If you were to glance over a map of Wisconsin, it might be easy to overlook the little slip of land that is the Door Peninsula. But, once you’ve ventured out onto the peninsula, you won’t overlook it again. About a 2.5-hour drive northeast from Milwaukee, and a 4.5-hour drive north from Chicago or east from Minneapolis, you’ll find the lovely little piece of heaven that is Door County. Named one of the top ten vacation destinations in North America by Money Magazine, Door County is a delight to visit.
As you leave Sturgeon Bay on Highway 42 and head out onto the 70-mile Door Peninsula, you’ll find it’s tucked between the sparkling waters of the Bay of Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Often hailed as “The Cape Cod of the Midwest,” the Door Peninsula juts out into the bay and lake which gives the little peninsula a big helping of shoreline, 300 miles to be exact. As you might imagine, with that much shoreline comes a wide variety of water sports to be enjoyed from swimming, boating, kayaking, paddle boarding, rafting, parasailing, and fishing. But, let’s not overlook the simpler joys of coastal life like sitting in a lounge chair with a cup of fresh brewed Door County coffee watching the sunrise glisten over Lake Michigan, or a fine glass of wine while watching the sunset shimmer over Green Bay.
If eat, drink and be merry is one of your vacation requirements than Door County certainly measures up. In addition to being an all-season vacation destination, Door County has become a food travel destination. Whether you’re into food or not, one thing you won’t want to miss while visiting is the traditional Door County fish boil. I had my doubts about how good boiled fish could taste but was eager to give it a try at the Rowleys Bay Resort in Ellison Bay. The resort is perched at the mouth of the Mink River and across from Newport State Park. Nature lovers will appreciate that the Nature Conservancy has purchased and protected almost 1,800 acres along the Mink River Estuary shoreline.
Rowleys Bay Resort, one of Door County’s earliest resort properties, has been in Jewel Peterson Ouradnik’s family for almost 50 years. “Leonard and Alice Peterson purchased the property in 1970 when it was more of a run-down fish camp,” says Jewel, Leonard and Alice’s daughter. Jewel became the co-owner of the resort in 2003 and has managed the resort since 2000. “Many of our guests are return visitors who come back over and over again on vacation and to celebrate special occasions,” she says. You can see why many visitors return as Jewel warmly welcomes guests to the fish boil by announcing to the hungry crowd, “Consider yourself family when you come here because we want it to feel like home.”
A traditional Door County fish boil features fresh Lake Michigan whitefish caught from local waters daily, red potatoes and onions. A Master Boiler oversees the cooking process with a boiling cauldron over an open fire outside. “The fish comes in fresh to the dock at Gills Rock every day,” says Tom Reisen, our boilmaster for the evening. Tom’s been a Master Boiler for many years and knows his stuff.
While waiting for the exciting finale of a fish boil, the boilover, guests seated lakeside around the fire are entertained with a historical re-enactment of the area’s namesake, Peter Rowley who settled the bay in the 1830s, acted out by 90-plus-year-old drama Professor Charles Dickson. Peter, tells guests the story of the bay from the early days of the native Potawatomi Indians, Scandinavian immigrant settlers, up to the present. He also tells his audience about the tradition of the fish boil and the art of this culinary delicacy.
With the cauldron boiling, Tom adds his ingredients one by one, until all the fish chunks, small red potatoes, sweet onions and a bit of salt, are all in the steaming kettle. Knowing just when the time is right, the Master Boiler tosses a small amount of kerosene on the fire. With a great burst of flames, the cauldron boils over, and over the sides wash the foamy fish oils, leaving the fish, potatoes, and onions perfectly done, ready for guests to devour.
Hungry guests eagerly make their way through the bountiful all-you-can-eat buffet line. Not a fan of fish, not to worry, the buffet also includes chicken, meatballs, multiple side dishes, and in addition to what seems to be an endless salad, bakery, and dessert bar. Once you dip your fresh white fish in a little warm butter you may swear, you’re eating lobster.
Of course, if you’re in Door County, you must have a scrumptious cherry dessert to finish off the meal. The Rowleys Bay Resort fish boil is served every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, sometimes they hold two a night. The price is only $23.50 per person, a pretty good deal for a fun, food-filled evening. Come early to listen to the storyteller and to see the whole cooking process. Reservations are recommended.
Rowleys Bay has much to offer its guests and visitors. With a variety of lodging options from a comfortable room, a suite, cottage, or a spacious vacation home, all right on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are plenty of outdoor activities on hand including kayaking, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, paddleboarding, fishing, bird watching, hiking, swimming, Door County’s only zip-line, and even an off-road Segway tour. There’s also the restaurant, bakery, a pub, pool, library, game room, fitness room, banquet hall, and meeting rooms, all under one roof. The resort can host private parties and events.
In addition to the fish boil, the Rowleys Bay Restaurant offers an all-day menu as well as a regular buffet and salad bar. They’re also known for their famous Sunday Brunch buffet with chef-carved prime rib and an array of baked goodies from Grandma’s Swedish Bakery. The Bakery has been a mainstay of the resort for almost 50 years when it was started by Jewel’s mom Alice. The bakery specializes in made from scratch bakery items using family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.
For a delicious cardamom, coffee cake recipe from Rowleys Bay Resort see the article on Grandma’s Swedish Bakery
For more information on Rowleys Bay Resort, visit www.rowleysbayresort.com, or call 1-800 999-2466.
For more information on Door County, visit www.doorcounty.com or call 1-800-53-RELAX (73529).
Note: Thank you to Rowleys Bay Resort and the Door County Visitors Bureau for my opportunity to enjoy the fish boil experience at Rowleys Bay.