By Jeff and Virginia Orenstein
Door County, Wisconsin is one of the most delightful vacation spots in the Midwest. It deserves a prominent place on your vacation bucket list because of its abundant activities, scenic diversity and year-round charm.
Formed by the Niagara Escarpment and the glaciers, the county is a scenic 85-mile long peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan where you can catch both a sunrise and sunset over the water within a short drive from each other. In between you can visit delightful small towns, beaches, enjoy five beautiful state parks and even catch a performance in the woods at Northern Sky Theater in Peninsula State Park.
It reminds us of Cape Cod with its 298 miles of shoreline, harbors full of sailboats, offshore islands and abundant water-oriented activities. The justly famous and tasty Great Lakes whitefish plays a prominent role in many local menus and is the focal point of the traditional fish boils that are offered in several places on the peninsula.
Scattered across the peninsula are delightful small towns such as Baileys Harbor, Egg Harbor, Ephraim, Fish Creek, Rowleys Bay, Sister Bay and Sturgeon Bay. Each town has its unique ambiance with a potpourri of locally-owned shops, restaurants, inns, bed-and-breakfasts and some hotels. Adding to the local character is the paucity of national chains that look alike whether you are in Washington, Wyoming or Wisconsin.
First settled by Native Americans, the area was a magnet for Scandinavian and German immigrants who arrived by sailing schooners and steamships. Their influence is felt today in the names of many shops and restaurants that are owned by their descendants and a palpable Scandinavian-American cultural ambiance.
Newport, Peninsula, Potawatomi and Whitefish Dunes state parks are great places to explore Door County’s beautiful shoreline, dense woods and Great Lakes influence. They offer access to great vistas, extensive bicycle and hiking trails and some of the region’s 11 lighthouses.
Agriculture is a prominent part of Door County, and its most famous crop is cherries. The county is one of the top cherry producers in North America and exports its delicious crop far and wide. Locally, almost every shop and restaurant features some locally grown cherry products, and pick-your-own sites abound during the summer season.
While summer is high season, winter is also a great time to visit. Play in the snow and ice or explore uncrowded restaurants, wineries, breweries and shops that are open year-round. Ice fishing and cross-country skiing are popular pursuits.
Before You Go, Check Out:
The closest major airport is Austin Straubel International Airport at Green Bay (GRB), 53 miles distant from Sturgeon Bay. Appleton International Airport (ATW) is an additional 30 miles away.
- By car: State Routes 57 and 42 run the length of the peninsula north from Interstate 43 in Green Bay and Manitowoc, respectively. There is no public transportation, so a car is necessary to get around.
- By train: Amtrak has frequent service to Milwaukee and connects to Green Bay by bus.
Must-Sees For A Short Trip:
- Enjoy a fish boil and cherry pie for dessert. See doorcounty.com/dine/fish-boils/.
- Stroll and shop in one of the peninsula’s small towns.
If You Have Two or Three Days:
Recommended for a slightly longer stay are:
- Hike or bike the trails at Peninsula State Park.
- Enjoy a play at NorthernSky Theater.
- Check out the goats on the roof and the Swedish cuisine at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay.
If You Have Several Days:
- Explore more of Door County’s parks and lighthouses.
- Wander around Green Bay. Must-sees are Lambeau Field and the National Railroad Museum.
Ginny O’s Tips For Dressing The Simply Smart Travel Way For Door County:
Dress in layers since temperatures can cover a fairly wide range in a given day. Midwest casual is the order of the day — no dressing up needed. Make sure you have good walking shoes.
This Destination at a Glance:
Over 50 Advantage: Leisurely walks, pleasant shopping and easy driving. Water sports are available for the more adventurous. Cherries are healthy and delicious.
Mobility Level: Very accessible to difficult, depending on what outdoor activities you select.
When to Go: Year-round. Summer is high season, fall color is nice and the peninsula welcomes visitors all year.
Where to Stay: In Ephraim: the Eagle Harbor Inn. In Rowleys Bay: the Rowleys Bay Resort. In Bailey’s Harbor: The Blacksmith Inn on the Shore. Many other choices abound.
Special Travel Interests: Aquatic activities, cherry orchards and lighthouses.
Jewish Door County
Like much of rural America, Door County, Wisconsin is not a major center of Judaism.
Nevertheless, the peninsula has Jews living and worshipping there. Of particular note is the story of Glenn and Diane Mandel, as featured in a 2016 article in The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.
“Glenn and Diane Mandel yearned to practice Judaism … when (they) moved to Door County in 1993, they lived more than an hour away from the nearest synagogue in Green Bay. … They began inviting people for Shabbat dinners at their Egg Harbor home, and in 1999, Mandel put an ad in the local paper to find more Jews. Approximately 17 people showed up for a Sukkot service, and Mandel started leading Friday night services regularly.
“They eventually hosted High Holy Days services and other holiday celebrations, and dubbed the group the L’Dor V’Dor (from generation to generation) chavurah. … That community has become ‘a big part of our lives, part of our identity,’” Mandel said. “‘We have fostered a great sense of Judaism here.’” It still continues.
Orthodox Judaism has a presence in Door County through Chabad of the Bay Area, based in Green Bay. It ministers to the Jewish population in Appleton, Wausau, Manitowoc and Door County.
The nearest big city, Green Bay, has three synagogues. Ravenswood Congregation is Orthodox; Cnesses Israel, which dates to 1904, is Conservative; and Mishpachat Shalom is a Reform congregation.
Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.