It isn’t just the quaint coastal communities, museum-quality art galleries, and scenic state parks that make Door County one of the Midwest’s most popular summer destinations. Known as the Cape Cod of the Midwest, this northern Wisconsin peninsula attracts thrifty travelers with its bounty of free and nearly-free things to do along the shores of Lake Michigan. Here's what to do and how to stretch your dollar here:
Take Advantage of Free Activities
Like we said, it's the cheap thrills that play a large part in setting Door County apart from other beach destinations. Start with the five state parks. Though you'll have to purchase a $10 sticker daily, that gets you unlimited access to the parks' trails, beaches, lookouts, and other attractions. Especially recommended is Peninsula State Park, where you can rent canoes, kayaks, and bicycles.
You don’t have to limit your bicycle riding to the state parks, though. Strike out on the roads to see some of the local farms and orchards as you go. For a break, Orchard County Winery & Market in Fish Creek is a great stopover for buying dried cherries, preserves, and mustards. You can even pick your own cherries, from mid-July to early August, or apples, from mid-September to early October.
As its name suggests, Orchard County Winery & Market is also one of several venues in the area that offer free wine tastings. Others include Harbor Ridge Winery, Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery, and Door Peninsula Winery (where you can sample vodkas at its Door County Distillery). See the Door County Wine Trail website for a complete list of tasting opportunities.
Door County has plenty to offer on the cultural front, too. It's free to stroll through The Garden Door -- a decorative garden with a wind tunnel, children’s play area, and double kaleidoscope -- or view art at the local galleries. The two-story Edgewood Orchard Galleries in Fish Creek is especially spectacular, featuring a sculpture garden and works by more than 150 artists. If you prefer museums, try the Door County Historical Museum.
Stick to Casual Eateries
There’s plenty of upscale dining in Door County, but you don’t need to break the bank to enjoy delicious meals here. Wild Tomato in Fish Creek is known for wood-fired pizzas that can easily feed more than one. We're especially fond of the Green and Gold ($22), with roasted chicken, bacon, grilled broccoli, spinach, and cheese curds.
Or head to Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim to munch on flame-broiled burgers ($7) as a jukebox cranks out the classics. And you’ll want to save room for the dessert -- the 1906 landmark serves soda fountain treats like banana splits ($7), sundaes ($5.75), and home-brewed root beer floats ($4).
For something different, look for the goats on the sod roof of Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay (not to eat, of course). No one knows for sure how the goats got there, but one thing is for certain: The family-run restaurant dishes up the county’s best Swedish fare. Order Swedish pancakes ($7.25) for breakfast and whitefish sandwich ($9.50) for lunch. Dinners are more expensive, but you can still find some good deals like Swedish meatballs ($14).
Finally, no Door County is complete without a traditional fish boil. Make a small splurge at the White Gull Inn , which charges $19.95 for adults and $12.95 for children for meals comprising Lake Michigan whitefish, boiled red potatoes, and cherry pie for dessert.
Crash at Cozy Retreats
If budget is your main concern, try Julie’s Park Café & Motel (from $85). While it's not the newest property out there, the motel is exceptionally clean. Moreover, it's within walking distance of Peninsula State Park, and its adjoining café serves incredible breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Lull-Abi Inn in Egg Harbor also boasts some great rates (from $79).
On a big family trip with kids? Consider Parkwood Lodge (from $79) in Fish Creek. It has one of the few indoor pools in Door County and an outdoor play area. Camping is another option. Peninsula State Park has more than 4,900 campsites, including group, hike-in, canoe-in, and equestrian sites. Rates begin at $12 per night for site without electricity for Wisconsin residents and $14 for non-residents.
For more options, Door County is really home to everything from luxury resorts and boutique hotels to classic motels, homey bed and breakfasts, and rustic cabins. The Door County Visitor Bureau has a great online tool with which you can find a match by entering your dates, hotel type, and price range.