The late October sun warmed us against a cool autumn air as we sat down to our lunch. An array of locally made cheeses, crisp fresh-picked apples and slices of cherry-infused hard sausage were spread upon one of many picnic tables situated in Cave Point County Park.
Located on the Lake Michigan shoreline near Jacksonport in Door County, Wis., Cave Point sometimes is overlooked by visitors as they explore the five wonderful and sprawling state parks scattered around the peninsula. However, the underwater caves, limestone cliffs and stunning lake views make this park an absolute-must destination.
The normally raucous display put on by the pounding of the surf into the grottos and caves lining the limestone cliffs jutting into Lake Michigan was fairly placid that day. More times than not, the waves crashing into the solid rock sends a watery spectacle skyward reaching heights of more than 30 feet. The cliff edges are without barriers and an accompanying sign remind visitors to of the dangerous conditions and to hang on to children.
The docile turquoise palette provides a pleasant tableau for our lunch.
The last week in October is a wonderful time to visit Door County, a 75-mile peninsula separating Lake Michigan and Green Bay that attracts more than 2 million visitors per year. By Halloween, however, the bulk of the sunbaked, lotion-drenched summer visitors have retreated from whence they came.
That’s not to say the Door is completely free of guests; the beautiful fall colors of its forests attract a fair share of week-end leaf-peepers.
But a mid-week visit to this charming enclave in autumn can provide a more sedate experience as a slower pace of life begins its return to the Door.
We’d settled into the Country House Resort, which sits on a bluff overlooking Sister Bay midway up the Green Bay side of the peninsula. Set upon 27 acres of woods, the scenery is everything here. Our second floor room with a balcony gave us a perfect view of the waters framed in colorful foliage.
Waking before dawn, I stood on our balcony with a steaming cup of coffee and was treated to the sounds and, eventually, the sights of a small herd of deer munching on the plants beneath our balcony.
Our first morning, we stopped by Seaquist’s Farm Market just north of Sister Bay. The aroma of freshly made doughnuts and pies wafted throughout, as we explored the aisles filled with jams, butters and sauces.
Kiosks were bursting with bags of apples of all colors and varieties grown in the Seaquist orchards. And everywhere were free samples. So we bought. Actually, we bought a lot. The free samples were incredibly effective.
After loading our SUV, we headed off to explore the scenic countryside. Traveling south out of Sister Bay on state Route 57, we took a left on County Road Q past the colorful orchards, forests and fields, encountering only the occasional car and, just as often as not, were greeted by the friendly wave of a farmer on his tractor entering his field of blonde-tinted corn stalks as he continued his harvest.
On the outskirts of Baily’s Harbor, stands the 150 year-old, 89-foot Cana Island lighthouse. One of Door County’s 11 lighthouses and Range lights, Cana Island is arguably its most picturesque.
Because of Lake Michigan’s near record levels, the normally dry causeway leading to Cana Island is covered in water. That means getting there entails crossing on a hay wagon pulled by a tractor. It’s well worth it. Climbing to the top of the lighthouse provides a matchless Lake Michigan panorama.
A little less adventurous but just as beautiful, Ridges Beach Park on Ridges Road provided a wonderful view of the village and harbor as a lone painter with his easel, canvas and brushes could attest to.
Door County Brewing Company’s in Bailey’s Harbor made for the perfect mid-day stop along the route. We grabbed a Pallet Jack IPA and a Polka King Porter and settled in at one of the long communal tables in the rustic hall. There are board games scattered around the tables to engage you for an hour or two or you simply can sit back and people watch.
Driving south on state Route 57 again, we took County Road E to the interior and crossed Kangaroo Lake. The vast lake is surrounded by colorful forests and lowland marsh, providing an unexpected break to the surrounding fields.
We ended the day partaking in a Door County culinary tradition, the fish boil. The boil is a simple meal of locally caught white fish, small red potatoes and onions.
We chose the Old Post Office Restaurant in the picturesque village of Ephraim. The cooking of the fish is an elaborate presentation. You typically want to arrive a half hour early to witness the boiling.
A cast-iron kettle filled with water and all of the ingredients is placed over an open fire. As the fish oils rise to the top of the pot, the boiler will add a small amount of kerosene to the fire. The dramatic flash of flames causes a boil-over, sending the fish oils spilling over the side of the pot, leaving a ready-to-eat meal and eliciting a gasp from the smiling crowd.
Our second day, after we had our aforementioned lunch in Cave Point Park, was spent visiting a couple of the eight wineries scattered throughout the Door.
The first stop was Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery and Market. Just outside of Fish Creek, Lautenbach’s has been a family-run orchard since 1955. They added the roadside market in 1975 and a winery in 1985. The complimentary wine tastings including some of their famous cherry wines.
Door Peninsula Winery in Carlsville is the oldest winery in Door County. Operating out of what was once a school house built in 1868, it since has expanded its operations to include a distillery. Their Hallowine and Mummy Muscato were seasonally appropriate.
Dinner was at the Wild Tomato Pizza joint in downtown Sister Bay. Using fresh ingredients, hand-tossed dough and wood-fired ovens, Wild Tomato serves exceptional pies. The eclectic design of brick walls, wood beams and corrugated metal match the expansive and sometimes unusual list of ingredients. Our favorite is the Kalamata olive, bacon and red onion pie.
The final day found us at the most northerly end of the Door near Gills Rock and Northerly Point for an iconic view. State Route 42, which ends at the ferry landing in Northport, zig-zags it way back and forth through a canopy of brightly hued trees, encapsulating everything that defines Door County.
There’s no doubt the early autumn colors that were worn like an enchanted evening gown now have begun to fray at the edges. Similar to a colorful pile of discarded laundry, just as many leaves lie on the ground as are in the trees, but the colors still retain their original luster.
Back at Gills Rock, the air was brisk; actually, it was down-right cold as Kathy and I sat bundled in Adirondack chairs, relishing the golden rays of the late October sunset as it began its slow descent into the western waters of Green Bay.
We were awaiting a window table at the Shoreline restaurant, a valued commodity if you enjoy a show with your dinner, and sundown at the Shoreline is a definitive show.
Once seated, we dined on excellent fresh perch and walleye as the sun dipped into the cool waters. On that Friday night, there were as many locals as tourists gathered at the Shoreline discussing the restaurant’s upcoming seasonal closing, the dropping temperatures and the lovely sunset.
Autumn in Door County is a wonderfully colorful experience.