25-Jan-21 – Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula is a grand getaway to experience the lifestyle traditions of friluftsliv and hygge.
Wisconsin’s Door County exudes its own sense of living for the outdoors, especially in the quieter winter months. Then, when you’re ready to come in from the refreshing cold and pillowy snow, hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) is another Scandinavian tradition. It’s the concept of coziness that evokes feelings of comfort and serenity. Fuzzy socks are optional.
Door County is a narrow peninsula that juts diagonally from north of Green Bay into Lake Michigan. About 70 miles long and wrapped with 300 miles of shoreline, the county is flecked with 17 charming villages and towns, 11 lighthouses, five state parks, and 19 county parks. The area was settled in the late 1800s largely by Swedes and Norwegians, and many of their cultural and architectural influences remain today.
Although Door County is a wildly popular tourist destination during fair weather, the winter months draw loyal enthusiasts as well. Most everything stays open year-round, but the crowds and traffic are diminished, so the pace is more relaxed. Many recreational experiences are exclusive to the season, and the landscape of snow-capped woodlands and ice-tinged waters is exquisite to behold.
Here’s how you can embrace both friluftsliv and hygge in Door County this winter...
Most of the parks are open, and trails are groomed by dedicated volunteers. You’ll have miles of smooth surface for hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking, snowmobiling, sledding, and skating. New this year is kicksledding, another Scandinavian import, which originated as a means to transport fish, wood, and people along frozen waterways. A kicksled is sort of a combination non-motorized scooter and medical walker on skis. Push off and glide!
At Whitefish Dunes State Park in Sturgeon Bay, take in the majesty of the highest sand dunes in the state.
A breathtaking photo op is Cave Point’s icicle-fringed limestone sea caves (right), the result of Lake Michigan’s relentless pounding against the bluffs.
The Ridges Sanctuary at Baileys Harbor is a nature preserve named for its topography of ridges and swales created by Lake Michigan’s receding shoreline over the generations. Explore diverse ecosystems along trails and boardwalks on your own or a naturalist-guided tour.
Björklunden (Swedish for “birch grove by the lake”) at Baileys Harbor is a beautifully preserved property of meadows, woods, and more than a mile of unspoiled waterfront. Hike the North Trail and you’ll encounter Boynton Chapel (left), a small wooden church built in the stavkirke style of architecture popular in Norway during the late 12th century. Stavkirke construction is characterized by multiple gables, steeply pitched roofs and gables, and a cupola crown.
Only a dozen or so stave churches exist in the United States, and two are in Door County. The other is on Washington Island, reachable via the Washington Island Ferry Line from Northport Pier at the northern tip of the peninsula. The ferry – or ice-breaker in winter – will get you there.
Chilling out indoors
A hot shopping district is Fish Creek’s Main Street, lined with boutiques, fine and fun art, and casual eateries. On Deck Clothing Company stands out for seasonal, sporting, and preppy apparel. Alpaca to Apparel purveys unique men’s and women’s styles in luxe alpaca fleece. If anyone knows how to stay warm, it’s these Andes Mountain natives who live at elevations of up to 17,000 feet.
In Sturgeon Bay, on trendy Third Avenue, Bliss is a unique home decor and accent boutique that anchors a collaboration of related enterprises at The Marketplace. Nearby, Dancing Bear is an old-fashioned toy store that also sells small luxuries for grownups.
With more than 100 art galleries and studios throughout the peninsula, there’s no shortage of one-of-a-kind treasures.
Plum Bottom Gallery, with two Egg Harbor locations, represents 100 artists from Door County, Wisconsin, and beyond. Popelka Trenchard Glass in Sturgeon Bay is a working hot glass studio and gallery showcasing the owners’ fine artistry in blown and cast glass, oil paintings, jewelry, and gift items.
Create your own masterpiece at Hands On, a Fish Creek enclave of DIY art studios. Pick a project – perhaps painted wine glasses, stamped jewelry, or a mosaic frame – and fashion it to your liking. No experience is needed – talented, patient staffers are on hand to guide you. This writer made a mosaic trivet using half-inch metallic squares.
Follow the Door County Wine Trail, and you might end up at Door 44 Winery, Sturgeon Bay, named for its location on the 44th parallel north. That’s the same latitude as renowned wine-making regions Bordeaux and Tuscany.
Door 44 (left), however, produces its two dozen or so wines from varietals like Frontenac, Marquette, and Petite Pearl, bred to withstand cold climes.
The result is a delectable range of fruit-forward tastes, from sweet to dry to bubbly. Be sure to try Itasca, a semi-dry white similar to classic white Bordeaux.
Undecided between visiting a winery or a distillery? Do both in one stop at Door Peninsula Winery and Door County Distillery. They’re in the same building in Carlsville. Door Peninsula Winery lists 50-plus fruit, honey, blended premium varietal, and special occasion wines. A current release is Fear the Deer Riesling, a semi-sweet white prime for sipping.
Door County Distillery, the county’s first distillery since Prohibition, creates small-batch spirits like Maple Bourbon and Spiced Rum. Perhaps you’ll linger at the craft cocktail bar for an Apple Butter Bourbon Fizz or a Cherry Moonshine Margarita.
Beer buffs should head for Shipwrecked Brew Pub (right) in Egg Harbor, Door County’s original brewery, established in 1997.
The lineup of handcrafted ales and seasonal releases pairs easily with a menu of classic pub fare and smokehouse BBQ.
For libations of a nonalcoholic nature, warm up to Door County Coffee & Tea in Carlsville, a daytime coffeehouse, bakery, and café. More than 100 flavored, unflavored, and seasonal coffee varieties are roasted in small batches onsite. In addition, the massive beverage menu features tea, chai, cocoa, cider, and smoothies.
In Door County, the local foodie movement isn’t a trend. It’s the way things have always been, thanks to the vast resources of land and lake. (Plus, municipal codes north of Sturgeon Bay aren’t exactly welcoming to big-name chains.)
Cherries, for example, are a year-round staple. Door County is one of the top cherry-producing regions in the country with more than 2,000 orchard acres. Menus and food emporia are chock-full of cherry juices, wines, spirits, dressings, sauces, jams, chutneys, and pastries. Fun Fact: A cherry pie contains an average of 250 cherries.
Cherry crepes dolloped with whipped cream are served up at Julie’s Park Café in Fish Creek, along with a burger topped with dried cherries, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese. Cherry BBQ ribs is the signature dish at Carrington Pub & Grill at Egg Harbor’s Landmark Resort.
No cuisine is more iconic to Door County than the fish boil, a tradition begun more than 100 years ago by Scandinavian settlers to feed swarms of hungry lumberjacks and fishermen.
A fish boil is a concoction of freshly caught Lake Michigan whitefish and red potatoes boiled in an outdoor cauldron over an open flame. The final touch is when the boil-master tosses kerosene onto the fire, causing flames to leap up and greasy fish oils to spill over from the pot. Dinner is ready.
The White Gull Inn in Fish Creek turns the fish boil tradition into a Friday night spectacle (more often in summer) with storytelling and showmanship. Your meal, served indoors, concludes with Door County cherry pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Scaturo’s Baking Company and Café in Sturgeon Bay stands out with homemade specialty breads and pastries, Door County cherry pies, and the Ultimate Door County Burger stacked with bacon and Renard’s two-year aged white cheddar. Wild Tomato in Sister Bay and Fish Creek is known for create-your-own hand-tossed, wood-fired pizza.
Other culinary mainstays of the region are apples, artisan cheese, and supper clubs. Nearly every menu in the region touts fried cheese curds, which are young cheddar nuggets swathed in a light crispy batter.
A vast array of lodgings – many bedecked with fireplaces, whirlpool baths, and bouffant duvets – will keep you toasty in your getaway home. You’ll find bed-and-breakfasts, historic inns, rustic cottages, retro motels, luxury resorts, and tent and trailer campsites. Pet-friendly options are available too. Here are a few personal faves...
White Lace Inn (right) in Sturgeon Bay welcomes with 18 rooms and suites across four meticulously restored Victorian-era homes. Each is appointed with private baths, period furnishings, and rich wallpapers. A sit-down breakfast is included.
The Landmark Resort, Egg Harbor, is Door County’s largest resort with 293 condo-style suites, Carrington Pub & Grill, sports activities, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and hiking trails.
Hillside Waterfront Hotel, Ephraim, is a luxury bed-and-breakfast listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Select from five upscale rooms with private baths and balconies, and two newly renovated cottages.
Eagle Harbor Inn, Ephraim, is an elegant retreat with nine traditional inn rooms and 32 condo-style whirlpool suites.
The Dörr Hotel, slated to open in 2021 with 47 rooms and expansive lobby lounge, is Sister Bay’s first new hotel in nearly 20 years. The contemporary but cozy design pays homage to Door County’s Scandinavian influences. Reservations are now being taken.
All sites and establishments named in this article are open through the winter, but some may have limited hours. Call ahead. Admission fees may apply.
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted.