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.
At Times Door County can feel more like the Hamptons than Cape Cod, particularly in posh Fish Creek. But instead of mansions owned by Calvin Klein and Puffy Combs, clapboard cottages line the waterfront. We were lucky to have snagged one of the seven rooms at the Whistling Swan, a 1907 hotel that once served as the town casino. And although we couldn't stay at the White Gull, we did get to chow down at its fish boil, the quirky local substitute for an East Coast clambake. Everyone gathers around a smoking cauldron filled with a stew of whitefish chunks and potatoes boiled in salt water. Near the end of the cooking process, the "boil master" douses the fire with kerosene, creating quite a spectacle.
The next day, we took a three-mile detour on County Road F to Gloria Hardiman's Maple Grove Gallery, a weaving shop on the corner of Maple Grove Road. Slicing across the center of the peninsula, past farms and forests, County Road F has to be the Door's prettiest stretch. Locals used to gossip around the potbellied stove in this former general store, giving it the nickname "Bullshit Corner". These days, everyone gathers around Gloria's loom, where she weaves fabric for colorful shawls.
For dinner, we went in search of Donny's Glidden Lodge, 18 miles south of Hardiman's shop. But we got a bit turned around en route, following County Road A south to County Road T. It took a few calls (thank goodness for cell phones-there wasn't a pay phone in sight on these unlit roads), but we eventually located the supper club, down twisty, wooded Glidden Drive. I ordered one of my favorite childhood snacks: fried cheese curds, made from cheddar skimmed off the top of the barrel.
Our Next Bed-and-Breakfast, Which Shall Go unnamed, was in Ephraim (pronounced "ee-from"). The proprietor wasn't happy when I called to tell her we'd be checking in late. After chewing me out, she warned that if we didn't make it by 10 p.m., she'd lock the door (good thing Dad has a lead foot). Guests in the 11 shabby rooms are forced to share four bathrooms-a harsh punishment. Ephraim, however, is a picture of perfection: a whitewashed Moravian settlement that tumbles down a hill to the bay. Before heading off on a sailing charter on Scuppers, a 26-foot wooden boat owned by Tom Schroeder, we stopped for sundaes at Wilson's, an ice cream parlor that's a flashback to another era. While we were out on the water with Captain Tom we could spot Wilson's red-and-white awnings miles away.
Some people jokingly refer to Sister Bay, four miles north of Ephraim, as Little Sweden; several buildings fly the familiar blue flag with a yellow cross. At Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant, dirndl-clad waitresses serve Swedish pancakes drowning in whipped cream. Meanwhile, Al's goats graze on the sod-covered roof.
Ellison Bay, 51/2 miles up Highway 42, has more pottery shops per capita than any other town in Door County. Mom went wild for the handmade lamps at Clay Bay Pottery & Gallery (she bought one called "Ephraim on Sunday," a depiction of sailboats and the town, by owner Jeanne Aurelius). Ellison Bay is also home to the new T. Ashwell's restaurant. Last year chef-owner Thomas Ashwell Smith turned an old inn on its ear: in place of rockers on the screened porch, he installed tables with heat lamps for cool nights. Ashwell's forward-thinking menu changes weekly; on the night we were there he prepared a fabulous Thai-style grilled quail.
North of Ellison Bay, development peters out as Highway 42 twists past open fields and over hilltops with breathtaking views of Green Bay. One of the county's best shopping finds is in a minuscule log cabin with no address and only a small sign-farm studio rag rugs plus-discreetly announcing its existence. Ignore the grouchy shopkeeper who watches you like a hawk; her handmade rag rugs are worth the hassle.
That night we stayed at the tip of the peninsula in Gills Rock (population 75). The 15-room Harbor House Inn is a kick, especially the lighthouse-shaped cottage. There's not much else in Gills Rock besides Bea's Ho-made Products (Mom and I got pretty juvenile over the name). Here, you can watch cooks stirring jams over stoves in the back of the store. Every summer the seventyish Bea comes up from Florida to help with pickle production.
Few visitors make their way to Washington Island. The ferry fee is prohibitive-$33 round-trip for two people and a car from Northport-and, as my father cracked, it's a great place to visit if you like to watch paint dry. On the half-hour ferry ride we passed a section of the lake called Death's Door, which gave the county its name (treacherous currents sank many a ship before range lights were installed on nearby Plum Island in 1895). We explored the island for a few hours, visiting the log-cabin Jacobsen Museum and rocky Schoolhouse Beach. We also stopped by the Sievers School of Fiber Arts, which offers classes in Navajo rug-weaving and papermaking. Dad was right: Washington Island isn't exactly a hot spot, but Mom and I might return one day for Sievers's bent-willow furniture workshop.
After a ferry ride back to the mainland, we headed south to Highway 57. It runs down the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula and is all nature trails, lighthouses, and endless beaches. We were staying 19 miles south of Gills Rock in Baileys Harbor, which feels like a Wild West ghost town, thanks to its still-operative blacksmith shop and wooden-frame saloon. The Blacksmith Inn is a 1912 half-timber house; tools made by the smithy next door hang in the 15 lake-view rooms.
Some sun worshipers stick to the Green Bay side of Door County, tolerating narrow patches of rocky beach for the sake of warmer waters. Instead, we went to Jacksonport, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it town, and meandered about 15 minutes down Cave Point Drive to a spectacular golden-sand beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park. The winds off Lake Michigan create great waves, but the water can get high enough to close the beach (call be- fore you go-920/823-2400-to check on conditions). We weren't able to swim because of vicious riptides, but I couldn't think of a better way to spend my last day in the Door.
Well, yes I could-down at Sturgeon Bay's fifties-style Perry's Cherry Diner, eating pie á la mode. (Guess which flavor?) We got back on Highway 57, and within half an hour we were in cherry heaven.
DAY ONE Drive to Sturgeon Bay, one hour from Green Bay, five hours from Chicago. Overnight: Sturgeon Bay.
DAY TWO Head north on Highway 42, which runs up the western shore of Door County. Overnight: Fish Creek.
DAY THREE Go for a slow drive on County Road F, then return to Fish Creek. Rent a paddleboat in Peninsula State Park. Overnight: Ephraim.
DAY FOUR On your way to the tip of the peninsula, stop in Ellison Bluff County Park to see 100-foot limestone bluffs. Overnight: Gills Rock.
DAY FIVE Catch the ferry to Washington Island. Return in the afternoon, then drive south to Highway 57. Don't miss Cana Island Lighthouse, down Highway Q. Overnight: Baileys Harbor.
DAY SIX After sunning on the wide beach in Whitefish Dunes State Park, return to Sturgeon Bay on Highway 57.
Chanticleer Guest House 4072 Cherry Rd., Sturgeon Bay; 920/746-0334; doubles from $130.
White Gull Inn 4225 Main St., Fish Creek; 920/868-3517; doubles from $107.
Whistling Swan 4192 Main St., Fish Creek; 888/277-4289 or 920/868-3442; doubles from $114.
Harbor House Inn 12666 Hwy. 42, Gills Rock; 920/854-5196; doubles from $89.
Blacksmith Inn 8152 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor; 800/769-8619 or 920/839-9222; doubles from $175.
Sage 136 N. Third Ave., Sturgeon Bay; 920/746-1100; entrees from $24.
Sweetie Pies The Settlement, Hwy. 42, Fish Creek; 920/868-2743; cutie pie $6.
Donny's Glidden Lodge 4670 Glidden Dr., Sturgeon Bay; 920/746-9460; dinner for two $50.
Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor 9990 Water St., Ephraim; 920/854-2041; lunch for two $20.
Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant 700 Bayshore Dr., Sister Bay; 920/854-2626; breakfast for two $15.
T. Ashwell's 11976 Mink River Rd., Ellison Bay; 920/854-4306; dinner for two $80.
Perry's Cherry Diner 230 Michigan St., Sturgeon Bay; 920/743-9910; lunch for two $10.