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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014

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Door County's stark natural beauty is even more obvious in the winter.
Door County's stark natural beauty is even more obvious in the winter.
Door County Coffee and Tea Company fulfills all my caffeine needs.
Door County Coffee and Tea Company fulfills all my caffeine needs.
Shipwrecked Microbrewery makes some great ale.
Shipwrecked Microbrewery makes some great ale.

Door County still makes a solid day trip, even in the off-season

I’m proud to say that the Jurkiewicz family makes an art of "The Day Trip."

My parents always felt that nothing bonded a family or educated a child more than travel. They took us on full-fledged vacations as often as possible, but in a pinch, a 16-hour getaway worked just fine. We had plenty of those, and they count among my favorite childhood memories.

Now that we’re grown with spouses and children, my siblings and I still love to travel with our parents, and not just because they pay for our food. We usually transform my mom’s Astro van into a clown car and pile all eight of us inside; this July, when my sister has her second child, that won’t be possible, so we decided to take the clown car out for one last spin on Saturday. Door County or bust.

It might seem like a strange choice for this time of year, but my family has previously day-tripped in Door County during the winter. It’s true that many attractions and shops are closed (my all-time favorite, Wilson’s, shuts up for winter), but there are still a lot of great places open – and in the off-season, they’re not clogged with rich Chicago vacationers.

Because the truth is, Door County is something of a ghost town this time of year – and frankly, that’s just how we like it. When my parents honeymooned there in 1983, it wasn’t the chic Midwestern vacation destination it is now. It was a kitschy, north-y retreat with vistas that took your breath away. Seeing Fish Creek, Ephraim, Egg Harbor and Sister Bay all but abandoned in the middle of winter is reminiscent of the tranquil, removed setting and slowed-down pace that made these towns a tourist hotspot in the first place.

For us, the drive is as integral a part of the trip as the destination. We take I-43 to Manitowoc and then continue north on Highway 42. It’s a peaceful, beautiful route that takes about three and a half hours and, in my opinion, shows Wisconsin at its most charming – miles of farm fields, shoreline, small towns, and best of all, businesses with pun-y names.

My favorite? Golddiggers Gentlemen’s Club and I’ve Been Framed frame store, both fine business establishments of Manitowoc (and hey, if you’re in the market, Golddigger’s is looking for an assistant manager).

We like to stop at the Harbor Express Grill on Milwaukee Street in Kewaunee. This gas station/eatery is brimming with unrefined small-town charm, and frankly, their muffins are out of this world. Seriously. Get the cinnamon spice muffin. It will make you consider moving to Kewaunee just so you can eat it every single day in the Harbor Express’ mini-dining room that overlooks the marina. They also sell – wait for it – fried cheese curds. Do not underestimate the tastiness of deep-fried cheese at 10 a.m. on a road trip.

The first stop for us in the county of Door is always the Door County Coffee and Tea Company, 5773 Hwy 42. I’ve never eaten there (still always full from the Kewaunee muffins and cheese curds) but I love perusing their wide selection of coffee, tea and paraphernalia. My favorite tea is the orange spice flavor, and I recently discovered the cinnamon sugar biscotti flavored coffee. We stock up when we go to Door County, but you can also order online.

After that, it’s time for some free booze. Across the street is the Door Peninsula Winery, where wine and spirits tasting comes with no charge. But you may end up spending some money – the Viognier is amazingly smooth. It tastes like juice – but you feel really, really happy afterwards. And it’s a steal at $10.99 a bottle. Door Peninsula Winery also takes online orders.

We usually eat lunch at Shipwrecked Microbrewery, 7791 Hwy 42 in Egg Harbor. A lot of the restaurants are closed, but Shipwrecked is open year-round and is usually fairly full even when we stop by in winter. The food is great but the beer is fantastic. I had the Captain’s Copper this time, a full-bodied ale with hints of caramel and hops. My brother-in-law went all-in for the sampler – seven different kinds of beer. He liked the Door County Cherry Wheat so much he bought a growler for $12.99 (refills for $9.50).

This trip, we stopped at a new place recommended by my aunt - Jorn’s Sugar Bush in Egg Harbor. The Jorn family has been making maple syrup in Door County since 1857, and current owner Roland Jorn has been in the business for 75 years. His wife mans the store, located at 4518 County Hwy T, and can fill you in on the history of the place, which is quite extensive. It’s heartening to see a family business still going strong after all these years. Be sure to bring cash or a personal check, though, because credit cards are not accepted.

The last stop is another perennial favorite, O'Meara's Irish House in Fish Creek. I ran in ten minutes before they closed (sorry about that, girl behind the counter) and bought a knit sweater for my future nephew. I wish I would have had more time, because I usually love to look at their inventory of imported goods, soaps and jewelry from Ireland. But no worries – they visit Irish Fest every year, so I'll get my shop on then.

We’ve heard great things about Sister Bay’s Inn at Kristofer’s, 10716 N. Bay Shore Dr., which is always open during the winter. But we usually grab dinner at the Culver’s in Sturgeon Bay instead.

Hey, day-tripping’s all about the budget, right?

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