Wisconsin’s Not-So Secret Addresses – Door County Peninsula


door county

In Tranquil Door County, The Spa at Sacred Grounds, alongside many other healing nooks, offers a waterside haven for wellness seekers.

I can’t say that I’ve ever worn a welding helmet as part of a spa getaway before but here I am, leaning over a worktable at the Hands On Art Studio in Wisconsin working on what I hope will turn out to be a fabulous ornament for my garden!

This is Door County, where the ever-narrowing landmass of Door Peninsula extends quietly northward, embraced by the waters of Green Bay on the west and Lake Michigan on the east. It’s my first time in this part of the country, and I’m enchanted by the multitude of cherry trees and farmland sheltered within the fertile terrain stretching between the shores. While cherries are certainly the area’s major claim to agricultural fame, the land here also supports wine grapes and five thriving vineyards.


This morning at breakfast, my goal for the day had been to visit as many of the local galleries as possible. Door County is home to a number of artist’s colonies that date back to 1921, when members of the Art Institute of Chicago founded an art school in Bailey’s Harbor, and a later, 1934 establishment known as the Fish Creek Art Colony. After a few hours of admiring glasswork, jewelry, paintings, and sculpture in the nearby villages of Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor, I make my way to the Peninsula School of Art.


The school has a huge presence here, and hosts an annual Plein Air Festival each summer in Fish Creek that draws major artists from around the country. Just inside the entrance to the huge, teepee-like foyer, there’s a table stacked with pottery bowls that were part of the school’s most recent Empty Bowl initiative, during which students create hundreds of soup bowls that raise money to provide food for homeless shelters.

Inspired, I head for the Hands On Art Studio in Fish Creek, where I’ve signed up for the above-mentioned lesson in metal art. Looking out the car window at the sparkling water on the drive over, I’m reminded of a local legend that tells the tale of intrepid French explorer Jean Nicolet’s brief visits to these shores. Intent upon finding a passable ship route through the North American continent that would lead to Asia, he landed on this peninsula twice believing he’d found success when he mistook members of local Native American tribes for residents of Asia.

Poor Nicolet was wrong, of course, though he did wind up having a beach named in his honor. And, since his tour of The Door (as Door County is locally called), a host of other explorers have followed myself included. Door County has over 300 miles of coastline dotted with beautiful lighthouses, and in order to be near the water, I’ve booked lodgings in the tiny town of Ephraim at Eagle Harbor Inn, a collection of renovated period homes that comprise a cozy bed & breakfast-style complex on five acres facing the bay’s shore.


My tranquil suite has a fireplace, an enormous whirlpool tub, sitting room, and a small kitchen area complete with stove and mini-fridge. Next door, in the building called The Commons, there’s an indoor current pool, and a fully equipped fitness center. The property is known for their freshly baked cherry pies and other fruit products, which they showcase during a morning delivery of a breakfast basket that contains, among other treats, a bottle of cherry cider.

Later, my welding lesson completed, I head back to Ephraim, and directly for The Spa at Sacred Grounds. Like my cozy inn lodgings, the spa is also in a charming period building, and also faces the winding shoreline of Green Bay. Here, owner Diane Ludwigsen has created a serene space that reflects her philosophy of mindfulness and whole-person harmony. The lobby is all Zen and wood and calm, with a waiting area by a fireplace.


I’ve chosen one of the spa’s specialty therapies, the Door County Hot Stone Massage. The smooth, rounded stones were hand-chosen by the spa’s therapists, selected from among the layers of rocks that make up the shoreline. For over an hour, my therapist uses the heated stones and a light, unscented oil to work out the knots and bumps in my upper back and shoulders, which I’ve tried to explain (to no avail) are the result of an afternoon spent bending over a welding table.


In the morning, I head to Door County Coffee & Tea Company for breakfast. Though I’m having tea, I still enjoy the rich scent of coffee beans wafting from the onsite roasting facility. Roastmaster Lou Ann Deprez gives me a tour of the roasting operation, explaining that when buying coffee beans, you should always look for beans that are still a bit oily. This, she says, means they’re fresh dry beans are old beans, and have already lost a good percentage of their flavor. She advises that when buying whole beans, an oily residue on the lip of the dispensing container is a good sign of freshness.

I store away that bit of useful shopping information as I make the short drive to the shore of Lake Michigan, where I while away a few hours exploring the exhibits at the Door County Maritime Museum on Sturgeon Bay. My dad was in the Coast Guard, and my fascination with lighthouses, ships, and everything related has only grown more intense during the years I’ve spent living inland in Colorado. There’s an excellent exhibit that details the lives of the light keepers and their families who spent years protecting the ships that made their way through the often treacherous waters of the Great Lakes.

There’s time for another spa visit before dinner, and I sample the Spa at Sacred Grounds’ Thai Herbal Compress Massage. A mix of healing herbs, wrapped in linen pouches, are steamed and then applied with a bit of pressure to my muscles. It’s a relaxing blend of aromatherapy, massage, heat therapy, and medicinal herbal treatment all rolled into one, and is deeply relaxing.


So relaxing that I nearly skip dinner and head back to the inn but tonight’s meal features a local tradition called a fish boil, and I know I’ll never sleep if I don’t find out what it’s all about. At the White Gull Inn, I’m escorted to a table and told by my server that I should head out to the back patio, where the restaurant’s cook is preparing whitefish from Lake Michigan in the same way that Scandinavian settlers to this area prepared it a hundred years ago. It turns out there’s an entire ritual devoted to a fish boil.


First, the cook places a basket of potatoes into the boiling water of a large, cast-iron pot-like container that’s been set atop an open fire. Next, the fish freshly caught earlier in the day, and cut into chunks is added to the water, also contained in a wire basket. He adds salt, stokes the fire, and as the fish oils are released, it creates a rapid boil that spills over the edges and signals that everything is cooked. It’s taken inside and served on a buffet with the potatoes and salad. It’s all very dramatic, and I suspect that the fish probably tastes that much better for all the theater that’s involved in its preparation.

Before leaving the next day, I fit in a visit to Orchard Country Winery, and take a horse and carriage ride through the apple and cherry tree orchards before a tasting of the winery’s many fruit-themed wines. These range from Honey Crisp Apple and Pear, to Swedish Lingonberry and Natural Dry Cherry. The girl serving me tells me that Door County’s 2,000 acres of cherry orchards make it one of the country’s top cherry producing regions. Obligingly, I leave with a cherry jam, cherry preserves, and a fruit salsa that contains, of course, cherries.


Oh in case you’re wondering about that lesson in metal art, I have to confess that wielding a welder turned out to be far more difficult than I’d imagined it would be, though it was also enormous fun. I began my session determined to create a marvelous metal sculpture involving bells and wind chimes to hang in my garden, but I suspect that the end result is something that I’ll probably have to explain to everyone who sees it. Perhaps I should just try to distract all future guests to my garden by offering them something delicious to eat. Something, I think, that’s covered with cherries.

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Debra Bokur

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