Julie has a million happy memories of Door County. From the time we started dating, she would tell me stories about the blissful trips that she and her family made to the 70-mile-long peninsula in northeastern Wisconsin, the one whose endless shoreline and mellow charm have earned it the nickname "the Cape Cod of the Midwest." When I decided to propose, it didn't take long to figure out where to pop the question. In 2009, I finally got to see the place she had described with such affection, particularly the cabin on Kangaroo Lake that she and her sisters and her cousins used to visit every summer. We were married the following year.
But that trip to Door County was short, and left me regretting that I couldn't see more of the place that meant so much to her family, where they had made s'mores, gone swimming, and watched their beloved collie, Shelby, get skunked. After all, there's a funny paradox about where we vacation: The places we go to escape our daily routines can become, over time, a beacon of stability as the rest of our lives change. By the time I met Julie's parents, they'd moved away from the house in Kenosha where she'd grown up. Her childhood friends had scattered to Chicago and points east. But to hear her family tell it, Door County hadn't changed much at all. It sounded like the best-preserved remnant of Julie's younger days.
So on our next trip to the Midwest, I vowed to experience as much of Door County as I could: the sights, the sounds, and the tastes (especially the tastes). To pack the most experience into a short stay, we decided to make a loop of the peninsula, driving up one side and down the other. This wasn't an original approach: In 2010, the state's department of transportation had designated our route a Wisconsin Scenic Byway. But it left no doubt why so many families like Julie's keep coming back year after year, generation after generation.
The first mystery I hoped to solve was straightforward enough: What's with the cherries? Endless billboards trumpeting the glories of "Cherryland USA" had piqued my interest—as had the memory of delicious cherry pies that Julie's mom had baked over the years. So just north of Sturgeon Bay, amid weathered red barns and idling dairy cows, we pulled into Wood Orchard Market for a closer look (8112 State Hwy. 42, Egg Harbor, woodorchard.com, cherry jam $5). Julie had picked enough cherries in her day to take the place in stride, but to a novice from "back East" like me, the store inspired awe. Here, among other offerings, was the humble cherry in every form imaginable: dried and frozen; in strudel, soda, and cider; in both medium and hot salsa (better than you'd think!); and, of course, cartons of cherries au naturel, which we snacked on happily for the rest of the trip.
Julie isn't the first person in her family to make youthful memories of Door County. Her grandmother and three great-uncles bought their cabin in 1969, just in time to allow Julie's dad to spend his teenage summers here. To my surprise, he described the place back then as a kind of artists' colony. There are still far more galleries than you'd expect to find in such a bucolic scene. J.R. Jarosh, the co-owner of the Edgewood Orchard Galleries, a converted fruit barn that we passed a few miles ahead, told me that the galleries are here because of all the artists, and the artists are here because of the sublime raw material (4140 Peninsula Players Rd., Fish Creek, edgewoodorchard.com, handmade earrings from $15). "You think, sunrise and sunset—you have to go from Maine to Oregon to see both," he said. "But here it's two miles apart."
Julie and I almost immediately discovered what he meant: The little town of Ephraim hugs the shore of Eagle Harbor and offers an impossibly pretty view of beaches and little boats bobbing on the waves. But I was less interested in landscapes than in lunch. Before we left New York, Julie had set one culinary condition: no fish boils. These elaborate meals are all over the guidebooks, but her family avoids them: "Definitely a tourist thing," she said. In the heart of Ephraim, another tourist favorite proved too good to pass up. Wilson's, perched just across Route 42 from the water, was founded in 1906 and feels today like a '50s soda fountain or ice cream parlor (9990 Water St., Ephraim, wilsonsicecream.com, Chicago-style hot dog $5.50). To enjoy the full Midwestern experience, I ordered the tasty homemade root beer, and—a nod to the city that many of the peninsula's tourists call home—a Chicago hot dog. Julie advised me not to add my usual ketchup. "It's just not done," she said. "It doesn't add flavor." Which turned out to be true, as the dog arrived bearing most of the contents of a vegetable garden: peppers, onions, and more.
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.
After more than 40 summers, Julie's family still comes back to the cozy cabin on Kangaroo Lake. In fact, her parents and sister had arrived while we were exploring the peninsula. They joined us for our last stop, which turned out to be one of the best. Below Jacksonport, Cave Point County Park offers the astonishing sight of geology in action. Lake Michigan booms away at porous cliffs here with enough force that even on a calm day, you have to raise your voice to be heard. If you climb down to water level, you can see the millions of tiny pulverized shells that have washed up on shore. It's an ancient place—the rocks in the cliff are more than 400 million years old—but the sight was new to all of us: Neither Julie nor anybody else in her family had been here before. We only went because I'd struck up a conversation with a stranger who had suggested it. I'd spent days trying to see Door County the way Julie's family saw it: Now, for once, we were all seeing it with the same fresh sense of wonder.
It says a lot about a vacation spot that even after 40 years you can still discover world-class attractions. But the beauty and charm of Door County are subtler than that. They lie in a delicate balance of water, landscape, and people—particularly the families who keep coming back. After watching Julie retrace the happy days of girlhood, I can easily imagine our hypothetical children bounding up Eagle Tower or pressing their noses against the display case at the Yum Yum Tree. Thirty-something years ago, Julie's newlywed parents must have imagined the same things for their hypothetical children, and in the same spots.