Travel: Door County: A Wisconsin Wonderland

By: Nicole Pensiero

Charming School House Beach on Washington Island. Photo by Nicole Pensiero

For East Coast residents, the state of Wisconsin often brings up two thoughts: the Green Bay Packers and cheese – lots of cheese. But in terms of what Wisconsin looks like, people often draw a blank. Many of my friends marveled at the verdant beauty shown in photos I posted on social media of a wonderful region known as Door County.

Often referred to as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” Door County is a unique vacation destination – a nearly 70-mile long peninsula made up of small resort communities that seem almost frozen in time. With more than two million visitors each year, it’s a popular destination for those seeking beautiful scenery, good dining and plenty of outdoor activities.

The Dorr Hotel is chic and cozy. Photo by Nicole Pensiero

With its history as a settling ground for Swedes, Norwegians and Finns in the mid-to-late 1800’s, Door County has a decidedly Scandinavian flair, from popular evening fish boils to even the décor of some hotels and restaurants. We stayed at a lovely, Nordic-inspired hotel in the charming town of Sister Bay. The newly opened Dörr Hotel has 47 contemporary rooms and suites, a two-story cedar-beamed lobby, an outdoor courtyard with a fire pit – and a fantastic, hip vibe.  The four-story cobalt blue building, situated in the center of town, has mostly bay-facing rooms with balconies, along with several suites that feature fireplaces and terraces. I loved the hotel’s lobby – more of a “great room,” really – complete with a fireplace and lobby bar. We spent part of our last evening relaxing and playing board games there.

An easy drive from Green Bay’s airport, Door County is a spiny-looking peninsula, surrounded by water – Lake Michigan to the north and east, and the bay of Green Bay to the west. About 18 miles wide at its widest point (in the southern part of the county), it narrows to less than two miles across at the tip.

Fragrant Isle truly lives up to its name.  Photo by Nicole Pensiero

With 19 communities, 300 miles of shoreline, five state parks, 11 historic lighthouses, and more than 50 public beaches, sightseeing options in Door County are plentiful. All you need is a set of wheels and a sense of adventure, and you can let the days unfold.

Sometimes called “Cherryland, USA,” the county’s annual cherry crop can produce more than 10 million pounds a year, weather-depending. This means there are cherry-themed delicacies on nearly every restaurant menu. We were even treated to a lesson about cherry growing at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market, a family-owned operation that features a free cherry wine tasting and an expansive gift shop.

We took a day trip by ferry to Door County’s largest nearby island, Washington Island, which is home to only 700 residents. Visiting a place without any stoplights was a unique experience and I was enchanted by its rustic charm. We started our visit with a stop at Schoolhouse Beach, one of only five beaches in the world with all white limestone “polished” rocks. It was breathtaking. From there, it was onto Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm & Shop, where we gazed at the fields with more than 20,000 lavender plants. We especially enjoyed the lavender jam that accompanied our buttery croissants. 

“Torch” shows off the whitefish to be boiled at the Fish Boil. Photo by Nicole Pensiero

For lunch, we visited the family-owned Jackson Harbor Soup and sandwiches, which offered delicious sandwiches and soups (hence the name!), as well as a scenic view of the water. The Trinity Luther Stavkirke is a stunning church built in the mid-1990s by island artisans to resemble a true Norwegian church from 1150AD.  Rock Island is an uninhabited 900-plus acre pedestrian-only island, again reachable by boat, which has 10 miles of hiking tracks and fabulous 1800s lighthouse.

 Back on the “mainland,” we traveled to the tiny village of Ellison Bay to enjoy a hard cider tasting at Island Orchard Cider (and yes, they do have cherry cider). Our dinner that night was at the fun, noisy and very popular Wild Tomato, back in Sister Bay. Their wood-fire pizzas are delicious and we had to try the Packers-themed “green and yellow” version.

We enjoyed some free time in Sister Bay, too, pursuing the many fun stores, including Space, billed as “the not-so-serious home décor & gift shop.”

On our last night, we went for a traditional Door County Fish Boil, which has its origins in the region’s Scandinavian seafaring history. A popular tourist event, the simplicity of a fish boil meal – fresh whitefish, baby red potatoes, little white onions – is enhanced by each restaurant’s own quirks and processes for boiling the fish. We enjoyed our meal at the Old Post Office Restaurant.

We went outside, behind the building, to watch the actual cooking process in a large pot of boiling water. The chef, aptly nicknamed “Torch,” explained the entire process.

As soon as the meal was cooked – the veggies go right in the water with the fish, and the “boiling over” process removes the “fishy” flavor – we headed back inside to chow down.

It was definitely a memorable way to conclude a three-day getaway to a unique and special American destination.

For more information about Door County, visit

Nicole Pensiero, a South Jersey resident and freelance travel writer, is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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