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A dozen or so of us stood or sat on benches in a semi-circle around a black simmering kettle with flames licking up its side from the stacked cordwood fire enclosing its base. A steaming, bubbling cauldron seemed quite appropriate for the cool mid-October evening. Several were in quiet, tentative conversations, many held cameras and all of us seemed to have an anticipatory demeanor.
Out of the darkness came a voice asking loudly, “Do you have your cameras ready?”
Our boil master, Jeremy, stepped forward with a coffee can in his hand and, bending at the waist, flung the contents of the can at the base of the fire. With a mighty whoosh, the cauldron was enveloped in an explosive fireball reaching heavenward. A wave of heated air rushed outwards briefly pushing the brisk autumn night away as exclamations of awe escaped from everyone.
Soon, Jeremy and his assistant, using a pole, raised a basket and its contents from the kettle. They walked towards the rear door of the Old Post Office restaurant in the picturesque village of Ephraim announcing, “Dinner is served”.
The Fish Boil is a Door County Culinary Tradition
The Door County Fish Boil is a show with dinner. This fiery tradition has its beginnings with the Scandinavian immigrants who settled on Wisconsin’s eastern peninsula. Seeking a way to feed dozens of lumberjacks or field hands economically, the creative chefs turn to the surrounding waters and its plentiful white fish. Throw in some potatoes and onions and you had a quick and tasty meal.
Today, tourists are enthralled by a large fire under a kettle of salted water. As the water comes to a boil, onions and red potatoes are added. Lastly, the fish steaks are dropped in. As the water comes back up to boil, the fish oils rise to the top of the kettle slicking over the water. At that point, with a dramatic flourish, the boil master casts kerosene onto the flames, creating the dramatic “boil over.” Whereby the fish oils spill over the side, dousing the flames. Throw in some sweet bread and a slice of cherry pie, another Door County staple, and voilà, dinner.
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The iconic fish boil is just the opening act of autumn’s perennial color spectacular in one of Wisconsin’s best-known destinations. We’ve been making the trek northward for over a decade autumn is when Door County comes into its own. Fall ushers in stunning foliage as the trees begin their splendid makeover. With warm days and cool nights, it is a wonderful time to get out and experience Door County.
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Sturgeon Bay is the county seat and the gateway to the decidedly rural peninsula with a small-town appeal. As we crossed on one of 3 drawbridges over the Sturgeon Bay Canal, we could see the rust-stained hulls of a pair of Great-lake “boats” docked in the canal. Long a shipbuilding hub of Lake Michigan, the city of roughly 10,000 still caters to the maritime needs of the Great Lakes.
Door County is flanked by two dramatic shorelines with Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. They are connected by the canal. On the day we arrived, October’s cantankerous weather decided to give everyone an early taste of the winter to come. 30-mile-an-hour winds provided for a 20-degree wind chill. White-caps raced across the lake before crashing onto shores framed by vivid forests.
The vibrant colors of the Door County forests were the very reason for us to venture north on this raw October day. We continued to our eventual destination, the Country House Resort which sits on a bluff overlooking Sister Bay. Set upon 27 acres of woods, the scenery is everything here. Our second-floor room with a balcony gave us a perfect view of the grounds and the waters of Sister Bay. A short, but steep trail takes you to the water’s edge and a nature trail that will eventually lead you to the village itself.
Apples, Donuts and Back Roads
In the morning, we stopped at Seaquist Orchards Farm Market, located at the north end of the village. Seaquist is one of several orchards husbanding over 800 acres of apple orchards throughout the county. Their market offers a variety of jams, sauces and spreads besides an assortment of apples and fresh baked goods.
If you’re going to brave a blustery day of leaf-peeping, it’s wise to have something to keep your energy up. A bag of Honeycrisp apples and a dozen of their apple cider donuts seemed a good start as we drove off.
At 18 miles wide at its widest point, it is impossible to get lost in Door County. The peninsula is surrounded by water. Drive in any direction and you eventually find your way to one of the two state highways that frame the region. Which makes for great spur-of-the-moment exploration. Turn onto one of the many county roadways and you never know what you may encounter.
Exploring Door County’s Parkside and Curvy Roads
Large and small, parks line both the Lake Michigan and Green Bay sides of the peninsula. We took one of those impromptu turns and encountered Ellison Bluff County Park. A narrow 2-lane road beneath a tunnel of yellow-and-gold-hued trees leads us to a wooden walkway that brings you to the edge of sheer, 100-foot limestone bluffs. It features a viewing platform that cantilevers off the bluff, providing unforgettable views.
From there we sought out the famous Curvy Weaving Twisty Road. At least, that’s what my wife calls it. This winding stretch of road is on Highway 42 halfway between Gills Rock and Northport. Located at the northern end of the peninsula as the road veers due east from Gills Rock towards the Washington Island Car Ferry. About 1.5 miles past Gills Rock, the winding road appears out of nowhere for no apparent reason. You will need to get out of the car and stand in the middle of the road to embrace its unique view. Be on the lookout for other cars, but it’s worth it.
Local Brewery and Winery
We ended the day’s adventures with a little reward from Sister Bay’s first microbrewery, Peach Barn Farmhouse and Brewery. Relaxing in the recently opened taproom near the warm pellet stove with a couple of their selections was a great way to wind down.
The following day, with a warm sun and much calmer breezes, we took a favorite drive to Cave Point County Park. The park is near Jacksonport, located on the Lake Michigan side of the county. Its’ 19 acres hug the edge of rocky crags that precariously jut out over the lake. Centuries of Lake Michigan storms have sent churning waves crashing into limestone bluffs, creating grottos and blowholes that can send torrents of water skyward like geysers.
From the park, we traveled to the small crossroads of Carlsville. Door Peninsula Winery and Door County Distillery share the same building. The distillery is the first in the area to produce vodka, gin and fruit-infused vodka distilled with the limestone-infused waters from the Door Peninsula.
The winery is the oldest in Door County and the largest wine producer in the state of Wisconsin. They source as much as possible from Wisconsin and make all 60 of their wines and ciders onsite. This time of the year, their Mummy Moscato, Witches Brew and Hallowine seemed particularly popular.
The Historic Lighthouses of Door County
As we crisscrossed the county past harvested fields and the vast palette of colorful forests, we found ourselves at the Cana Island Light House in Baily’s Harbor on the east side of the peninsula for a unique view of Lake Michigan. The lighthouse, built in 1869, is one of 11 historic lighthouses in Door County. Featuring an imposing 89-foot tower, this quintessential lighthouse looks the way most people think a lighthouse should.
The gleaming white tower rises high above the 1 ½ story yellow-brick keeper’s house and past the treetops on a sometimes island. A causeway connects Cana Island to the mainland. Visitors can usually walk to the lighthouse. However, when higher water levels make it more of a wade than a walk, a tractor-trailer combo is available for those who wish to stay dry.
The lighthouse had recently reopened after a 13-year, four-phase restoration plan and project to preserve and protect the 153-year-old structure. We climbed the 97 steps of the tight, cast-iron spiral staircase in order to step out onto the outdoor lookout deck at the top of the steel-clad brick tower overlooking Lake Michigan.
It was an exceptional view.
We experienced a beautiful, cool 3 days roaming the peninsula in which we enjoyed the harvests, the history and the magnificent bursts of crimson, russet, and gold foliage of an October in Door County.
If you go:
Door County Wisconsin is roughly 2 hours (154 Miles) via I-43 N from Milwaukee. Book your flight here.
- Door County
- Country House Resort
- Peach Barn Farmhouse and Brewery
- The Old Post Office
- Door Peninsula Winery
- Seaquist Orchard and Farm Market
- Cana Island Lighthouse
Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people who make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers and travel websites.