Why do we travel?
Well, to take a break from our familiar routines, to immerse ourselves in new experiences, to partake in unique traditions that imprint upon our souls the memories of places unfamiliar to our comfortable everyday lives.
I kept trying to remind myself of this as our plane took off under perfectly blue 85 degree skies of our Florida home — and landed in a 55 degree autumn drizzle of the Wisconsin North Woods.
Were we nuts?
As we deplaned in Green Bay, the boarding area was full of Wisconsinites eagerly anticipating a vacation in the opposite direction – to the warmth and palm trees of the Sunshine State.
But as beautiful as the Florida coast is, there is no fall, no changing leaves, no crisp air, no candied apple French toast.
For that experience, you have to get on a plane and fly north.
One of the best destinations in America for a fall getaway is Door County in the far northeast corner of Wisconsin.
Door County is a 10 mile wide, 80 mile long sliver of a peninsula jutting into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.
Gather Around a Door County Fish Boil
One of the must-do experiences unique to Door County is the “fish boil”.
And there is no place better to participate in this century-old tradition than at the White Gull Inn in the tiny village of Fish Creek.
The fish boil is Door County’s version of a communal meal — kind of like a pig pickin’ in North Carolina, a crab feast in Maryland, or a Low Country boil in Georgia.
As early as an hour before official eating time, folks begin gathering around the roaring fire drinking local Wisconsin craft beer and wine.
It’s a chance to mingle with strangers, romantically gaze at your significant other in the flickering firelight, or just get your drink on and warm your toes on a cool fall night.
In the middle of the fire is a giant cauldron filled with salty water. Eventually potatoes and then locally caught whitefish go into the boiling water.
Our “Boil Master” at the White Gull Inn was a local fisherman who explained the history of the fish boil to the crowd. He said the tradition began with local Scandinavian fishermen as a community and family gathering to feed large groups.
It Doesn’t Get Any Fresher than This
The whitefish he was boiling tonight was caught by his cousin, he proudly told me.
The climax of the experience came when the boil master threw some kerosene onto the fire resulting in a giant fireball that lit up the night sky and sent the water gushing over the cauldron in a bubbling frenzy. The purpose of this is to literally boil over the fish oil that collects on the surface, leaving the water pure and salty.
Within moments the fish and potatoes were lifted out of the fire.
Everyone immediately went inside into the rustic dining room and lined up for plates of fish and potatoes. My wife and I stayed outside for a minute or two chatting with the boil master.
That was almost a tragic mistake.
Three minutes later, we walked into the dining room and everyone was already chowing down. The White Gull manager thought we were “no shows”.
No worries though. No one goes hungry at a Door County fish boil.
After getting our plates of food, we sat down to a table stocked with ramekins of melted butter (this is the dairy state after all) to pour over our fish and potatoes, as well as cole slaw and homemade sweet bread.
If you are a landlubber unfamiliar with the anatomy of fish, the waitress will kindly show you how to separate the delicate meat from the bones.
The whitefish was flaky, tender and succulent with just the right amount of salty seasoning. I gladly accepted seconds when the waitress offered me another hunk of fish.
When all had their fill of fish and potatoes, the waitress brought out slices of Door County cherry pie a la mode, made from the county’s most famous crop.
Get Rustic at the Historic White Gull Inn
A stay at the 120-year-old White Gull Inn is a bit of a splurge at $260 per night. The rooms aren’t exactly plush — more like rustic comfortable.
But you can’t beat the location in the heart of this quaint waterfront town.
We were able to walk to the local shops of Fish Creek and indulge in one of Wisconsin’s favorite pastimes — drinking — at the town’s only bar, Bay Side Tavern.
Indulge in America’s Best Breakfast
One of the best perks of splurging on a night at the White Gull Inn is it includes the best breakfast in America, according to Good Morning in America.
The problem with living in the internet age is that this nugget of information is only a YouTube click away from any yahoo with a data connection.
As a result, every morning hordes of tourists and locals alike descend upon the White Gull hoping to devour its world famous Cherry Cream Cheese Stuffed French Toast.
The good news?
White Gull guests get to cut to the front of the long line for immediate seating in the crowded dining room.
The cherry French toast more than lived up to the national TV billing – a decadent, calorie-packed vacation splurge of carbs, sugar and local Door County cherries.
The candied apple cinnamon pecan French toast was almost just as good.
Oh and don’t forget the breakfast appetizer of freshly baked cherry apple coffee cake so warm that it immediately melts your pat of Wisconsin butter.
And go ahead and get a side of bacon or sausage too.
You won’t be able to eat it all, I promise. But it’s all included in your room bill, so splurge away.
Explore the Coastline
After breakfast, take a drive up the Green Bay coastline through Peninsula State Park for a view of what Door County looked like before civilization turned it into a vacation paradise.
Stop at the 150-year-old Eagle Bluff Lighthouse for a bit of Door County history and million-dollar views.
Nearby Ephraim is a typically quaint Door County small town founded in 1853 by immigrant Norwegians and Bohemians of the Moravian faith, one of the earliest forms of Protestantism.
Stop by the Anderson dock and home built in the 1850s. The dock served as the town’s most convenient connection to the outside world. The home is now a gift shop selling local wares and knick-knacks.
Any Time is a Good Time for Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream
You can’t miss Wilson’s with its red and white striped awning. You may still be full from that cherry stuffed French toast, but you’ll still want to get a scoop of Wilson’s pumpkin pie ice cream and sit on the front porch looking out at the Eagle Harbor waterfront.
The Road to the Lighthouse will be Closed Today…
The only problem with an autumn visit to Door County is that you are at the mercy of the weather.
The day we planned to visit the picturesque Cana Island Lighthouse on the Lake Michigan side of the Peninsula, the causeway to the lighthouse had become a raging torrent of frothing currents and waves converging in a washing machine of crashing swirling Lake Michigan white caps.
Clearly it was a day better suited for indoor activities.
Fortunately nearby Bailey’s Harbor is home to the Door County Brewing Company and Hacienda Beer Company, a joint brewery serving craft beer from two of Wisconsin’s best craft breweries.
The highlight of the wild lake side of the peninsula is a visit to Cave Point where crashing Lake Michigan waves collide with the limestone cliffs under your feet, carving out beautiful coves and sea caves.
And the sun finally came out just in time for sunset at Whitefish Dunes State Park where 100-foot sand dunes tower over the wild waves of Lake Michigan.
If You’ve Never Seen the Northern Lights, This Might be Your Chance
As we drove back across the peninsula to the Green Bay side, a spectacular glow of light lit up the western sky in alternating pillars of yellow and blue.
Was that the famous Northern Lights which are often visible this time of year in northern Wisconsin? Or was it just the afterglow of a spectacular sunset?
Either way, I had never seen anything like it. Wow.
And that, my Proud American Travelers, is why we travel.