Tired of the same old vacation spots? Ready to try something new? We’ve got a few requirements this summer. We’re looking for the best artisan cheese, wine, craft beers and fine dining—and not necessarily in that order. Look no further than Door County, Wisconsin. With 250 miles of dramatic shoreline overlooking Lake Michigan and Green Bay (as in the actual bay, not the home of the Packers), Door County, Wisconsin is a little-known getaway destination for those who enjoy the bucolic pleasures of farm and lake country, pristine nature reserves, cherry orchards, and indulging in award-winning restaurants, wine, beer, and cider tastings.
No worries if you’ve never heard of Door County. It’s a peninsula on the western rim of the Niagara Escarpment that arches from Niagara Falls through Ontario and Michigan to the southeastern part of Wisconsin. Door County is home to five state parks, 11 lighthouses, 34 islands, and caves that date back millions of years. It’s most famous, however, for cherries, wineries, breweries and, of course, cheese (hey, it’s Wisconsin!).
Aside from the indigenous Native Americans, the Scandinavians, Belgians, Irish, and Canadians eventually made their way through the treacherous waters (once called Death’s Door) to settle there. One explorer, Jean Nicolet, left Quebec in 1634 paddling more than 1,000 miles to Lake Michigan before landing in Door County believing it was China. My kingdom for a GPS!
If you visit sometime between spring and autumn, here are a few places you’ll want to explore.
Your Guide to Door County, Wisconsin
Where to Eat in Door County
Who says Wisconsin is only beer, brats & cheese?
Best Brekkie: Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant
With a nod to its Nordic heritage, this family-owned Swedish restaurant opened in 1949. Order a breakfast of Swedish pancakes topped with ligonberry jam (cross between a cranberry and a currant), and, for the decadent, whipped cream.
Best viral moment: The herd of goats that graze peacefully on the sod roof. In the words of Bruno Mars, don’t believe it just watch.
Best Fish: Fish Boil at Rowleys Bay Resort
The Fish Boil is a Door County tradition, held each evening at the Rowleys Bay Resort. As we watched buckets of whitefish, onions, potatoes, and salt being poured into a bubbling caldron, a sprightly 94-year-old actor playing the eponymous Peter Rowley regaled us with amusing stories about the area’s history.
Best viral moment: When kerosene is thrown onto the fire producing an enormous plume of black smoke. The fish boil is served in the hotel restaurant with a full buffet that includes homemade cherry pie.
Located in downtown Sturgeon Bay, this high-end restaurant could be a transplant from Toronto’s Queen Street West or NYC’s TriBeCa. The chef plays with sweet and savoury flavours, offering an array of small plates, including decadent bacon-wrapped dates, shrimp tapas and pan-roasted beef tenderloin. Save room for the apple tart. The drink menu features local wine, beer, and cider, as well as bottles ranging from California to New Zealand. There’s 25% off wines on “Wine-Down Wednesdays” and live music on Thursdays. (Caveat: the kitchen closes at 8:30 pm, so go early bird.)
Best Coffee: Door County Coffee & Tea
Do not miss this popular breakfast haunt, where you can sample coffee roasted on premises behind a see-through window. You can attend a “Coffee College” lecture given by the vivacious owner (a combo of caffeine and passion) and get schooled about where to get the best beans (Sumatra is number one, Colombia second). Try the Cherry Crème, Raspberry Butter Crunch or Carmel Pecan scones with your Joe.
Best Tapas: Parador
Started by a worldly restaurateur and his Iberian-born wife, Parador is a magnet for foodies who come for its locally-sourced tapas, sangria and kitchen that stays open late. (When in Wisconsin, do as the Spanish do.) Our plates included charred cauliflower with whipped goat cheese; “patatas brava,” crispy potatoes with herb and fiery sauce; and “cocas” (Spanish flatbreads), with roasted eggplant and caramelized onion spread. Dessert? Don’t miss the “churros” with spiced chocolate. Yo adoro Parador!
Where to Nibble Cheese in Door County
Wisconsin lives up to its reputation as North America’s top cheese producer and here’s where you should go to get cheesy:
Operating for more than a half-century, Renard’s hand-crafted cheese is delivered fresh each morning (the process starts at midnight) from local farms. There are 65 cheeses to sample or buy, including two- to ten-year-old cheddar, Colby, Blue, Gouda, Parmesan, and spreads (try the chocolate cheese fudge if you dare!). Tours of the factory are available with reservations. The curds are so fresh they squeak when you bite into them!
The newest kid on the Door County cheese block offers a variety of hand-crafted samples, including a signature creation soaked in Belgian beer. Take a tour of the caves where the cheeses are made and stored, or dine in the airy restaurant where you can pair your cheese plates with regional and international wine or craft beer.
Where to Sip Wine, Beer & Cider in Door County
“Drink Wisconsinably” is a state slogan—for a good reason. When going on tasting tours, have a designated driver, or check out the trolley schedule that stops at the vineyards, breweries, and distilleries.
This is one of the best winery tours in Door County. Start at the tasting bar where you can select up to six free samples from the 30 estate-grown wines. Our guide led us through the cherry orchards and vineyards, ending the tour in the big red barn where we watched a short video about winemaking.
Best viral moment: The mechanized cherry picker that literary shakes the fruit off the trees. Grab a free wineglass and head out to the cherry pit spit, where you can try to break the state record (38’3” for women).
Housed an historic schoolhouse, you can pop your cherries on fruity, sweet and semi-sweet wines. If you like your spirits harder, you can also try the fruit-infused vodka and gin. Ask to taste the bold Sinister wine, followed up with the full-bodied and tart. Redemption.
Door County is arguably the Mecca of Malt, so a trip here must include this gastropub that has eleven drafts, one cask, and nearly 100 bottles to pair with its European-inspired menu. Order the “flight” (four beers to sample). Don’t be shy about asking for recommendations—the men who run Bier Zot travel the world looking for most uniquely-crafted beers. One of your tastings may be Oude Gueuze, a three-year-old Belgian beer made with a blend of three vintages and, according to the menu, “a ridiculous amount of funk.” Delish!
Want blues with your brews? This late-night tap room has a backyard beer garden is where you can listen to a live band, nosh from the food truck, and gather around an open fire. The tap room offers a wide selection of locally-sourced “eco-conscience” beers, including the Polka King Porter, Little Sister Witbier and Farm House Ale.
Don’t leave Door County without tasting the cider, which, make no mistake, is not that concentrated stuff you had as a kid. The tasting menu includes Oak Aged Apple Cider, Pear Cider, Apple Cherry Cider and Apple Lavender Cider (yes, lavender is edible and drinkable).
Jodie Gould is an award-winning writer and author of 14 books, including HIGH: Six Principles for Guilt-Free Pleasure and Escape (Hazelden) and Beyond Beautiful: Using the Power of Your Mind and Aesthetic Breakthroughs to Look Naturally Young and Radiant (Center Street) with Doris Day, MD. Jodie is a frequent contributor to Brazen Woman.