Door County: Turn on to the ‘off’ season

Somewhere between the first glimpse of coastline through barren birches and maples, and the first sip of Spotted Cow at Sister Bay Bowl, I was convinced that enough was enough.

Heading into Door County at this time of year, between snowfall and orchard blossoms, can be a deliciously private adventure. It is too soon for goats to graze atop Al Johnson’s roof, too soon to stand in line for ice cream at Wilson’s – and too easy to get dinner reservations, when you find a restaurant that is open.

Up to 75 percent of the peninsula’s lodges, restaurants and shops are closed until May, and some of those considered “open” only do business on weekends during this time of year.

So the choices are much more minimal, but there are enough. More than enough, because you still can’t possibly eat everywhere and buy from everyone who is ready to do business. This is an opportunity to relish what you find and choose as a traveler, not an exhausting competition about who can see, do or buy more.

Wayside roads and summer home driveways haven’t yet been plowed. The ability to venture into a county park is hit or miss, for the same reason, but access is open to the county’s five state parks. The lack of crowds makes a personal communion with nature a lot easier.

The pace can be pokey, the connections more personal and the scenery more revealing. Without the foliage of trees and hoards of tourists to clutter the landscape, the natural world and diversity of architecture have a better chance to shine.

The latter is not a reference to the monstrous houses that blemish hillsides every few acres, but the slender church steeples, artist retreats in barns and cabins, historic brick and rustic wood structures that contain a sense of nostalgia.

Long before reaching the peninsula’s tip at Gills Rock, cars slow because their drivers want to, not because they are at the mercy of clogged pedestrian crossings. There is no worry about whether you’ll be able to make a left-hand turn safely, no need to jockey around others when taking a photograph, no problem finding a place to park.

Here are other reasons to visit Door County during its slowest time of year, which is now until the end of April.

Fine dining discounts at The Inn at Kristofer’s, Sister Bay, include Comfort Sundays (Nueske’s pork, salad or soup, and dessert for $24) and Seafood Fridays (seafood entrée, salad or soup, and dessert for $32). Chef Terri Milligan also teaches cooking classes that end with the serving of a student-prepared meal, but the next – “April in Paris,” which matches French cuisine and wines, is sold out. For more:, 920-854-9419.

Hands On Art Studio, Fish Creek, is a family-friendly place for people to create their own art, open Thursdays through Mondays. On Adult Night, from 6:30-10 p.m. Fridays, participants bring their own beverage and get to know each other as they make mosaics, glassware, sculpture. For more:, 920-868-9311.

Progressive Dining Outings – on March 24, April 21 and 28 – cost $69 per adult for a three-stop meal that begins with wine tasting and boarding at the Orchard Country Winery, Fish Creek. Diners ride the Door County Trolley from one place to the next. For more:, 920-868-1100.

The only six-lane traffic in Door County exists at the Sister Bay Bowl, which opened in 1958. Today the three-generation family business is a bowling alley, bar and old-time supper club. Burgers are made from ground top butt sirloin. Dinners include lake perch and whitefish, prepared multiple ways. For more:, 920-854-2841.

Ride the Washington Island Ferry to Washington Island and head to Nelsen’s Hall for a casual lunch and – if you’re up to it, a shot of Angostura Bitters, which the barkeep sold during Prohibition years as a stomach tonic. That antic makes Nelsen’s the state’s oldest continuously operating saloon. The place also holds a Guinness Book of World Records distinction for being the world’s largest purveyor of bitters. Take your car; it’s a three-mile walk from the ferry dock. For more:, 920-847-2496.

Inns that are open have lowered their rates for a while. One, the Eagle Harbor Inn, Ephraim, weekly serves French toast stuffed with cream cheese and Door County cherries. For more:, 800-324-5427.

For details about which Door County Peninsula businesses are open during this time of year, go to and download the Winter Activity Guide (it’s under “Plan Your Trip”), or call 800-52-RELAX.

The Door County Visitor Bureau arranged one night of lodging and two meals during this excursion, which was taken to do magazine research on a topic unrelated to this column.