If you haven’t heard of Door County, you’re not alone. On a map, it’s the finger of land extending from the city of Green Bay into Lake Michigan to the east and Green Bay to the west. It’s home to 300 miles of shoreline and a collection of towns with such distinctive names as Egg Harbor, Sister Bay and Fish Creek – all never far from water.
But though it is little known nationally, this Midwestern county is celebrated as the region’s pictorial equivalent to Cape Cod. Complete with the setting of American flags, cherry specialties and Adirondack chairs perched in parks and facing its surround-sound-like shore, I deemed it “Americana at its red, white and blue best” after my first visit in July 2012. But while this initial introduction was years ago, I designated Door County a must-return-to travel treasure.
The destination is seasonally popular. Though the permanent resident population is less than 30,000, this number significantly swells on Memorial Day and continues skyward through Labor Day. It’s during this three-month window that the Midwest explodes with a new-found freedom to enjoy all those activities placed on hold by winter’s weather. And while I’m a Southern Californian, my schedule enthusiastically matched that of warm-weather-deprived tourists with kayaking in Sister Bay, climbing Cana Island Lighthouse’s 97 steps (yes, I counted), sailing on the Edith M. Becker tall ship and exploring Whitefish Dunes barefoot.
The trip was rounded out with live entertainment – including such summer events as American Folklore Theatre (now known as Northern Sky Theater) performed on a stage set in the woods within Peninsula State Park and Midsummer’s Music Festival which showcased chamber music performed by world-class artists and was featured in a renovated barn during my visit (though the venue continually changes).
At the time I wondered about off-season Door County – when the crowds are gone and the offerings are authentically local.
Fast forward to a different year, different season – December 2022. As a mild-weather inhabitant, I long ago learned that the most exciting, expeditious route to the holiday spirit is a trip to cold country. So, when this winter-in-Wisconsin opportunity arose, I pulled out the Ugg boots, down parka and woolen mittens and began preparation for a double-digit temperature drop and a Christmas-charged boost.
Door County’s Scandinavian roots are scattered throughout the peninsula – from the flying of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Danish flags to the offering of red Dala horses and rosemåling folk art keepsakes. Said to be the most festive time to visit, this is when Christmas lights, ornaments and décor embellish the setting, fêtes announce the season and snow likely dusts the countryside.
Patterned after Europe’s renowned Christmas markets, Christkindlmarkt (Sister Bay) returns in 2023 – following its 2021 debut and my 2022 visit – and offers three consecutive weekends of fun beginning Thanksgiving week’s Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Complete with open-air stalls, it promises to serve up everything – from glass art and fur-imagined hats with one, two or no poms to Glühwein (layman term: hot mulled wine). However, the most sought-after photo op is always of Christkind, the market’s namesake – a princess-style look-alike with fair locks and a gold and white robe.
Tannenbaum Holiday Shop (Sister Bay), a Door County specialty retailer since 1978, furthered my mood with room after room of not only Christmas ornaments and decorations but year-round holiday-themed items and gifts for all occasions as well. Best part: it’s open throughout the year.
And while some restaurants and retailers close shop according to the calendar, it’s always possible to find the work of premier artisans like Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery & Studio (Sturgeon Bay) and Plum Bottom Gallery (Fish Creek, Egg Harbor). Housed in a former gas station/auto repair shop, the setting of Popelka Trenchard is non-descript. However, its decorative glass pieces – so impressive, you’ll think Chilhuly – are reflective of age-old techniques of master glass blowers. Then there’s Plum Bottom, which was named “Best Gallery in Door County.” Originally established in 2007 by husband-and-wife team, Chad Luberger and Angela Olson Luberger (resident jewelry artist), it represents more than 150 nationally collected artists.
The Norwegian term Friluftsliv – pronounced free-loofts-liv and interpreted as “open-air living” – is the belief that one should have a personal connection with nature every day. In compliance with this philosophy are such activities as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, even e-biking; but along the less-active route is hiking the Ridges Sanctuary (Baileys Harbor). Designated a State Natural Area, an Audubon Important Bird Area and a National Natural Landmark, this 1,600-acre natural preserve is Wisconsin’s oldest non-profit land trust. Alongside naturalist, Bill Wolff, we trekked along some of the sanctuary’s five miles of rustic trails, with the highlight being Baileys Harbor Range Lights (listed on the National Register of Historic Places). “This is not just a walk in the woods. I want you to know how special it is,” said Wolff. And during the Ridge’s Natural Christmas event, Kaye Cabin became the epicenter of cheer with Christmas music, cookies, cider and more.
From experience, my advice would be to cue the song ‘Jingle Bells’ and hop aboard a horse-drawn sleigh ride with John Mayberry, owner of Mayberry’s Carriages. Encouraged to ‘come enjoy the peace and tranquility of years gone by,’ the 10-, 20- or 30-minute ride through the town of Fish Creek transports visitors to a back-in-the-day generation.
Fortunately, some things never change – regardless of the thermometer reading. As during my previous visit, the ‘brew crew’ of Door County Coffee & Tea Company (Sturgeon Bay) continues to serve up a cup of coffee not to be missed. Greeted with the aroma of freshly brewed beans, choices were plentiful. With such holiday flavors as sugar cookie latte and candy cane, coupled with a baked egg scramble and toast topped with Bea’s chopped cherry jam, you will have sampled many of the stand-out flavors representing the region.
Another Door County dining favorite is the peninsula’s signature fish boil. This tradition gives visitors a taste of the past when boiling pots of potatoes, onions and the local waters’ whitefish were prepared in outdoor community-style kitchens to efficiently and economically feed large numbers of the area’s original Scandinavian immigrants. Our fish boil experience at White Gull Inn (Fish Creek) ended with this method-of-cooking’s expected flair when kerosene was thrown onto the fire causing a flame up and water boil. The meal was then served with coleslaw, melted butter alongside freshly baked bread and finished with a slice of made-from-scratch cherry pie.
Of the area’s multiple breweries and wineries, Harbor Ridge Winery (Egg Harbor) embraced the season’s cozy chill with outdoor ‘snow globes’ – heated, transparent, dome-like tents outfitted with welcoming seating and snuggly blankets. Committed to the comfort of its guests, the winery also revealed its humorous side with the wine tasting guide’s playful directive to ‘solve the world’s problems one sip at a time.’
In the end, the multi-colored finale to my visit – a walk through Sister Bay’s annually-displayed tunnel of Christmas lights – was akin to topping my gift of a visit with a kaleidoscopic bow.
Bottom line. You may not have known of Door County, but you now know when to visit.
Featured image: Winding Road at Autumn in Door County of Wisconsin. Credit: Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock