When you’re not from the northern midwest states of the USA, I guess there are just a lot of unknowables* up here that you have to experience to really get a feel for it all. I did my fair share of family vacationing in Michigan as a kid, not excluding getting all the way up to Mackinac Island to procure endearing childhood memories of horses, boats, bikes, hiking, fudge-laden ice cream and handfuls of taffy. But, north of that? What’s north of that? “Maybe we’ll go see next year,” was Mom’s typical response du jour.
I realise that in a way, maybe I’m now glad I didn’t see any of this as a kid. Seeing it all on my own for the first time, with my French partner in tow, has been really magical for both of us and I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite as special if I was just showing him the likely-not-ever-living-up-to-my-memories-now-that-I-see-them-again small towns, lakefronts, shops, diners and other relics from my personal late 80s, early 90s imprints. It would have all changed, probably for the worse, with gentrification of this or that town, and this or that town having knocked down this or that outdated arcade or pizza joint for new lakeside condos, steak and ale houses, and wine bars that only serve variations on four seppages of grapes (can you guess them? Likely merlot, cabernet, chardonnay and pinot grigio — you’d be sitting pretty to get a pinot noir option for the midwest palate, or a blend that wasn’t anyway American-too-sweet).
The closer you get to the northern reaches of Michigan and Wisconsin, you might be pleased to see then, unfolding ahead of you with each further mile north you get, the scene is surprisingly not that. The region’s somewhat isolated geography allows me and only handfuls of other visitors to do the timewarp (hands on hips very much included, even if Tim Curry is a far dream for the local environment). We have been able to explore a few of these towns here and now, together, and we both agree that, while the brewery and coffee shop culture we have grown to love has taken hold in all the right places, much of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (as well as much of Northern Wisconsin) hasn’t been updated in decades… and we love it!
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Mister! She’s my Sister! (Bay, that is)
We got up here by way of a special friend’s wedding in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, which effectively kicked off this whole road trip as our first real destination. I would have loved to have started the trip in Milwaukee, to show TIMBL this killer beer and art city that I adore, but I’m super glad we started in Sister Bay — catching up with old friends, swimming, being surrounded by cold lake waters and tall pine trees for a couple of days, and simply being part of an intimate and lovely ceremony, full of giggles and dancing and craft beer, was all wildly necessary.
Over the following week in fact, outside of the ceremony and seeing other people we knew, go ahead and hit stop, rewind, repeat and we’d notice that “This was really needed,” became a common thread in our conversations.
Sister Bay is located in Door County, the prominent portion of a peninsula that shoots east out of Green Bay into Lake Michigan and is known regionally as a mecca for outdoor activities. Hiking, biking, sailing and kayaking enthusiasts alike are found enjoying hot-as-hell days giving [activities of choice] their all and then recouping under cool, quiet nights filled with lightening bugs. It’s charming and the local people seem surprisingly inclusive and happy to chat a while. I will say, as someone who prefers her towns a little scruffier, the whole area feels a bit country-clubby. Like most of the great lakes region, there’s not much diversity up here, but some might argue that’s what helps it to maintain its mid-century, Norman Rockwell-esque charm.
We opted to boondock in the marina the night after the wedding and no one batted an eye or bothered us all night (policing is thin in the area anyway as there are only about 5 cops to cover the entire county). It was the perfect location from which to catch a gorgeous sunset, then wander around the tiny main streets that make up Sister Bay. We hit a couple of the high season rowdy bars and one of the stellar ice cream shops (Analog) before strolling back along the quiet bay front, exhausted from our long driving day, rushing to make the wedding in time, and general hangover from the stress of last-minute housework.
The next morning, we drove the 12 minutes it took to cross the peninsula to Rowley Bay Resort for breakfast with our friend Meagan. Talk about a time warp! This place hasn’t been updated in recent years and feels very much like a place your grandparents would spend their days wasting away the time playing bridge and bocce, while getting excited about the all-you-can-eat fish boil buffets. To be fair, we were starving, so the decor and ambiance didn’t set in until we were about halfway through our own bottomless coffee, all-we-could-eat buffet breakfasts. The service was nothing to speak of. Although we did find out that the area hires foreign students and exchange kids to staff out the summer months, so it was a bit awkward being served by a gaggle of Chinese teenagers in such a remote location. And, aside from their pretty decent 1/2 lb. pecan and cinnamon rolls, and other pastries, the price was hefty and the food was lackluster (for sure the made-to-order eggs were the worst we’d ever had). Still, it had views onto the bay and those were pretty one-of-a-kind.
One of the most interesting things to note about Sister Bay and Door County is that when the fog comes in, it comes in thick! On this particular morning it never lifted, which leant our post-brekkie swim time an eerie Creature of the Black Lagoon sensation. We sat on the shore with the post-wedding crowd and I took some b/w photos with my Olympus 35mm and then tried my best to gather the nerve I needed to swim out into the fog. Of course, once I did, I didn’t want to swim back.
Visibility was only about 30-40 feet, so once you lost sight of the shore, your only sense of direction became whether or not you could touch the bottom. If a group of people were 50 feet away, laughing and carrying on, you were still completely alone out there. They might as well have been imagined. It was stark, and heavenly — like you had just fallen into a pit of sirens and couldn’t find your way back to sanity — but eventually, it was still Lake Michigan, and it was still cold as fuck.
The weather eventually turned and we spent the latter half of the day watching the wedding goers play volleyball and we ate pizza with them while lazing about trying to plan our route forward with a full size, 2017 Rand McNally Road Atlas a couple of Knoxville friends gave us for the trip. At that point, I still had romantic notions of navigating via atlas and not with google maps. Others chimed in when we turned to the Colorado, or California, or Montana pages and found out there were a few friends of the bride and groom that we might bump into again along the rest of our journey — placing stars and circles and jotting down names and phone numbers and suggested sights in the margins to not forget. (Spolier alert: for the most part, we totally forgot!!)
The evening ended with small group of us enjoying a gorgeous meal at Lure — a pricey but splurge-worthy surf and turf restaurant with local and sustainable offerings. I know my salmon will certainly linger as one of the better fish dinners I’ve had in recent months or even years, and there were similar nods of approval around the table during and after the main courses and desserts. I would happily recommend it to friends passing a couple of days in Door County, if not for their food then their stellar cocktails! I’ll just say we went home giddy.
We stayed that night in a spare room¹ we scored with friends for our second and final night in Sister Bay and woke up rested and wicked ready for breakfast. Meagan was leaving that day to spend a month in Alaska continuing a cabin build with her partner, so she and I fumbled with the laundry machines and then we hopped over to main street in the hopes of securing a table at Al Johnson’s because THERE ARE GOATS ON THE ROOF! I mean it — real, grass-munching goats walking up and down the rooftops and eaves while you cozy up inside for some of their famous Swedish pancakes. (It’s truly cute — GO!!) But, the line was 45-minutes long and we would have rather eaten than be entertained at that point, so we instead enjoyed a healthy twist on normal café brunch fare at Grasse’s Grill. We were not disappointed! We left full, energized, grateful for friends and time in Sister Bay, and ready for wherever the road would take us that afternoon.
*Actual word I heard more than a couple times in the Yoop and Minnesota
¹ I highly recommend Pheasant Park Resort if you’re passing through the area with friends and want to do an everyone pitch in for a self-catering suite thing. It’s dated, but it’s a lovely old hotel.