FISH CREEK – In the 19 consecutive summers we've visited Door County, we've had an awful lot of fun. But never once have we experienced one of those trips would I characterize as a "normal" vacation to this special place close to home but far away from reality.
From plane rides to zip lines, rookie mistakes to ill-fated Segway adventures, my old friend Eron and I never took in Door County the way normal adults do: wineries, art galleries, good food and the like.
Far from the crazy vacations of our youth, this 20th trip might've been a better one to bring our wives on. But, having done this buddy trip consecutively since 1994, it seemed high time to see what Door County had to offer for the more refined tastes. What we found hit more than it missed, and we have just scratched the surface.
It's not to say we didn't do what we usually do – throw the baseball around, overeat breakfasts and ice cream and take in great live music at the Bayside Tavern. By day, however, it was a remarkably "grown up" trip.
For us, two busy entrepreneurs and dads, the trip really starts as soon as we leave Milwaukee. The journey really is the reward, but that doesn't mean we didn't want to take our short cut. As per usual, we cut east on Highway 42 through Manitowoc, bypassing Green Bay and shaving a lot of time from the ride up. Once we turned right onto the peninsula, the vacation was really on.
Location, location, location:
Over the years, we've camped at Peninsula State Park and stayed in an Egg Harbor Resort. We've slept in our car and in a motel on the outskirts of town. In 2012, we found ourselves at a great local hotel, but this year, we arrived at the perfect spot at the By-the-Bay Motel, 4123 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek. Right across the street from the beach, this has to be the primo spot in our favorite town in Door County.
While our room was quite small, it was clean and comfortable, and we experienced something new this year: we became friends with the owners, Mary and John Koehler. They took us under their wings, inviting us to the neighbors' for drinks on Friday night. We learned that customers come back, year after year, to this classic Door County property. It's very modestly-priced for up here: a room in the summer is only $120. Not the fanciest place, but certainly our favorite. I expect that The By-the-Bay will be the official OnMilwaukee.com Door County motel for years to come.
Wine and dine:
Door County is loaded with wineries, and we hit a pair on the way into town. We stopped at Door 44, 4020 Hwy. 42/57, Sturgeon Bay. It had a friendly vibe, and for $2, the winemaker offers a few small samples. But something here was amiss; they poured each sample into the same glass, and whites and reds quickly become rosés. I'm not a wine snob, but only one of these wines I would even marginally consider buying. Maybe it was the presentation, but for as nice of a facility, the product didn't seem up to snuff. Next year, we'll finally get to Stone's Throw and check that out.
Our next stop was at the Door County Distillery, 5806 Hwy. 42, Sturgeon Bay. This place I can get behind – who can argue with the peninsula's first vodka, gin and fruit-infused vodka still? It's cool to see the spirit-making facility, as well as to taste the products at this new business.
As for meals, this year we combined old favorites and places we hadn't visited before. I still love breakfast on the patio at Pelletier's, 4199 Main St., Fish Creek. It's actually inexpensive for up here, but looking at the bluffs of Fish Creek is the perfect serene setting for dining al fresco. Year in and year out, this is one of my favorite parts of the trip.
After several years away, we returned to the delicious wood-fired pizza of Wild Tomato, 4023 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek. The owner is a former cake baker from Milwaukee, and now she makes some amazing pizza. The "Wild Pi" (Chicken, grilled red pepper, caramelized onion, fennel, kalamata olives over pepperoni sauce and finished with Italico cheese) is superb.
This year, we finally made it to Mr. Helsinki, 4164 Main St., the wine bar atop the Fish Creek Market. I'd heard about the Thai-inspired and very spicy "Bang Bang Chicken," and it lived up to its expectations. Eron tried the burger with Thai chili powder, and it packed quite a bang of its own.
In between of all of this, we made time for an afternoon pick-me-up at the quaint Leroy's Water Street Coffee in Ephraim, and cold treats at the Door County Ice Cream Factory, 11051 Hwy. 42, Sister Bay.
And lest I forget, we grabbed a few mouth-watering pieces of pie (I opted for peach-raspberry) at Sweetie Pies in the Settlement Shops north of Egg Harbor. This is guaranteed to become a new Door County tradition. Can you tell we left the peninsula a few pounds heavier?
Continuing along our theme of exploring Door County like "other" people do, we visited a few of the more notable galleries in the area, and it was a welcomed addition to this vacation. I very much enjoyed the range of fine art and sculpture at Edgewood Gallery, 4140 Peninsula Players Rd. Housed in a restored fruit barn, this respected gallery has been selling a wide range of media since 1969. Whether strolling the outdoor statue garden or browsing through the barn, this is the kind of place you can spend $400 or $40,000. We mostly just looked and admired.
We also visited Emmett Johns Gallery at the Settlement Shops south of Fish Creek. This down-to-earth artist floats between three bodies of work: abstract/contemporary, portrait/figurative and landscapes, and we spent some time talking to him about his projects. It's hard to pick a favorite genre, because he does them all so well. Totally worth a visit to his tranquil studio.
We've learned that the trick to doing nightlife right in Door County is not to spread yourself to thinly. Remember that bars are very far apart, so it's important to pick your spots and plan ahead. Be safe.
This year, we stuck to the three places that have treated us right. By day, we visited Fred & Fuzzy's, 10620 W Little Sister Rd., the secluded beach bar nestled in Sister Bay. The view is amazing, and it feels a little like a Corona commercial.
For happy hour, we commiserated with the locals, each glued to his regular stool, at A.C. Tap on Highway 57 in Bailey's Harbor. Nothing fancy here (except the guy who drove up in the Aston Martin DB7), and that's just perfect.
By night, we hunkered down at the Bayside Tavern, just blocks away from our motel in Fish Creek. As usual, this awesome bar only gets better the longer you stay. We were treated to the sounds of Little Marsh Overflow, rocking out a packed, sweaty reunion show that kept everyone dancing until bar time. I love, love, love this place.
Though it seems we spent the whole weekend running around, we did take plenty of time to slow down. For us, that's throwing around the baseball on the field at Gibraltar High School, T-shirt shopping and browsing wherever the mood took us, and just ambling around the beach between our many, many meals.
Door County can be a high-energy vacation, especially if you get on the water. But for us, as we get older, and time gets sparser, it's nicer to slow the pace down a bit and appreciate the natural and man-made beauty.
I always say that Door County is the "other" Up North, because it's simply so refined, yet still easy-going. And I now know why people focus on the art, the wine and the great food, since this a vacation that works equally well for campers, families, foodies and everyone in between.
Maybe Eron and I are the everyone in between. Even after 20 summer visits, this beautiful peninsula continues to show me something new, while allowing me to cherish the traditions we've taken years to build.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.