Wisconsin county is the passage to an Americana paradise

Fish Creek is widely considered the heart of Door County. One of its restaurants is The Cookery, which is  renowned for its whitefish chowder. In Ephraim, the Old Post Office restaurant is known for its fish boil.
Fish Creek is widely considered the heart of Door County. One of its restaurants is The Cookery, which is renowned for its whitefish chowder. In Ephraim, the Old Post Office restaurant is known for its fish boil. Door County Visitor Bureau.

DOOR COUNTY, Wis. — Imagine an American landscape devoid of Wal-Marts and Rite-Aids; where there's nary a McDonald's or Starbucks to be found — in fact, where there are no chain restaurants or chain stores of any kind.

Now imagine that in place of these corporate giants, local produce is bought from outdoor markets, coffee is roasted and served at a local coffee and tea company, and the concept of a (semi) fast-food dinner is an authentic fish boil at a restored post office.

Welcome to Door County, a genuine slice of Norman Rockwell America sandwiched between the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. A year-round feast for the senses, it was a wonderland of color during my visit the first week of October.

Autumn-harvest motifs of golden hay bales and orange pumpkins complemented the vivid yellows and scarlets of fall foliage. Morning frost gave way to bright sunshine that created dazzling diamond patterns on the waters of the lake and bay.

Door County is the perfect getaway, no matter what your travel tastes are.

Outdoor activities? Check.

History? Definitely.

Art and culture? You bet.

It has only one real town, Sturgeon Bay, located at the southern tip of the peninsula. But there are a number of charming small communities designed to attract the discriminating traveler.

Ephraim, with its steepled church and neat white cottages nestled along the limestone bluffs of Eagle Harbor, looks as if it could have been transplanted from Vermont. Founded as a religious community by Norwegian Moravians, the village boasts 30 historical sites, 11 of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of which are open to the public for guided or self-guided walking tours.

With its accessible Eagle Harbor shoreline, Ephraim attracts water sports enthusiasts. For those who prefer to stay on land, there are a number of one-of-a-kind shops and galleries in century-old homes, log cabins and barns.

Two of the best are Fine Line Designs Gallery, where, in addition to linen, specialties range from sculpture to fiber art, and Blue Dolphin House and Studio, where the setting — a renovated 19th-century farmhouse surrounded by towering pines and gardens — is as artistic as the metalwork and hand-blown glass sold here.

If you mourn the demise of the traditional soda fountain, Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, a landmark since 1906, will put you in a Happy Days frame of mind. There's classic rock 'n' roll on the jukebox, burgers and root beer floats on the menu, and a hint of nostalgia in the air.

Fish Creek, on the opposite side of Peninsula State Park from Ephraim, is considered by many to be the heart of Door County, and a stroll down its main street will show you why. Colorful cottages and bungalows house shops, restaurants and galleries, on both the main drag and in alleys leading to the harbor.

Even if you're not a gallery-hopper, you'll like Orchard Galleries, featuring the works of 100 or so artists, and an outdoor sculpture park, where huge metal works are dramatically situated in a forest setting.

If you prefer to create your own art, Hands On Art Studio is the place to do it. You can choose to work in metal, mosaics, wood or fused glass. You can throw a pot with the panache of Demi Moore in Ghost or design your own T-shirt in a process known as spin art. Whatever medium you choose, you'll get encouragement from artist-owners Cy and Karon, and their rescue golden retriever, Wilson.

A good way to get a feel for the county is to take a one-hour narrated trolley tour, leaving from Orchard Country Winery & Market. Door County is one of the leading producers of cherries in the United States. The average Montmorency cherry tree yields 7,000 cherries, enough for 28 pies. Here, at the winery and market, you can taste the tart fruit in both solid and liquid forms, and you can pick your own in the orchards.

Dining options in Fish Creek range from Wild Tomato Wood-Fired Pizza and Grille to The Cookery, which has had its famous whitefish chowder on the menu since it opened 35 years ago. If you are looking for some after-dinner entertainment, you'll do no better than a performance at Peninsula Players Theater in the Garden, America's oldest professional resident summer theater.

The performance I saw, Always ... Patsy Cline, was equal in quality to productions in much larger cities.

Egg Harbor has been named one of "America's Coolest Small Towns" by Budget Travel Magazine, and it's equally touted in its own state. According to a readers poll in Wisconsin Trails Magazine, it's Wisconsin's best small town.

Why all the love? It could be the one-of-a-kind shops featuring high-quality art and antiques. Or perhaps it's the great hiking and golf. Maybe it's the town's love of festivals — the Pumpkin Patch Festival in the fall draws crowds from surrounding states, and the Blossom Festival in spring is equally popular.

Maybe it's the sense of being stuck in a time warp, a sort of Huck Finn or Andy Hardy innocence that's hard to find in 21st-century America. Or maybe it's Egg Harbor's whimsical quality. Even the name suggests a light-hearted approach to life.

It's said that the name dates back to the 19th century, when two boats left Green Bay headed to the trading post on Michigan's Mackinac Island to unload their cargo of furs. Both boats pulled into the harbor here to overnight and according to witnesses, the crew, short on entertainment options, started an epic egg fight, lobbing the eggs back and forth until both sides ran out of ammunition.

The next morning, the harbor was filled with egg shells, and the town had its name.

Other delights

If you love lighthouses, Door County has a number of them (third largest concentration in the U.S.). None is more picturesque than Cana Island Lighthouse in Bailey's Harbor. The 1869 lighthouse, one of the most-photographed on the Great Lakes, has withstood countless raging storms over Lake Michigan.

You can tour the cream-colored brick keeper's home or climb the gleaming white tower for a panoramic view.

If you're fascinated by the ancient tradition of glass-blowing, check out the Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery & Studio in Sturgeon Bay. Husband-and-wife owners Jeremy Popelka and Stephanie Trenchard, both nationally recognized artists, happily demonstrate this fascinating art form.

On whatever part of the peninsula you stay, be sure to save one morning for breakfast at Door County Coffee & Tea Co. in the tiny community of Carlsville, between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor. A combination of small-town diner, gift boutique and roasting plant that roasts more than 100 coffees, using only specialty Class 1 Arabica beans, it's a must for any visitor to the peninsula.

Door County has been described as a seaside experience in the Midwest (with 300 miles of shoreline and 53 Lake Michigan beaches, it's easy to see why.) Add to that its reputation as an artists' colony, its many outdoor recreational opportunities, and its agri-tourism offerings, and you have the perfect getaway in any season.