Door County Dreaming

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The “cape cod of the midwest” slows down for autumn.

Photo Essay by Kristen Carlson

I slowed to a stop just outside the little town of Ephraim, one of the many villages in Door County, Wisconsin. The early November breeze was crisp and I hugged my jacket tight, walking down to a little section of beach. 

I had decided to travel by myself this time, my reasoning a mixture between self-indulgence and curiosity. I wanted to treat myself to a little getaway in one of my favorite Wisconsin locations while also seeing if I even liked traveling alone. Even though I was a bit apprehensive going into it, I was eager to see how I felt afterwards. There was also the excitement of having a couple of uninterrupted days to photograph the landscape.

Door County is one of those destinations that really draws you in, urging you to return year after year. The whole area gives off a coastal vibe; a stark difference from Wisconsin’s rugged forests and sprawling farmlands. Quaint little villages with names like Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Sister Bay are brimming with historic inns and clapboard cottages. It has been deemed the Cape Cod of the Midwest and certainly has not gone unnoticed. Each summer season, the peninsula is met with a wave of tourists, eager to visit the wineries and indulge in cherry-flavored everything.

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Visiting in November meant the tourists were gone now and the bustling towns turned into sleepy villages. It was officially the off-season and I stood on the beach relishing the stillness of it all. Lake Michigan lapped quietly against the sand and I looked up and down the beach. The shoreline curved for miles like a giant horseshoe and I could see the other side of town from where I was standing. Treetops were still decorated in autumn colors and white-sided buildings peeked out among them. 

I hopped back in the car and continued leisurely on my way, admiring the town as I drove. I glanced up at the Moravian church on Ephraim’s hillside, the steeples reaching towards the sky - a distinctive feature that often stands out in photographs. I passed by Wilson’s Restaurant, their classic red and white-striped awnings no longer up, a tell-tale sign of a season’s end. Pretty soon, I was out of town and heading into the countryside. I wound my way slowly through random backroads, my speedometer rarely exceeding 35 mph. The occasional car would appear behind me and I’d gesture for them to pass by. At one point, I came to a long stretch of road lined with large trees on either side. I walked down the center of it, taking photos and marveling at the sea of orange leaves. I spent the next few hours doing this over and over - finding a new location, parking the car on the shoulder, and cherishing these final few days of fall. 

Eventually, I decided to head back to Sturgeon Bay to check in to my room. I had booked a night at the Foxglove Inn, a stately bed and breakfast with colonial charm and a view of the bay. There were seven suites to choose from, each elegantly furnished with vintage decor and crown moulding. But when I saw the room that they had nicknamed “The Lady Slipper”, I immediately fell in love.

Stepping into this room was like stepping into a movie. A four-poster bed sat propped at one end of the suite with ivory linens tucked precisely in place. At the other end, a white porcelain soaking tub nestled itself between soaring bay windows. The walls were painted a pale mint green and two crystal chandeliers hung from the twelve-foot ceiling. When the morning came, there was a gentle knock at my door. I opened it to discover a perfectly arranged breakfast waiting for me to enjoy in the serenity of my room. I had never felt more pampered in my whole life!

Now, months later, as I reflect back on this solo trip of mine, I realize something. Even though my Door County adventure had only lasted a little over 24 hours, I still feel as if I could recite every last detail. I can still describe the Lady Slipper room as if I were standing in the middle of it. I can tell you the look and feel of the vacant villages and the way the autumn leaves colored the roadsides. To me, I think that’s one of the beautiful things about solo travel. You’re suddenly left to navigate your own course and you begin to notice more details about your surroundings. You begin listening and observing instead of speaking and overlooking. And it makes you realize that sometimes the busiest places can be even more extraordinary in the off season.  

Kristen Carlson is @missnortherner on Instagram

This story appears in Northerly’s First Issue, available now.