It’s Quiet Season in Door County. And that’s a good thing.
Summertime, this popular needle of land separating the thumb from the rest of the mitten that is Lake Michigan along its Wisconsin border is thronged with traffic crisscrossing its country roads. Add in queues at coffee shops and “Full” signs fronting its necklace of lakeside inns.
In December, however, I saw more deer than humans as I strolled along the lake, watching whitecaps slap the shoreline.
I stayed in the tiny town of Ephraim (pronounced E-frum, as this city slicker was soon informed). It’s midway among the quintet of villages anchoring the Great Lake and about a 300-mile drive from the Twin Cities, resulting in a winter getaway that doubles as a romantic valentine.
Ephraim was founded by a cadre of Old-World Moravians who settled here in 1853. First thing the savvy newcomers set about doing was constructing a deepwater dock to lure steamships to drop anchor. Voila: Tourism was born. These days, grab a map for a self-guided stroll through Ephraim’s first establishments upon a hill overlooking the water—a pioneer schoolhouse from the 1880s, a one-room log cabin of 1850, where the family’s 11 children wrestled for floor space, and a pair of country churches whose white steeples pierce the sky.
To stretch our legs—and curiosity—further, we headed across the peninsula to Baileys Harbor to explore a pinch of the 1,600 acres of the Ridges Sanctuary—a nature preserve where Bill, an ardent apostle of nature preservation, makes inroads on what he termed city-slickers’ NDD: Nature Deficient Disorder. Follow him afoot or by snowshoe along the boardwalk leading through eons of “new” land the lake created as it pushed the shoreline ever farther into Lake Michigan. The Boreal forest, green with pines and laced with animal tracks in the snow, will host a panorama of wild orchids come spring, Bill promises. We spy a lighthouse anchoring one of the ridges. “It’s from 1865, and [one of] the only [ones] left on the Great Lakes,” he reveals as we climb its circular stairs up to the kerosene-fed light.
Next we motor down the road to Björklunden (that’s “birches by the lake” in Swedish), a preserve anchored, this time, by Boyton Chapel. The petite church mirrors an 11th-century Norwegian stave church, clad in dark shingles and overseen by scary dragon gargoyles—a nod to Norway’s pagan past. The sweet little edifice was erected by a wealthy heiress who taught herself to paint and carve (and, no doubt, to saw and hammer) to create her dream as a beacon for world peace.
When you return to The Door in spring, the snow will be gone, replaced by a blizzard of the cherry blossoms for which Door County is famous. The fruit is put to use in everything from salads and ice cream to—as we discovered—fruit wine. It’s the primo pour at DC Distillers & Winery, where the best-seller is its Cherry Mimosa, a spunky blend of sparkling cherry and apple juices.
And what goes best with wine? You know the answer: cheese. Especially in Wisconsin. Door Artisan Cheese is the county’s newest cheese producer, where visitors may ogle vats of milk-becoming-cheese and the underground cave where the robust wheels are stored for aging. The most popular? English-style Cheddar, says cheesemaker Riccardo, whose new tomato-basil fontina is right on its heels. Free tastings run the gamut from Manchego-like Santa Cruz to a Gouda-esque Valmy, and dozens more.
For the chaser of choice, I nominate –duh—beer. Specifically, a fine brew from One Barrel Brewery, the new kid on the block. Actually, One Barrel features 13 on tap, ranging from Up North Lager to Ninja Dust IPA. Or linger over the dark, teasingly sweet DC Trolley brew in the expansive tasting room, disguised as a laid-back Wisconsin tavern.
Fulfill your pledge of an apple a day at Island Orchard Cider. Following life-changing sips in France, the owners lost no time in planting orchards of their own and pressing its juices to produce a crisp, winningly dry and lightly alcoholic repertoire of flavors (pear, too) plus a quintet of elite vinegars. Sip and swirl in their sunny tasting room, then load up the trunk.
If you’re like me, however, the first sip of the day has to be coffee. Door County Coffee & Tea to the rescue! For 28 years it’s been the go-to for bags of elite beans and mugs of, say, Death’s Door, a bold brew to help you face the day. Stick around for lunch on supersized salads such as the Door County Cherry number, lush with candied pecans. You’ll find more cherries in the turkey-centric Pilgrim’s salad and the cherry-chicken melt.
If brunch is your idea of dining heaven, head to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, a longtime anchor of Sister Bay, complete with a Scando-style grass roof populated by grazing goats. Inside, I munched on Swedish crepes in lingonberry sauce and a hearty stack of Swedish meatballs. Huge gift shop, too.
For dinner, trade cherries for tomatoes, the favored topping at Wild Tomato—the pizza palace of Door County. The pies are woodfired, imaginative and enormous. To earn your Trendy Diner merit badge, head to Clover & Zot’s Public House for an assembly of small plates that run from shrimp smorrebrod to calamari fritti; from duck poutine to housemade sausage on a pretzel bun.
But do not pass Go (as in Home) without experiencing an only-in-Door-County fish boil—a Friday night tradition for a hundred years. Here’s the drill: At inns like White Gull (which serves fish boils all winter long), gather around the outdoor fire upon which a drum of water is set to boil. When it’s ready, a boilmaster tosses in potatoes, plenty of local whitefish, and—I’m not making this up—a hefty pour of kerosene, which he sets ablaze. (Talk about a photo op.) Back indoors, you’re served your potatoes and whitefish as a teapot (!) of melted butter comes your way, with which to anoint your meal. If you survive, there’s cherry pie a la mode for dessert.
If that isn’t romantic, what is? Meet me in Door County on Valentine’s Day. For further info: www.DoorCounty.comor 800-527-3529.