Door County, Wisconsin gets its name from the original French explorers and fur trappers who came upon the treacherous waters separating Washington Island from the mainland. They referred to it as Portes des Mortes: “Doors of Deaths.”
Today, the waters do sometimes delay campers and visitors crossing back from the island. Swimmers’ warnings are placed prominently at hotels and parks.
In 1969, National Geographic Magazine pronounced Door County “a kingdom so delicious” and the foodie world hasn’t been the same since.
What to do: A perfect way to get an overview of the county, its history and perhaps even tips on secret fishing holes, is with a scenic tour on Door County Trolley. They have specialized outings, like culinary tours and haunted pub crawls.
Fish Creek’s Peninsula School of Art holds plein air and studio workshops, exhibitions and events for all ages. Participants – even tourists — typically bring their own art supplies. There are workshops that are held over a couple of days.
Cana Lighthouse is over 140 years old, but still is Coast Guard operational. Visitors can climb the 97-step spiral staircase to an observational deck for amazing views of Lake Michigan and the Door County peninsula. Door County used to be known ‘round the world as “Cherryland, USA.” It’s still a vital growing area for tart Montmorency cherries, both nutritious and delicious. Country Ovens might have started out with a Ronco dehydrator purchased at a garage sale, but they’re the center of the dried cherry universe now.
Orchard Country Winery and Market has over a dozen kinds of estate-grown fruits, makes its own wine and hosts horse-drawn sleigh rides.
Door Peninsula Winery, well-known for fruit wines, is located in a historic schoolhouse. It has a tremendous selection, along with some TSA-friendly small bottles. Due to prevailing laws, they’re separate from — wink, wink – but really connected to the Door County Distillery, producing award-winning vodkas, gin and eaux de vie. The bartender handling tastings is the modern answer to Don Rickles.
If some wineries come off like the South Park “Smug” episode to you, you’ll love the casual and fun atmosphere at Harbor Ridge Winery. Their quaffable wines in a former coffee house even attract regional M/C’s for tastings.
In the same complex is Wisconsin Cheese Masters – you are in America’s Dairyland, after all – which carry the most Wisconsin-made cheeses of anywhere in the state. They’re not all mac-and-cheese type creations, either. Many have won international awards, with such sophisticated flavorings as locally grown mustard seeds or dark cocoa.
Door County boasts several professional theater companies, including Isadoora Theater Company. Though in a resort community, they’re unafraid to do modern, quirky productions, like Circle Mirror Transformation.
Where to stay: A well-kept secret in lodging is the Shoreside Motel at The Shallows Resort. It has a waterfront park and landing on Green Bay. Depending on the view and time of year, some of the rooms can run under $100 a night. The outdoor pool and hot tub is a convivial setting at night for grown-ups to meet. When the pool closes at 10 pm, the adjacent screened-in porch is a great place to move your party.
The White Gull Inn is a Select Registry accommodation, but does something very down-home: weekend fish boils. This is a local food tradition evolved from fishermen who got stuck on a boat with their catch. Boiling in plain water with a kerosene hit in the end gets rid of the oily, “fishy” taste. The resulting tender fish, seasoned only with salt, is an event and dinner all rolled into one.
Where To Eat: Parador serves authentic Spanish tapas with the finest local and Spanish ingredients, until 10:30 at night. A great example of their fusion dishes is the Lake Michigan whitefish wrapped in Spanish Serrano ham and served with a Spanish sherry cream sauce.