I’ve heard Americans dismiss the massive landmass between the east and west coasts as ‘The Flyover States’. The term suggests that these are the bits best avoided – that there’s nothing to see. If you meet a New Yorker or Californian (and it usually is) who tells you this, you have my permission to call them a fool because they’re missing out on one of the best parts of America!
These travellers won’t have experienced the seaside-like setting you’ll find, surprisingly, in land-locked Wisconsin, bordering the Great Lakes. Door County is a pretty vacation destination filled with cherry orchards, pine forests and villages of quaint, white wooden cottages, set amongst picturesque harbours. Locals call it the ‘Cape Cod of the North’. The comparison is meant to be a mark of quality. Well it might look like Cape Cod, but Door County doesn’t have the congestion, cost and snootiness of the Massachusetts shoreline, so maybe they need a slogan rethink.
Door County is the summer and weekend playground for discerning residents of cities like Milwaukee and Chicago, which lie two and four hours drive to the south. The Door County Visitor Bureau is in the perfect location for the influx of weekenders. It’s right alongside the main dual carriageway leading into the county.
I arranged to meet up with their director of communications, Jon Jarosh. “We offer a fun experience and it’s all down to the big water – the lake,” he enthused. “Whenever you look across the water, you don’t see the other side. It feels like the sea. Many of the regular tourists from the Midwest are not used to the ocean.” Jon says the term ‘lake’ amuses locals. And he’s right. The expanse of water is massive, with its apparent tidal flow, chop and stories of shipwrecks in storms. ‘Lake’ is too small a term.
But unusually for the USA, everything else in Door County really is small. There are no sprawling conurbations. The largest community of Sturgeon Bay has just 9,000 residents. The town centre is effectively divided by a waterway – the two sides linked by a very American-looking lattice girder bridge. You pass a small marina but bigger vessels once provided this town’s lifeblood. It was a significant port and shipbuilding centre. That industry is on the wane but the town has gentrified and diversified, as tourism becomes a major economic driver. I doubt many shipyard workers would have bought the quinoa in the deli or the produce of Fat Louis’ Olive Oil and Wine shop. Times change.
Two minutes drive away and you’re in the country, without the strip-malls and urban creep that blights many US cities. There are no freeways here. You drive on two-lane roads that twist and turn along clifftops beside the sea-like lake Michigan, for the 75 mile length of the peninsula. It was refreshing to drive through each village, rather than bypass them on an interstate and wonder what I’d missed as I passed the ‘Last Exit’ sign. I like this. It slows you down and gives you a sense of place. Each village has its own look and feel and most are on the water because that’s how the area was settled in the 1800s.
“Water was how people got around,” Jon told me. The first Scandinavian settlers battled severe weather to land fish. Whilst commercial fishing continues today, many water-based activities are now much gentler. Boat tours, kayaking, canoeing and fishing are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike.
You notice a slower pace of life. I know that’s a cliché but in Door County it’s true. The village shops, galleries and artisan delis, cheesemongers and craft beer stores are very 2016. The time people take to talk with you is pure 1956. When they say, “Have a nice day,” they really mean it. You don’t get the fake smiles-for-tips that you find elsewhere in the States. Sorry, Californians. I’m talking about you again.
People come here for outdoor activities and for the scenery, which is enhanced even more during an autumn trip, when the changing leaves bring reds, burgundies and oranges to the woods and forests that line the winding roads – leaf colours that we don’t see during this season in Britain.
The main highway passes dunes, beaches and flower-filled marshes and you’ll notice many references to shipwrecks as you drive on top of cliffs overlooking the vast expanse of water. There are over two hundred vessels on the lakebed around the county. It was the perilous lake shore that gave the county its name. Early French explorers called it the ‘Porte des Morte,’ later anglicised to ‘Death’s Door.’
In Sturgeon Bay, you can visit the Door County Maritime Museum. The centre gives you a sense of how the waters have shaped the county’s identity. Rick O’Farrell was in charge when I visited and toured the exhibitions covering local shipbuilding, navigation and life on the water.
I was intrigued by the display dedicated to sea dogs. Rick said Portuguese fishing dogs were used locally to bring in nets and the coastguard still employ four-legged staff. Sinbad is the agency’s mascot and part of the display shares accounts of his Second World War action. “Dogs are often overlooked in seafaring history.” Rick said. “They’ve been companions too, and that’s important.” It was nice to see an unusual take on maritime history. Outside the main building you can board a 150-foot long, restored Great Lakes tugboat for a tour, which again offers an insight into the daily life of her crew.
Door County’s 250-mile shoreline is home to ten lighthouses. The display includes one of the lights – a Fresnel lens that would have sent the beam up to 10 miles offshore. There’s something fascinating about the role of a lighthouse keeper, the sense of isolation and the devotion to duty. The museum recounts the story of the Cana Island lighthouse. I drove out to have a look at the tall, white structure, just north of Baileys Harbor, after Rick told me a little about its history. “Its two keepers had to climb 97 stairs with two buckets of oil every two hours to keep it illuminated. By the mid-1960s automation had taken over,” Rick said.
Jon from the Visitor Bureau agrees that lighthouses should be part of any Door County trip. There’s a Lighthouse Festival in June and throughout the summer, three of them can be visited and the fourth can easily be seen. Which is just as well. That’s what they are there for!
Door County’s countryside looks like parts of coastal lowland Sweden with pines running down to the waters edge, rolling fields and red barns. And you can get a taste of Scandinavia, albeit with an American twist, all over the county. I called in at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. It’s built like a massive log cabin and, curiously, has goats grazing on its turfed roof. For 65 years people have flocked to their massive dining area, decorated in the yellow and blue of the Swedish flag. Menu items include traditional meatballs, gravadlax and pickled herring with plenty of dill.
Many restaurants in the area feature locally-caught whitefish cooked as part of a ‘fish boil.’ I know! Even as someone who loves eating fish, it sounded awful. I drove to the appropriately named Fish Creek, a beautiful, leafy community of grand, white wooden villas and cottages filled with craft shops and artisan food stores, to try this local dinner.
The White Gull Inn has provided food, drink and accommodation since 1896, their manager Patrice Champeau proudly told me. “Most Door County residents rate our fish boil as the best in the state. We hold one four times a week between May and October and feed up to two hundred and fifty people a night.”
Patrice explained that thickly-forested Door County provided wood to rebuild Chicago after a major fire destroyed much of that city in 1871. The fish boil was devised as a quick and easy way to feed the workers cutting the lumber. So why is it such a crowd puller? Well, the fish boil is a format that would be perfect for an aspiring TV cook. The ‘boil master’ has to tell jokes and stories as the cooking process is underway. It’s all showmanship-meets-chef-skills.
Water, salt and herbs are boiled in huge cauldrons suspended over an outdoor, wood-fired cooking pit. Our boil master for the evening, Steve Polster, told us he’d been doing this since childhood, as he added potato and onion to the boiling water. Then whitefish steaks are lowered in – bones, skin and all. They’re placed in netting so they can be retrieved in one piece.
But first, there’s the pièce de résistance. Kerosene is added to the fire, causing the flames to erupt around the pot, to the delight of the onlookers who greet the sight with gasps and camera clicks. Apparently, this makes the fish oil rise to the surface where it can be skimmed off. Steve then pulls up the net and drains off the fish. “The skill is in knowing how much salt to put in,” Steve told me. “It changes from each boil. You need to work out how much is left in the water from the last process,” he says.
It’s not a soup. You’re served a fish steak with delicious, seasoned, red-skinned potatoes. If you don’t like deboning fish, then your server will come to your table and skilfully remove the bones in a matter of seconds. The fish was actually really tasty and just melted in my mouth. They just need an expensive Chicago consultant to visit and come up with a better name – fish boil doesn’t do it justice. I gratefully accepted an offer of seconds. I can’t give greater praise than that!
There are plenty of wonderful cafés and restaurants in Door County, as you might expect of an upmarket destination where affluent Midwesterners spend their free time. The villages offer a range of eateries, from traditional and very good US diners to trendy bistros and fine French cuisine. Competition seems to foster pride. Everywhere I ate was exceptionally good.
You’ll notice many ice cream parlours serve ‘frozen custard.’ I had quite a long debate with a British friend as to whether there was such a dish. He claimed that all ice cream is actually frozen custard – made with eggs and cream. I don’t know what’s in it but the taste of this Door County dessert is creamier than regular ice cream. And I did chuckle at the name of one roadside outlet – ‘Custard’s Last Stand.’
Wisconsin is known for its dairy production and many meals finish with a cheese board. These are far better than the sometimes quite artificial-tasting cheeses you’ll find elsewhere in the USA. And I hope you like cherry pie. My fish boil finished with a generous portion. You’ll not get through a weekend here without being offered it. Door County is a major cherry producing area and they find a way to get the fruit into anything and everything.
At Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery and Market you can sample a range of food and drink products made from Door County-grown apples, grapes, raspberries and pears – and of course cherries. Since 1955, the Lautenbach family has managed 100 acres of fertile orchards and vineyards. Carrie Lautenbach-Viste says they make good use of the area’s number one crop.
“We were cherry growers by nature and my father wanted to diversify from the fruit stall at the roadside,” she says. The family started making a cherry wine in 1985 and now offer fourteen different types – from blends to a cherry Chardonnay and Riesling. Some of their wines reflect Door County’s European connections. They produce a Swedish lingonberry wine using juice imported from Sweden.
They’ve named their wines after members of the family. Audrey Grace is both Carrie’s daughter and the name of an off-dry red similar to Pinot Noir. It’s Carrie’s favourite. Ashlyn Sophia is their first red wine aged in oak barrels. Normally they use steel tanks to retain the fruit flavour in the wines. Their farm shop is huge. I had been tipped off by Don, who drives the Door County Trolley bus, that there are so many food samples on offer, “you’ll feel fuller than after a Thanksgiving dinner.”
Now what else can you make with cherries? Fifteen miles along the Peninsula at Ellison Bay you’ll find the tasting rooms of Island Orchard Cider. Their founders went on holiday in Normandy and were so impressed by the local cidre, they brought the recipe back to Door County, setting up their orchards ten years ago. The ciders are dry, crisp and rather strong at 6.5% alcohol. Visitors are offered a free tasting. The cider is aged in barrels made of oak and imported from France. It is denser wood and doesn’t flavour the cider as much as American oak. It certainly had a rounder taste.
Jack Burnett showed me around their facility. He explained that the cider is a very local product. Apples are grown on Washington Island, off the tip of the county, and their cider press is just along the street. And, of course, there’s cherries. They are fermented and made into a cherry cider, which is blended with the apple cider – one part cherry to nine parts apple. It was quite tart but nice. And it didn’t have the artificial cherry taste that spoils some fruit flavoured ciders.
After all of that great food and the rather large portions you expect in America it was time to do some easy touring – where somebody else does the driving! Since 2000, the Door County Trolley Company has offered sightseeing tours with commentaries. I met Manager John Bartzen and asked him, “Why trolleys?”
“Door County is a unique place where there are no big corporations. Everything here is locally owned and a trolley has a feel of being, ‘back in the day,’” he told me. John offers a range of tours including a beer tasting trip that I decided not to do because I wouldn’t be able to take any notes after the fifth stop! “We are in a drinking state – Wisconsin has a reputation to keep up,” he laughed.
From beers you can switch to spirits. John says their ghost tour has brought national commendation. USA Today and the Chicago Tribune have rated it as one of the best in the nation. The trip takes in a cemetery, a haunted lighthouse and, if you’re lucky, perhaps some unexplained activity. “It happens in Baileys Harbor,” John began. “The lights on the trolley are similar to a car as they only go on when the key is in the ignition. I get everybody to leave the trolley and I tell a story in the marina about a ghostly event. When I get to the murder that occurred, the lights above the door have started flashing. This has happened on three different occasions using three different trolleys. It is not an electrical fault!” he says.
“So have you had a psychic take the tour?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. A TV programme called Ghost Hunters turned up with digital gadgets and said they found something. We get emails about ten times a week from people who claim they have seen unusual things in their photographs.”
“So where is Door County’s most haunted place?” I asked, hoping that he wasn’t going to name my hotel.
“Well, Door County is pretty haunted but I’d say Baileys Harbor. It has quite a few stories about wrecks just off the shore from the village.”
I took the $15 scenic trolley tour narrated by Donald Donaldson. We spent 75 minutes winding through the pretty woods and the state park including a chance to take in the impressive vista over the Great Lake from the cliff tops at Svens Bluff. The trolley tour operates all year around and is worth taking to get a different view of the countryside.
I’ve been to Door County twice and I only go back to a place if I really like it. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for a different US destination with the special attention you can only enjoy from small, locally-owned businesses offering good food and great walks.
To travel to Door County, fly to Chicago and hire a car for the 4-hour drive. You’ll need your own vehicle because public transport on the peninsular is poor. You can get a £400 return on BA if you go through Dublin.