FISH CREEK – In all the summers I've visited Door County (19 in a row, to be specific), I've never made it a family trip. It has always been more of a "guys' weekend" with one of my oldest friends, Eron.
Of course, a lot has changed in our lives since we were 20-year-olds sleeping in tents and running out of gas on the way home. Now that we both have children, we couldn't help but see our annual trip to our favorite peninsula as an opportunity: put together a child's dream vacation.
After all these years, I now realize that I have been taking the kind of trip that a child would adore.
This year, I set an agenda for our summer tradition, which began back in 1994 as a poorly planned camping trip: take a look at Door County through a kid's eyes; relive old memories and make new ones; and frame a vacation that would entertain an entire family.
Turns out, this scouting mission was one for which I've been gathering data for nearly two decades.
"Door County is a great place to bring a family because it's a participatory destination that promotes family togetherness," says the Visitor Bureau's Jon Jarosh. "Whether that's by building a sandcastle with your kids on the beach, going for a family bike ride, marveling at coastline caves on a family kayak tour or sitting around a campfire together making s'mores."
The great outdoors: You can take a perfectly nice Door County vacation without getting on the water, but it's also a missed opportunity if you don't. Some kids will appreciate a boat tour, but this year, we wanted to get wet, too, so we met up with Door County Adventure Tours at Egg Harbor Beach.
Kayaking on Lake Michigan can be as challenging or relaxing as you want it to be, and with tandem sea kayaks, even very young children can participate. Our guided tour was led by Sam Peterson, who took us from Whitefish Bay Beach on the other side of the peninsula, into Cave Point and back. Tours are $55 per person and can last for several hours.
"This job is a dream," says Peterson, who's in her second summer of leading kayak tours. "The majority of participants have tried kayaking once or maybe twice, so they're coming in looking for new knowledge: a safe, fun experience, and we get to do that. After their first 15 minutes, you see improvement and how they work together."
The tour guides don't skimp on the safety training and education, so you'll feel secure when you push off from the beach. While the caves aren't as grandiose as the ones I squeezed through in the Apostle Islands, they're plenty beautiful, and this part of Lake Michigan is calm and serene.
For a different view of the peninsula, Door County offers a few zip line opportunities. In 2010, we tried Door County Gravity Trails in Ellison Bay. It's not like soaring above an Amazon rainforest, but it's still exhilarating and suitable for the whole family, too. Similarly, consider an off-road Segway tour from Seaquist Segway if your kids are a little older.
This summer, Eron and I took a very difficult six-mile run through Peninsula State Park's Sunset Trail. That might be a little much for a family, but two years ago, we took a similar route with rented bikes, and that's a great way to see one of the state's prettiest parks and get the whole family some exercise.
Finally, if you want scenic – while someone else does the work – try the Grizzly Scenic Air Tours. At $160 for up to three people, you'll get a 30-minute arial tour of Door County. It's an experience no one in the family will forget and it's quite a bargain.
I scream, you scream: Believe it or not, the Door County Visitor Bureau promotes an official ice cream tour of Door County. It's really not that surprising, since ice cream is everywhere you look. Two of our favorite ice cream spots are the iconic Wilson's in Ephraim and the Door County Ice Cream Factory in Sister Bay.
There are more ice cream spots in the area than you could possibly hit, so research in advance where you'll have dessert – for every meal.
Fun and games: You're never too old to play miniature golf, right? Since our first trip, we've rarely skipped the mini golf course at Sister Bay's Pirate Cove or the neighboring Johnson's Park. The later includes batting cages and go-karts, too. A family-owned business since 1964, this is a must-see for families.
Nearby is Sister Bay Bowl, which is flanked with, you guessed it, numerous ice cream opportunities. You're also close to Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant – yup, the place with goats walking on the roof. Drive by and listen to the kids squeal with delight.
And, since it's vacation and the kids can stay up a little later, you have to catch a movie under the stars at The Skyway drive-in just northeast of Fish Creek. There aren't many drive-ins left, and I'm always amazed that this one is still going. Take advantage of it while you can.
A few good meals: The perception is that Door County is über expensive, but that's not always true. You can certainly go high-end in every respect, but you don't have to, either. When traveling with kids, fancy might not make sense.
For us, Fish Creek is the food epicenter on the peninsula. Pizza at the Bayside Tavern (during the day, of course), a fish boil at Pelletier's, dinner at Summertime or an amazing, transcendent cherry stuffed French toast breakfast at the historic White Gull Inn – none of these will break the bank. And, farther norther, the Carroll House, a classic diner and one of our favorite haunts, offers an amazing hash brown dish and sumptuous waffles, and is cheap – even by Milwaukee standards.
If you can sneak away for an adult dinner, I highly recommend Chop in Sister Bay. The steak was really good, and on a beautiful night, you can enjoy your meal al fresco on their wrap-around porch. We keep missing Mr. Helsinki in Fish Creek, but everyone we talked to said to try the Bang Bang chicken. Next year.
Home base: We've run the gamut over the years when it comes to accommodations. From years of sleeping in a tent at Peninsula State Park – which is cheap and wonderful (just book way ahead online); to the modest Parkwood Lodge; to the very nice Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor; by far, my favorite accommodations are where we stayed this year.
The Cedar Court Inn in downtown Fish Creek is both centrally-located and super-quaint. The rooms are clean and lovely, with a casual and friendly vibe. Sitting on the porch, chatting with neighbors and watching the bucolic scene unfold as the sun sets, this place felt perfect. Our room included a king size bed and a big fold-out couch. Perfect for small families. We'll be back for sure.
Sunday drive: The days of the leisurely drive may be in the rear-view mirror, but a drive to the end of the peninsula is a must. No matter where you're staying, it's not too far to drive as far north on Hwy 42 as you can, and the trip gets prettier the farther you go. When you get to the less touristy areas, you can visit gorgeous overlooks like Elison Bay State Natural Area or stop at the smaller galleries and shops along the way.
Eventually, you'll hit the crazy-winding roads of Gil's Rock, where you'll stop at the tip. Here, you can watch the ferry to Washington Island come and go – or perhaps continue on to Washington or Rock Island, though that's a story for another summer – or just skip rocks at the beach. On your way back, you can grab a burger at the AC Tap and take Hwy 57 south for a different, less touristy view of the peninsula. (Don't forget the "Scorpa" at the Town Hall Bakery in Jacksonport!)
Sunsets up here, of course, are amazing. The best one I've ever seen anywhere – literally – is the view from Fred and Fuzzy's Waterfront Bar and Grille in Little Sister Bay (see the photo above). It's tucked away and easy to miss, but once you find it, you feel like you've stumbled upon a local treasure that not everyone gets to see.
When it's all said and done, your biggest challenge when planning a family trip to Door County will not be "What's there to do?" but rather, "What should we do this time?"
Each part of the peninsula has its own character: the southern part, including Sturgeon Bay, is all many people think of when they make the trip. For these visitors, I say, "Grab some fudge and keep going."
The central part of the bay side, including Egg Harbor and Fish Creek, is full of activities and great times, but also ample hustle and bustle on the weekends. If you want to slow it down, consider the northern part of the county, or the lake side, which has a more local feel.
Or, if your kids can handle some time in the car, experience it all.
Door County, for all its changes over the years, remains a magical place in Wisconsin. However you spend your time here, it's primed to build family memories that you'll never forget.
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.