Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Door County Vacation with Kids

I won't condemn the entire year; there was much joy and progress and good work and a delicious week with my grand-niece Caroline in Philadelphia and a blissful hiking trip to Bryce Canyon. But the election and its awful aftermath have kicked my ass so I will leave you this year with my happy memories of a few days of pleasure and play with my dear girls in Door County, Wisconsin.


The beginning of August. We only had a few empty days between the end of the girls' camps and the beginning of my school year. Pennsylvania and D.C. were calling but you can't get there from here in five days. Randy would take off work the next week to drive the girls to Mammoth Cave and other Kentucky sights while I went back to work. So I pulled Door County, Wisconsin off the To Do list, did a little research, a little online booking and the girls and I were off!

Martha Stewart told me about Milwaukee's Kopp's, the perfect pit stop for an amazing assortment of rotating ice cream flavors concoctions and a grilled cheese sandwich with something called hot celery. The crunchy chunks of celery bathed in hot sauce may not have enhanced the taste of the cheese but they were super interesting. An elevated row of cow statues were lined up on a wall behind the restaurant with a little sign imploring parents to keep their children from falling to their deaths.

Hamilton was on the soundtrack as we hit the road again on a long stretch all the way to Sturgeon. At the Visitor's Center we stocked up on brochures and maps and made some new friends when I said "Hi, Honey" to a person that seemed like tall Mia out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be another mom and she laughed and said "Hi!" back and "That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day" with a rolled eye toward her husband. We laughed together, waved to them in parking lot and hit the road again.

Cave Point County Park

We turned off the main road through the peninsula that goes on to Egg Harbor on the west coast and took 57 to the "quiet side" of Door County to the east. Pulled off at the Cave Point County Park and found a magical spot. We stepped out of the trees to find ten foot rocky cliffs and outcroppings protecting little coves by the lake. Brave teenagers were jumping off the cliffs into the water to our cheers. We climbed down the rock walls to the water's edge where plateaus of pitted stone made for treacherous walking. The water was cool, not cold, and the girls waded out a little, holding hands as the waves tried to push them over on the slick shallows. Further to the north we found a beach of stone cairn piles by the hundreds, an astounding sight.
Mia making an Instagram pose on Cave Point beach

Nora begged to swim but I was tired after the drive and we'd left our bathing suits in the car. I promised we would come back on another day.

We drove the last stretch through beautiful woods dotted with cottages small and large. Curtis Sittenfeld uses Door County as the stand-in for Kennebunkport, Maine in her novel American Wife, a fictional depiction of the courting and marriage of Laura and George Bush.  She portrays the "Bush" family estate as an expansive yet dilapidated compound where the family dresses up for dinner but share a single shabby bathroom with an unlockable door. I loved peering at secluded mansions through the trees and seeing the images I'd imagined come to life.

We drove through charming Bailey's Harbor, then finally reached Gordon Lodge in the late afternoon. An utterly charming restored resort beautifully situated at the mouth of North Bay. We stayed in a sweet room in the main lodge, a textbook example of how to modernize a mid-century one-story motor lodge with style. The screened back door of our room opened up to a view of the bay over an expanse of lawn and native flowers. The pool was steps away and beyond that, a picturesque pier protected a serene inner harbor.

Silly Nora and happy Mia in our cute Gordon Lodge room

Dinner was at the Top Deck Restaurant in their renovated boat house. A local cheese plate, tomato soup, and key lime pie with mocktails, pasta and steak for the girls.

The evening was balmy and the girls couldn't wait to get out on the water. We changed, then tore down to the beach to play with the paddleboards and kayaks waiting for us on the sand. The water was as clear and smooth as it was cool and the girls squealed at the schools of tiny fishes darting through the green pondweeds and grasses. We splashed and laughed on the paddleboards, then Nora's squeals tuned up to a higher key and the excitement on her face morphed into something frantic. Her life vest, a size too big, was buoyed up by her shoulders and her head was turned up toward the sky as she paddled as fast as fast as she could to the ladder on the pier. Mia and I were on a laughing binge but I tried to be sympathetic as Nora freaked out.

"What is it?"

She could only reply with weird high eeks. Mia translated: it was the eerie clarity of the water; we could see the forest of plants below us and feel them brushing our legs and imagine all sorts of creatures rising from the shadows.

We traded the lake for the pool, made some new Minneapolis friends, then more friends at the s'mores campfire and headed for bed.

Gordon Lodge sunset


I ate the rest of my key lime pie for first breakfast and grazed the resort buffet for seconds. We swam and kayaked again in the beautiful morning light. I wondered how far up the bay our rental cabin was and whether we could paddle all the way. (Gordon Lodge only had availability for one night and the  rental I found online was coincidentally just up the road.)

Showers and packing up, then heading back south to the Cana Island Lighthouse. A working lighthouse on its own tiny island accessible only by a wet gravel causeway that disappeared under the waves as we watched, waiting for the tractor and wagon to come and take us across. The rooms below were a treasure trove of the simple lifestyle of the lighthouse workers, with some original furniture, black and white photos and old stories of breathless rescues and tragic disasters. We climbed to the top of the spiral stair, peeking out the circular windows as we went, to find a work of the art, the giant lens that so magnifies a small bulb, it can be seen for twenty miles.

Cana Island Lighthouse lens

Cana Island Lighthouse spiral staircase

View from the Cana Island Lighthouse balcony

We were hungry and grumpy with all this activity before lunch, but Yum Yum in Bailey's Harbor cheered us up with their sandwiches, soup and candy sold by the piece. My nostalgic reaction to the liverwurst sandwich on the deli menu was a common one, the woman behind the counter told me. I had loved it on Wonder Bread with mayo. "Mothers gave it to their babies," she said. "Because it was so soft," I chimed in, like so many before me, I'm sure.

Mia spent long happy moments making her candy choices; I bought some challenging German licorice and cringed when the boy behind the counter touched each of the fudge types as he described them. "Finger fudge" we called it later and I loved the perfection of the match of the my all-time favorite candy: caramel-chocolate-pecan turtles met with the all-time dirtiest fingers in the world: those of an adolescent boy. When you're on a fabulous vacation, everything is new and novel and a reason to celebrate.

Gummy cherries from Yum Yum candy store in Bailey's Harbor

Small town post offices are always fun for meeting people and after mailing some postcards, we stopped at the Bailey's Harbor Historical Society next door for a bathroom break, a smaller scaled map and some great advice from a friendly local. "Try the Corsica bread," the guy told me when I asked about the Door County Bakery which I had found circuitously from the owners' adorable Airbnb rental that was a bit too small for our needs.

We would check out the bakery later but now we were off to our cabin, a tiny jewel of a family heirloom tucked into the trees with an old shuffleboard court and a gorgeous view of the bay. We explored all the sweet corners of the little house, from the cozy bunk beds to the elephant-themed bathroom to the shelves of well-loved books and toys and games. Across the quiet street to the stair to the rickety pier hung with sparkle lights to the water. We waded out over the smooth stones and beyond the reeds and the water never got much deeper than my waist. Laughing and splashing and loving the sensations.

Cappy Cottage, we called it "Crappy" out of love

North Bay

Dinner was a fifteen minute drive to the west side of the peninsula where the cute tourist towns of Ephraim and Fish Creek waited with their shoppy shops and busy restaurants. I came to Door County with two objectives: experience a fish boil of legend and see the famous goats on a roof. I don't remember how I found Pelletier's in Fish Creek and it was only later that dear friend Kristen told me she had worked at the same place summers in high school (small world moment!) but Pelletier's DELIVERED. The Palmer girl luck prevailed (as it so often does in claw machines and Cubs lotteries) and we arrived at the head of a line that formed behind us. The kids options satisfied the girls and the every-half-hour schedule reassured this hungry momma that Pelletier's knew what they were doing. Sure enough, the capable men in the backyard tending the giant pot of fish, potatoes, and onions were sufficiently burly, nimble and entertaining to please the crowd, manage a raging fireball at the climax of the boil and make us a damn good meal. Heaping plates of the perfectly cooked whitefish, sweet onions and tender potatoes, all bathed in butter, with black bread, coleslaw and shut up! Cherry pie for dessert made me very happy. Adventurous Mia nibbled a little and claimed it good and Nora was content with her mac and cheese.

Pelletier's Fish Boil

After dinner we did some Mommy-daughter shoppy shoppy to kill time before sunset, then noticed a strange brilliant light coming through the trees to the west. "The sunset! Hurry!" We made it to the beach in time, along with dozens of our tourist friends and ooed and ahed at the pretty.

Finally, a real smile from my cut up

Lovely Mia

The feature at the Skyway Drive-In Theater was The Secret Life of Pets,  a perfectly fluffy (oh god, sorry, not just for the groany pun but for yet another -ly adverb + adjective construction) diversion for the night when the venue was really the star, with the spectacular night sky overhead and a great view of the movie from the back hatch with the seats folded down to make a picnic/lounging area. The adorable snack bar had local cherry juice, yum! and popcorn with real butter! and Momma had remembered to pack the vitally needed (oh good god adverb + adjective!) mosquito repellent so a great time was had by all. We drove home in pitch dark and for once the Highlander's mapping system (on a CD! how 20th century) did not let us down.


We slept late, ahh, then drove in our jammies along North Bay, past adorable little vacation houses, a charming roadside treehouse the girls had to climb into, past the cutest two-story child-sized lighthouse, to the heralded Door County Bakery for breakfast. The sweet log cabin bakery lived up to our expectations and blew them away when Mommy got a bite of the famous Corsica Loaf, topped with sesame seeds and baked in oil, a soft and crunchy, crispy and oily experience that is crave-inducing once you've tried it. I swear, I dream about this bread.

The girls were happy with donuts and croissants and playing on the tractors out front and we spent a lazy morning at the cabin, swimming in the shallow, cool water of the bay and sunning ourselves like mermaids on the rocks.

View of North Bay across the street from our cabin

Around noon, we drove a few miles north to Sister's Bay on the west coast (really, everything is so close on this peninsula, getting everywhere is a breeze) and finally caught a glimpse of the Goats On The Grassy Roof of Johnson's Swedish restaurant, a sight so surreal in real life I had to doubt it for a moment. "Girls, is that a real goat? He's not moving. I think it's a statue. Wait. Did his ear move? Is it plaster with felt ears?"

Actual goat on Johnson's roof in Sister's Bay

Johnson's traditional Swedish menu didn't thrill the girls despite their heritage and an appeal to tell Grandpa Bob about the experience so we found the satisfying Wild Tomato down the street instead for pizza and salad, then hit the beach.

Can I just say how wondrously easy all this travel has been in high summer season? We park on the main drag, steps away from the water, and changed our clothes in the bathroom of a park district building. There are crowds at the beach, but just enough to make a party mood rather than a bother. Kids are doing flips off a pier into the crystal water; my girls are drawn to the fun but stick to running jumps, feet-first, holding hands to Mommy's delight. We rent a standup paddleboard and laugh ourselves breathless, screaming and splashing and squealing in the clear and placid water. There is enough of a breeze to push our paddleboard gently toward the pretty pleasure boats harbored on the other side of the diving pier, but that only adds to our challenge and our fun.

We head back to the car, discover a towel is missing, trek back to the bandshell where the girls played. Mommy gives the girls a mini-lecture about self-care and HALT, that is, while doing childcare, stop what you're doing to take care of yourself when you feel hungry, angry, lonely or tired. A well-intentioned motto I recited when I had my first baby and less than easy to do in the trenches, as any mother knows. Yay, we find the towel!

We drive south and catch a tantalizing glimpse of Fred and Fuzzy's lakeside restaurant through the trees but there's no parking and Tired Momma (see HALT above) needs someplace super easy so we put that lovely spot on the To Do Next Time list and head down the coast to Wilson's in Ephraim for dinner. Higher Standards Daddy would not have approved of this humble spot for a quick dinner but its ye-olde-red-and-white-striped-awning-patio-across-from-the-water charms work their way into our swim-sapped systems and we are revived with sandwiches and clown-shaped ice cream treats.

Wilson's in Ephraim, a tiny ice cream clown with cone hat

High on carbs, we visit the Anderson dockside warehouse up the street, a nondescript structure made famous by its colorful and copious graffiti. It's a picturesque spot and we are feeling great (See: an army marches on its stomach) so Mia poses for pics while Nora runs and dances around, wild and gay, all of us laughing our heads off. The day peaks here as my planned drive through Peninsula State Park turns out to be a little anticlimactic, despite pretty views of historic Horseshoe Island and a squat lighthouse that is closed for the night. The girls are deep in their phone games and videos, done for the day, so we hit Piggly Wiggly for breakfast supplies, scoring an epic Piggly Wiggly t-shirt souvenir for Dad and head home.

Anderson Dockside Warehouse graffiti


A gorgeous morning, sun on the bay. Cereal and fresh peaches for breakfast and we hit the road before nine to catch the ferry to Washington Island! The drive to northern tip of the peninsula is lovely, including a wiggly stretch that adorns postcards. Of course I can't capture it with my phone's limited lens while driving but that was only one bit of wonder at the beginning of a wonderful day. The ferry line is short, thank goodness, and the tight squeezing of the cars on board only adds to the adventure.

Road to Washington Island Ferry

Conversations with our fellow tourists shorten an already quick trip and in less than an hour we are back in the car and heading north across the island to Schoolhouse Beach. But first! a stop for floaties, flipflops and fudge at Mann's Mercantile general store where I leave my wallet and don't notice until lunchtime. But until then, we are thrilling to the glories of Schoolhouse Beach, a very special place and one of the highlights of our trip. Supposedly one of only five limestone pebble beaches in the world, Schoolhouse has a natural stretch of smooth stones instead of sand at water's edge but the magic does not end there. The beach sits within a protected circular inlet lined with lovely trees and you approach the water through a beautiful glade. Pebbles once littered the ground here but so many people have taken home keepsakes that the stones are now protected by law. The water was delicious on our skin (a rarity even in summer, I heard later) and we accepted its invitation, floating and bobbing on the waves and jumping off an orange float over and over again.

Schoolhouse beach

I had a hard time pulling the girls away from the water for chess and lunch from the good people at Bread and Water down the road, but I promised we could come back in the afternoon and the girls know I don't make those kind of promises to break them.

We did a quick touristy tour of the Stavkirk church (twenty years old, looks one thousand, the girls could not have been less reverential, thank goodness we were alone as we explored), scared up a cool snake in the woods, blew through a speedy visit to the lavender fields (one photo of Nora and we were OUTTA THERE! Momma so happy not to be on one of those crowded trams with the guide calling once more through the bullhorn for the last stragglers to PLEASE RETURN TO THE TRAM), climbed the tower at the highest point of the island for a green and blue view (we're exhausted), then finally called it quits with the rushing and the To Do list when we missed the ferry to Rock Island.

Stavkirke Norwegian church replica

Glamour-puss in the lavender fields

Fine. We won't go to the serviceless island for a hike.

 Deep breath. We're at the end of Old Camp Road, at the far northeast point of the island. The girls grabbed sodas and sat in the shade while I took a quick peek in a restored historic fisherman's cottage and a tiny boat museum (the museum was tiny, not the boats). I was thrilled to see one of the same Great Lake tugs that Randy and I had admired on our trip to the other side of Lake Michigan five summers ago docked at the pier. It's the afternoon of our last day and we try one more beach, although the girls are calling for a return to Schoolhouse. But this one has sand dunes! I plead so the girls gamely try it, changing back into damp suits in the car, trekking through the woods with our gear and splashing in the silty water.

A Great Lakes Fishing Tug

Back to Schoolhouse! The afternoon there is even more fun than the morning -- more people have arrived, more cairns have been built and we have the added adventures of ducking under the float, trying to imitate the strong teenagers who jump off the float holding rocks so they can sink all the way down and touch bottom, losing one of our floaties to the wind and thanking the rescuer, and swimming out to touch the white buoy.

The ferry is due to depart. We are exhausted. Goodbye Washington Island, we love you!

A few miles down the road from the ferry we find Gill's Rock and the lovely waterfront Shoreline restaurant, ahh. Wonderful dinner at sunset.

I get enough energy for one more hike after dinner, in the Elison Bay County Park. The girls are done done done so they stay in the car while I poke around on the wooded cliffs, not really sure if I'm following a path or just imagining one.

Elison Bay County Park

There's just enough time and energy left to get ice cream frozen custard at Not Licked Yet in Fish Creek. Mia falls in love with the ducks in the actual Fish Creek! next to the stand and cannot be pulled away from feeding them popcorn. Somehow I extract her, get the girls in the car and we drive home for our last night, singing Hamilton songs all the way.


I think I'm going to work tomorrow but thank god we have a few last diversions. We revisit the jumping coves at Cave Point County Park but they now look ominous, filled with choppy waves under cloudy skies. So we try the adjacent Whitefish Dunes State Park, running into some Wilmette friends on the way, and loving the waves and wind. A super fun last morning. We'll be back.