Scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and culinary experiences await groups exploring the Midwest’s most popular peninsula
A tantalizing variety of options. That’s what group organizers discover when they want to combine outdoor and water sports, camping and hiking, and other recreational activities with scenic locations, beautiful sunsets, friendly people and anything cherry-related.
Door County, Wisconsin is the 70-mile-long finger of land surrounded by the open expanse of Lake Michigan to the east and protected waters of Green Bay on the west. Its small, charming bayside and lakeside villages, wooded lands, lakes and rivers, combined with ideal water-cooled summertime temperatures, are a magnet for groups looking to explore nature and discover unexpected cultural venues.
With 300 miles of shoreline, 11 historic lighthouses and more state parks than any other county in the United States, Door County is known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” It also is known for its specialty foods and its tart Montmorency cherries. The county ranks fifth in the nation in cherry production.
Jon Jarosh, Door County Visitor Bureau director of communications and public relations, says, “Groups can expect lots of activity options, from things like biking or guided kayak excursions to scenic boat tours. Add to that our traditional and famous Door County fish boil dinner, which is perfect for groups, and you’ve already got a great start on your itinerary.”
Begin your journey up the inviting peninsula at family-owned Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay, the county’s oldest cheese store. Here your group can stop for a casual lunch or snack. Howard Renard, founder, started making cheese at age 14, and now his family operates several outlets on the peninsula where you can taste what Wisconsin makes best: cheese curds, baked cheese, brick cheese, dessert cheese, Italian-style cheese (16 types), specialty cheeses and 13 types of cheese spreads.
As you get close to Carlsville, you can enjoy a gourmet, made-to-order breakfast made from scratch at Vicki Wilson’s roadside Door County Coffee and Tea Company. This well-established spot is the county’s premier small-batch coffee roaster, offering unique coffee flavors such as Cherry Creme, Raspberry Butter Crunch and Caramel Pecan Scones.
Try The Trolley
To become acquainted with Door County, your group can hop aboard one of the many trolley tours offered by Door County Trolley in Egg Harbor. Choose from a wine tour or wine/spirits/beer tour, narrated scenic tour, lighthouse tour, ghost tour and a Wisconsin supper club tour. The colorful red trolleys, which operate year-round and are heated, are available for private charters, weddings, family reunions and bachelorette parties.
Egg Harbor’s Glacier Ledge and Door Artisan Cheese Co., owned and operated by personable Mike Brennenstuhl, offers group tours of its new facility and underground cheese caves. TripAdvisor rates the cheese factory, store and restaurant very good to excellent. “We are all about shareable plates,” says Brennenstuhl as he enjoys a noon meal of hanger steak with smoked tomato butter and crispy potatoes with two friends. The restaurant’s spacious, upscale Glacier Bar serves wines, craft beers and cocktails.
Housed in a fanciful wood-framed building in the heart of Egg Harbor, family-owned MacReady Artisan Bread Co. features hand-crafted artisan breads using local grains from Meuer Farms, which itself grows quality grains without chemicals. MacReady offers a popular cranberry chicken salad sandwich, plus the typical ham, smoked turkey, egg salad and salami sandwiches, the Macready House Salad, freshly-made soups, and enticing pastries. Cookies, cherry scones, cinnamon raisin bread and more—all made in small batches and made fresh daily—entice groups to end up here for breakfast or lunch. MacReady selections change daily, and customer reviews always offer high ratings for their offerings.
At Edge of Park Bike and Moped Rentals, positioned at the Fish Creek entrance to Peninsula State Park, your group can explore scenic, enjoy a picnic in a forest and have the opportunity for great photography and nature study. Each bike rental includes a helmet, lock, backpack and map, and parking is available in the company parking lot. No park fees are required to bike into the park. Reservations can be made for groups of 12 or more. The company rents Fat Tire bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, road bikes and two-person tandems. Mopeds are available for hourly, half-day and full-day rental. Owner Rachel Stollenwerk can arrange for your group’s needs in advance so you’ll be ready to go when you arrive.
Door County’s wide array of natural bird habitats can be found along 300 miles of shoreline and in five state parks, 19 county parks, two nature sanctuaries and 14 Land Trust locations. Secluded forests, sweeping meadows, and thousands of trees and bushes are home to some 300 species of birds, or one-third of the native North American bird population. Check out the Open Door Bird Sanctuary and the week-long bird classes focusing on field trips at opendoorbirdsanctuary.org
At Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor, you can take a guided or independent tour through a 1,600-acre biologically diverse ecosystem that highlights wildlife habitats and scenic landmarks. Walking along the sanctuary trails, some over boardwalks, you’ll be stepping atop ridges built by Lake Michigan’s receding shoreline and over swales between the ridges. The trails, where you can see numerous native flowering plants, are open daily dawn to dusk. There are discovery activity stations and a discovery library at the sanctuary.
If fishing is what your group is geared for, you’ll find numerous fishing charter boats available from companies like First Choice Charters in Bailey’s Harbor. The firm can accept up to six people on a charter run of three, five or eight hours. Groups like to fish for brown trout, walleye, perch, whitefish, steelheads and salmon. The open season for lake trout in the county is March 1 to October 31. Ice fishing is becoming more popular, and you can hire a charter service to help you with this.
There are 14 nature preserves, 28 miles of trails and 8,000 protected acres in Door County for hiking. The Door County Land Trust cares for the land and helps to showcase the natural diversity of the county. The preserves are free and open to the public for hiking, skiing, photography, nature study and low-impact recreational activities. The trust’s lands are also located on nearby Washington Island. For more information, go to doorcountylandtrust.org.
New Northern Sky Theater
Groups will enjoy a theater production in Peninsula State Park at the new Northern Sky Theater, which produces excellent plays, and is now housed in its own 248-seat venue. Northern Sky Theater had its beginnings in 1970 when a small troupe of college students began performing folk revues for an audience of mostly campers in the state park. A group of artists with Wisconsin roots has transformed the company into a regionally acclaimed theater that has presented more than 50 world premieres. Each year 40,000 people attend these energizing theater productions.
Peninsula State Park itself is 110 years old and is highly rated for all sorts of group activities such as camping, hiking, biking and bird-watching. Eagle Trail offers close-up views of the Niagara Escarpment. The White Cedar Nature Trail is a half-mile loop near the Nature Center. The park has a total of 20 miles of hiking trails. For birders, Weborg Point is a major migration stopover for warblers in mid-May. The park’s eight-mile shore often yields views of bufflehead ducks, mergansers and bald eagles.
Pick up a copy of the Door County Wine Trail map, which will lead your group to as many as eight wineries between Sturgeon Bay and Fish Creek. Nestled between Lake Michigan and the bay of Green Bay, these wineries are known for their fruit wines, especially cherry and apple. There is a Wine Festival in June each year in the county.
Golfing is a popular activity at a number of locations in Door County. At Peninsula State Park Golf Course, for instance, your group can play on an 18-hole (par 71) course with fairways that wind through forests of oak, beech, pine and maple trees, with the back nine being very scenic. Spectacular views of Eagle Harbor and the village of Ephraim can be seen as golfers traverse this natural setting. Another popular course is located at the Landmark Resort in Fish Creek. The inviting Landmark Resort caters to small and large groups and features 10 meeting rooms, one of which is able to accommodate 230 guests.
The Landmark has 294 one-, two- and three-bedroom suites with kitchens in four buildings. The largest resort in Door County, it has won awards for its service and ambience. The resort features a fitness room, outdoor tennis courts, shuffleboard, basketball and volleyball courts, and indoor and outdoor pools. The on-site Carrington Pub and Grill has a spectacular view of the water and offers a wide range of starters, soups and salads, sandwiches, burgers, paninis and main entrees such as walleye, ribs and steaks.
Lautenbach’s Cherry Haven
At Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market, your group can sip dry or sweet cherry wine, sample cherry-favored chutney, cherry-flavored honey mustard, chocolate-covered cherries, dried cherries and even cherry horseradish spread. Owner Bob Lautenbach enjoys running his 100-acre farm, which features cherry trees and lush vineyards in season. Lautenbach says his farm produces other fruits besides cherries such as apples, grapes, raspberries and pears, and the farm even sponsors a cherry pit spitting contest. The farm can accommodate groups, and a typical year’s attendance at the farm is 150,000 visitors.
Groups love the peninsula’s #1 food/entertainment option, the fish boil, a Door County tradition. Locally-caught whitefish and potatoes are boiled in a kettle over a hot fire in an outdoor community-style manner. A number of locations sponsor these, but at Rowley’s Bay Restaurant, a vintage 100-acre waterfront resort on the Lake Michigan side of the bay, guests are entertained prior to eating by storyteller Don Payne as he weaves captivating tales of local history. A large buffet is set out for supper guests, with whitefish as the main entree and cherry pastry for dessert.
Rowley’s Bay Resort owner Jewel Peterson Ouradnik says groups there can participant in canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, nature hikes, birdwatching and zip lining. The property’s rustic granary is now an enclosed pavilion used for private parties and group functions. The resort also features a banquet hall, meeting rooms, a game room and fitness room.
The Wild Tomato is a wood-fired pizza and grille restaurant in Fish Creek that uses sustainable products and offers a wide variety of pizzas. Harbor Fish Market and Grille in Bailey’s Harbor offers guests an excellent view of Lake Michigan and serves New England-style seafood. A good choice for dinner or breakfast in Sister Bay is Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, which often features goats on its grass-covered roof. Waitresses in colorful dresses serve Swedish pancakes, Swedish roast beef hash, Swedish meatballs and more. Jaime Blossom, Al Johnson’s daughter, says they welcome large groups and have a special menu that makes group visits easy.
For more information about Door County, go to www.doorcounty.com.
Story and photos by Don Heimburger