A tourism brochure from the 1930s dubs Door County as a "land of sunshine, forests, fruit and water."
It's still an apt description for the northeastern Wisconsin peninsula that separates Lake Michigan from Green Bay, and it's still those natural features — in addition to quaint lakeside towns filled with ample shops and restaurants — that draw crowds of visitors in warm-weather months.
And while the peninsula traditionally has been a seasonal destination, more businesses are staying open year-round or opening their doors earlier in the spring, in part thanks to events including the Door County Half Marathon (this year May 7), which are drawing visitors in the quieter spring season.
"What's interesting is in the past five to 10 years we've started to slowly see an increase in the number of folks coming up in May," said Jon Jarosh, director of communications for the Door County Visitor Bureau.
In addition to offering a much quieter vibe than the summer, spring offers a chance to see one of the peninsula's most beautiful natural attractions, the billowing white and pink blossoms of thousands of cherry and apple trees.
Once the nation's largest producer of cherries, Door County is still home to more than 2,500 acres of cherry orchards that put on a dazzling display every spring. The peninsula celebrates this beauty with its Season of Blossoms, an eight-week festival that includes a number of special events and deals on lodging.
I've traveled to Door County more times than I can count, but usually in the summer or fall, and occasionally in the winter. Each season brings its own flavor, but spring offers the chance to experience many of the things I love about the peninsula without fighting the crowds.
On a recent trip I was a bit early for the blossoms, but the snow had at least melted and the peninsula was showing its first signs of spring.
Since my plant knowledge is limited to knowing that I have a special talent for killing them, I brought along my green-thumb mother, who, bless her heart, patiently has told me a million times the crocuses in her yard are not, in fact, daffodils.
We made our way up Highway 42 and crossed the historic Sturgeon Bay Bridge to enter the door to the Door, Sturgeon Bay. Just east of the bridge bobbed the John Purves, a restored 1919 red tug boat, next to the Door County Maritime Museum. The boat is open for tours beginning April 30, and the museum will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Sturgeon Bay shipyards on May 7 — the only time of year the shipyards are open to the public.
We pulled into the town's historic downtown district along Third Avenue for dinner at the Inn at Cedar Crossing. Located in an 1884 brick building whose previous tenants included a tailor, an apothecary and an ice cream shop, the Inn is now a bed and breakfast with a bar and restaurant serving from-scratch creations using local ingredients.
Spinach-apple salads, wild mushroom ravioli and grilled chicken risotto warmed our stomachs for the rest of our journey along Highway 42 up Door County's western side.
We passed through Egg Harbor, Fish Creek and finally arrived in Ephraim, the quintessential Door County harbor town with picturesque whitewashed buildings and a marina filled with sailboats in the summer. Wisconsin's only dry town, bars are nonexistent, but the town is a good jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the peninsula.
Homebase for the weekend was the Eagle Harbor Inn. Ned and Natalie Neddersen opened the inn more than 20 years ago, and today the property features the charm and hospitality of a bed and breakfast with the amenities of a larger resort. The beautiful nine-room bed and breakfast is tucked into the woods off Ephraim's main drag and is surrounded by a scattering of separate buildings with one and two-bedroom suites and a commons building with a pool, sauna and meeting room.
Our room, Tillie, was in the main B&B building, which also houses the dining room and two living rooms — one with a wood-burning fireplace. Our cozy room featured a large and newly refurbished bathroom, and Wi-Fi throughout the building was a nice bonus.
We woke to a blanket of fog and shuffled into the dining room for fresh-brewed coffee and breakfast of egg frittata, coffee cake, yogurt, a selection of fresh fruit, and the inn's signature Door County cherry granola and cherry cider.
The homemade food matched the impeccable hospitality and was the perfect fuel for a full day of natural exploration.
Peninsula State Park, just south of Ephraim, is one of my favorite state parks, offering great biking and hiking trails and views of Green Bay.
Jarosh said the park's Eagle Trail is one of his favorite spots on the peninsula, with pockets of wildflowers offering a special spring treat. Trillium blankets spots along the trail, in addition to the federally threatened dwarf lake iris, common blue violet, dutchman's britches and arctic primrose.
Since we've done Peninsula enough times to know every turn and dip in the Sunset Trail, we decided to head north for a look at some of the county's less-visited parks.
This stretch of Highway 42 is part of the Door County Coastal Byway, which spans 66 miles along Highway 42 from Sturgeon Bay north to the Washington Island Ferry dock and back south along Highway 57 on the peninsula's eastern shore.
Jarosh said this is a great route for a spring drive: "Taking that route I think gives people a nice overview of the whole county in addition to blossoms, whether it be apple or cherries."
On the stretch north of Sister Bay we passed rows upon rows of apple and cherry trees, as eager for spring as we were.
And while the peak of the blossoms is very weather-dependent, "It's looking like probably the middle to latter part of May is when we're going to see them," Jarosh said. "Typically the blossoms will start in the southern part of the county first and tend to move northward."
We pulled off Highway 42 and followed a gravel road toward Ellison Bluff County Park, which features a short hiking trail and a wooden walkway and lookout providing stunning views of the white limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment and the shimmering blue waters of Green Bay.
A short jaunt north is the even less-developed Door Bluff Headlands County Park. The park does not have any developed trails, but visitors have forged their own path among the pines to catch more views of the cliffs. We had both parks entirely to ourselves — a nice change from the summer crowds at Peninsula.
We made our way back to Highway 42 and east across the peninsula to Newport State Park, Wisconsin's only formally designated wilderness park. The park protects 11 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan and features 30 miles of hiking trails and 16 hike-in campsites. A new visitor center opened in 2008 with nice facilities open year-round and a small nature center.
As the sun finally made an appearance, we set out on the Europe Bay Trail. Shedding a layer, we soaked in the fresh spring air and looped back to the parking lot along the Fern Trail. The trail features floating walkways that pass through a bog forest, and recent spring flooding made for some wet hiking.
Back at the parking lot we cautioned a family headed in the direction of the flooded trails. My hiking boots were enough to protect my feet, but my mom's tennis shoes only survived thanks to a couple of short piggy back rides I managed despite battling fits of laughter at the absurdity of giving my mother a piggy back ride.
A busy morning called for a more leisurely afternoon of exploring some of the shops and galleries in Ephraim. From the contemporary home decor of Blue Dolphin House to the realistic paintings of Door County in the expansive Water Street Gallery, shopping opportunities abound in the harbor town.
Dinner was on the peninsula's eastern shore at Harbor Fish Market and Grille in Baileys Harbor. While Door County's seafood claim to fame are its fish boils, Harbor Fish Market serves up a more New England-inspired menu, with a lobster boil as the main attraction on weekends.
The contemporary but comfortable dining room boasts great views of the harbor through expansive windows, with a patio providing additional lakeside seating when weather permits. My Whitefish Dewan was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and the service was delightful. The restaurant's chef, our server informed us, was a former pastry chef, so our dessert of flourless chocolate cake was the proverbial cherry on top of a great meal.
Following another superb breakfast the next morning, we said goodbye to the Eagle Harbor Inn and set off in search of wine.
Our first stop was Orchard Country Winery and Market, just off of Highway 42 south of Fish Creek. The Lautenbach family has been operating the orchard there since 1955, began selling products at a roadside market 20 years later and expanded to open a winery in 1985.
Today, the expansive property offers three daily tours of the orchards and production facilities from May through October, plus year-round tastings of its fruit and grape wines in a large combined tasting room and market.
Carrie Lautenbach-Viste operates the business with her father, Bob, and sister, Erin. Having grown up in the family business, she said she's seen a bit of a transformation in the peninsula's cherry and tourism industry over the past few decades.
"Door County obviously has been a tourist-driven economy for many, many years, and kind of got its start with the cherries. ... But it is changing — you don't see as many cherry orchards as you used to back in the '50s," she said, partially due to fact that it's simply more profitable for land to be used as a resort or attraction instead of an orchard.
"But we chose to continue on with the orchards and have that be an attraction because a lot of people from the city have never been to a cherry orchard or picked their own fruit," she said. "We have a lot of families that come back year after year. It's kind of a fun family tradition."
The peninsula's wine industry has also seen a transformation.
"The fruit wine industry has really taken off in the past couple of years, as well as the wine industry in Wisconsin. When we got our start, there were maybe five to 10 wineries in the state, and now there are over 80."
That includes eight in Door County, which are part of the Door County Wine Trail. The wineries will feature special events and tastings May 15-17 as part of Wine Trail Weekend.
After a quick coffee break at Door County Coffee & Tea Co. — which roasts beans onsite, visible through a window in the coffee shop — we opted to skip one of our favorite Door County wineries, Stone's Throw, in favor of trying a new one: Door Peninsula Winery.
The two large, barrel-shaped buildings on Highway 42 in Carlsville are home to a winery and distillery, as well as a restaurant serving lunch and dinner seasonally.
We bellied up to the tasting bar for free samples of a variety of grape wines. We skipped the spirits, but picked up a few bottles of reds and whites before beginning the journey back home.
Our two-day excursion felt more like four with the number of activities we packed in, and we didn't even get to everything we had hoped to. Even during the quiet season, the "land of sunshine, forests, fruit and water" delivered on all accounts.
IF YOU GO
■ Door County's Season of Blossoms celebration runs April 9-June 5. Apple and cherry blossoms usually peak in mid or late May, depending on the weather.
■ Rooms at Ephraim's Eagle Harbor Inn, 9914 Water St., start at $114 in the off season. Rates for rooms in the bed and breakfast include a full breakfast; breakfast is not included when staying in the suites, which feature kitchenettes. Call (800) 324-5427 or see eagleharborinn.com.
■ Many Door County businesses are seasonal, with limited hours in April and May. Be sure to check hours before heading out.
■ Ephraim is about three hours north of Milwaukee via I-43 and Highway 42.
Updated: April 1, 2016
- Day Out: After-hours tour provides glimpse into life aboard the Cobia (1)
- Day Out: Spring Green’s many charms keep visitors coming back (1)
- Day Out: Pizza in the pasture is a slice of heaven
- Best Summer Ever: Dive into both sides of the Dells on a summer getaway
- Best Summer Ever: Things to do on a Door County getaway
- Best Summer Ever: Make this summer your best one ever
- Best Summer Ever: Madison is an easy getaway for summer fun
- Day Out: Tour Racine County spots during open house event
- Stepping back in time at Forts Folle Avoine
- Day Out: Trolling the day away in Mount Horeb