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Sturgeon Bay: the gateway city to Wisconsin’s Door County

October 4, 2018

Shawna Young always chuckles to herself when tourists pop into her funky coffee shop in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and mention they’re headed to Door County. Because they’re already in Door County.

But visitors to the popular Wisconsin tourist locale typically associate it with scenic parks and endless shorelines, fiery fish boils and tart cherries, swanky art galleries and colorful boutiques — not a gritty shipbuilding town of 9,100 named after a monstrously ugly fish. It’s no wonder that for decades, visitors barely paused when they reached Sturgeon Bay, intent on pushing north along the peninsula’s gently undulating roads.

Today, however, more and more tourists are hitting the pause button in this gateway city to the jagged Door Peninsula. For Sturgeon Bay has been slowly, quietly upping its game. And people are beginning to notice.

The city’s fortunes began to change about 15 years ago, after the opening of Stone Harbor Resort (1-920-746-0700; stoneharbor-resort.com). Perched on the waterfront in the heart of downtown, its posh rooms and suites were a distinct upgrade to Sturgeon Bay’s lodging options. With Stone Harbor shining like a beacon, both residents and outsiders began to recognize the city’s potential.

In 2008, a group of musicians and fans, including Jackson Browne, purchased a dumpy 1950s-era motel a few blocks from the resort. After extensive renovations, it reopened as the retro Holiday Music Motel (1-920-743-5571; holidaymusicmotel.com). Rooms sport the original metal furniture and bathroom tile, plus rotary phones; guests may enjoy a continental breakfast in the building’s original five-seat diner.

The owners also incorporated a recording studio into the hotel to help foster the city’s music scene. All the tunes guests hear wafting through the building were written and recorded on the premises; the motel boasts an in-house, Grammy-nominated sound engineer. Open-mic nights are a staple, and the hotel features local artwork, including many blown-glass light fixtures.

Young’s eclectic coffee shop, 5th and Jefferson (1-920-746-1719; 5thandjefferson.com), is housed in the main level of a century-old home. She serves typical coffee­house drinks, such as cappuccino and espresso, but also creative options like pistachio and red velvet lattes. The dining menu is small but impressive: Think items like smoked pulled pork and egg burritos, Belgian bacon waffles and sweet potato maple cheesecake. This year Yelp named 5th and Jefferson one of the top places to eat in the Midwest.

A few blocks away, Root Bistro Wine Bar (1-920-743-9463; rootbistro.com) is another surprising find. In addition to carrying more than 40 wines, Root’s bistro menu includes items like asparagus quinoa salad, Tuscan herb Parmesan fries and balsamic orange salmon. An array of flavored olive oils is also part of the mix (sampling is encouraged).

More to love

In addition to boasting chic new restaurants and lodging, visitors are discovering Sturgeon Bay has a lot of cool attractions hidden in plain sight. Like the Door County Historical Museum (1-920-743-5809; map.co.door.wi.us/museum). The exhibits here are exceptionally curated. You’ll find a fully restored 1920 Oldsmobile fire truck (and you’re actually allowed to sit in it), an old county jail cell, an ornate 1913 horse-drawn hearse, an 1870s-era wooden water pipe and an intriguing chicken-plucking device, complete with rubber chicken. The star exhibit is the nature diorama “Seasons of Life.” Created by Mike Orthober, a local artist and acclaimed master taxidermist, it contains over 100 birds and animals native to the county.

A short hop away is the Door County Maritime Museum (1-920-743-5958; dcmm.org). A stop here offers the chance to learn about deep-water dives, Fresnel lenses, Door County shipwrecks and pleasure craft, after which you can tour a 1960s Great Lakes tugboat or take a cruise down the adjacent canal in an old Chicago Fireboat (ridethefireboat.com).

The 1.4-mile canal, incidentally, is a key part of Sturgeon Bay and the entire peninsula. The canal links the waters of Green Bay with those of Lake Michigan and helps define the county’s basic outline. Constructed in the late 19th century, its purpose was to spare sailors the trip up the peninsula and through the perilous “Death’s Door” passage at the peninsula’s tip. Today, an easy walking path unrolls along the canal’s eastern flank, offering picturesque views. When you reach the lake, you’ll find the oft-photographed cherry-red Ship Canal Pierhead lighthouse. Cave Point-Clay Banks State Natural Area forms much of the canal’s western side.

Legacy Nature Preserve at Clay Banks sits just south of town. Here you can scramble a mile or so up to the top of a bluff, where your reward is an expansive view of more than a half-mile of pristine, undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline. This 91-acre plot of land cradles white cedar wetlands, open fields and a gently winding stream.

New energy

Back in town, even the city’s industrial shipyard is worth a stop. It’s most impressive when the Great Lakes bulk carrier fleet steams in for the winter repair season and its massive ships tower over the downtown like iron dinosaurs. But majestic vessels occasionally dock here in summer, too.

All this is good news for visitors and locals. “There’s a shift in energy and enthusiasm for coming here,” says 5th and Jefferson’s Young. “Sturgeon Bay has finally established itself as a destination.”

More information

See sturgeonbay.net or call 1-800-301-6695.

Melanie Radzicki McManus (melaniemcmanus.com) lives near Madison, Wis.

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