Visiting Fish Creek in Wisconsin’s Door County

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek.

Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in
Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek. Photo © Jim Bauer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives.

Map of Wisconsin's Door County

Door County

This graceful community offers visitors the anticipated coffee-table pictorials. It may be the soul of the county, but it’s also just another Door County village, with a population of 200. The most picturesque view in the county is along Highway 42 as it winds into the village from a casual bluff. The official village history describes the town’s situation succinctly—“with its back to a rock and its face to the sea.” A treasured stretch of road with a few hairpin turns, a roller-coaster drop, and suddenly you’re in a trim and tidy Victorian hamlet that could have come from a Currier and Ives print. Fish Creek boasts the most thoroughly maintained pre-20th-century architecture on the peninsula, with about 40 historic structures.

In 1844, trader Increase Claflin, the first nonnative permanent settler in Door County, left Sturgeon Bay after a few less-than-propitious incidents with the Potawatomi people and wound up here. About the same time, an Eastern cooper afflicted with terminal wanderlust, Asa Thorp, made his way to Door County, searching for his fortune. With his two brothers, Thorp constructed a loading pier and began a cordwood cutting business to supply the steamships plying the coast. Later, Fish Creek transformed itself into the hub of commercial fishing on the Door Peninsula. Fortuitously, growing tourism took up the slack when the steamship supply business petered out. By the late 1890s locals were already putting out “Tourist Home” signs. Within a decade, even the home of Asa Thorp had been transformed into the Thorp Hotel.

Sights and Activities in Fish Creek

Most visitors to Fish Creek simply stroll around to see the 19th-century architecture. The harbor area has remnants of the earliest cabins, and the remains of an 1855 cabin built by the founding Thorp brothers stands on the grounds of the modern Founders Square mélange of shops and restaurants in the village center; after a fire, they were rebuilt as closely as possible to the original designs. Another landmark structure is the notoriously haunted 1875 Greek Revival Noble House (Hwy. 42 and Main St., 920/868-2091, noon-5pm Fri.-Sat. mid-May-mid-June, noon-5pm Tues.-Sun. mid-June-Labor Day, $3). The Gibraltar Historical Association (920/868-2091) provides historic walking tours.

The country’s oldest summer theater, the Peninsula Players (in Peninsula State Park, Peninsula Players Rd., off Hwy. 42 north of Fish Creek, 920/868-3287) perform a Broadway plays and musicals in a gorgeous garden setting with bayside trails late June-mid-October, a tradition in its seventh decade. Reservations are advised. Relatively recent renovations to the theater include heated floors.

Less than half as old but with boatloads of attitude, the tongue-in-cheek American Folklore Theatre (920/839-2329) is an acclaimed theater-and-song troupe, as likely to perform their own rollicking originals (Cheeseheads: The Musical and Guys on Ice, a paean to ice fishing) or a ghost story series as they are the works of the Bard. Performances (May-mid-Oct.) are also held in Peninsula State Park and now include an autumn Town Hall Series, performed at venues around the county. Mixed with the zaniness is an admirable amount of history.

During August, professional musicians from across the country assemble in Fish Creek for the annual Peninsula Music Festival (920/854-4060), which offers Renaissance, Reformation, baroque, and chamber ensembles, along with an array of thematic material. Nationally known folk musicians and touring troupes appear at the Door County Auditorium (3926 Hwy. 42, 920/868-2787); theater and dance performances are also held regularly.

At the north end of town, the Skyway Drive In (3475 Hwy. 42, 920/854-9938) is a throwback movie experience—it’s charming to catch a flick under the stars with a wafting Green Bay breeze.

Perhaps the most accessible winery in Door County, and one that focuses on the county, Orchard Country (Hwy. 42 S, 866/946-3263, 9am-5:30pm Sun.-Thurs., 9am-6pm Fri.-Sat., $3 tours) is a fave. The winery has award-winning county fruit wines, pick-your-own fruits, sleigh rides, and more. The winery is a pickup point for the tours run by Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Trolley (920/868-1100).

Without chartering a boat or flying your own plane, the easiest way to take in, but not actually step onto, Chambers Island, across the Strawberry Channel, is via Fish Creek Scenic Boat Tours (Clark Park, 920/421-4442, $35), which offers a variety of tours. You can take a quieter tour of Fish Creek twice daily with sailboat rides by Friendly Charters (920/256-9042, from $40 pp), which also has several tour options.

The Fish Creek Information Center (4097 Hwy. 42, 920/868-2316 or 800/577-1880) is fully equipped to deal with your travel queries or last-minute needs.

Recreation Rentals

Boat and bicycle rentals are available in town at Nor Door Sport and Cyclery (4007 Hwy. 42, 920/868-2275) near the entrance to Peninsula State Park. It is the place to get a hybrid bike, a mountain bike, or a single-speed cruiser ($25 per day). Plenty of other equipment is also for rent. In winter, you can rent cross-country skis and even snowshoes and ice skates. At Edge of Park Bikes and Mopeds (Park Entrance Rd., 920/868-3344), moped rental includes a state park access sticker.

Accommodations in Fish Creek

Julie’s (4020 Hwy. 42, 920/868-2999, $82-109), near the state park, has basic but good-quality guest rooms and a super café, where breakfast rivals the pricier and better-known digs in town. Julie’s is pet friendly. The nice guest rooms at Applecreek Resort and Cottages (Hwy. 42 and Hwy. F, 920/868-3525, from $90) come in a variety of configurations, but some have multiple-night minimum requirements during peak periods. Despite its name, the wonderful Main Street Motel (4209 Hwy. 42, 920/868-2201, from $108) is nothing ordinary. The solicitous, friendly proprietors offer you very well-maintained themed guest rooms, but don’t blanch at staying in the Teddy Bear Room, as the guest rooms and service rival any resort in terms of value—and it isn’t kitschy.

The Fish Creek Motel and Cottages (Cottage Row, 920/868-3448, from $115), at the end of Cottage Row, a block and a half past the stop sign off Highway 42, is an amazing motel that was actually built in Ephraim and boated around the point in 1981; it has since been renovated. Complimentary use of bicycles is a nice touch.

If you’re not a fan of the “old stuff crammed in an old building” school of interior decorating, the Juniper Inn (9432 Maple Grove Rd., 800/218-6960, from $140) is refreshingly modern. The rates are also decent; each of the four guest rooms offers something different, such as a gas fireplace, a private sitting room, and a deck with gorgeous views, and all share a lovely library.

Travel writers scour every inch of the peninsula annually, looking to scoop other media outlets on an undiscovered gem, but they generally rehash the same old thing: the stately grace and charm of the White Gull Inn (4255 Main St., 920/868-3517, $165-305). A proud old guesthouse since 1897, it’s truly the grande dame of Door County. Guest rooms—a couple with private porches—are anachronistic but still plush; a few cottages and guest rooms in a cliff house are also available. The dining room serves a spectacular array of continental, creative regional, and seafood cuisine in a country-inn atmosphere that’s not at all stuffy. And then there’s that legendary boisterous fish boil, so popular that people swear they’ve made the return trip just to experience it; it’s made extra special by the boil masters, who often preside over impromptu singing.

You’ll find the most history of all at the Thorp House Inn and Cottages (4135 Bluff Rd., 920/868-2444, $125-205 rooms, $145-205 cottages), on land that once belonged to Freeman Thorp, nephew of Fish Creek’s founding father. The inn is backed by the bluff overlooking the harbor. When Thorp perished in a 1903 shipwreck, his widow was forced to convert their new Victorian into a guesthouse. The B&Bstyle guest rooms at the inn and the great beach house feel anachronistic, and the cottages are quaint but modernized just enough that you can dock your iPod and access Wi-Fi.

A main rival to the White Gull Inn is the Whistling Swan (4192 Main St., 920/868-3442, $140-210), with the most dramatic local history—it was originally constructed across Green Bay in Marinette and skidded across the winter ice in 1907 to its present site. Five period guest rooms and two suites are available; the arched windows, fireplace, and high ceilings of the lobby are a draw for casual browsers in the shops on the main level.

The most unusual place you’re likely find in Door County is the four-floored Silo Guest House (3089 Evergreen Rd., 920/868-2592, $110), near the state park. It has two bedrooms and is fully furnished. The top floor is the living room, which offers a grand view of the surrounding areas. It rents by the week only ($650) in July-August; it’s available by the night ($110) September-June.

Nightly rates of more than $350 may sound outrageous, but the villas at the Little Sweden (8984 Hwy. 42, 920/868-9950) timeshare property are absolutely enormous (the smallest two-bedroom is nearly 1,200 square feet). Guest rooms can sleep 4-10 people, the site is heavily wooded with good privacy, and you can access recreation options such as bicycles, golf, and more.

Food in Fish Creek

Road warriors with little time to spare: Coming into Fish Creek from the south, hit Orchard Country (Hwy. 42 S, 866/946-3263, 9am-5:30pm Sun.-Thurs., 9am-6pm Fri.-Sat.) for some cheese, then up the road 0.5 miles to Cherry Hut to pick up you-know-what. Then head downtown to the Main Street Market (you can’t miss it) for some freshly baked bread. Find a spot on Green Bay and have a picnic. It’s not necessarily the cheapest option, but it’s an unbeatable experience.

In 2008 The Cookery (Hwy. 42, 920/868-3634, breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, $7-30), a sunny café with great healthy takes on standards, suffered a devastating fire. The owners decided to fight on, and the low-key place is now more upscale, with a new wine bar on the second floor, and is still well-run place despite often being packed. The rebuild was done with sustainability in mind, and the food comes from local producers as much as possible.

Even picky eaters rave about the pizzas at Wild Tomato (4023 Hwy. 42, 920/868-3095, 11am-10pm daily summer, 11am-10pm Thurs.-Sun. other seasons, closed Jan., $9-27).

Fish boils are a must in this part of the world. Fish Creek’s choice is the boisterous Pelletier’s (Founder’s Square, 920/868-3313, 5pm-7:30pm Sun.-Thurs., 5pm-8pm Fri.-Sat., fish boil $17). The fish boil is the best thing on the menu, but family-style meat-and-potatoes items are less expensive than at most other restaurants in town; this is also a great spot for a crowd of kids.

Resist the urge to balk at the words “fondue” and “Asian” in the same restaurant description: Mr. Helsinki (above the Fish Creek Market, Main St., 920/868-9898, 5pm-11pm daily, $7-22) is an international fusion bistro that specializes in everything from crepes to a dash of Latin and a lot of Asian tastes, and does it well, right down to homegrown Kaffir limes and Mexican epazote. You can even get a luscious vegan squash curry. It’s a bit funky, irreverent, and a whole lot of something else.

The food at the historic Summertime Restaurant (1 N. Spruce St., 920/868-3738, 7:30am-10pm daily summer, $4-30) runs from fish to steaks, with a bit of Italian thrown in. The specialty of the house is South African back ribs. Seating is in a large hall, a loft dining room, or an outside patio. Built in 1910 as one of the original village cafés, it definitely still has that old-fashioned feel.

Gibraltar Grill (3993 Main St., 920/868-4775, lunch and dinner daily May-Oct., $7-20) is an absolutely unpretentious place with above-average fare, from sandwiches to seafood risotto. Enjoy high-quality fare in shorts and a T-shirt with your pooch while sitting outside. There is often live music, and an all-electric shuttle ferries guests from any location to and from the establishment. For a ride, just call the restaurant’s phone number.

The White Gull Inn gets much-deserved media attention in Wisconsin—and, more recently, nationally—for its dining, but for dinner you may not be able to beat the Whistling Swan (4192 Main St., 920/868-3442, dinner daily, $18-36). Expect a gorgeous setting, gorgeous food impeccably done, and top-notch staff. This is a genuine treat.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Wisconsin’s Door County.

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