Imagine a rugged peninsula with gorgeous landscapes and landmarks at every turn and time of year. Picture this finger of land not on the ocean but jutting into Lake Michigan and you’re in Door County, Wisconsin.
Midwesterners once kept to themselves this swath of villages, forests, and farms ― a year-round destination handy to Milwaukee, Chicago, and the Twin Cities. Word has spread, as folks more far-flung discover Door’s scenic charms and quirky customs. I was one last year, as fall crisped into winter.
I began in Ephraim, settled by Norwegian Moravians in 1853 on Green Bay. Like many Door towns, clapboarded and steepled, Ephraim (“ee-frum”) seems central-casting New England.
But I soon detected its true roots, in 1850s structures like Anderson Store, Iverson House, and the Moravian Church, the latter two built by town founder Rev. Andreas Iverson.
Iverson trudged over the frozen bay in February to establish the town, “looking for off-season rates,” quipped Ephraim Historical Foundation volunteer Tad Dukehart. Today, his house is Door’s oldest frame dwelling.
Down on Water Street, I visited Ephraim Village Hall (1926) to see “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)!” The insane romp was mounted by Door Shakespeare, one of many theater troops on the peninsula, where both performing and visual arts have dropped anchor big time.
They thrive especially well just down the bay in fetching Fish Creek ― in happy balance with abundant history, scenery, dining, and shopping.
Fish Creek is gateway to Peninsula State Park, an Eden of biking, hiking, camping, swimming, and outdoor theater, but I lazed my way through on the Door County Trolley, enjoying killer views of Green Bay as guide Dave Holzinger explained all things Door-ish to us outlanders.
Most amazing: the Niagara Escarpment, the peninsula’s limestone backbone, which runs in a long arc from Wisconsin through the Great Lakes to New York State. The ledge shaped the landscape, dramatically so in the cliffs towering over the bay.
Agriculture prospers on, especially dairy farming (this is Wisconsin, after all). But the star crop is sour cherries.
Thanks to Lake Michigan’s moderating effect, Door County grows tons of these tart beauties, which find their way, often dried, into everything from pies to wine. I sampled a full array at Orchard Country Winery & Market.
“Each of our trees produces as much as 7,000 cherries, the equivalent of 28 pies or 30 bottles of wine,” said Orchard Country co-owner Carrie Lautenbach-Viste, as I ogled a cherry harvester, a surprising contraption that reaps the fruit by fiercely shaking the trees.
If Door County seems enticingly unreal, even more Brigadoon-like is Washington Island just to its north. I ferried there then hopped the golf-cart-ish Cherry Train to explore the woodsy isle, taking in driver Janet Hanlin’s tales from ancient cedar trees to Icelandic breakfasts.
“We proudly display our Scandinavian heritage here,” said Hanlin. A sublime example is the all-wood 1999 Stavkirke, which replicates a medieval Norwegian church with stunning carpentry inherited from Viking ship-crafters.
At the Door County Maritime Museum in Sturgeon Bay, I absorbed more stories of ships and shipbuilding, shipwrecks and life-saving, and lighthouses―plus the people entwined therein. “If you start here,” said director Bob Desh, “everything else you do will be more meaningful, because it all began with the water.”
I toured the museum’s restored 1919 tug John Purves, veteran of both fresh and saltwater gigs, and climbed its 1869 Cana Island Lighthouse to enjoy magnificent vistas of land and lake.
One must not leave Door County, I was told, without attending a fish boil. And so I did, though the notion ― boiling fish? ― put me off.
I witnessed the beach rite at the Square Rigger Galley in Jacksonport. The boil-master lowered baskets of potatoes and onions into a kettle of simmering salt water on a wood fire. He added whitefish steaks to the pot, then a cup of kerosene to the fire, igniting a dazzling blaze that made the kettle overflow and, with much steam and hissing, douse the fire.
What a photo op! After devouring two bowls of the resulting stew, sweet and rich, I went from doubter to devotee.
The dessert? Sour-cherry pie, of course.