Seven Wonders of Wisconsin: Door County
Gallery: A weekend in Door County
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
FISH CREEK – In 18 consecutive summers of visiting my beloved Door County, I was starting to think I'd seen it all. Over the years, I've explored the peninsula by car, on foot and on bicycle, from above the treetops on a zip line and in a comfortable camping chair next to a roaring fire.
The natural beauty of the area, though, always played second fiddle to the activities, shopping, good food and great people I've experienced on these annual summer trips. Given the topic of our seasonal series, the "Seven Wonders of Wisconsin," however, it was high time to put nature first.
Miracles of nature abound in the thumb of Wisconsin, where settlers first discovered the black magic of "Death's Door" in the 18th century. While the center of the peninsula is flat, cultivated land, the county's whopping 298 miles of shoreline tell a different story.
Taking nothing away from the quiet lake side, most of the tourism action here tends to situate on the western shore of the peninsula, overlooking the Green Bay. Limestone outcroppings of the Niagara Escarpment – a Lockport geological formation that effectively runs through northeastern Wisconsin to New York State – have carved amazing bluffs, caves and dunes. And, with very thin soil covering dolomite bedrock that is less than three feet below ground, many small and tiny islands dot the shores. Each, I learned, tells its own story.
Studying a bit of this before my trip, I began to think maybe I hadn't seen it all. So this August, I set out to explore Door County in three new ways: by plane, by water and by Segway.
Just like we do every year, my oldest friend and, in this case, our photographer, Eron Laber, and I drove up Friday morning, taking the short cut through Manitowoc, pulling into Fish Creek in time for lunch. Without much time until our first planned activity, we grabbed a quick lunch at the Bayside Tavern, then walked to the dock for a boat tour on the 69-person capacity Quo Vadis.
It struck me that through all these years of visiting Door County, I've spent precious little time on Lake Michigan or on Green Bay. Sure, I've taken a dip at Nicolet Beach in Peninsula State Park, and I've hopped on the ferry to Washington Island a few times, but I've never explored Door County by water.
Fish Creek Scenic Boat Tours does a nice job with its 90-minute tour. The beautiful vistas create a stunning background both for colorful stories of the history of the area or for lounging in the aft section with a glass of wine (you can bring your own booze), depending on your inclination. We opted to sit in front and listen.
The boat cruises past Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, Strawberry Island and Horseshoe Islands and provides a healthy dose of trivia and history of the area. The $35 investment will be swiftly returned through the stories of how this magical peninsula evolved into the tourist mecca it is today.
Back on land, we checked in at the Parkwood Lodge, 3775 State Hwy. 42, a budget-oriented motel that's best asset is its location – across the street from Peninsula State Park and just a mile and a half north of downtown Fish Creek. The Parkwood isn't fancy, but it's clean, and it sports a few amenities worth considering. Rain kept us from enjoying the fire pit, but with an indoor pool, free wi-fi, charcoal grills, tennis courts and plenty of open space, the quiet, wooded property would make for a nice family option without breaking the budget.
Dinner brought us back to Fish Creek for an old favorite, but with a new twist. The elegant Summertime Restaurant is one of the prettiest buildings in Door County, a Craftsmen style former ice cream shop that dates back to 1910. We've actually dined at The Summertime for years, but only for its delicious breakfast. Sitting down with owner Terry Bolland, we learned how good dinner can be, too.
As we chatted about this building's amazing history, Terry gently suggested I try his "Prime" tenderloin steak, and he wasn't exaggerating its quality. Great food is to be expected in this upscale vacation destination, but dinner (and dessert – why not) was as delicious as anything I could imagine. Surprisingly, Terry's prices are right in line with – and probably a little less than – a nice restaurant in Milwaukee. Its flavor was up there with our city's finest steakhouses. Really.
Friday night turned into a bit of a wild goose chase, as we drove south to Egg Harbor to check into the scene of last year's open mic night, Mojo Rosa's, but it wasn't really happening. Probably for the best, really, given how bad a guitar player I am. We wrapped back at the Bayside, then packed it in for a busy Saturday.
Door County by Air ... and Segway
Only two private airports grace northern Door County – one on Washington Island, and the other in Ephraim, just north of Fish Creek. It was at the tiny Ephraim Gibaltrar Aiport, 9667 Maple Grove Rd., that we met pilot Dave Burke, owner of Grizzly Scenic Air Tours. Even though we signed up for a 30-minute tour, Dave gave us a bit of a extra time, and at just over $160 for up to three people in the single-engine prop plane, this represents a heck of a value.
A veteran tour pilot, Burke showed us much of what we had seen by boat, but the view from 2,000 feet over Door County is equally stunning. We saw shipwrecks and tiny lakes and islands that we've obviously never seen by land, and from this altitude, the flight helped connect the dots to what I'd traversed every summer since 1994. Burke was more than happy to dip a wing to help us get our photos, and he took us wherever we requested to go. Landing on a grass runway was pretty exciting, too. For about $50 per person (if you bring two friends), it's an experience you'll never forget.
Of course, the only thing better than an experience you'll never forget is two experiences you'll never forget. With this in mind, we grabbed a snack at Leroy's Water Street Coffee in Ephraim and drove north to Sister Bay for an off-road Segway tour Saturday afternoon from Seaquist Segway.
Before you chuckle, consider that the Segway X2 isn't your standard mall cop scooter. This amazing piece of technology travels more than 10 miles at 12 miles per hour on seemingly impossible terrain. Beginning at Seaquist Orchards, Steve Seaquist put us through a training course around the orchards. Once we hit the trails, though, the fun really began on this most intuitive vehicle.
To walk this length of wooded trails would take hours, so zipping through on Segway enabled a truly unique opportunity. And Seaquist is a descendant of Door County's original settlers. He showed us where his ancestors chopped down trees (which have all regrown), farmed and planted orchards. He explained why Door County's soil is so perfect for cherries – it all goes back to that Niagara Escarpment – and the unique bluffs and rock formations that most visitors simply take for granted.
Steve's connection to his past elevated this tour from something extremely interesting to something extremely personal. As we stood perfectly balanced in the forest, I asked him what his great-grandfather would think about him giving Segway tours on the land where his family once toiled. He said he thought his ancestors would appreciate reinventing the land once again. The "Rough and Tough Forest Tour" is only $85, and trust me, you'll remember it forever.
Wrapping Up With Tradition
Now, lest you think that my annual Door County trip has gone completely high-brow, what with airplanes and Segways and steaks, we're still not all that far removed from the days of camping for cheap and pinching pennies like the poor college students we were when we started this tradition.
That's why we ended the trip on Saturday night and Sunday morning just like every year. Pizza and pre-season Packers football at the Bayside, followed by a live performance by local band Big Mouth had the old rafters rattling all night long; then a delicious breakfast at Pelletier's Sunday, a little souvenir shopping and hitting the road by noon.
With stops, it's easily a three and a half hour drive, after all, and the trip home is never as fun as the trip up. Although, making the trip on a gorgeous summer afternoon while listening to the Brewers tack on another win during this historical season was the best way to wrap up this weekend.
Over the years, we've set the bar pretty high on this Door County excursion, which even though it includes a little work, is Eron's and my forced weekend to slow down and relax. From an unplanned getaway that takes us wherever the wind blows, to one that's a bit more structured, it's always pleasantly different and still comfortably the same.
This year, the focus was on the area's natural wonders, and like every seven destinations in our series, Door County has an unbelievable amount to offer.
By air, by sea or by land, it's a Wisconsin gem that offers something for everyone.
olderwiser | Aug. 19, 2011 at 5:34 p.m. (report)
Very nice story Andy. I can only see two things to disagree with you on and the rest of the story is spot on. First, The Summertime Restaurant is not elegant. Quaint, cute, traditional, old, comfortable....but in no way would I dress up for an elegant evening. And secondly....no matter how you sell it, Segways are just plain dorky. Sorry....a downtown ambassador riding one of those ridiculous vehicles on Main St. almost ran a group of three ladies over and he was supposed to be 'helping' tourists find their way around.
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