Autumn has come gusting into Chicagoland a bit on the early side this year. Only halfway into September, today the cool air is enough to drive me from my favored writing spot out on the balcony to my living room sofa and the coziness of a big snuggly blanket.
It has also (contrary to bird behavior) started me thinking about heading north.
Nestled between Green Bay and Lake Michigan lies the Door Peninsula, a peninsula only connected to other land by a bridge and is therefore, technically, an island. And amidst this tiny sliver of Wisconsin rests a grouping of small towns, the sum of which goes by the name of Door County.
Door County began as a childhood destination for my family. Every year we’d pack up the car, complete with a vintage rooftop carrier and my goofy uncle, and embark on a northward trip for a summer week in the kind of paradise born of a simpler time.
Now, as an adult, when the summer days start to wind down and the air takes on the crisp notes of a changing season, I nostalgically jump into my little Corolla and head north for a weekend of autumn perfection.
The Great Outdoors
The beginning of October is when Mother Nature is the most decadent in the use of her paintbrush to transform the Door County landscapes of green & blue into a brilliant mural of yellows, oranges, and reds. The hiking trails that were primarily recreational in the summer have now become an artful walk through a masterpiece of color.
Cave Point County Park is always my first stop upon entering Door County. After the long drive, it's a perfect stop for a quick (and sometimes chilly) picnic lunch and a quick hike along the short trail, clinging to the edge of cliffs that precariously jut out over Lake Michigan.
For more extensive hiking, the two most prominent state parks of the area, Whitefish Dunes on the Lake Michigan side and Peninsula State Park on the Green Bay side, offer up a plethora of more trail options, from rugged cliff-side trails for the more bold to meandering wooded walks perfect for strolling.
Peninsula State Park also plays host to the dually intimidating and fascinating Eagle Tower. Built in 1932 and topping out at 76 feet (perched on the 180-foot Eagle Bluff), Eagle Tower delights those brave enough to climb its seemingly endless steps with breathtaking vistas of the entire Green Bay side of Door County.
That is, of course, if you can push through the cardio challenge and make it to the top....
The Grand Indoors
Autumn brings all kinds of changes, especially in the weather department, and a rainy fall day can always be counted on to crash the party at some point.
Never fear! The little towns of Door County, most notably Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, have a sturdy reputation for delighting shoppers with their unique variety of little stores, many of which can only be discovered (perhaps with some assistance from an umbrella) on the Door Peninsula.
But if you see something you like, you’d better grab it, because once you depart, chances are you won’t find it again.
The Door County Nature Works in Egg Harbor and Hide Side of Founders Square in Fish Creek are both perfect examples of the one-of-a-kind rustic little shops that will entice shoppers with their charm and originality. And sure, October may be a little early for some, but truly, who can resist a browse through All I Want For Christmas in downtown Egg Harbor?
One exception to the local rule is The Door County Confectionery. Now a small chain in the Midwest, this little throwback of a candy store charms visitors with a countrified feel, right down to the creaky wood floors.
But there’s nothing sub par about their delectable candy selection…personally, I can’t step into the shop without somehow acquiring bags of gummies and cinnamon red hots.
The Gastrointestinal Delights
Since we’re on the subject…
When thinking of Wisconsin, likely you’re not thinking of gourmet food…well, unless perhaps it’s cheese. And while it may not be the same gourmet you’d find in a big city, there’s still some amazing little places tucked away up there.
Amidst the rugged days and rustic evenings, sometimes the desire for a little pampering arises. An upscale evening, although perhaps not the norm in such rural surroundings, is still not only accomplishable, but delivered with the utmost excellence.
The White Gull Inn of Fish Creek, a historic bed & breakfast, lies just slightly off the beaten path, providing the perfect blend of accessibility and seclusion.
Of course, they offer more than just dinner. Also a bed & breakfast, they have lovely accommodations as well. And in addition to a hosting intimate candlelit dinners, the restaurant also serves not only breakfast and lunch, but also plays host to famous Door County fish boils.
Yet I will always think of The White Gull Inn first when I wish to enjoy a delectable meal amidst white tablecloths and the warmth of a candlelit dining room. In such a welcoming atmosphere I might even be tempted into staying around for one of their decadent desserts.
I don’t think Wisconsin is much of a stranger to the art of brewing. After all, Leinenkugel’s, a well-known nationwide brand, was born there.
As much as everyone has been jumping on the craft beers wagon lately (has anyone else noticed this?!), I personally still prefer really small breweries, also known as microbreweries. As in, there’s one restaurant. And they brew their beers right there.
So of course, I simply adore Shipwreck Microbrewery, Pub, & Inn in Egg Harbor. The pub is exceptionally quaint and charming, with all sorts of sailing memorabilia gracing the walls.
The place isn’t overly large, so if you’re visiting on a weekend, you might aim to get there a little early. Worst case, you’ll have some extra time to sample beers.
The microbrewery always has a wide selection to choose from. Of course, you’ll have your standard light lager, ale, red, and something darker. But the hands down favorite for me is their Pumpkin Ale (of course, since I typically visit in October, this is not a huge surprise).
If I’m having beer, I usually want a burger too. It’s just a thing for me. So it works out really well that Shipwrecked has excellent pub fare too.
I never thought of Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay as any kind of a Door County secret, but after talking to two separate people who’d been visiting up there for years and had never gone, I suppose maybe it is a bit of one.
Those who do know this little Swedish gem are likely to say first, “oh, you mean the place with the goats on the roof?”
Yes, they do have goats on the roof. And yes, those are real live goats and real grass.
As for the why? Well, I can’t answer that one. But it’s certainly memorable! As a kid, I knew the place simply by that feature long before I remembered it’s name.
It is hands down my favorite place in Door County for breakfast. I’ve had replica swedish pancakes at all sorts of other breakfast places over the years, but none of them could ever hold a candle to the real thing. It’s a swedish special that’s so good, I can call the memory of the taste immediately to mind (and now I REALLY want some swedish pancakes!)
The expertise with which breakfast foods are prepared leaves no doubt in my mind that lunch and dinner are equally as yummy, although I cannot remember ever being there for anything but breakfast.
One of the biggest reasons I say I doubt the secrecy of Al Johnson’s is due to the fact that if you arrive looking for breakfast seating, you should be prepared to wait - this place is ALWAYS busy, especially on the weekends. So if you choose to visit, arrange to arrive on the early side.
Luckily boredom during your wait won’t be an issue thanks to the large but charming gift shop, chocked full of authentic swedish trinkets & apparel (the latter is fabulous for staying toasty in chilly weather). Hooray, more shopping!
Have you ever experienced Door County? Do you have your own favorite places? Please share!
Filed under: Travel