As world travelers, Pursuitist adherents may think of “paradise” as a destination that offers long white sand beaches, bordered by palm trees swaying in an ocean breeze. Well, I would consider that paradise as well, but a recent trip to a different kind of paradise has reset my mental expectation of what paradise is really all about.
Welcome to Door County, Wisconsin!
Yes, Wisconsin. Can you name anything in Wisconsin other than cheese and the Green Bay Packers? I couldn’t until Pursuitist was contacted by Jimmy Branch of Geiger & Associates Public Relations on behalf of Destination Door County, tasked with enlightening travel and luxury Web sites about the true gem Door County is.
About Door County
With a population of about 31,000, Door County Wisconsin could be considered a very small county. And while the name “Door County” sounds like a single place, the name refers to an area comprised of more than 3,000 square miles, 19 distinct communities, 35 named islands, thousands of diverse businesses, and countless ways to spend a day, week, or an entire season.
The history of Door County includes recognition of Native American tribes such as the Winnebago and Pottawatomi.
Later, European settlers, including many of Scandinavian and French ancestry, moved there to enjoy the rich fishing and agriculture of the area, including cherry farming, which is still a major part of today’s Door County economy.
If you travel by air or drive to Door County, it’s about 245 miles from Chicago, 177 miles from Milwaukee, and just 67 miles from Green Bay.
Door County is known for its stunning views of Lake Michigan year-round. From clear blue waters in spring, summer, and fall, to a solid sheet of ice during winter months, where a unique set of activities like ice fishing make this special place a year-round destination.
While a great deal of the County is flat, cliffs along the Cuesta Ridge are prominent. At Peninsula State Park, you can also enjoy high bluffs and sandy beaches. Hiking or bicycling is the preferred method for exploring trails that wind through the quiet interior of the park. Peninsula Park White Cedar Forest is one of the natural areas within Peninsula State Park which features a continuum of five distinct community types that change with elevation away from Green Bay.
Enjoy cherry blossoms in the spring, fine galleries where locals sell unique artworks, craft breweries, and of course, cheese! If you don’t like cheese, you may be in the wrong place! Seriously though, cheese making is an important part of the economy and culture of Wisconsin, and during our tour, we sampled cheese curds and hard and soft cheeses, along with plenty of craft beer and great wine from eight local wineries to accompany it.
With 34 islands in Door County, ferry travel is a great way to explore when Lake Michigan is not frozen over. Be sure to visit Washington Island’s Schoolhouse Beach, with its uniquely smooth stones, to reconnect to nature’s beauty. The island’s lavender fields, featuring horizon-spanning purple, are another must-see in Door County.
So Much to See!
With Door County home to so many specialty experiences, we were eager to get started. Our Fall itinerary was unique, as winter experiences are also a media tour option. More on that later.
We began our adventure by checking in to the Dörr Hotel, located in the heart of popular Sister Bay. The Dörr Hotel celebrates the Scandinavian history and spirit of the County, and offers 47 rooms styled with Scandinavian furniture and fittings. It sits just above the main road in Sister Bay on a modest hillside, and offers great views no matter the room.
Several media colleagues stayed just up the road at the Hillside Waterfront Hotel, nestled along the Eagle Harbor in Ephraim. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and features five rooms in the main house and two private cottages. James Lohmiller, Director of Guest Services at the Dörr Hotel, and Diane Tallon, owner of the Hillside Waterfront Hotel ensured we had a memorable stay!
Twelve Eleven Wine Bar and Provisions and Thyme Restaurant
Before dinner, we had a great Happy Hour experience at Twelve Eleven Wine Bar + Provisions, known for local selections in addition to California labels, with winemakers that hail from Wisconsin and Michigan. Local beer and cider can also be found, with a menu of hors d’oeuvres to pair. Twelve Eleven was founded in 2015 by Garret Torgerson and Tim Raduenz with Partner Liz Wuesthoff; all three are originally from Wisconsin.
Next up was dinner at the new Thyme Restaurant, complete with a bar and outdoor dining.
Thyme is known for fresh, new dishes such as the crispy chicken cherry bomb sandwich, with cherry barbecue sauce and habanero goat cheese, and classics like red-wine braised beef short ribs. Thank you Tonda and Karl Bradley of Thyme for setting us off on a great start.
Breakfast at White Gull Inn
The next morning we got an early 7:30 am start with breakfast at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, a Bed and Breakfast Inn and Restaurant. The Inn opened in 1896, and features beautifully renovated, meticulously maintained rooms, suites, and cottages, many with fireplaces and double whirlpools. The restaurant is known for cherry-stuffed French toast for breakfast, and for dinner, the Door County fish boil, featuring Lake Michigan whitefish caught by local fishermen and cooked outside over an open fire, just as it was one hundred years ago by the Scandinavian settlers of the Peninsula. Fish Creek is listed by Forbes as one of the 15 Prettiest Towns in America. Thank you Innkeeper Meredith Coulson-Kanter for the best French Toast ever!
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market
Our next stop was Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market, which has been growing, harvesting, and producing award-winning fruit products since 1955. Lautenbach’s is located on 100 acres of blossoming orchards and lush vineyards. Owned and operated by three siblings, you’ll find estate-grown wine and cherry products galore – jams, salsas, pies and more! Thanks go out to Director of Marketing, Carrie Lautenbach-Viste.
Edgewood Orchard Galleries
One of the Midwest’s most respected art galleries, Edgewood Orchard Galleries features works from more than 100 artists and has been known since 1969 for its exhibitions exploring ideas in a wide range of media—paintings, sculpture, glass, clay, wood, and jewelry. The setting is as exceptional as the artwork shown. The gallery is housed in a stone fruit barn built in 1918 and located on an 80-acre orchard. Thank you gallery owners Nell and J.R. Jarosh.
Chocolates or Art?
Before lunch, we had the option to enjoy chocolates at the Sample DC Chocolate Design Café, or visit the Peninsula School of Art. I decided to check out the school, which offers classes for all ages and an artist-in-residence program. In addition, the Guenzel Gallery displays a rotating schedule of exhibitions of nationally-recognized artists’ work throughout the year. We viewed some very impressive works, and thanks to Executive Director Cathy Hoke for the comprehensive tour.
Colleagues who got their chocolate fix at the Sample DC Chocolate Design Café touted the hand-made truffles, chocolate bars, molded chocolates, and more. Thank you Cole and Kara Vanderleest for “Chocolatizing” the crew!
Burgers and Root Beer were right on time at the landmark Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim. Established in 1906 by Oscar and Mattie Wilson, the “Wilson Tradition” has been a hallmark of the community ever since. Wilson’s is now owned by family member Sarah Martin, who gave us the full history of Wilson’s. The iconic restaurant still has the flagstone floor installed by the Wilsons when they first opened the restaurant.
Cruising on Sister Bay
As an avid boater, a highlight of the program for me was a 90-minute tour of Sister Bay aboard a vessel owned by Sister Bay Scenic Boat Tours. With seasoned Captain Nick Dokolas at the helm, we relaxed and enjoyed a smooth cruise while listening to stories about Native Americans, early settlers, and landmarks along the way on shore and on the waters of Green Bay. The company also offers cruises with live music and sunset cruises. And whenever there is an occasion for fireworks, such as the Sister Bay Marina Fest, gobble up tickets fast to enjoy the spectacle from one of their vessels and the Bay’s unique viewing points. Overall, the cruise was awesome and should be on your “must-do” list when visiting Door County.
Free Time in Sister Bay
Sister Bay has long been a great dining destination since a local character put a goat on a roof over 50 years ago. Today, a popular tourist spot is a watering hole with a grass roof with Billy and his goat pals enjoying munching on the grass roof. You have to see it to believe it!
I spent an hour walking the main drag, with new restaurants, a marina, shops and galleries, and a 1900-foot waterfront. I enjoyed a great cup of coffee and some delicious cheese curds while soaking up the sunshine.
An Evening of the Arts and Local Cuisine
Yes, dinner at the Wild Tomato Sister Bay offered all of the items I would have on a perfect menu, including my favorite – hand tossed, wood-fired pizza. The food was great and the owners are well vested in the community. A great example of this is Wild Tomato’s “Donation Creation Pizza of the Month,” where one dollar from each of that month’s specially created pizzas is donated to Door County Family Services. We tried the month’s “Chicken & Choke Pizza,” laden with grilled chicken, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach, over an artichoke dip base, topped with a special cheese blend. I’m sure hungry ghosts of early French settlers upon trying that special pizza would have shouted C’est Magnifique! Big thanks to the manager of Wild Tomato, Juan Ornelas, for the wonderful food and a great experience.
Northern Sky Theater
Next up was a visit to a very important part of the fabric of Door County – The Arts. We attended a performance of “Sunflowered,” by Aidaa Peerzada and Lachrisa Grandberry. It told the story of a young woman’s life-changing decision and her friendships. Told through humor and song. It should be noted that Grandberry is an African American woman, who is now in her fifth season with Northern Sky Theater. It should also be noted that there aren’t a lot of folks that look like Grandberry and yours truly in Door County, yet her performance as playwright and actor in the performance earned the troupe a standing ovation, and not one time did I feel any angst towards me no matter where I went during my incredible stay. It’s a place that welcomes everyone!
The Northern Sky Theater’s 248-seat Gould Theater opened in 2019 in Peninsula State Park. The theater complex sits on 40 wooded acres, and its towering windows and distinct architecture blend with Door County’s natural elements. Thank you Marketing Director Ann Birnschein for a truly inspiring evening.
The following morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the Door County Coffee & Tea Company. The company touts itself as a premier coffee roaster, roasting coffee in small batches to exacting specifications. Are they legit? You bet they are! First, after breakfast, we attended “Coffee College,” where our host, Vicki Wilson, Founder and CEO of the company gave us the 411 on all things coffee, from where it originated (Ethiopia) to the types of beans and optimal growing conditions.
After school, we donned hair nets and toured the roasting and packaging elements of the company. Great coffee, great tour!
Wax for a Great Cause
Not only was our visit to Door County Candle Company a great insight into how a candle-making business is operated, but we also learned that a percentage of the company’s Ukrainian flag-colored candle sales are donated to support Ukrainians affected by the senseless war there. High-quality candles in scents like “Door County Cherry” and “Lakeshore” combine with a great sense of local and international commitment to doing good. Thank you owner Christiana Trapini for your and your team’s efforts!
Door County Distillery and Door Peninsula Winery
To top off a great morning, we visited the Door County Distillery and Door Peninsula Winery, the county’s original and largest winery, and the first distillery to produce vodka, gin, and fruit-infused vodka. The Winery has been in business since 1974, handcrafting wine from fresh fruits grown locally and throughout the U.S.
The Distillery is reminiscent of the casual, pastoral surroundings of Door County and showcased in the stone-barn style feel of the building’s exterior, yet modern and elegant inside, showcasing the copper still and small batch, on-site production. The Distillery is classic Door County, as are the spirits, distilled with clean, limestone-infused waters from the Door Peninsula. Thank you Beth Levendusky, Operations, and Creative Director, and Rob Peterson, Marketing and Sales Director.
Door Artisan Cheese Company
One thing was consistent throughout our excellent visit to Door County – cheese! Yes, every meal included cheese curds. A cheese curd isn’t a special kind of cheese. It’s just a young cheddar, one that hasn’t been aged at all, and they are delicious! Cheese curds are separated from the whey during the cheesemaking process, and instead of being molded for a future cheese wheel, they’re sliced up and bagged to be sold right away.
Having said that, our visit to the Door Artisan Cheese Company took our cheese love to the proverbial “next level.” Both traditional Wisconsin cheeses and original-recipe creations are hand-crafted by two Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers. We watched the cheesemaking process through viewing windows. Cheeses age in three cheese-aging caves on its lower level.
Door Artisan Cheese also features a specialty food retail market offering over 100 local, regional and imported artisan cheeses. The casual fine-dining restaurant, Glacier Ledge, offers a relaxing dining experience to taste and share plates featuring fresh, locally grown ingredients. Enjoy a glass of wine and an artisan cheese and charcuterie plate on the beautiful patio! Thank you Richard Stulginskis.
Cappaert Contemporary Gallery
Twenty years ago, Kathy Mand Beck turned an 1873 log home into a gallery where she showcased original Dovetail Sprinklers as well as creating beautiful gardens for all to enjoy. In 2014, artist Ginnie Cappaert took over in this breathtaking location which features artists working in contemporary painting, sculpture, glass, clay, jewelry, and the “original Dovetail Copper Sprinklers.”
Macready Artisan Bread Co.
After learning about craft cheeses and fine art, our appetites were strong! Owners Jenny and Mike Macready of the Macready Artisan Bread Co. in Egg Harbor has the solution. The shop specializes in hand-crafted artisan breads, homemade soups, and savory sandwiches made from oven-roasted natural meats. I enjoyed the Cranberry Chicken Salad sandwich, made from fresh chicken breast, green onion, celery and mayonnaise, and plenty of delish dried Wisconsin cranberries. Yum!
One Barrel Brewing Company
After lunch, we enjoyed a few cold ones at Door County’s home to unique beer, the One Barrel Brewing Company. After major success in Madison Wisconsin, owner Peter Gentry opened the doors to a second One Barrel location in Egg Harbor. Not your typical bar, this spot emulates a laid-back, Wisconsin tavern vibe. They rotate many fresh brews and ciders to keep beer lovers like me coming back again and again. And everything they brew is served fresh out of the barrel! Thank you Operations Manager Olivia Templin!
Anchored Roots Vineyard and Winery
The Vineyard and Winery is Door County’s newest winery and opened on Labor Day Weekend 2022, but was established in 2020 by Amy and Eric Gale. What started as a 3-acre vineyard doubled to 6-acres by 2021. The winery features Washington State wines, with Wisconsin wines ready to be shared in 2023. Thank you Amy and Eric for sharing your story and your excellent wines!
Juddville Contemporary Clay Studio Gallery
Are you into unusual, yet extraordinary works of art? Then be sure to visit the Juddville Contemporary Clay Studio Gallery.
The Gallery features the works of nationally recognized clay artists Rebecca Carlton and Tony Staroska. Their studio and gallery is located in the historic Juddville School. From the early 1880s through 1957, hundreds of local children received their early education in school.
Next, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church delivered countless sermons to its worshipers in the space. It also housed several previous art galleries. Juddville Contemporary Clay has called the schoolhouse home for the past 13 years. While Rebecca Carlton creates site-specific art, Tony Staroska creates large-scale sculptures and contemporary fine art vessels fired in on-site kilns and ovens using the processes if salt, saggar and slip-resist raku. Staroska also showed off his potter’s wheel skills! “If you have built or purchased your dream home in Door County, you can further decorate it with artwork that will enhance your home and reflect your individual style. We have sculpture, ceramics, and custom tile,” said Staroska.
The Juddville Contemporary Clay Studio Gallery is another must-visit location in Door County, and is ranked number three in Yelp’s rankings of galleries in the area.
Dinner at Burton’s on the Bay
We wrapped up our last full day in Door County with a grand dinner at Burton’s on the Bay. Located at the Alpine Resort, Burton’s on the Bay offers selections such as a smoked salmon wood-fired personal pizza with goat cheese curds, and crispy pork belly with soba noodles and bulgogi sauce, all served with a smile and a sensational view of the sun setting on Green Bay. Big thanks to Burton’s Director of Marketing Jen Welsh for a wonderful evening!
All Good Things Must Come to an End
Before we said goodbye to an epic destination, we visited the Sway Brewing and Blending company for a morning round of farewell beers. Since their recent opening in Baileys Harbor, Sway has created simple, easy-drinking beers—served directly out of the fermentation cellar to the inviting beer garden. They serve great-tasting beers with great names like “Cracks in the Sidewalk,” “A Very Happy Start,” and a “Lovely Place to Be,” among other creative names. A big thank you to Sway owner and Brewer Matt Sampson of Hacienda Beer Company and his lovely wife for sharing their great entrepreneurial story about how they got the business started.
Farewell Lunch at Renard’s Artisan Cheese
Known for their “cherry cheddar,” a unique treat along with their famous cheese curds, Renard’s Artisan Cheese, Door County’s oldest cheese store, is in its third generation of cheese makers. Enjoy lunch from their deli, “Melt,” featuring gourmet sandwiches, salads, mac & cheese, and of course melts. Café favorites include honey truffle melt and curd Panzanella. Thank you Ann and Chris Renard, owners of Renard’s. They also have a great gift shop at Renard’s. I came home with beautiful crystal holograph mini-obelisks for my collection of eclectic items.
What a fabulous time in a great destination! A common theme amongst the great business owners we met is that most were born in Door County, and have continued multi-generational family businesses over the years.
Winter in Door County!
As you might expect, winter in Door County involves very cold weather, snow, and a frozen Lake Michigan and Green Bay.
Fear not! Door County is ready to welcome you with unique indoor and outdoor activities for snow and ice lovers!
Though the peninsula is best known as an escape in the warmer months, many visitors enjoy Door’s less crowded days, especially during the holiday season. From Christmas parades to tree lighting ceremonies, there’s no shortage of festivities. Door County was once dubbed by National Geographic “A kingdom so delicious.”
During winter months, Door Peninsula has its own sense of living for the outdoors. Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride through downtown Fish Creek. Explore snow-covered trails on cross-country skis, snowshoe the tranquil countryside, traverse the rocky shoreline of Lake Michigan or sled down pillowy white snow banks. Enjoy the Merry-Time Festival of Trees. Are you into ice fishing? No problem!
Special thanks go out to Jimmy Branch and Carrigan Ramsey of Geiger & Associates; and to Julie Gilbert, Jon Jarosh, Jen Rogers, Yvonne Torres, Laura Bradley, Michelle Rasmusson, Phil Berndt, Pat Nash, Cathy Lynch, Morgan Rusnak, Whitney Meza, Amy DeMeter, Brittany Nemeth and Laura Lloyd at Destination Door County, as well as great company from my media and influencer peers.
Door County! Thank you!
Pursuitist automotive and lifestyle contributor Brian Armstead has been involved in print, radio, web and television for over 47 years. Brian has traveled to 79 countries. He is a North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year (NACTOY) Juror.