It might be a small peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan and separates the lake from Green Bay, Wisconsin, but there’s lots to see for visitors, including sandy beaches, scenic state parks, cheese-making factories, lighthouses, and quaint little towns with boutique shopping and hotels.
This is Door County, which begins a short jaunt from the city of Green Bay and makes up the peninsula that takes about an hour to drive on either of the two coastal roads. It’s a place where tourism is prized, and visitors are welcomed.
About a five-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie to the north, or 11 hours west from Toronto, with stops in busy cities like Detroit and Chicago for some additional exploration, Door County is rural, relaxed, and ready to please. The place is laid back and easy on the eyes.
The main city on the peninsula is Sturgeon Bay, and it’s a place named after the prehistoric fish but also celebrates its marine past. Many lighthoues dot the coast, and there’s a new maritime museum with an 11-storey view of the city, overlooking the bay and a couple of great bridges.
There’s shipwrecks to visit for divers, and waves to surf for those with a board. And stairs to climb for lighthouse lovers. There’s also Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding that repairs and makes huge cargo-carrying ships that serve the Great Lakes and beyond.
Another company, Marine Travelift, makes mobile lifts that move boats around in marinas and yacht clubs located around the world. A huge lift with slings, slated for a busy marina in the Bahamas, was on the shop floor in the spring.
Maybe best of all is a small but vibrant commercial fishery, where whitefish is the popular catch. Many area restaurants serve up seafood dishes, and some boutique hotels also celebrate the area’s historic tradition called a fish boil, where fish and potatoes are boiled outside in a large pot suspended over a crackling wood fire.
The White Gull Inn, established in 1896, with a main hotel and separate small cabins for rent, regularly offers guests at its restaurant a fish boil, historically started by lumber companies as a way to feed a large crew at one time. Down the street is the appropriately named Sunset Park Beach, where people gather at the end of the day for spectacularly-coloured skies.
The peninsula is home to many small, scenic towns, some with populations of only a few hundred people. These towns punch above their weight when it comes to amenities.
Along the way is Fish Creek, with its recreational boating marina and boutique shopping. Baileys Harbour is home to a commercial fishing fleet, Cana Lighthouse and a fish processing plant where you can buy fresh whitefish.
And Egg Harbour, with only a few hundred residents, was named one of the best small towns in the U.S. There’s a marina, beach and nearby Peninsula State Park.
Two main roads stretch up each coast, and eventually join up, so getting around the peninsula is easy. Along the way, and worth a stop, are cheese-making factories, many pick-your-own cherry orchards, a gourmet coffee-grinding firm that exports around the world, and scenic bays.
For visitors, there’s a “bay” side and a “lake” side to the peninsula. On the Lake Michigan side are some sandy beaches, part of Whitefish Dunes State Park, and around the corner are rugged cliffs of white dolomite linking the area as an extension of the Niagara escarpment that runs south into the U.S. from Canada and dramatically creates Niagara Falls.
Fishing and seafood on the peninsula is everywhere. The commercial fishers can haul in their nets the prehistoric and mighty sturgeon that can weigh 100 lbs or more and stretch to 80 inches. This species and walleye are released from the nets and are for sport fishers only.
Whitefish is the choice when it comes to restaurant tables, with other species like catfish thrown back because in Wisconsin there’s no local market for these bottom-feeding fish, unlike in the southern U.S. where they are prized on dinner tables.
The three or so active commercial fishers use so-called trap nets, which are submerged nets anchored to the seafloor. The nets have chambers that trap the fish as they swim in.
The fishing crews visit the nets, marked on the surface of the water with buoys, every few days, and drag the nets and the live fish up on their boat’s long decks to claim their catch.
The urban centre of the peninsula is Sturgeon Bay, the seat of government and where a canal was built in late 1800s so that ships could avoid Death’s Door, a rough and rugged northern coast and graveyard for the schooners and lakers which failed the turn into or out of Green Bay.
The canal, opened in 1880, connected Lake Michigan with Green Bay, effectively making the entire Door County peninsula an island. Ironically, many of the schooners and, later, the huge commercial ships that hauled steel, coal and other cargo throughout the Great Lakes, still choose to make the risky turn at Death’s Door – with some perishing in storms.
There is no shortage of boutique hotels, like White Lace Inn in Sturgeon Bay, not far from the bridges that span both sides of the city. Hosts Bonnie and Dennis opened up in 1982 what is a compound of historic houses that take in a city-block. Dennis likes to chat with all his guests.
One of the best places to eat is Renards Artisan Cheese, a third-generation cheese-making business with a large roadside market and bistro, where Heidi Luutenbach has created for the past decade the best tomato bisque and tasty cheese-based sandwiches.
Another great place is Skaliwags restaurant in Fish Creek, where owner and chef Chris Wiltfang, originally from St. Simons Island in coastal Georgia, likes to meet guests and talk about his gourmet dishes. And for fresh fish, visit Baileys Harbour Fish Company.
For more details, visit www.doorcounty.com.