Holiday Music Motel: Sturgeon Bay high note

It’s an hour or two past sunset, and a sign of neon guides me home for the night. The door cracks open, I hear one-man music and temporarily interrupt an intimate concert with maybe a dozen appreciative listeners.

It’s Thursday night at the Holiday Music Motel, and this is business as usual. At the weekly Writers Night, 7-9 p.m., songwriters to poets are welcome to share whatever is in their head or on paper. Just listening works, too, and it all happens in the cozy motel lobby.

I catch the end of Pat MacDonald’s mix of blues and rock as Melanie Jane rises to find my room key. They are innkeepers with many former lives, most recently known as pat mAcdonald and melaniejane, performing as PurgAtory Hill.

Think “Door County vacation,” and you’ll most likely veer farther north, to the state parks and seasonally vibrant towns. That makes the county’s biggest city, Sturgeon Bay – population 9,400, little more than a drive-through for many tourists.

Pat and Melanie are at work to change this by establishing Sturgeon Bay as a haven for music lovers and music makers. The 18-room Holiday Music Motel is their hub and the investment of several musicians, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, with whom Pat has worked.

The motel’s retro look is all about décor (Simmons metal furniture, rotary phones) and colors (mint green, peachy-pink, pale yellow) popular in the 1950s, when the business opened. It is near the Michigan Street Bridge, and the fight that began in 2000 to save this 1930 steel bridge from demolition provides ongoing energy for musicians as far away as New Zealand.

Each June, the Steel Bridge Festival brings indie music fans and musicians to Sturgeon Bay. Proceeds assist in the preservation of the bridge, which so close to the motel that it almost shadows it.

Pat (formerly of Timbuk3 and “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”) likes the challenge of making Sturgeon Bay his base. He says it is “Door County’s only real year-round town, so it has the infrastructure to develop a year-round music scene.”

On a hotel lobby wall are 60 framed snapshots of Route 66 vintage motel signs. “We’re not on Route 66, but it makes me feel like we’re part of something bigger,” Pat says, and the Holiday Music vibe is compatible.

Melanie, a lifelong musician and Best of Milwaukee Female Performer in 2003, staffs the registration desk, cleans guest rooms and keeps the focus on music.

We take a look at the second-floor studio that is a part of the motel. Hundreds of songs have been recorded here, most for regional release.

The space is big enough to seat an audience of 50, and performers in 2010 included Jackson Browne. That was a $100 ticket, sold as part of a motel room package.

The featured performer “made sure we didn’t jack up the room prices” Melanie notes. “That’s not what we’re about.”

For more about Holiday Music Motel, 30 N. First Ave., Sturgeon Bay: www.holidaymusicmotel.com, 920-743-5571. Rates, as low as $49, include continental breakfast and free Internet access. Well-mannered pets are welcome, in some rooms, for an extra $5 per day.

Upcoming concerts in the motel’s recording studio will feature Stas Venglevski on bayan (similar to accordion) and Misha Litvin on mandolin, Nov. 4; literary songwriter Freedy Johnston, Nov. 5; and fusion musician Sigmund Snopek, Dec. 11. Tickets are $10 per concert; advance purchases are recommended.

What else is worth your time? Ask for the motel map that plots two dozen stops in the Holiday Music neighborhood. Just as good as the map is the accompanying commentary, which includes where (and when) to find live music – or other entertainment.

The teaser “Do you like taxidermy?” whet my curiosity and led me to Greystone Castle, 8 N. Madison Ave., where dozens of mounted wildlife – heads to full body – stand watch over diners and imbibers.

In the menagerie are a forest of critters, including deer, elk, pheasant, salmon, at least two wild boar, lunging bear plus full-sized cub, a badger and – of course! – sturgeon. Above my dining booth was a skunk hide, and much more.

The setting is an 1898 building with friendly staff that serve prime rib sandwiches, pan-fried fish, slow-simmered soups and some of the fattest onion rings around. Fish stories and children are welcome; food is served until 10 p.m. on most nights.

For more: www.greystonecastlebar.com, 920-743-9923. Near the bar and grill is the city’s top attraction, the Door County Maritime Museum, 120 N. Madison Ave. (www.dcmm.org, 920-743-5958), a study in nautical history for all ages.

Also on the Holiday Motel map is the new (since June) Mel’s Place, 306 S. Third Ave., which serves lunch (and breakfast until 2 p.m.). Just as noteworthy is diners’ view of Oregon Street Bridge risings, yacht passings and other bay activity.

The sunny restaurant has a nautical theme, opens at 5 a.m. and is across from Martin Park. Proprietors take pride in from-scratch cooking (specials range from shrimp-spinach quiche to French toast stuffed with cherries, cream cheese). For more: 920-746-6050.

Not on the Holiday Music list but fun is Stove Dog Bakery, 230 Michigan St., for pooch grooming (one option is the “self service dog wash”) as well as munchies. For more: www.stovedogbakery.com, 920-746-9000.

The motel is two blocks from the vibrant mix of shops, saloons and restaurants on Third Avenue, also home to Red Oak Winery and its tasting room, 325 N. Third Ave. For more: www.redoakvineyard.com, 920-743-7729.

For more about other Sturgeon Bay attractions: www.sturgeonbay.net, 800-301-6695.

The next Steel Bridge Songfest is June 6-10, 2012, at various locations in Sturgeon Bay. Stay tuned to www.sbfs5.com for details.

“Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002 and are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.