The Midwest's Secret Cape
Folks go to Door County—a bucolic peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan—for the lakes, the art, and the cherries. I took my bride in search of something even sweeter.
Across Eagle Harbor from the red-and-white-striped Wilson's lies Peninsula State Park, 3,700 acres of largely undeveloped forest, shoreline, and campgrounds. It would strike you as a peaceful spot, but it used to be, for Julie, a scene of terror. Every summer, she and her sisters and cousins would try to climb Eagle Tower, a 75-foot-tall wooden structure with a long staircase and astounding views. Her cousins would race to the top, but not Julie. "I would end up just chickening out, but for some reason every year I would try it anyway," she said. It's still not much fun for her to make the ascent—which she did, very slowly, one tentative step at a time—but the reward of reaching the top is all the sweeter. Now, she said, she knows enough about Door County to identify the sights: the church spire in Ephraim, the islands in Green Bay. And, of course, there's the satisfaction of mastering a childhood fear—and sharing it with her husband.
The park is also home to the American Folklore Theatre, which performs original shows in a Broadway-sized space amid a stand of evergreens (Peninsula State Park, Fish Creek, folkloretheatre.com, general admission $19, reserved seating $25). Julie couldn't remember much about the shows her grandmother had brought her to see, but she recalled having fun, so off we went. Jeff Herbst, the artistic director, said he looks for shows "that reflect in some way our cultural heritage," meaning "Wisconsin locations and mores." That's certainly true of Bing! The Cherry Musical, a new show that mixes a comic love story with good-natured Door County boosterism. ("A little heaven here on earth, it's summer in the Door," goes one refrain.) Despite the steady drizzle, adults and kids alike seemed to enjoy themselves, as did I, particularly when Julie explained the Wisconsin in-jokes to me afterward. (For instance: A local says that if a dastardly real-estate developer got his way, "all of Door County would look like Naperville"—a reference, Julie said, to a Chicago suburb known around these parts for its strip malls and chain stores, "all the things that Door County is not about.")
We stayed in Ephraim, at the handsome Lodgings at Pioneer Lane (9998 Pioneer Lane, Ephraim, lodgingatpioneerlane.com, from $80, suites from $109). The inn is set back from Route 42, and offered a comfortable first-floor room for just $80. Restaurants don't stay open late in Door County—which is, blessedly, a virtually McNugget-free zone—so it was an early night for us. That turned out to be a lucky break, since we awoke the next morning in time to beat the rush to Al Johnson's (10698 N. Bay Shore Dr., Sister Bay, aljohnsons.com, Swedish pancakes $7). This Swedish restaurant in Sister Bay has been around Door County even longer than Julie's family. Since 1949, waitresses wearing dirndles (traditional Swedish dresses) have been serving Swedish pancakes: thin, crepe-like concoctions topped by fjords of cherries or strawberries and cream. Al passed away in 2010, so the place is run today by his children. In older, quieter days, his daughter Annika told me, he would hang a sign on the door that said "Gone fishing—help yourself." While the growth of Door County ended that practice years ago, another tradition endures: There's a goat on the roof. What began as a prank by a friend of Al's has become a Door County landmark. The current occupant, Buckshot, happily grazed on the sod roof as Julie and I exited through the hungry crowd below.
Above Sister Bay, we crossed the leafy northern edge of the peninsula and started down the Lake Michigan side. This is where Julie made her childhood memories of lake swimming and cookouts. It's also where she spent many an afternoon in kiddie summer heaven: the Yum Yum Tree (8054 State Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor, 920/839-2993, single scoop from $3.10). The red-aproned staff of this absurdly endearing candy shop serves 24 flavors of homemade ice cream and more than a hundred kinds of candy—and the place carries, as you can imagine, endless happy associations from Julie's girlhood. When we arrived in Baileys Harbor, she was eager to revisit her old favorite ice cream: Blue Moon, which she had described to me as "a psychedelic, Smurfy blue flavor that turned our tongues turquoise." Her adult taste buds didn't react with the same enthusiasm—it's much too sweet for her now—so she went with the more grownup and completely delicious chocolate peanut butter. (Same goes for my rocky road.)
From Baileys Harbor down to Jacksonport, the eastern side of the peninsula has its own personality: quieter, less self-conscious about its Door Countyness, less cherry-mad. I could tell that this is where my family would have spent summers too, if they'd ever seen it. While my parents and sister and I went to all sorts of places up and down the East Coast and beyond when I was a kid, someplace like the lake side of Door County—where it's pretty and peaceful, where the living is easy—would have had the same special appeal to my folks as it had, and still has, to Julie's.