By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Aug 18, 2010 at 1:02 PM Photography: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography

EGG HARBOR -- I've written many times about being a creature of habit. My group of friends likes tradition so much that for the past 16 years, one of my oldest pals and I have made a nearly identical trip to Door County.

While so much in life changes, so much stays the same. Really, it's not surprising that every summer since 1994, my friend Eron Laber and I spend a weekend in Fish Creek and points north. We vacation very much like we did when we were 20: camping, eating on the cheap and enjoying all things free on our favorite peninsula.

Amazingly, even though we could now swing it, we've never even stayed in a hotel, much less eaten anything that would resemble a fine meal in Door County over the years.

And that's fine, but when the Wisconsin Department of Tourism suggested a few new travel topics for OnMilwaukee.com, it got me thinking: maybe it's time to experience Door County like an adult.

A clean hotel with hot water, a few delicious meals and an itinerary full of activities really changed the way we experienced the area. In fact, this was the most relaxing and satisfying trip I've ever taken to Door County.

Setting a Home Base

Every year until now, Eron and I have camped at Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek, so we made the area our base for our shenanigans, heading occasionally north, but rarely south, for fun. This year, we stayed at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor, which meant we had to widen our area of operations -- which turned out to be a good decision.

The Landmark is quite nice, though it's not really a full-on resort in my traditional definition of the word. The rooms are suites; we had a two-story loft with a kitchen that overlooked the Green Bay. It was spacious, clean and quiet, decorated in a country / lodge-like aesthetic that wasn't fancy but was way more than adequate. For a family of four, the hotel would truly be perfect. For two guys just happy to have separate beds, it was a dream come true.

The 40-acre property boasts several swimming pools (including a 24-hour indoor pool, hot tub and steam room), as well as a restaurant, tennis courts, a fitness room, trails and more. The restaurant is quite reasonably-priced and good, and my cherry-glazed tenderloin was perhaps the most expensive entrée on the menu at only about $22.

The Landmark has a quiet, campus-y feel, and what it lacks in resort amenities like a spa, it makes up for with a location just off Highway 42 and provides tons of tranquility. I wouldn't hesitate for a second to come back again.

A Few Good Meals

If you've never been to Door County, or, if you think Door County starts and stops in Sturgeon Bay, you'll be surprised how refined the area is. Frankly, there's just a ton of money in the area -- a lot of it from Illinois -- so it doesn't feel especially rural or Northwoods, especially on the Bay side.

While you won't find a Starbucks or McDonald's north of Sturgeon Bay -- and that's awesome -- there is no shortage of places to spend your money on upscale shopping and art.

However, people actually live in Door County, and you won't necessarily feel priced out of good food. While you can eat very cheaply, like we did for all these years at amazing places like the Carroll House for breakfast in Sister Bay, you can also step it up several notches.

This year, we didn't go above what I'd consider "moderate," having dinner and breakfast at the hotel, but we ventured back to a sentimentally significant restaurant for dinner on Saturday night.

The Cookery in Fish Creek was the first place we stopped in '94, grabbing lunch while we waited out a torrential rainstorm before sloppily pitching our tent. Actually, The Cookery had fallen off our radar over the years, but having read OnMilwaukee.com dining critic Amy Schubert's recent review, we felt it was time to try it again.

Indeed, The Cookery was a new and better experience since its owners rebuilt the restaurant after a recent fire. We ate about as much as we could, but with appetizers, entrees and desserts, our bill still came in at just $60. I especially enjoyed my beef brisket over risotto, and The Cookery continues to impress with great service and understated décor. It's no wonder the restaurant has been around since 1977.

Of course, we couldn't throw tradition completely out the door, either, so we had lunch at the Bayside Tavern and ice cream at the Door County Ice Cream Factory in Sister Bay. As much as this peninsula continues to evolve, in many ways it's exactly the same.

Savoring the Great Outdoors

You have to understand that two 20-year-old bachelors vacation differently than two 36-year-old dads, but since tradition is the name of the game on this trip, a typical afternoon in Door County would involve Frisbee, batting cages, throwing the baseball around, bocce and badly playing our guitars. Total cost: about $2.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of trip, but continuing our adult theme, we mixed it up with a leisurely Friday of browsing Fish Creek's shops and a busy Saturday of planned adventures.

First, we rented bikes at the edge of Peninsula State Park and pedaled through the 9.1-mile Sunset Bike Trail loop. If you've never done it, this is a perfect bike ride, occasionally challenging, fairly level and totally scenic on a finely-groomed trail.

Halfway through, we paused at Nicolet Bay Beach and reflected on the last time we rented bikes, in '94 on Washington Island. That was the year we mistakenly took the ferry over on the incorrect advice that the little island didn't allow cars. Using our last pennies, we rented rusty old bikes and eventually had to get a lift to town when Eron's bike broke halfway back. Needless to say, this was a much better experience.

Next, we zigzagged to the northeast corner of the peninsula for 90 minutes on a zip-line course. I didn't know what to expect, frankly, but the crew at Door County Gravity Trails in Ellison Bay took good care of us.

After suiting up in harnesses and helmets, our group biked to the forest spot where we got a crash-course in the art of zip lining. The session included a little rock climbing and three zip lines, each in increasing speed and distance. I found myself upside down on the last line.

While we both imagined the course would be a bit more James Bond, actually, it felt just about right. I didn't know that zip lining was on my bucket list, but it's crossed off now. It's an exhilarating way to spend an afternoon.

Nightlife -- New and Old

It should come as no surprise to readers of OnMilwaukee.com that I love the Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek. With a cast of characters behind the bar, great food on the grill, quality live music most Saturdays and a different storyline that it sure to unfold each night, Eron and I weren't prepared to give up this tradition.

From that first under-aged year when the old "I left my I.D. in the tent" got me in the door, to now, the only difference is that staying in Egg Harbor is six miles away so we had to leave the bar earlier, in safe driving condition.

Still, we got our fill of the Bayside on Friday with bar stool conversation, and again on Saturday, with a great jam band that took over at about 10:30 p.m. The bar -- and the whole area, actually -- was as packed as I've seen it. Clearly, Door County's tourism scene is thriving once again.

We added a few new places into the mix, too. On Friday, we took the long walk up to the east end of Fish Creek to check out a mediocre reggae band at Sonny's Pizzeria & Grill. Turns out we didn't need to make that trek, since new this summer is the "Hop-N-Stop," a drunk bus of sorts, that carts patrons from bar to bar for $5 each way or $20 all night, which is nice, since any other public transportation is completely missing from the area.

Friday night also yielded a fun surprise, the kind of spontaneous event that can only happen on vacation. Eron is working on becoming a better guitar player and has even written a few songs. I'm a hack, at best, on guitar, and while I can play a few other instruments, I'm pretty rusty.

Still, when we hit up Mojo Rosa's on the way back to the hotel, we discovered it was open mic night, and the organizers graciously welcomed us up on stage.

I haven't performed on a stage since my brief stint in a grunge band in high school, so, in retrospect, I should have been nervous. But I wasn't, and Eron played his three songs while I backed him up on acoustic guitar and then bongos (sure, why not?).

Fortunately, the crowd was accepting, and we spent the next hour watching real musicians play good music. As we drove back from zip lining the next afternoon, we saw some of the same musicians playing a small outdoor show in a park in Bailey's Harbor, and we sat down in the grass, under the cloudless blue sky, to listen. It felt like time was grinding to a halt, and it was just perfect.

Musically inspired, Saturday night took a more goofy turn at the Bayside. Not only did we run into the staff from Gravity Trails (and thanked them for not letting us die), we randomly met up with an old coworker and good friend.

Perhaps it was the sense of accomplishment of a day filled with activity, or maybe we were just giddy enough to let down our guards, but we all skipped next door to the new Cooper's Corner for some karaoke.

Cooper's Corner is what used to be the C&C Supper Club, and I was astonished to find out that it changed hands and received a dramatic remodeling between last summer and this one. Still, this was one of the places we sneaked into back in '94, and there was one song that had to be sung.

This Door County tradition might stretch back a long time, but Eron and I have been friends since meeting at camp in 1985. That's 25 years ago, and while our wives are teasing us about celebrating our silver anniversary of friendship, we're sentimental like that.

Back them, when we were 11, one of us changed the words of the ridiculous Bryan Adams ballad to the "Summer of '85." And you'd better believe that we belted that one out Saturday night like nobody's business.

Making full use of that 24-hour hot tub at the hotel, Saturday was a late night, but it was worth it. We left Sunday tired but satisfied, hitting Fatzo's Subs in Sturgeon Bay on the way out of town. The trip home was a long one, but cutting through Kewaunee and Two Rivers on Highway 42 shaves off a surprising amount of time.

A Range of Luxury

I love many parts of our beautiful state, but for vacationing, northern Door County is by far my favorite. It's a perfect setting for so many types of trips, from family-friendly and back-to-nature, to a surprisingly thriving nightlife perfect for 20-somethings or "wish we were still 20-somethings" -- and everything in between.

In my case, it was a much-needed respite and a chance for two busy friends to slow down and reconnect and discover even more of this magical county.

It's a little hard to put my finger on it, but there's a welcoming and inclusive nature among the locals. If you're kind and considerate, you will be rewarded with a new home away from home. Our open-mic experience really reinforced this, but really, the feeling has really been through throughout our 17-year journey. Maybe that's why we keep coming back.

There's no more low-end of a way to experience Door County than how Eron and I did it for the first 16 years. In a way, I enjoyed sleeping on the ground, and my only regret is that the baseball glove only left the car's trunk once this summer.

Surely, you can go much more high-end than we did, too, though the published rate for two nights at the Landmark Resort is not insignificant at about $600. So, while we didn't go incredibly overboard, we did get a good taste of the good life in Door County.

And that good life is as sweet as a Door County cherry. Days later, I'm still relishing this trip.

Come to think of it, I don't plan on taking future trips to the peninsula any other way.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. 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.