As we learned heading into Wisconsin's Northern Woods in the middle of winter, it's a good idea to take along a compass, and in this case, we chose the Jeep Compass Latitude 4x4. Despite its smooth exterior lines and diminutive size, this Compass does Jeep's "Trail Rated" designation. We found this midsize SUV a perfect fit for the extreme and very fluid winter driving conditions that can be experienced in Door County, Wisconsin, in the dead of winter.
It's worth noting what constitutes a Trail Rated vehicle. There are several areas of performance that include ground clearance, articulation, maneuverability, traction, water fording, and 4WD Lock, all of which must meet specific acceptance criteria to get the Trail Rated designation. The Trail Rated Compass Latitude 4x4 Freedom-Drive II features locking 4WD for traction under adverse conditions. The 4WD lock is activated by lifting a chromed T-bar handle located aft of the shifter in the console. The 4WD lock mode is recommended for deep snow, deep sand, and other low-traction surfaces. As we said, this vehicle was a perfect fit for Door County in winter.
Over the course of four days and covering several hundred miles, the Compass Latitude 4WD averaged 23.8 mpg, which is very respectable. Its 2.4-liter I-4 is a 16-valve dual overhead cam gasoline engine that comes coupled to a continuous variable transmission also features a crawl mode for super traction in 4WD lock mode. With the rear seat folded flat, it yields 60 cubic feet of interior storage, and with the rear seat up it can transport five passengers. The payload capacity is rated at 925 pounds and it's rated to tow up to 2000 pounds of travel/camping/utility trailer stuffed with winter gear, snowmobiles, camping gear, etc. And, with its overall length and width of 173 and 69 inches, respectively, this is a perfect vehicle for navigating through urban settings. Along with respectable fuel economy, good all-around visibility (our test vehicle came with a backup monitor/camera system), and a very manageable overall size, it is easy to park. As tested, it was priced at just above $26,000.
We would drive from the city of Green Bay up the 70-mile-long peninsula that juts out in a northeasterly direction from Wisconsin into Lake Michigan. To the west, the body of water is called Green Bay. To the east is the behemoth Lake Michigan itself. Trapped between these massive bodies of fresh water, Door County has 300 miles of shoreline laced with rugged bluffs, peaceful bays, fishing villages, sandy beaches, and estuaries. On the peninsula's interior are lakes, streams, farms, forests, and country roads. Visiting Door County, we encountered the age-old dilemma of having too many activities from which to choose and too little time to do them.
Steeped in a rich history of Great Lakes shipping, fishing, cheese making, microbrews, vineyards, and shipwrecks, Door County today is a year-round playground that for the most part goes undiscovered by mainstream America. That's a shame, except for those who come here and often have this hidden jewel all to themselves and want to keep it that way.
Our first stop northeast of Green Bay (the city) was Sturgeon Bay, a 45-minute drive. We checked into the White Lace Inn, a bed and breakfast two blocks from the colorful old downtown. Our suite, which must've been 1000 square feet, was on the second floor of an old Victorian home. The wood plank floors, huge Jacuzzi, balcony, and fireplace made it difficult to force ourselves back outside into the winter wonderland, so we caved into the pressure, turned on the 48-inch flat screen TV, popped the top on a local handcrafted brew, and relaxed. Now that's problem solving.
Following breakfast served by the innkeeper the next morning, we mapped out the day's activities. Our first stop would be the Door County Maritime Museum, a 20,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility with exhibits that tell a compelling story about all aspects of freighter/shipping life on the Great Lakes. In addition to the history timeline covering the last several hundred years, there is a huge exhibit of handbuilt scale models of the various types of watercraft and freighters that have made their way through the local waters. Upstairs is an exhibit dedicated to the several haunted lighthouses that lace the coastlines of the Great Lakes.
Door County has 11 lighthouses, many of which can be visited. This museum visit was a good precursor to the lighthouses we would see along the shoreline of the Door County Peninsula. Immediately outside, moored to the pier that hosts an active marine business, are massive working tugboats used on Lake Michigan to assist the huge ore and bulk commodity lake freighters as they navigate the harbors, bays, and inlets. Here also is the Fred A. Busse, a restored a fireboat that served for many years in Chicago. It offers public boat tours to nearby lighthouses. A museum-owned tug called the John Purves has been painstakingly restored and is open for guided tours of the engine room, the captain's and the crew's quarters, the pilot house, and the galley. The two diesels down in the engine room that powered this tug are rated at 900 horsepower each.
Sturgeon Bay hosts great bistros, eateries, and gourmet coffee cafes like Wicked Brew, which is a couple of blocks from our inn. In the charming old downtown area, we dined at a bistro called Trattoria Dal Santo whose Italian chef creates a Bolognese sauce that rivals any we've enjoyed in the ristoranti of Rome.
Checking out of the Inn, we headed next up the coast (on the Green Bay side) through quant sounding places like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, Ephraim, and Sister Bay. Even though Door County is well known for winter sports (snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, ice fishing, hiking, and primitive winter snow camping), you can elect to make this a softer adventure, a balanced mix of sports, or a full-on snow/winter sports vacation.
For example, Door County has several vineyards and wineries along with a microbrewery called Shipwrecked in Egg Harbor that brews several different beers. And for those who would enjoy an excellent locally distilled vodka straight up or in a cocktail, the Door County Distillery located at the Door Peninsula Winery in Carlsville uses only locally grown grains as part of their secret distilling process. At Coppers Corner in Fish Creek, there is a cellar that features the largest variety of bulk olive oils and balsamic vinegars sold anywhere in the United States, and they serve excellent spirits and fare as well. Door County is also cherry orchard country and the freshly baked Danish, pies, and other pastries found here are phenomenal. Stop at Orchard Country Winery for some wine tasting and out back, check out the cherry-pit-spitting competition track marked off in feet. It goes from 5 feet all the way up to 50, with the longest distance achieved in spitting a cherry pit being 48 feet. While at the winery you can enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride, something most of us have never done before.
Even if you are on a soft adventure, you must stop at Peninsula State Park near the village of Fish Creek. You can rent cross county skis and snowshoes at the turn off from Highway 42 into the Park, at a place called Nor Door Sport and Cyclery. However, we took a mile-and-a-half hike along the snow-covered trails out to see Eagle Bluff Lighthouse, and it was no challenge even without skis or snowshoes. Eagle Bluff Lighthouse was built in 1868 and has a fifth-order Fresnel lens in the tower that is used as a beacon at night. The lighthouse was automated in 1926 and no longer needs a keeper. One hundred years ago, a lighthouse keeper's job required someone who could spend months alone and who would religiously climb to the top of the lighthouse and light the flame at dusk. This flame, the only light source, was then magnified by the lenses in the Fresnel.
The circular stairway takes you to the top, where you have a 360-degree view from 76 feet above the waterline. From up there, it's a clear view over to Horseshoe Island and far out into the lake. And, if you're really daring, every January 1, the local Jacksonport Polar Bear Club takes its annual dip in Lake Michigan. Last year, about 800 people plunged into the 33-degree water to earn bragging rights. We met one local, Jon Jarosh, who's done it for the last 18 consecutive years.
On the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula are two must-see stops. At Whitefish Dunes State Park, a looped hiking trail begins at the Nature Center and takes you along the frozen, ice-covered beach and then up and through the woods along a cross-country skiing and snowshoe trail. Here you pass a recreated Native American camp where you can see how the first Americans gleaned shelter from this winter wonderland for thousands of years. Immediately up the shoreline from the Nature Center is Cave Point County Park. Over the millennium, the power of Lake Michigan's waters have washed and carved away the shore and bluffs, creating huge caves that during the wintertime are draped with ice. Be careful ground along the edge is very slippery!
There are a couple of terrific restaurants in the area. One is the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, where they offer a traditional fish boil. Over an outdoor wood fire, a huge kettle of water is brought to boil, corn on the cob and whole potatoes are dropped into a basket, and salt and large chunks of freshly caught whitefish are added. When it's ready, the basket is lifted out, and the contents are served in a buffet-style sit-down dinner inside.
The other eatery is Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay They're known far and wide for their breakfasts, which include Swedish Pancakes (their Applewood-smoked bacon, sausage, country fried potatoes, and eggs are great additions). They have been operating for 60 years, and during the morning breakfast hours, they're packed. Rolf Johnson, the son of the man who founded this restaurant in 1949, still uses his father's original receipe and on a typical morning he makes and serves hundreds of Swedish pancakes. We toured the galley where Rolf starts by creating pancakes, each measuring three feet by four feet. As the pancake cooks on a grill that's as old as the restaurant itself, it is divided up into many, many servings.
God bless the Swedes.