Gusty winds have scrubbed my plans to kayak along a craggy stretch of the Lake Michigan coastline, so instead I’m watching waves crash ashore from atop a limestone bluff.
On calmer days, the water here at Cave Point County Park sparkles in blue and green, and paddlers glide beneath ledges and into inlets that pockmark the rugged edge. Today, though, every wave triggers a spray of foamy water big enough to shower an elephant.
It’s mesmerizing, and it’s just one stop in my four-day trip to Door County, Wisconsin, a peninsula that juts like an outstretched pinkie into Lake Michigan just north of Green Bay. The vibe here is vacationland retro. Tourists flock to old-timey ice cream shops, pocket beaches furnished with rustic Adirondack chairs, and vintage supper clubs that serve prime rib, fried fish and classic cocktails.
Before my trip ends, I’ll explore the peninsula’s unique ecosystem, visit a cherry orchard, whirl over forestland on a zipline, pedal a bicycle to a historic lighthouse, and experience my first Wisconsin fish boil.
Hiking Ridges Sanctuary in Door County
The trails at this nature preserve in Baileys Harbor, one of more than a dozen small towns in Door County, offer an up-close glimpse of the ridges and swales formed by the ebb and flow of Lake Michigan over the past 1,100 years.
“It’s one of the most diverse biological systems in the Midwest,” Katie Krouse, director of operations for the non-profit, says as we make our way along a boardwalk through the forest. Sixty types of nesting birds and 500 vascular plants, including an array of orchids, make their home here. So does the endangered Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly, which spends part of its life sheltering inside mud burrows built by crawfish.
She points out the preserve’s famous topography. The naturally-formed ridges remind me of the ripples found in potato chips, only on a much grander scale. We pause, too, at the Baileys Harbor Range Light, which guided ships into safe harbor until the 1960s.
Soaring at Lakeshore Adventures
For a different view of the terrain, we head just down the road to Lakeshore Adventures. Visitors to the zipline park climb to the top of a 35-foot tower, then buckle up for a swift ride over the lush canopy.
We zoom down four lines in all, finishing with a side-by-side track that whisks guests, wearing harnesses and helmets, over a 600-foot expanse.
Detouring for cherries at Seaquist Orchards
If Door County were an ice cream sundae, Seaquist Orchards would be the cherry on top.
The family-owned operation headquartered near the north end of the peninsula produces 96 percent of the cherries grown in Wisconsin. Happily, it’s open for tours.
Dale Seaquist, the 90-year-old proprietor, explains during our visit that his grandfather once walked 70 miles to learn more about the cherry trees on a nearby farm. Impressed, he then ordered 700 of the trees for himself, at 6 cents each.
“Pretty soon he had more cherries than he knew what to do with,” Seaquist says.
Today the orchard grows 1,000 acres of tart and sweet cherries. It also ships the ruby-colored orbs across the country. We watch Dale’s daughter, Ann, at work in the canning kitchen, where she supervises the jarring of cocktail cherries. The orchard also makes jams, jellies, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, fudge, cider, and pies, which are all for sale in the on-site market.
Cycling to a lighthouse in Door County
At 3,700 acres, Peninsula State Park ranks as one of Wisconsin’s largest parks. We rent bikes from Nor Door Sport & Cyclery in Fish Creek (their fleet includes mountain bikes, road bikes and electric bikes) and hop onto the nearby Sunset Bike Route. This developed gravel pathway unspools for 10 gently undulating miles, through marshes and thick groves of maple trees. We ride to Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, built on a point 76 feet over the water shortly after the Civil War.
Afterward, we drive to Eagle Tower, a 60-foot, handicap–accessible observation deck inside the park. The huge structure serves up stunning views of the surrounding lake and islands.
The supper club tradition
Door County is the land of supper clubs – family-owned restaurants that serve cocktails, prime rib, fried fish and broasted chicken. I love Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club, where I sip an old-fashioned (made the Wisconsin way, with brandy) and nibble cheese curds. As I munch away, the owner explains how her grandparents bought a hotel on the premises in the 1940s. That hotel was passed to her father, who added a bowling alley and dining room. Today she and her husband have taken over operations. Some of the servers have worked here for more than 30 years.
From bakeries to lunchrooms, Door County’s Swedish roots show through in the most delicious ways.
I eat the best cinnamon roll of my life at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery in Ellison Bay. Owner Jewel Ouradnik explains that her parents bought a run-down fish camp in 1970, then spruced it up and reopened it as Rowleys Bay Resort. She and her husband took over in 2003. Today Ouradnik runs the on-site bakery, known for the cinnamon buns, pecan rolls and cardamom coffee cake she grew up baking at her mom’s side. You can still book a room and rent a kayak to paddle into the bay just across the road.
Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay draws in legions of customers who watch in awe as a small herd of goats munches grass on the sod-covered roof. You can sip a beer in the garden outside, or step indoors to enjoy traditional Swedish fare, from meatballs to herring and delicate Swedish pancakes. The restaurant also runs an excellent gift shop, stocked with goods made in Sweden.
Stop for an ice cream
Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, with its red and white striped awnings, has been scooping ice cream since 1906. Slide into a booth, order up a mug of house-made root beer and a burger, and drop a quarter in the juke box while soaking up the vintage vibe. There’s a separate menu for ice cream specialties, which range from a traditional banana split to a creation called the Eagle Harbor Perfection, a mashup of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce, and Door County cherry topping.
Experience a Door County fish boil
Fish boils are a thing in Door County, and watching a “boil master” toss kerosene onto a boiling pot of fish, potatoes and onions, is, well, unforgettable.
We settle in on chairs set up around a wood fire outside the Old Post Office Restaurant in Fish Creek and watch the flaming theatrics. Afterward, we drizzle melted butter over plates of fish as the sun sets. It’s a tradition started more than a century ago by Scandinavian settlers who needed an inexpensive way to feed large groups of lumberjacks and fishermen.
If You Go
Fly from Austin to Green Bay via Delta, United or American Airlines (you’ll have to make a connection). Then rent a car for the hour-long drive to the south edge of Door County. From there, you’ve got 70 miles and 14 towns to explore.
I stayed at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor, which has four swimming pools and a terrific view of the bay.
Eat & Drink:
Go for the goats grazing on the roof, but stay for the meatballs, pickled herring, and Swedish pancakes with lingonberries at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. Don’t miss the fish boil at Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim. For Euro chic style on the waterfront, try Clover & Zot Public House in Ellison Bay, where the chef hails from Austin, Texas. Stop for baked goods at Grandma’s Swedish Bakery in Rowleys Bay and Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim, open seasonally.
Grab a marker and stop by Anderson Dock in Ephraim to sign the warehouse – it’s a longstanding tradition, started by boaters who docked here. Today a posted sign encourages visitors – whether they come by land or sea – to add their name.