The prestige and charm of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula hinges on snow and tinsel-laden locales like the Tannenbaum Holiday Shop, an old church turned retail mecca with original stained-glass windows still intact. It’s a serene region, which long has been a respite for city travelers from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and Minneapolis/Saint Paul. It’s also a nature lovers’ paradise and social distancing safe haven.
“What we’re seeing in the Midwest is that more rural destinations with a lot of outdoor activities are faring better than places that are more indoor oriented,” says Jon Jarosh, director of communications and public relations at the Door County Visitor Bureau. “So, in a sense, as far as the pandemic, you might say that we’ve been preparing for it for over a century.”
Bucolic, sprawling, and hospitable—and a favorite getaway for many Midwesterners who also own homes in Naples—Door County boasts 300 miles of shoreline, five state parks, and 19 county parks. Attractions along the 70-mile-long peninsula between Lake Michigan and Green Bay range from the traditional (like the fish boils at the White Gull Inn and the Christmas smorgasbord at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik) to the contemporary (think shadow-box art at Plum Bottom Gallery and zip line tours at the Door County Adventure Center).
“We expect all of our businesses to be open for the winter season, which traditionally has had more limited hours because the crowds are much less than during the summer,” Jarosh says.
This is good news for those who like to plunge into a packed schedule of shopping, dining, and sightseeing, starting with a stop at Renard’s Cheese, where the unfamiliar can sample their first cheese curd and learn why connoisseurs value “squeak.” Family-owned and -operated, like most businesses in the region, Renard’s produces about 3 million pounds of cheese a year at its two locations. “We’re not just selling cheese here,” says Franca Bueno, director of sales and public relations at Renard’s, which opened in 1961. “We’re teaching people about our county—and about the soil, water, and environment, which all play a role in the milk and other parts of the process. We take cheese very seriously.”
Door County, which began as a Scandinavian settlement in the mid-1800s, also takes wine and spirits very seriously, with vineyards and breweries throughout the peninsula. Door 44 Winery selections range from a dry-blend Marquette Reserve to semi-sweet Frozen Tundra White. Owner Steve Johnson, who opened Door 44 with his wife in 2005—both attorneys seeking second careers—insist that guests sample the Bubbler, a “uniquely Wisconsin” fruity sparkling wine. Door County Distillery, meanwhile, the area’s first distillery since Prohibition, has been whipping up small-batch spirits from local ingredients for a decade. The region is nicknamed “Cherryland, U.S.A.” Nearly 14 million pounds of the fruit are produced annually, and the distillery takes full advantage, offering cherry-infused vodka, brandy, bitters, and moonshine (100 proof, no less).
Teetotalers needn’t fret because there’s plenty to sip at the Door County Coffee & Tea Company, which offers a “coffee college” course for serious imbibers and pays homage to the peninsula’s penchant for cherries and holiday cheer. The rich aromas—and leave-your-diet-behind breakfast options—are reason enough for a visit, even though this local favorite does a robust online business. Festive flavors include the cinnamon-and-spice blend Door County Christmas; Spicy Nutcracker, with a hint of rum; and Mistletoe Mocha, made with dark chocolate. There’s also a year-round staple: First Pot on Us!, a peanut-butter crunch concoction.
A mitten-warming mug by the fire is the ideal way to punctuate a day of snowshoeing, snowmobiling, sledding, or hiking, and well-groomed trails are plentiful. In fact, the region has more state parks (five) than any county in the United States. “With all of our outdoor recreational opportunities and parks, people feel safer coming here compared to other types of vacations,” Jarosh says, noting that Door County is just a gas tank away from several large cities. “Instead of a two-week trip to Europe, for example, people are opting for long weekends and romantic getaways, and we’re expecting that trend to continue in the winter. If we have snow, that’s great. If we don’t have snow, that’s also great. There’s still plenty to do.”
Case in point: The Door County Maritime Museum, which features several floors of interactive exhibits and offers a guided tour of a 149-foot restored Great Lakes tugboat. The 50-year-old museum takes guests through more than a century of fishing, boatbuilding, shipwrecks, and more, going back to 1848, when storm-weary ship captain Justice Bailey sought shelter in a natural harbor that now bears his name. Door County, by the way, is named for the straits between the mainland and Washington Island, known as Death’s Door, a translation from the French voyageur term La Porte des Morts.
These days, however, the name is more literal, as city dwellers seeking space clamor for acreage and, well, more doors in bigger homes. “The demand has been huge,” says real estate broker Diane Taillon, owner of Arbor Crowne Properties, located in the lobby of the venerable Hillside Waterfront Hotel. Built in 1890 and formerly known as the Hillside Inn, the elegant bed-and-breakfast in the town of Ephraim is on the National Register of Historic Places and overlooks Eagle Harbor.
“The calls started coming from people who owned vacation homes here, especially people from Chicago and Minneapolis who were thinking about moving to Door County on a more permanent basis,” she says. “But the interest has come from all over the country, and buyers have had to purchase quickly. Multiple offers are common, and our inventory is rock bottom.”
In addition to the Hillside Inn, the hotel options in Door County are diverse, ranging from bed-and-breakfasts, to log cabins, to cottages, resorts, and condos. “Lodging may be different this winter because some places may only be renting half of their rooms to allow more space for guests,” notes Jarosh. “But the plus side is that people can come here to take a deep breath and get charged back up.”
Taillon, who was a real estate agent in Naples in the early 2000s and remains a founding member of the spa at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, bought the five-suite Hillside in 2016. “Another interesting thing that started last spring besides the [increased demand for] real estate has been a change in our guests. Typically, people who stay at the inn are a little older. But we saw a huge increase in younger couples, especially as international trips got canceled.” Another tourist trend Taillon observes: weddings gone mild. “We’ve had so many micro weddings, which we limit to about 25 guests. People wanted to social distance, and they weren’t interested in big hotels. There was, and still is, a fascination for something that’s more intimate and special.”
From the artfully presented organic fare at Trixie’s to the caramel-corn fun (and, of course, chocolate-covered cherries) at Door County Candy, the peninsula exudes contrast. It also offers peace and stillness for those who’d rather pause in a pew at Bjorklunden’s Boyton Chapel or revel in 1,600 acres of solitude at Ridges Sanctuary, Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit nature preserve.
As travel and lifestyle needs change, the region’s roots in Midwestern hospitality continue to serve it well. “People are very respectful of others and their personal space here,” says Taillon, whose Hillside Waterfront Hotel boasts the largest porch in Door County. “There’s plenty of social distancing to be had on the porch and upstairs on the balcony, too, but then again, there always was.”