In summer, the little towns of Door County, Wisconsin, seem to run into each other, connected by endless streams of visitors. But winter gives them back their individual personalities. Snow is welcome on this 75-mile-long finger of land crooked between Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
Walking the beach at Whitefish Dunes State Park is a winter pilgrimage for Door Countians. Ice stacks into glittering piles along the water's edge, and the dunes slowly shift in winter winds. Inland, "we see all the hidden things, things we just see hints of in the summer," says park staffer Carolyn Rock. Trails through bare woods reveal hawks' and owls' nests, a half-dozen kind of woodpeckers at work and flocks of turkeys.
The community itself is a little like the park, artist Sandra Martinez reflects at her studio near Jacksonport. The Labor Day exodus reduces the area's population to its colorful essence -- heavy on artists, chefs, entrepreneurs and corporate refugees. Creative types, including Sandra and her husband, fiber artist Wence, are working, but interruptions are few enough to be welcome. "There's a real chance to interact with this wacky place and build relationships with the people who make it what it is," Sandra says.
Martinez Studio 
At the weekly Friday night gathering at the Hands On Art Studio in Fish Creek, friendships are made as well as pottery. Would-be artists alternate sipping wine, discussing a storm that's bearing down and brushing color onto plates and mugs. Owner Cy Turnbladh bobs from table to table. "The question is, what's your vision?" he asks visitors.
Hands On Art Studio 
As a sea of cottony white deepens overhead, a few hardy browsers come to Fish Creek's shops. Everyone gathers at windows, waiting for the snow. "It just feels like Christmas," clerk Mary Fasciotti says at What Next clothing shop, a reservoir of funky flair.
What Next 
A Christmas tree glows in a bayside park in Fish Creek. Simple touches like these are reminders that genuine small towns still exist in this area -- although new condos and upscale shops are sprouting countywide.
Without summer visitors' cars squeezed in front of old buildings, destinations such as Fish Creek and Ephraim revert to staunchly Yankee roots, their all-white austerity broken by swags of greenery and strings of lights.
Locals go to Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant for specialties such as pancakes with lingonberries and Swedish meatballs. It's a normal kind of place in Sister Bay, minus the goats who graze the grass growing on the roof in summer.
Door County Lighthouse Inn Bed and Breakfast in Egg Harbor honors the area's 10 lighthouses, built to warn ships trying to navigate the notoriously treacherous surrounding waters. "Death's Door," the sailors called the region. Now winter seems more cozy than dangerous; innkeepers Claire and Frank Murphy settle into their chairs by the fire in the parlor of the inn, and guests linger over Claire's blueberry coffee cake in the morning.
Snow doesn't interrupt the annual progressive dinners hosted by three of Fish Creek's historic inns. The gourmet dinner starts with appetizers at the Thorp House Inn, then guests are transported by horse-drawn wagons to the White Gull Inn for the main course. Dessert is served at the Whistling Swan, built in 1887 in Marinette, Wisconsin, and moved across the frozen waters of Green Bay in 1907 to its current location.
Thorp House Inn 
White Gull Inn 
Whistling Swan 
It always seems like Christmas is just around the corner at Pipka's of Door County. Folk artist Pipka Ulvilden creates Santas for her Sister Bay shop. From her sketches, she makes figurines, snow globes and other collectibles.
A Peninsula State Park golf course fairway does double-duty as a sledding hill in winter. Cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing are also available at the park in season.
Peninsula State Park 
Chairs on the grounds hint both at colorful, intriguing home and garden accessories inside Blue Dolphin House, a renovated farmhouse near Ephraim -- and at the promise of spring, a few months away.
A version of this was originally published in Midwest Living® November/December 2008.
Blue Dolphin House