STURGEON BAY, Wis. — A winter vacation on sometimes blustery and cold Door County Peninsula? Be serious!
But that's precisely the message being enthusiastically advanced these days by the chamber of commerce here in the county seat of the 80-mile thrust of wooded land jutting northeast into Lake Michigan from Green Bay.
Rural Door County is probably best known for its 250 miles of shoreline dotted with snug coves and safe swimming beaches. Especially for its spectacular show of autumnal color in its forests of maple, birch and oak--which, along with the apple and cherry orchards, plus tourism and a bit of shipbuilding, make up its economy.
All summer and for about as long as fall lingers in the leaves, Door County attracts all the visitors it can comfortably house. They come from Milwaukee (three hours away by car) and Chicago (an additional 100 minutes), but also from across the United States and abroad.
But the visitors vanish each year just weeks before Door County transforms itself into a picture-perfect setting for such activities as downhill and cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
Consequently, only year-round residents and a few hardy outsiders attracted by roads not taken by mainstream tourists have so far discovered the pleasures of Door County's off season.
Grandeur of Winter
And that's the point: The quiet grandeur of winter and the budding fecundity of spring are not less lovely for the lack of a crowd.
"Moreover," said Jane Hoelscher, who edited the chamber's new winter guidebook, "more and more places are staying open all year."
Winter transforms the county's meandering roads and pathways into what she reckons to be 100 miles of ski trails--and not all that many more skiers.
Over at Peninsula State Park, about 25 miles beyond Sturgeon Bay, the golf course's hilly 17th fairway becomes a toboggan run.
At the northwestern tip of Sturgeon Bay, the inlet and canal that divide the peninsula, volunteers of Potawatomi Park Ski Club run a downhill ski operation offering a modest but picturesque 120 feet of elevation, served by a double chairlift and two rope tows, and offering Wednesday night skiing this season.
The fourth annual Door-Nordik Challenge, 10- and 20-kilometer cross-country ski races conducted at Peninsula State Park, is scheduled for Jan. 3. (There is talk of organizing a second race to attract additional winter visitors.)
The challenge will be followed by the Winter Fest, Jan. 15 to 17. It will offer, among other events, a parade, the Door County Fish Boil (a Lake Michigan whitefish dinner prepared in a kettle over a roaring fire), a baseball game in the snow and a snowshoe race pitting the area's waiters and waitresses.
Along with the organized winter events there is ice fishing on frozen Green Bay, cupped between Door County and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Fishermen arrive by ski, car, snowmobile and plane. Sturgeon Bay and several of the county's villages offer ice skating and some establishments offer sleigh rides.
Still, making the county's winter charm known to outsiders is a daunting task. But it is also an important one to a county seeking to develop tourism into a four-season business to bolster a lagging farm economy.
"Building a winter draw is tough," said an innkeeper at Bailey's Harbor on the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula, "but the cross-country skiing is growing phenomenally. I think it's coming around, but it's a slow process."
"Cross-country skiing is the big thing here, as it is elsewhere," said fellow innkeeper Bob Hastings. "But a lot of folks come up just to relax. Door County is a kind of seek-it-out-yourself sort of place."
Although Hastings' Egg Harbor Lodge, with its 17 bay-view rooms across the peninsula from Bailey's Harbor, closes its doors from late October until May, he acknowledged that more and more neighboring establishments stay open all year, and at reasonable off-season rates.
Places to Lodge
These range in size from Egg Harbor's Country Gardens Bed & Breakfast--two rooms at $30 and $75; phone (414) 743-7434--which offers cross-country skiing from the front door, to the sprawling Landmark Resort, the county's largest, with 212 suites, mostly one and two bedrooms with kitchens, an indoor pool, steam rooms and an exercise room. Information: (414) 868-3205. Rates at the Landmark are from $47 for a one-bedroom unit with inland view during the week to $129 for a three-bedroom suite and lake view. (Add $5 to $10 after May 12.)
The improbably named Stardust Motel, phone (414) 743-2337, offers budget-priced, year-round lodging right on the waters of Sturgeon Bay--a good base for exploration, especially of the nearby wave-sculpted Cave Park operated by the county. The Stardust slashes its prices about in half for the off-season: Snug rooms rent for as little as $27, up to $65 for a two-bedroom housekeeping unit.