Door County Magic

The annual migration to the mountains for ski holidays and vacations is about to begin — the Heartland loves the Rockies. But there’s a spectacular winter wonderland north of Kansas City that is just as captivating as its western cousin … just in a flatlander sort of way. There’s plenty of outdoor activity, including skiing, and a charming personality that’s eager to make the acquaintance of visitors — especially first-timers.

If you’ve never explored Door County, Wisconsin — often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest — consider adding it to your winter getaway list.

That’s right: winter in Wisconsin.

Picture-postcard perfect in Door County, Wisconsin.

The cold season in Door County sparkles and gleams like a lovely, gently-shaken snow globe. A quaint backdrop of tiny villages, nestled into stands of evergreens, hugs 300 miles of shoreline and twinkles with countless strands of Christmas lights that look right at home year-round. Glittery, fluttery snowflakes fall onto a serene landscape and frozen water; the understated dress code makes it acceptable to wear a North Face jacket or Patagonia vest or Lands’ End sweater even when you have reservations at a fine-dining restaurant like the Inn at Kristofer’s (innatkristofers.com) in Sister Bay. Snow boots? Keep ‘em on. Gloves? Keep ‘em handy. Scarves? Part of the Wisconsin winter wardrobe. Wine by the fire, spa treatments, great accommodations and cuisine?

Check, check, check and check. And don’t forget the boutique shopping.

Two miles wide at its tip and extending 70 miles from the state’s northeast corner into Lake Michigan, Door County is a well-known fall and summer playground for visitors and seasonal residents. But the area’s appeal doesn’t end when the boats are docked and the trees have shed their leaves. In fact, when the temps plummet the Door is just warming up for visitors — like me — who have discovered the peninsula’s agreeable pleasures during winter.

I’m a cold-weather fan — one of my favorite places to glide through quiet forests on cross-country skis is in Maine’s western mountains. There’s something soul-lifting about crisp air, gorgeous snow-covered scenery and the promise of a crackling fire at the end of an invigorating day. So when landing at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport with friends last January for a few days of R&R in Door County, I gleefully anticipate the bracing air beyond the terminal’s doors.

As you might imagine, we aren’t disappointed.

 

Name Calling

The drive from Green Bay north to Sturgeon Bay, the county seat of Door County, is a quick hour. Our destination is another 30 minutes beyond to Ephraim’s Eagle Harbor Inn and along the way we pass cherry and apple orchards and rich farmland and go through ‘burgs like Egg Harbor and Fish Creek. My Wisconsin map reveals more cozy-sounding village monikers: Baileys Harbor, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay, Gills Rock.

Door County’s name itself has roots steeped in romantic legend. Snarly waters around the peninsula’s tip (which still exist today, where the waters of Green Bay meet the open waters of Lake Michigan) proved too much for 18th century French explorers; those who survived shipwrecks dubbed the spot Porte des Morts — translated to “Door of the Dead.”

Bed and breakfasts, inns and resorts have equally romantic names — there’s the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, the Blacksmith Inn on the Shore in Sturgeon Bay and the Door County Lighthouse Inn in Egg Harbor, plus hundreds more. The diverse accommodations offer a genuine form of hospitality where check-in might include a mug of hot mulled cider along with chocolate-covered cherries, the fruit indigenous to the area that finds its way into everything, including jams, pastries, pies and wine.

The Eagle Harbor Inn (eagleharborinn.com) is situated on five wooded acres across from the Bay in picturesque (okay, everything in Door County is picturesque) Ephraim. Owners and innkeepers Nedd and Natalie Nedderson are pros at creating an intimate experience for couples and maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere in their traditional B&B that includes the main house with nine beautifully decorated rooms named after historic female innkeepers of Ephraim. Whirlpool suites with fireplaces are in several architecturally distinct houses on the property, along with the Hollyhock House, with homemade breakfast baskets brimming with fruit, baked goods and cherries ($18) available for delivery.

My room, the Serena, is on the second floor of the main house. There’s a breathtaking view of the Bay but it’s the canopied queen bed outfitted with a plush down comforter and plump pillows that gets my attention. I think twice about leaving the room and becoming a hermit over the weekend, but the full breakfast served in the dining room, the freshly ground Door County coffee and my friends win my company the next morning.

 

Door Exploration

My trio of friends and I decide to spend a leisurely day wandering from village to village, noshing, shopping, gallery hopping, soaking in the cordial atmosphere Our strenuous day starts at The Spa at Sacred Grounds (sacredgroundsspa.com), a perfect Zen-inspired gem tucked away in Ephraim. Limp as noodles following the Door County Hot Stone Massage (the stones are collected from Door County’s shores), we trek on to the Fine Line Designs Gallery in North Ephraim (finelinedesignsgallery.com). Housed in a renovated 1950s chicken coop, the gallery features original oil paintings, glass, jewelry, clay, custom wood furnishings, sculpture and fibers. An outdoor two-acre sculpture garden showcases bronze, stone and metal works.

Late morning we head to The Village Café (villagecafe-doorcounty.com) at the north end of Egg Harbor — locals say it’s a must-stop for bowls of Bahamian Whitefish Chowder and jumbo muffins. Dessert consists of steaming cups of hot chocolate laced with mountains of whipped cream and a towering slice of the café’s famous carrot cake — four forks, it’s sharable. The food is homemade-fresh and the service is delightful.

Fortified for an afternoon of shopping, we visit Door County Nature Works (doorcountynatureworks.com) located in a small barn in Egg Harbor. The well-curated store carries casual home furnishings, trendy accessories and gifts. Bea’s Ho-Made Store in Gills Rock (beashomadeproducts.com) yields all varieties of cherry goodies produced in Door County: jam, jelly, butters, toppings and syrups. We load up and head out.

Door County is pedestrian-friendly — once you drive to a village, park and take in the sights on foot. Work up an appetite for dinner — which we gladly do, anticipating the much-ballyhooed fish boil later in the evening.

 

Dinner Is Served

We arrive at the quintessential postcard-worthy Door County inn—the White Gull Inn (whitegullinn.com) in Fish Creek with stomachs rumbling. Built in the late 1890s, the main lodge throughout the years has welcomed visitors from across the globe. Today the White Gull Inn grounds include other historic homes with suites, cottages and homes within walking distance.

But we’re here for the spectacle known as the Fish Boil, a simple meal whose centerpiece is Lake Michigan whitefish cut into chunks and cooked in a gigantic cauldron over an open flame with small red potatoes and salt. A Master Boiler who is part chef/part showman monitors the progress of the fish and tends to the whole affair. Once the oils rise to the top, kerosene is thrown onto flames underneath the pot. Orange flames leap skyward, the crowd gathered around the cauldron on a patio in back of the White Gull Inn gasps and then moves inside for the buffet-style dinner that includes coleslaw, lemon and butter for the succulent fish, artisan breads and of course, homemade Door County cherry pie for dessert.

The White Gull Inn’s Fish Boil is one of the oldest (and most famous) in Door County, having started in 1959; during the winter happens on Friday nights, and reservations are almost always necessary.

Satisfied, content and happy as clams to be in Door County, we make our way back to Ephraim. Tomorrow it’s Peninsula State Park (wiparks.net), a scenic sanctuary of close to 3,800 acres, for a day of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

At the Eagle Harbor Inn, ensconced in the comforts of the Serena, I catch a glimpse of the Bay through the balcony door as a flurry of flakes silently falls.

Door County in winter is snow-globe splendid.

To plan your winter getaway to Door County, visit doorcounty.com

photos courtesy Door county Visitors Bureau

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