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A Drive Unlocks Door County, Wisconsin


Photo: Carlos Emilio

You have to wonder about a place that's called the Cape Cod of the Midwest, a nickname for Wisconsin's Door County. But as someone who spent the early years of her childhood on the East Coast, summering on the real Cape, and then moved to the Midwest, I can attest that Door County lives up to such a billing. Tiny waterfront villages have names like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Sister Bay. Turn-of-the-century lodges overlook placid bays where sailboats bob at their moorings. The area is famous for its tart Montmorency cherries, and fruit orchards are scattered across the countryside.

Recently, I took a six-day drive with my parents on this 84-mile county that juts into Lake Michigan like a thumb. We booked our hotel rooms only a month in advance, so I wasn't surprised that we couldn't get into the White Gull Inn, a lovely 1896 hotel in Fish Creek. Travelers visiting in high season-Memorial Day through October-would be wise to plan their trip at least six months ahead.

The best starting point is the Chanticleer Guest House, on Sturgeon Bay's rural Cherry Road. Wisconsin natives Bryon Groeschl and Darrin Day have transformed a farmhouse and a big red barn into a 10-suite inn. From my favorite room, under the barn rafters, I watched sheep roam the grounds (you can order a hand-knit sweater made from their wool).

Sturgeon Bay, halfway up the peninsula on a canal that links Green Bay and Lake Michigan, ranks high among the world's boatbuilding centers. I found kitschy 1950's postcards for 20 cents each at the Door County Historical Museum. One of the region's best restaurants is also in Sturgeon Bay. Leola Gebauer, chef at the California-cool Sage, turns out grilled yellowfin tuna in a mango-habanero sauce-not what you'd expect in small-town Wisconsin. After lunch we hit Highway 42, a two-lane country road that runs up the peninsula's west coast, lined with tiny ice cream shops and antiques stores in weathered barns. On the way to Egg Harbor, 16 miles from Sturgeon Bay, we passed the Cherry Hills Golf Club and a string of pick-your-own cherry farms.

Over the years, Egg Harbor has morphed from a sleepy hamlet into a retail mecca, filled with ticky-tacky "shoppes" hawking fudge and Christmas ornaments. We saved our pennies for Ray's Cherry Hut, a roadside stand five miles beyond town that sells all things Montmorency. Mom and Dad marveled over the shelves lined with cherry jalapeño salsa, cherry chutney, cherry mustard, cherry barbecue sauce, and cherry cider cooler.

On the way to Fish Creek we spotted a hand-painted sign advertising Sweetie Pies. The living room of this 19th-century farmhouse has been transformed into a bakery; the shop itself is in the kitchen, where the owner has shellacked vintage aprons onto the floor. We couldn't resist splitting a $6 Cutie Pie, the dessert version of a personal pan pizza. Covered with a sugary crust and loaded with plump cherries, it was the best pie of the trip.

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