By Glenda Winders
If you believe the bumper stickers that say “Family fun is an oxymoron,” this story isn’t for you. But if you think there’d be no greater pleasure than hauling the whole gang to a place where they can pick cherries, create art and tromp through the woods to discover natural history, read on.
One place where all this is possible is Door County, Wis., located on the peninsula that juts northeast from Wisconsin proper into Lake Michigan with Green Bay on its western shore. Its unusual name comes from treacherous straits off its tip that led to the loss of several ships in previous centuries and caused sailors to refer to it as “Death’s Door.”
Its maritime past remains vivid in the 10 lighthouses that dot its shoreline, among them the Cana Island Lighthouse, just north of Bailey’s Harbor. The views of countryside and water from its beacon tower are spectacular, and downstairs a small museum tells what life was like for early lighthouse keepers. During the annual Lighthouse Festival, held this year June 11-13, visitors can learn more on guided walks and boat and trolley tours.
Natural history comes to life at Whitefish Dunes State Park, where naturalist Carolyn Rock helps identify the many species of wildlife and tells visitors about periods of occupation that date back to 100 B.C. The mission of the park is to preserve a significant Great Lakes dunescape that includes “Old Baldy,” at 93 feet the highest dune in Wisconsin.
Also worth a visit is the adjacent Cave Point County Park, where caves have been formed as a result of Lake Michigan’s pounding against the limestone bluffs. The best hike is in Peninsula State Park, on the Green Bay side, where part of the rocky Niagara Escarpment runs through the forest.
Door County is famous for its Montmorency cherries, which are on the menu and for sale everywhere in the form of jams, salsas, pies, scones, syrups and wines. It’s also possible to pick them yourself at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country in Fish Creek or to take a tour and see how they’re grown at Seaquist Orchard in Sister Bay. The annual Cherry Fest in Jacksonport on Aug. 7 will also offer regional food, music and crafts.
One of the county’s best surprises is an art studio in Fish Creek called Hands On. Artist-owner Cy Turnbladh has gradually converted an abandoned farm into spaces where both children and adults can pursue art projects in mediums that range from wood and metal to ceramics and glass. For a nominal studio fee and the cost of supplies, visitors also get the benefit of expert supervision and encouragement.
“It always turns out better than you thought it was going to,” Turnbladh said to me as I struggled to cut pieces of colorful glass that I eventually fashioned into a dish, and he was right.
You can just drop in, or enroll the kids in two- and three-day summer art camps. Friday evenings are reserved for adults who can sip wine and listen to music while they create.
The Peninsula School of Art, also in Fish Creek, is another must for budding artists of all ages. The school began in the 1930s, when students from Chicago’s Art Institute came here to take advantage of the landscapes.
“Now it’s the centerpiece of an active, vibrant arts community,” said Kay McKinley Arneson, director of marketing and exhibitions.
The center houses classes, lectures and exhibitions, and some hotels offer discounts to visitors who are enrolled. This year they’ll also be hosting the Fourth Annual Door County Plein-Air Festival from July 19 to Aug. 7. Forty well-known artists will paint outdoors with red flags on their easels to identify them. Amateurs and other artists are invited to join in.
A good way to start an evening in Door County is with a traditional fish boil. Earl Jones, the “boilmaster” at the Old Post Office, one of several restaurants that offer the meal, explains how it is done to the hungry audience gathered around the 20-gallon kettle on his outdoor fire. First he puts onions and potatoes into the pot to cook, and when they are nearly done he adds fresh local whitefish. At the end, he pours a quart of kerosene onto the fire, causing a dramatic boil-off that removes fish oil and soot. The meal is served inside and finished off with cherry pie.
After dinner, try to take in a performance at the American Folklore Theatre. This year’s productions are “Bone Dance,” “Cheeseheads, the Musical” and Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi.” The funny, intelligent plays poke fun at locals as they acquaint visitors with regional culture.
At some point in your visit you’ll want to ride the Door County Trolley. The company offers lighthouse, wine-tasting and scenic tours. I took the ghost tour, a spooky 90-minute ride after dark during which a storyteller relates local tales of the eerie and unexplained.
Be sure and save a day for Washington Island off the tip of the peninsula. The ferry ride over is half the fun. Once there, a tour on the Cherry Train — a series of carts pulled behind a truck — will provide an overview of the island that includes an ostrich farm and a Norwegian “stavkirke” — a church made out of staves in the manner of Viking shipbuilders.
The arts are alive, here, too, with classes and exhibits sponsored by the Washington Island Art Association and Ann Young at the Sievers School of Fiber Arts eager to teach you to weave.
IF YOU GO
For more information about all of these activities and events, visit www.doorcounty.com.
When to go: Most activities and festivals are in the summer, and the colorful leaves in autumn are worth the trip. Much of the county closes down during the winter.
How to get there: Fly into Green Bay and rent a car so that you can explore the entire peninsula.
Where to stay: Every imaginable type of housing is available in Door County, but if you’re bringing a family, the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor is ideal. Suites have one, two or three bedrooms and start at $132 per night with kitchen, outdoor play areas and views of Green Bay: www.thelandmarkresort.com.
Your pet will be welcome at the Beachfront Inn in Bailey’s Harbor, and owners Tammy and Terry Bork will make s’mores around a bonfire at day’s end. Rooms start at $129: www.beachfrontinn.net.
The Open Hearth Lodge in Sister Bay is kid-friendly with a big lawn, swimming pool, playground equipment and nearby miniature golf. Rooms start at $102: www.openhearthlodge.com
Where to eat: If you’re a cherry-lover, try the Cherry Jack Wrap at the Village Cafe in Egg Harbor: www.villagecafe-doorcounty.com.
For ’50s nostalgia, go to Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim. Feast on burgers and fries, ice cream sundaes and root beer in a mug, and listen to a jukebox stocked with golden oldies: www.wilsonsicecream.com
On Washington Island, stop at the KK Fiske Restaurant to dine on “lawyers” — a comical nickname given to burbot, a bottom-feeding fish so slippery it’s difficult to catch or pin down: www.washingtonisland.com
What else to do: Every village in Door County has its own personality. Ephraim, for example, maintains a farm museum and a store and schoolhouse exactly as they were more than 100 years ago. Golf, zip-lines, boating, fishing, windsurfing and bicycling are also available.
Glenda Winders is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM