“This road is worthy of a Maserati convertible,” declared my friend Santosh as I navigated my trusty Hyundai around 15 curves, weaving right and left like a kid dodging cones in the road. The thrill lasted just a few minutes, yet I could only imagine how glorious this drive would be in an open-top car under glistening autumn leaves.
That unexpected curvy road (more on this later) was just one of many highlights of a three-day summer visit to the Door County Peninsula, the distinguishable narrow thumb of Wisconsin that juts 75 miles into Lake Michigan and offers 300 miles of shoreline. I had been to Door County many times in my youth and fondly remembered the cherry picking, fish boils, and Peninsula State Park hikes, but this journey was all about checking out newer places and visiting spots that had long been on my list.
I selected the recently opened The Dörr Hotel as our three-day basecamp. Set in the heart of Sister Bay and opened in the spring of 2021, the four-story property has the distinction of being the area’s first newly built hotel in almost 18 years.
“We saw a need for a new contemporary hotel that reflected the area’s natural beauty and Scandinavian heritage,” says The Dörr’s principal owner Christopher Schmeltz. Chicago-based Aria Group Architects interpreted this vision and created an interior with a modern Nordic sensibility. The impressive two-story lobby, with cedar beams and natural oak floors and furnishings, serves as the hotel’s living room. Its dominant fireplace, flanked by log towers and comfortable seating, is an inviting setting for drinks and small plates in the evening and a complimentary light breakfast in the morning. Guest Experience Hosts offer touring suggestions along with restaurant and theater reservations. Accommodations are soothing—light and bright with white shiplap walls—and nice touches like in-room refrigerators, comfy bathrobes, and Keurig coffee machines.
The Dörr isn’t the only new spot popping up in downtown Sister Bay, once primarily known for the goats grazing on Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant’s grass roof. Now, you can find great coffee shops like Skip Stone Coffee Roasters and Analog Ice Cream and Coffee. Johnson’s children have opened Stabbur, an outdoor beer garden along with Skål at Al Johnson’s, a contemporary Scandinavian shop. There’s even a vegetarian restaurant (except for the brats) called Roots Inn & Kitchen.
Sister Bay is just one of 19 communities making up the peninsula. Venturing to the area involves some advance planning, along with checking hours of operation, especially if you have a “must visit” hit list. Here are just some of the highlights from our three-day discovery tour:
ART GALLERIES – Don’t miss the art galleries. They are great and there are more than 100 to visit. Favorites include Fish Creek’s Edgewood Orchard Galleries, Ephraim’s Fine Line Gallery, and the graffiti-clad, waterside Hardy Gallery. On this trip, not far from Egg Harbor, we were glad we left the beaten path to discover Woodwalk Gallery, a great place for viewing art and taking in a summer concert or special dinner in the barn, and the nearby Off the Wheel Pottery, another barn-filled wonder.
SIGNATURE RESTAURANTS – Door County dining was once defined by a few classic “supper club” type restaurants, but now there are plenty of good restaurants offering farm-fresh local products, ethnic cuisine, and artisan bread. Stop by MacReady’s in Egg Harbor for a nice selection of baked goods and sandwiches. Nearby is the popular Parador, a tapas restaurant open for dinner. Farther north, Ellison Bay’s Wickman House, set in an old country house, receives high ratings for its well-executed drinks menu and flavorful dishes.
HIKING – Home to five state parks and 11 county parks, Door County is a hiking lover’s dream year-round. While our hiking destination was the less crowded Newport State Park, the state’s only dark sky park, we made a stop at Peninsula State Park to check out the recently reopened Eagle Tower. Fully handicap accessible, the tower features an impressive 850-foot ramp that traverses up to the top of the tower revealing panoramic views of the park, nearby islands, and the Upper Michigan shoreline.
THEATER – Catching an outdoor production at Northern Sky Theater in Peninsula State Park or at Peninsula Players is a summer highlight. Another great option is Door Shakespeare, a local theater company offering performances on the grounds of the beautiful Björklunden Estate, a 423-acre property bequeathed to Lawrence University by Highland Park, Illinois residents Donald and Winifred Boynton. Head to the show early and take time to enjoy the lakeside grounds and the estate’s lovely stave chapel (a medieval wooden church) featuring 41 hand-painted frescos.
BAILEY’S HARBOR – Bailey’s Harbor has certainly evolved. Located on the east side of the Peninsula, often referred to as the quiet Lake Michigan side, the Door County Brewing Company and Music Hall and Bearded Heart Coffee dominate the main drag. Heirloom Café & Provisions is a not-to-be-missed breakfast and lunch spot. And I bibbed up for the lobster boil (this is Door County after all) at the lovely waterside Harbor Fish Market & Grille.
WASHINGTON ISLAND – We never would have discovered the aforementioned curvy road had it not been for this adventure. Heading from Gills Rock at the tip of the peninsula toward Northport to catch the car ferry, we came upon the Highway 42 curves. Some say the road was created to avoid telephone poles, others speculate it was the hand of the famed landscape architect Jens Jensen who was a Door County regular—establishing The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay and inspiring the design of The Ridges Sanctuary. I choose to believe the second story.
Once on the Island, visitors can choose to take the 90-minute Cherry Train tour or rent bikes, mopeds, or ATVs. We stuck with our car due to time constraints. Those who bring their own bikes can leave from Gills Harbor on the Island Clipper. Day-trippers should not try to walk as Washington Island is 35-miles in circumference. One of the most impressive attractions is Stavkirke, a stave church inspired by one built in Borgun, Norway in 1150. Created by Washington Island residents and completed in 1995, it’s a sight to behold and reflects the area’s dedication to its roots. Not far away is the aroma of Provence. Fragrant Isle, the Midwest’s largest lavender farm, is a favorite attraction featuring a large shop and farm. Visitors flock here especially in July to see the blooming buds and pick up scented lavender products.
Next stop, Sievers School of Fiber Arts, to learn more about their three and five-day weaving, knitting, and looming classes while checking out their distinctive line of gifts. Nearby, the quirky roadside décor of Fiddlers Green called to us for a closer look. Billed as an adventurer’s oasis, this eatery is brilliantly decorated with vintage finds, and offers live music on a trailer stage. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at Schoolhouse Beach, known for its perfectly smooth white stones. These rocks are so rare they’re only found on five beaches in the world. If you’re caught pocketing one, it will cost you a $250 fine.
Curious about Rock Island, one mile off Washington Island, we stopped at Jackson Harbor to check it out. From early June to early October, the Karfi Ferry transports visitors to this car and bike-free island that features hiking, swimming, fishing, and overnight “leave no trace” camping. Pottawatomie, the area’s oldest lighthouse and one of 11 in Door County, is located here. Although we were tempted by the quick 15-minute ride over, we had run out of time. We vowed we’d be back. There was just too much left to discover.
For more information, contact Destination Door County at doorcounty.com.