Exploring the Cape Cod of the Mid-West
When Oklahomans think of a get-away, Wisconsin is probably not on their minds. What a shame. While we head for Padre Island, Upper Midwesterners head to Door County, that little peninsula that separates Green Bay from Lake Michigan. Known as the “Cape Cod of the Mid-West,” it features beautiful shorelines, forested areas, picturesque lighthouses, and charming small towns along with lots of art, music and great food.
What's in a Name
There are no large towns in Door County. And, as far as I can tell, no franchise eateries or big box stores. Each little town has its own personality – and unique name. Ephraim is one of my favorites. The town was founded by Norwegian Moravians whose white, wooden church still stands above the village.
Fish Creek, named after a pretty insignificant little stream, is noted today for its charming accommodations, variety of shops and galleries and plenty of good food. Several restaurants here do fish boils, a traditional Scandinavian activity that must be experienced on any trip to Door County.
Sister Bay, named after two small islands off-shore, has great harbor views, summer concerts and a unique Swedish restaurant with goats grazing on its grass roof.
Several stories explain how Egg Harbor got its name. Several of them are mundane. The favorite story involves a ship captain with a big ego and a rival who raced him to get his ship into the harbor first. A fight ensued between the ship’s crews, who threw whatever was at hand – most notably eggs. The story finishes on shore with the fight continuing until ammunition ran out and all concerned were covered with eggs and shells.
Each of these little towns has multiple attractions – any one of them, and a number I didn’t name, offer great accommodations, shops, restaurants and galleries galore.
Door County’s economic base rests on tourism and cherries. Summer is the ideal time to go. And, in case you were wondering, the county is short for Death’s Door. Again, there’s more than one version of the naming. The waters between Washington Island and the peninsula have been responsible for many shipwrecks, but the origin may go back the 1600s and a battle between Indian tribes from the island and mainland where both sides were drowned in stormy, churning waves.
Today, a ferry operates between Washington Island and the mainland – except in nasty weather. Door County is a peaceful and beautiful destination for today’s visitors.
Art Your Heart Desires
Door County is a pleasure for plein aire painters – harbor scenes, quaint architecture, gorgeous landscaping festooned with colorful flowers, rocky coasts kissing sparkling, blue waters, and more.
Over 80 galleries offer works from local to international artists. From jewelry to monumental sculptures, the scope of choices is amazing. Prices range from easily affordable – I brought back a small sculpture, a pair of earrings, a Christmas ornament and a pewter salt spoon all for under $75 – to thousands of dollars.
Every gallery I visited carried work I’d not seen anywhere else. Edgewood Orchard Gallery in Fish Creek displayed several framed paintings created to be mounted out-of-doors, beautiful for an elegant patio or poolside area.
Cappaert Contemporary Gallery blends an 1873 log home into a showplace for contemporary works of all kinds. This is where I bought my earrings. Created by artist Buzz Coren for his Featherwood jewelry line, they're carved from a wood block made up of hundreds of layers of dyed veneers. Each pair is unique and, surprisingly, light as a ….well, feather. Blue Dolphin House and Studio in Ephraim carries some of the coolest jewelry – some made by Greek artist Alexandria Tsoukala. Her necklaces are made of pleated satin polyester and her purses qualify as pieces of art all by themselves.
Deanne Clayton, owner/artist at D.C. Studios, specializes in an ancient glass technique called pate de verre. Most striking were glass heads, several treated, with a copper overlay, resembling classic sculpture.
Like most of the galleries, the selections at Fine Line Designs Gallery are eclectic. Several of the most unusual pieces here were made by ceramicist Stephanie Evans. She creates large ceramic garments that tell stories about the characters who might wear such creations. Marsha Fieber creates small, embroidered works of art. Don’t be fooled by the medium – there’s no resemblance to the embroidered tea towels of yesterday.
Mary Ellen Sisulak at Turtle Ridge Gallery creates unusual works of art incorporating leather, rocks, wood and paint. From purses and accessories to large, decorative pieces, this artist uses unusual combinations of these elements in her work.
I asked Blue Dolphin owner Peg Lowry how so many galleries could survive in an area which depends heavily on the tourist season. She says, “People flock here because we carry original fine art that’s affordable. We have framed original paintings that sell for the price of a print in places like Santa Fe. And we have customers who save during the year just so they can come here in summer to buy something special.”
Door County is more than just a pretty place. A peninsula on Lake Michigan, Door County offers a plethora of water activities from swimming, boating, canoeing and kayaking to fishing – if you can do it on water, you can do it in Door County.
Visitors can explore wineries, breweries, a distillery and a cider maker. It wouldn’t be Wisconsin without cheese and there are several places to try this state treasure.
To work off those extra calories, Peninsula State Park has miles of hiking/biking trails and a beautiful golf course – one of several courses in the area. Climb to the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse, catch your breath and then take in the breath-taking view.
Trolley or Segway tours are two other ways to see the sights. You won’t run out of things to do in Door County. Those who don’t mind the cold will find lots of winter activities but the summer season – May to mid-October – offers the most variety without challenging the elements.
It will be a challenge getting to Door County. From Oklahoma City, it’s about a 15 hour drive. The best way – although these days, I’d almost rather do the drive – is to fly into Milwaukee, Green Bay or Appleton and rent a car. However you do it – it’s worth the trip. Once you get there, some cherry pie or a cherry Margarita will put you in the mood for more of the Door!
Where to stay:
There are literally hundreds of choices of accommodations from hotels, motels, inns and B&Bs to private cottages and campgrounds. Here are the places I’ve stayed:
Bailey’s Harbor Schoolhouse Inn, Bailey’s Harbor – 1917 schoolhouse converted into an inn, features huge rooms, all with kitchenettes or full kitchens. Great hosts with local stories, many reflected in the décor.
Lodgings at Pioneer Lane, Ephraim – Lovely, quiet, tucked away from the main street but easy walking to nearby eateries and sights in one of my favorite little towns.
Water Street Inn, Ephraim – Large, white, wood-frame, historic hotel facing Eagle Bay. A family favorite for generations – since 1897.
Again, multiple choices, but here are my recommendations:
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, Sister Bay – Swedish specialties and American favorites. Don’t miss the goats on the roof.
Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Bar and Grill, Sister Bay – eclectic menu, great outside dining, try the whitefish paté, fish tacos and cherry Margaritas.
Glacier Ledge, Egg Harbor – Sharable plates, gourmet fare – shares a building and owners with Door County Artisan Cheese
McReady Artisan Bread Company, Egg Harbor – House-made artisan breads, homemade soups (best mushroom soup I ever ate), sandwiches, salads – bakery and lunch spot.
Pelletier’s Restaurant and Fish Boil, Fish Creek – Traditional breakfast and lunch menu with evening fish boils. One of several restaurants offering a boil, this may be my favorite. Well-organized, well-presented and served, the evening is topped off with cherry pie – and you can request ala mode.
Skip Stone Coffee Roasters, Sister Bay – Good coffee, pastries made daily. Small breakfast and lunch menu but well-worth a stop.
White Gull Inn, Fish Creek – Historic 1896 Bed and Breakfast Inn and Restaurant. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and fish boils. Most noted for Cherry Stuffed French Toast, winner of Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast Challenge.
Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor, Ephraim – A local favorite since 1906. Home-brewed root beer, ice cream specialties, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and salads. Variable hours, mid-May to mid-October.