This trip was taken before widespread travel restrictions were enacted due to COVID-19. Call all businesses to confirm openness, hours and health protocols.
Wintertime in Wisconsin? You betcha – for travel deals, social distancing and snowy serenity.
Sometimes it pays to visit tourist destinations in their off-season. In the Valley, summer visitors who brave our inferno are rewarded with discounted resort stays and cut-rate dining deals. In places where summer is the high season, winter vacations provide less expensive lodging (chichi ski locales notwithstanding), built-in social distancing (no crowds!) and a different perspective on their attractions. Seasoned travelers crow about “living like a local” on their journeys. What’s more local than visiting when the tourists are gone?
I tested my low-season theories this past February – one of my last trips before the pandemic turned me into a housebound hermit – in Door County, Wisconsin, which typically crawls with tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The Door Peninsula is a jut of land in eastern Wisconsin that has the southernmost bit of Green Bay on its western side and Lake Michigan on its eastern side. On a map, it looks like a crunchy Cheeto stuck to the cheese curd outline of Wisconsin. Potawatomi and Menominee tribes lived in the area before French explorers made contact in the 17th century. The peninsula and county earned the name “Door” because of the treacherous passage between the top of the peninsula and Washington Island: Death’s Door (Porte des Morts) claimed many ships.
These days, Door County is a haven for artists and nature lovers, with more than 100 galleries and studios and thousands of acres of state parks, trusts and land conservancies. Also: a lot of winter snow that showed this desert girl how the other climatic half lives.
Art & Shopping
Driving up the Door Peninsula, you pass through many small towns, most of which seem to be named after water in some fashion: Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor, Baileys Harbor, Fish Creek, North Bay, Sister Bay, Ellison Bay. As we perused dozens of art galleries, studios and boutiques, it seemed most were owned by creative power couples. Sturgeon Bay’s Popelka Trenchard Glass (popelkaglass.com) is run by glassblower Jeremy Popelka and his wife, sculptor Stephanie Trenchard. While Popelka specializes in Venetian blown glass, former textile designer Trenchard creates cast sculptures that tell biographical stories about her commissioners. They look like ancient writing tablets had babies with Latin American nicho boxes, and I love them. At Plum Bottom Gallery (plumbottomgallery.com) in Egg Harbor, potter Chad Luberger throws mugs and elegant ikebana bowls and his silversmith wife, Angela Olson Luberger, creates colorful jewelry. They both also bear striking resemblances to certain celebrities: Luberger is a dead ringer for Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men’s Pete Campbell) and Olson Luberger looks like the spawn of Reese Witherspoon and Michelle Pfeiffer.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked into Fish Creek boutique Sister Golden (sistergolden.com) and saw the floral portraits that populate an Instagram account I’ve followed for years, @sistergoldenshop. I had no idea they were based in Door County. I ducked into nearby Fred & Co. (instagram.com/shop_fred) to warm up from the cold and ended up buying one of my favorite tops, a mustard linen number with navy stripes. Door County Confectionery (doorcountyconfectionery.com) has locations throughout the peninsula, and I appreciated never being far from an English toffee and dark chocolate peanut butter cup supplier.
The Great Outdoors
Of the scant hiking I’ve done, 90 percent of it has been for work. Thanks to this job I’ve trekked the Pecho Coast Trail in Central California, taken a “yogi hike” in Santa Fe and slogged to the Provo River in Park City. For this trip, I went on a “snow hike” in Whitefish Dunes State Park (dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/whitefish). We had been scheduled to go snowshoeing, but due to a “wimpy winter,” there wasn’t the “right kind of snow” on the ground, per our guide. (I was learning so much about these snow people!) I hadn’t worn boots because I wasn’t expecting to walk on snow sans snowshoes, so he asked if I wanted crampons. “And what are those?” I earnestly replied, to much laughter from the Midwest and East Coast journalists on the trip. The spiky strap-on shoe covers worked, and it was worth getting out of my comfort zone: It was the most beautiful hike I’ve ever taken. Everything was dazzlingly white and completely quiet, until we got to Whitefish Creek and heard calm waters rippling along snowy banks.
Cave Point County Park (doorcounty.com/experience/cave-point-county-park) was just as ethereal. Icicle-laden limestone caves and carved rock faces looked out over the crystalline waters of Lake Michigan. My cohorts dared to traverse the iced earth to the land’s edge, but I maintained a respectful distance – I’d already returned my crampons and didn’t want to ride a frozen Slip ’N Slide to a frigid water death.
I almost died at the northernmost tip of the peninsula, Death’s Door (doorcounty.com). OK, not really, but it felt like it: It was 18 degrees (the coldest weather I am aware of being in) and there was a thing called “wind chill,” which we don’t really have to deal with in the Valley of the Sun. My teeth chattered, my eyes dried out, my skin stung and my desire to be inside reading by a fireplace eclipsed everything. Still, the landscape was stunning, if eerily so – shipwrecks lurked in the waters just beyond the ferry station.
Food & Drink
I have rarely had a bad meal in Wisconsin, and this trip was no exception. From a cheesy potato bake and Death’s Door dark roast coffee for breakfast at Door County Coffee (doorcountycoffee.com) in Sturgeon Bay to a Mediterranean mezze platter and power greens salad for lunch at Heirloom Café & Provisions (heirloomcafeandprovisions.com) in Baileys Harbor, everything was scrummy.
Renard’s Artisan Cheese (renardscheese.com) and Door 44 Winery (44wineries.com) make a perfect afternoon pairing in Sturgeon Bay. Renard’s has the tasty curds you want when you visit The Dairy State, plus higher-end fromage, oils, sauces and more. Like most wineries in this region, Door 44 specializes in ice wines – too sweet for my palate, but I respect their craft. Its drier Frozen Tundra Red was much more my speed. I also found a lot to love at Lautenbach’s Orchard Country in Fish Creek (orchardcountry.com). The family fruit farm has a huge array of ciders (hard and nonalcoholic), wines, fruit wines and gourmet products, including a beguiling cherry salsa, which I bought.
Two of my Door County favorites centered on sweets. Ellison Bay’s Kick Ash Products (kickashproducts.com) is a coffee shop and gluten-free bakery set in a Lutheran church built in 1955. Owner/baker Carol Ash attended the church as a little girl and bought the building (which had been converted into an Asian art gallery) with her husband in 2019. Ash’s dark chocolate and sea salt granola is among the best I’ve had. At MacReady Artisan Bread Company (macreadys.com) in Egg Harbor, I had the best bread pudding of my life (including in New Orleans): toasty yet plush homemade wheat bread flooded with salty caramel lava and crunchy pebbles of Demerara sugar.
I truly felt like a local during two food experiences. The first was the Door County fish boil at Fish Creek’s White Gull Inn (whitegullinn.com), which is unique to the area. In the tradition of the Scandinavian settlers who came to the peninsula more than 100 years ago, a master boiler cooks freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish and small red potatoes in a huge cauldron of boiling salted water. It’s done outside, over a roaring fire, with a ring of spectators. As the fish cooks, oils rise to the surface. When it is done, the boiler squirts the flames under the pot with kerosene, causing a theatrical flame cloud and a massive boil-over. Dinner and a show!
That’s also the hook for Sister Bay Bowl and Supper Club (sisterbaybowl.com). The Wisconsin supper club tradition is rich and storied – it was even spotlighted this year by Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street and The New York Times. I couldn’t wait to sit down to the supper club classics of fried fish and an Old-Fashioned at this Door County institution, which has been family-owned and -operated since the 1950s. It still feels a little like the ’50s inside, with its intimate bar and six-lane bowling alley. I ended up ordering the signature broasted chicken instead of the fish, and took only a sip of another journalist’s Old-Fashioned. With the servers’ Midwestern vowels and the older crowd, though, I still felt like I was in Grumpy Old Men – and loved it. Maybe I don’t have the constitution for ice fishing, but I can definitely hang at a supper club on a snowy Wisconsin evening.
Blacksmith Inn on the Shore
Even in the summer, Baileys Harbor’s Blacksmith Inn on the Shore is “on the quiet side” of the peninsula, says Bryan Nelson, who owns the B&B with his wife and son. In the winter, you might have the place almost to yourself. The property looks out onto Lake Michigan and is “literally across the road” from more than 2,400 acres of conservancy land. “We get a lot of nature lovers,” Nelson says. “Our guests who come to us this time of year [winter] like the quiet and come for a reason.” The silence extends inside – the innkeepers aim to disappear unless you need something, and they’ve stocked everything so well you shouldn’t: The lobby has fresh granola in the morning, cookies in the afternoon and popcorn at night, as well as a fridge full of drinks and yogurt. Books, games, local recommendations and itineraries are also helpful. theblacksmithinn.com.