“The most wonderful thing about Door County is the perfect combination of wilderness and civilization”, reads a quote from the 1969 March issue of National Geographic. It is an article that would forever change this corner of Wisconsin, located on a 70-mile peninsula with Lake Michigan to the east and Green Bay to the west. Its 190 miles of shoreline, and the glacially-sculpted forested landscape is a vacationer’s dream, but before March 1969, the majority of Americans had never heard of it.
That changed. “Cape Cod on an inland sea,” the magazine wrote, and then described the blooms and bounties of the county’s cherry orchards, bountiful fish, high limestone cliffs, shipwrecks and scuba dives, as well as the enduring traditions of the Scandinavian and Icelandic descendants who make this region their home. When the article came out, visitors flocked here and some even stayed; and it’s remained a popular tourist destination to this day, especially for city escapees from Milwaukee and Chicago.
Discovering the Parks – The peninsula is part of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological wonder known for its limestone cliffs, sculpture-like rock formations and waterfalls (the most famous one being Niagara Falls). The best places to appreciate this natural art in Door County are in its many parks, and a good place to start is Cave Point County Park. Here we listened to the hypnotic sound of Lake Michigan’s waves crashing the bluffs while walking along the ledges and pebble beaches. The power of the water could be clearly seen in the underwater sea caves along its shores, a marvel we explored further the next day on sea kayak excursion.
Adjacent to Cave Point is Whitefish Dunes State Park, one of five state parks in Door County, and home to the highest sand dunes in Wisconsin. We hiked to the top of “Old Baldy”, as the dune is affectionately named, and also explored other trails, including one that recreated the shelters of the native peoples these dunes have been home to for more than 2000 years. National Geographic called Peninsula State Park an “elixir for exhausted urbanites” with its maples and birches shading campers and providing homes to purple finches, scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings.
It’s a destination in and of itself as it not only has the usual camping, hiking trails, swimming and nature programs, but an 18-hole golf course and outdoor theatre. Northern Sky Theater, a 700-seat outdoor repertory company, produces high-quality original plays and musicals. All shows have a local connection, and we thoroughly enjoyed a performance of Doctor, Doctor!, which was inspired by the life story of a physician in nearby Sister Bay.
Exploring the Waters – Aboard ‘The Shoreline’ on a sightseeing cruise, our captain happened to be one of the scuba divers National Geographic described in 1969, who would “hurry to the peninsula, pull on wetsuits and disappear under a frenzy of bubbles” to assemble the history of the more than 200 shipwrecks that lie at the bottoms of these waters. Though Captain Jim does mostly sightseeing tours nowadays, he knows the stories behind every lighthouse, island, and shipwreck.
“I told the historical society about this wreck,” he said as we floated barely a foot over one of the many sunken vessels in what is known as Death’s Passage. In fact, Door County got its name from the French phrase, “Port des morts”, Door of Death, in part referencing the dangers of these waters with their cross currents and sharp rocks. A morbid name for a place, which as we sailed through on a clear summer day, was as idyllic as any.
But there was one bizarre sight that was worthy of the name on our tour — Pilot Island, which is now nicknamed ‘Hitchcock’s Island’. And if you had just watched the classic horror film The Birds, you would find this three-acre island, populated with over 2000 of them, disturbing. The acidity of the waste of the cormorants (a seabird that was once almost extinct but has recently come back in large numbers) has killed most of the vegetation resulting in an eerie and lifeless atoll, worthy of any Hitchcock set. We also passed by its opposite, Rock Island, a 920-acre state park, closed to vehicles, but open to campers who want to appreciate its secludedness, dark skies, beaches and nature in this wooded wilderness.
Historical Eats, Cherries, and Sunsets to Savour “My stories start in the 1600s,” began an older gentlemen. He sat in front of a fire and a large cast iron caldron and proceeded to tell the group of assembled tourist the stories of the region and of Peter Rowley, the Bay’s namesake. Now and again, he was interrupted by cooks coming out of the kitchen bringing large quantities of food. Each item – the salt, onions, potatoes and finally the white fish was presented to the audience for photos before ceremoniously tipped into the bubbling pot.
The pinnacle of this production came when kerosene was poured on the fire and water vigorously boiled over taking with it all the oils and waste, and leaving the tastiest and freshest part behind for the guests enjoyment at the buffet. What we witnessed at Rowleys Bay Resort was the traditional fish boil, a custom started over 100 years ago by Scandinavian settlers as an economic method to feed large groups of lumberjacks and fisherman, and it was as much entertainment as was good food.
A different taste of history greeted us at Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlour in Ephraim. Everything from the soda fountain to ice-cream sundaes to the juke boxes playing the Beach Boys screams nostalgia. The classic Door County landmark’s history goes back to 1906 and is the kind of place grandparents take their grandkids to tell them where they used to sit. Not to be missed. Cherries are synonymous with the peninsula, and on a narrated scenic tour aboard the Door County Trolley, we learned that the region once was the top cherry producer in the US and remains an important crop with over 2,500 acres of orchards.
The tart Montmorency cherry is the most abundant, and though this varietal is not the best eating fruit, it is the ideal baking fruit. And there’s no better place to sample baked goods than at Door County’s eateries, where you’ll find the signature fruit in delicious baked goods and even savoury dishes. Two of the most delicious and creative ways we found were the Cherry French Toast at Julie’s Park’s Cafe, where I polished off every last crumb of this delectable feast, and the Cherry Margarita at Fred and Fuzzy’s Waterfront Grill. Tables spill out onto the beach at this popular indoor/outdoor restaurant.
Here, nibbling on deep-fried cheese curds, a Wisconsin speciality, sipping the refreshing cherry concoction and looking out on to the Lake Michigan, where a golden sunset blessed us with a fiery show, I couldn’t help but be thankful to National Geographic for writing the aptly named story, “Wisconsin Door Peninsula: A Kingdom So Delicious 46 years ago, so titled because of a French explorer’s description in the 17th century.