If you haven’t come across Door County, you’re not alone. On the map, it’s the narrow piece of land that stretches from the city of Green Bay into Lake Michigan on the east and Green Bay on the west. It boasts 300 miles of shoreline and a cluster of towns with unique names like Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, and Fish Creek, all closely linked to the water.
Despite its relative obscurity nationally, this Midwestern county is hailed as the Cape Cod of the region, complete with the backdrop of American flags, cherry specialties, and Adirondack chairs adorning parks that overlook the picturesque shoreline. After my initial visit in July 2012, I described it as “Americana at its best, decked out in red, white, and blue.” Although this introduction was years ago, I’ve always considered Door County a travel gem worth revisiting.
This destination enjoys seasonal popularity. While the permanent population is fewer than 30,000 residents, this number swells significantly from Memorial Day and continues to rise through Labor Day. During this three-month period, the Midwest revels in newfound freedom to enjoy all the activities postponed during the winter months. As a Southern Californian, I adapted my schedule to coincide with warm-weather-deprived tourists. This meant indulging in activities like kayaking in Sister Bay, climbing the 97 steps of Cana Island Lighthouse (yes, I counted), sailing on the Edith M. Becker tall ship, and exploring Whitefish Dunes with my feet in the sand.
The trip also included live entertainment, with events like the American Folklore Theatre (now known as Northern Sky Theater), which performed in a forested stage within Peninsula State Park. The Midsummer’s Music Festival showcased chamber music performed by world-class artists in a renovated barn during my visit, although the venue continues to change.
During that time, I couldn’t help but wonder about Door County in the off-season, when the crowds disperse, and the offerings become more authentically local.
Fast forward to a different year and a different season – December 2022. As someone who lives in a milder climate, I’ve learned that one of the most effective ways to embrace the holiday spirit is to venture into colder regions. So, when the opportunity arose to experience winter in Wisconsin, I dusted off my Ugg boots, donned a down parka, and prepared for a significant drop in temperature and a boost of Christmas spirit.
Door County’s Scandinavian heritage is evident throughout the peninsula, from the display of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Danish flags to the availability of red Dala horses and rosemåling folk art keepsakes. This time, with Christmas lights, ornaments, and decorations adorning the surroundings, the atmosphere was even more festive. The holiday season comes alive in Door County, with various celebrations, and the possibility of a snowy landscape.
Patterned after Europe’s famous Christmas markets, the Christkindlmarkt in Sister Bay is set to return in 2023, following its debut in 2021 and my visit in 2022. This event spans three consecutive weekends, starting on the Friday of Thanksgiving week. Featuring open-air stalls, it offers a wide range of items, from glass art and fur hats with one, two, or no pom-poms to Glühwein (hot mulled wine). The most sought-after photo opportunity is, without a doubt, the market’s namesake, Christkind, a princess-like figure with fair hair and a gold and white robe.
Tannenbaum Holiday Shop in Sister Bay, a Door County specialty store since 1978, further heightened my festive spirit with room after room of Christmas ornaments and decorations. They also carry year-round holiday-themed items and gifts for various occasions. What’s even better is that the store is open throughout the year.
While some restaurants and shops close with the changing seasons, you can always find the work of exceptional artisans like the Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery & Studio in Sturgeon Bay and the Plum Bottom Gallery in Fish Creek and Egg Harbor. Housed in a former gas station and auto repair shop, Popelka Trenchard’s setting may seem unassuming, but its decorative glass pieces, reminiscent of Chihuly’s work, reflect the age-old techniques of master glassblowers. Plum Bottom, named the “Best Gallery in Door County,” was originally founded in 2007 by husband-and-wife team Chad Luberger and Angela Olson Luberger, a resident jewelry artist. The gallery represents over 150 artists with national acclaim.
The Norwegian concept of Friluftsliv, pronounced free-loofts-liv and interpreted as “open-air living,” encourages daily connections with nature. In line with this philosophy, activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and even e-biking are popular in the winter months. However, for a less active experience, hiking through the Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor provides an opportunity to appreciate Wisconsin’s oldest nonprofit land trust, designated as a State Natural Area, an Audubon Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark. Guided by naturalist Bill Wolff, we traversed some of the sanctuary’s five miles of rustic trails, with the highlight being the Baileys Harbor Range Lights, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “This is not just a walk in the woods. I want you to know how special it is,” Wolff noted. The Ridge’s Natural Christmas event at Kaye Cabin became the center of festive cheer, featuring Christmas music, cookies, cider, and more.
In my experience, I would highly recommend hopping on a horse-drawn sleigh ride and singing ‘Jingle Bells’ to get into the holiday spirit. John Mayberry,