Such was my surprise when happening on Door County, WI – a sliver of natural beauty that juts into Lake Michigan with a tremendous amount of indoor and outdoor options, year round. And cheese, of course.

Geography, Location and Climate

With Door County just over an hour away from Green Bay (home of the Packers, as I was reminded of more than once), this peaceful slice of Wisconsin is easily accessible to visitors arriving by plane or car, and is approximately 7 hours drive from the Windsor-Detroit border. Door County sits at the top of Lake Michigan with Green Bay on its western side. With 300 miles of shoreline, 53 beaches, 19 county and 5 state parks, there are many opportunities for camping, sailing, kayaking, or just soaking up the sun in the peak season. On average, July and August hover around daytime highs of around 75 F, and winters are typically mild, with temperatures rarely dipping below freezing making winter sports a big draw.

Door County has many pretty resorts scattered around the shoreline. I was staying in quietly picturesque Bailey’s Harbour on the edge of the Ridges Nature Sanctuary, a woody wilderness that enhanced the area’s reputation as a quiet refuge. With erratic cell phone and WiFi service, it was a little disconcerting to be ‘off the grid’, but the great outdoors soon made up for it. 

Biking, Hiking and Beaches

Peninsula State park is a cyclist’s paradise, equipment rentals courtesy of the Lent family and Edge of Park Rentals (edgeofpark.com). With a stunning amount of options available, including 24-speed road bikes, jogger strollers, special needs equipment and even pet carts, everyone can enjoy riding the Sunset Trail. An easy route, the fine gravel on the path is user-friendly, the leafy green silence a panacea for the stressed-out soul. 

After an energetic two-hour ride, we were ready for a hearty lunch in Fish Creek. The Wild Tomato (info@wildtomatopizza.com) is a cozy establishment famous for the eponymous dish, made right in front of you in a traditional wood-fired oven. There are several options for vegetarians and the lactose and gluten intolerant. The Cherry Walnut salad with local goat cheese and famous Wisconsin cherries was almost too good to be true. The Tomato also has a ‘Donation Creation’ on their menu, a specialty pizza with proceeds going to local non-profit organizations. 

Satisfied but not too stuffed, next port of call was hike ‘Old Baldy’ – Wisconsin’s highest sand dune. Located in Whitefish Dunes State Park, the view from the top is worth the hike. Our highly knowledgeable guide introduced us to one of nature’s edible treats, the raspberry-like thimbleberry, and gave tips on how to identify and avoid the dreaded poison ivy. The park was home to eight Native American Villages from 100BC to the late 1800s, illustrated by very authentic reconstruction of teepees and artefacts. 

As a bracing cooling-off option on this typically sunny, humid day, our hosts directed us to Cave Point County Park to see the limestone sea caves, formed as a result of Lake Michigan’s relentless pounding. A favourite spot for bathers, we declined the option and headed off to another of Door County’s dining experiences, Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill (fredandfuzzys.com). Patrons have the option of indoor or outdoor dining, the latter a delightful experience on a warm Wisconsin evening. This bay is known as a premier sunset and storm watching spot, the weather obliging and sending in dark clouds, gusty winds and a mini deluge, as we ran for cover and a Door County Cherry Juice Margarita.

Into the Wilderness

The next day, the hardcore cyclists (and me) decided to conquer the challenging trails of Newport State Park, Wisconsin’s only formally designated wilderness park. 2,373 acres and 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Sweaty and invigorated, we took a time out at Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour in Ephraim, slaking our thirst with home-brewed draft root beer and sweet temptations.

Still on a sugar high from Wilson’s, we took a leisurely cruise around the shoreline by water taxi, on the lookout for some of Door County’s famous lighthouses. Eleven in total, these photogenic beacons are widely accessible during the annual Door County Lighthouse Festival (for more information, contact the Door County Maritime Museum at dcmm.org) 

A quick trip back to the hotel, then onto Rowleys Bay Restaurant to taste yet more of the local gastronomic offerings. A vintage-style resort, Rowleys Bay keeps tradition alive by offering an authentic fish boil dinner. As part of the experience, a storyteller enthusiastically brings the past to life on the lawn outside the restaurant, while the fish boiler and his crew fill a huge iron cauldron with whitefish, onion and potatoes, cooked over a flaming pit. A unique dining experience, especially when the cook literally throws fuel on the fire. Have your cameras ready, and if you value your eyebrows, stand well back!

The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd

As much as the area is a haven for outdoor activities and the wonders of nature, Door County plays host to America’s oldest professional resident summer theatre. The Peninsula Players Theatre (peninsulaplayers.com) has been exciting audiences since 1935, and is currently located along the shore of Green Bay in an idyllic woodsy setting. Prior to the show, patrons can picnic and relax on the grounds while watching the dazzling Wisconsin sunset from the shore, or enjoy a cold beer during intermission. With fairy lights strung through the trees and the last of the sun’s rays on the lake, you would be hard put to find another theatre company with such a photogenic backdrop.
If the surroundings were not impressive enough, you’ll be blown away with the onstage talent. We were treated to the Midwest premiere of Richard Strand’s civil war drama “Butler”, starring Artistic Director Greg Vinkler as the titular character in a gripping dramatic performance. I was relieved that after intermission, however, the sliding doors on either side of the house were lowered to keep out hungry bugs.

From energetic cycling tours, hiking trails, local delicacies and world-class theatre, Door County WI is the ideal destination for families, couples, and even the solo traveller, the Midwestern charm and friendliness of the locals a joy to experience. Some may find the lifestyle a tad slow when compared to the larger resorts or warmer climes. That said, after my initial horror at losing cell phone service and unease at my hotel’s ‘isolated’ location, it was oddly soothing not to be at the mercy of technology and the outside world. As I returned that evening, I paused for a moment to savour my surroundings. No street lamps to dazzle, traffic to deafen, or crowded streets to navigate. At 11pm on a Wednesday night, all I heard was the gentle buzzing of crickets. Sometimes, silence is golden.