Eleven lighthouses, including the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse, line Door County's coastline, which was once a magnet for shipwrecks.
Eleven lighthouses, including the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Lighthouse, line Door County's coastline, which was once a magnet for shipwrecks. Credit: Getty Images

A little more than 100 years ago, Door County, that 50-mile long peninsula that juts like a crooked finger off the coast of northeastern Wisconsin, separating Lake Michigan from Green Bay, was a dangerous place. It got its name from early French explorers who called it Porte des Morts Passage, or “death’s door” because of all the ships that got wrecked trying to navigate the narrow passage at the tip of the peninsula between the lake and the bay. But those days of mortal peril are past. Now all excitement is voluntary and wholesome: kayaking or zip-lining or swimming or climbing 97 winding stairs in order to admire the views from the top of the Cana Island Lighthouse. Or you can go on a yoga retreat in the middle of the woods and learn how to slow your heartbeat down to a mere 30 beats per minute. Or you can just sit around and eat cheeseburgers and gaze at the water. Anything you find relaxing, Door County will provide.

(But if it’s themed water parks or freak shows or wax museums you’re after, head south to the Dells. Nobody finds these things relaxing.)

Chicagoans have been drawn to Door County since at least the 1920s, lured by the abundance of woods and water, and also the moderate summer temperatures that, on average, never rise above the low 80s, even in July. (John Dillinger once visited; he stopped for gas at the institution now known as the Greenwood Supper Club in Fish Creek. They’ve never gotten over it.) The majority of the peninsula’s half-dozen towns, former fishing villages, are on the western side, in the past because the water of Green Bay is calmer than that of Lake Michigan, but now because more people would rather admire a sunset over dinner than get up early to see a sunrise.

Door County is a place of definite seasons. If you go between early October and mid-May, you’ll find it especially relaxing because most of the attractions, aside from old-fashioned sleigh rides, are closed, and it’s impossible to find a restaurant open past 7 PM.

But during high season, you have a full range of options. You can tour the county by automobile, bicycle, boat, trolley, single-engine airplane, or horse-drawn carriage. You can spend your days doing water sports, hiking in one of the peninsula’s five state parks, or touring art galleries. (There’s a wide range of specialties: paintings, sculpture, pottery, eggs, harps, or scrimshaw.) Or maybe you’d rather learn quilting or glassblowing yourself in a class at the Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay.

You can enjoy King Lear or The Comedy of Errors outdoors at Door Shakespeare or Packer Fans From Outer Space, an original production celebrating the culture of northern Wisconsin, indoors at the American Folklore Theatre. You can hear classical music performed by symphony musicians at the Peninsula or Midsummer’s Music Festival or you can practice your Bulgarian folk dancing at the Door County Folk Festival.

You can stay in a fancy resort, a private house or condo, a B&B, a kitschy 50s motel (the Chal-A Motel in Sturgeon Bay is a particularly fine specimen), a rustic cabin, or a campground, either one where you can plug in the old RV and have all the comforts of home, plus a swimming pool, or one where you schlep all your stuff for three miles through the woods. The latter option is only available at Newport State Park on the Lake Michigan side, but if you’ve got a strong back, it’s totally worth it. It’s one of the few places on the peninsula that’s not crowded with tourists. Many of the campsites give you access to your own private beach, and the water from the pump is the best you will ever taste. (You laugh, but it’s true.)

There is no more endearing sight on the entire peninsula than the goats grazing on the roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant.Credit: Jesse Lisa

Perhaps the most endearing thing in all of Door County is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, a pancake house with a steeply pitched grass-covered roof upon which live goats graze. The goats spend the winter (and also nights and rainy days) on a farm; every spring, they make a triumphant return during the Roofing of the Goats Parade through Sister Bay. (This year’s was May 10.) They are such an institution that the Door County Brewing Company has created a beer in their honor: Goat Parade, a smoked imperial stout.

The brewery, by the way, has a full line of beers inspired by the people and landscape of the peninsula that will be available for tasting, along with other Wisconsin craft beers, at the Door County Beer Festival in Bailey’s Harbor on June 14. This may be useful information; like most places that pride themselves on being family friendly, Door County has its fair share of screaming children, particularly in places where sugar is in abundant supply, such as Wilson’s Ice Cream in Ephraim. (Wilson’s itself is a true classic, though, and its sundaes are tremendous, both in volume and taste; it should not be skipped.) Should you miss the festival, there are several wineries to retreat to, all featuring wines flavored with locally picked cherries.

The crowning moment of a fish boil: when the boilmaster pours kerosene on the flames.Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

No visit anywhere is complete without sampling its traditional cuisine. In Door County, this is a fish boil. The cook throws chunks of whitefish, potatoes, and onions into a giant pot of salted water and sets it over an outdoor fire to boil. At the crucial moment, the boil master throws kerosene onto the flames, which flare up dramatically and cause the pot to boil over and expel all the yucky-tasting fish oil. It’s generally acknowledged that the best fish boil is at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, and that you should make reservations in advance.

If a Door County summer officially begins with the Roofing of the Goats, it probably ends with the Century Bike Ride on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. There’s no definite start time, everyone is encouraged to ride at their own pace, and it probably goes without saying that no one’s required to go the full 100 miles. Which is entirely in keeping with the something-for-everyone spirit of the place.

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that a yoga retreat can reduce your heart rate to 30 beats per minute.