FISH CREEK, WIS - “Explore the Door” is a catchy phrase that lures travellers to a narrow strip of land 150-kilometres-long and 35-kilometres-wide north of Green Bay, Wis., called Door County Peninsula.
With over 600 kilometres of Lake Michigan shoreline, visitors who explore The Door on an annual basis rarely fight crowds of other tourists, although the narrow roads here can occasionally cause traffic jams.
With my swimming trunks, suntan lotion, bug spray and a supply of novels, as well as a map of the county, I headed up north above the Tension Line to see what The Door offered.
Being German-American, I figured I’d fit right in with the locals, mostly Swedes, Norwegians and Germans who originally settled the area, with a few Belgians in the southern part. In the 1920s, travellers were advised to bring along three spare tires if they were driving to the northern end of the peninsula. I was hoping the roads had improved somewhat since then.
Two-lane Wisconsin Route 42 weaves its way northward up the peninsula, and after crossing Sturgeon Bay, I noticed signs popping up that grabbed my attention: “Pic Your Own Strawberries,” “Maple Syrup For Sale,” “Lodging & Conversation,” “Fish Boil Tonight,” and “Cheese Tasting.” The towns up here also have classic small-town names like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Sister Bay and Gills Rock.
Left: A server welcomes visitors to the Al Johnson restaurant where Swedish pancakes are the house specialty. Middle: This part of Wisconsin has one of the most pristine shorelines in the U.S. Right: Master glass blower Jeremy Trenchard adds colour to a glass bowl.
With my addiction to cheese, I pull over at Renard’s Cheese, one of three of Door County’s most popular specialty shops, and the only cheesemaker left in the county out of a total of 50 at one time. Howard Renard started the business at just age 14, and although retired, he still shows up nearly every day at the factory.
What’s amazing at his place is the variety of cheeses available in one store, and more than 50 cheese flavours, including Wisconsin beer cheddar.
At Renard’s tourists are treated to large samples of cheese curds, and “if they don’t squeak, they’re not fresh,” says marketing director Debbie Wauters. The three or four I could down at 10 o’clock in the morning definitely squeaked. I walked out with a large bag of curds for later.
In Door County you definitely can’t miss the “Cherries For Sale” signs. They’re everywhere, because Door County is rated fourth among the top cherry-growing regions in the country, with more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards. The cherry trees bloom from mid to late May, and by mid July Door County is cherry heaven.
Once the bountiful cherry harvest is gathered, you can find every variety of cherry product, liquid or cherry-infused food you can think of, including cherry juice, cherry pie filling, cherry jam, cherry mustard, dried cherries, cherry-apple syrup, cherry scones, chocolate-covered cherries and juicy locally-picked cherries in your Manhattan or sitting atop your ice cream sundae.
But the cherry pit spit contest takes the cake.
Every year at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek, contestants get a running start and then let go as the pits go flying through the air. A pit spit official marks the landing spot, and the next contestant gives it their best spit. The men’s record is 48 feet, 1 inch, while the women’s record is a bit less at 38 feet, 3 inches.
Left: Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was built in 1868. Right: Some legendary characters are buried in the local grave.
After checking in at my Country House Resort accommodations in Sister Bay, I was ready to board a Door County Trolley. My driver, Robert Kohout, a resident of the county for 35 years, explained there are a little over two million visitors each year to Door County, and that Green Bay is one of the largest bodies of water in the U.S. to completely freeze over in the winter, with ice as much as three feet thick.
He said that in winter some people try to drive over it with their car; I figured I’d just take his word for it that it might be unsafe.He also pointed out that the first settler buried in Peninsula State Park’s Pioneer Cemetery (there are actually two cemeteries in the Door County park) was a man by the name of Increase Claflin, the first white settler in the county, who slipped across to the other side in 1834. The cemetery’s original ornately-decorated iron archway entrance alone is worth a visit.
Kohout noted that tourists in the expansive 3,776-acre park, which features high bluffs and a cobblestone shoreline, can go biking, camping, hiking, birding, golfing, swimming, boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, ice fishing, snowshoeing, sledding, tubing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, picnicking, sightseeing or archery hunting in season. And if there’s nothing on the list you like, there’s also an 1860s lighthouse to visit, a professional summer theatre and a year-round naturalist program in the park.
More than 100 artists have made Door County their home — painters, photographers, actors, singer-songwriters and just plain creative folk have taken up residence here because of the scenic inspiration of the surrounding woods and waters. On any given back road, I saw signs leading to an artist’s studio, often nearly hidden in the woods or down the end of a shady lane.
Above: Door County is also home to five state parks, 19 county parks and a number of nature preserves.
At Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery and Studio, you can see master Jeremy Trenchard use the age-old technique of blowing glass. I want to buy the colourful, delicate glass bowl he makes as I watch.
I found so many things to see and do in Door County — including visiting 11 old lighthouses, a stop at everyone’s favourite ice cream shop (Wilson’s) and breakfast at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant — where they feature goats feeding on the grass-covered roof (there’s even a goat-cam) — that after three days investigating The Door, I hadn’t read even one of the novels I brought along.