Scoffing a lifetime of advice, we’ve planned our entire evening around watching a pot, hoping it will boil. A handful of travelers perches on benches outside the red building of Scaturo’s Baking Company and Cafe in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, cameras waiting for the 6:30 “boil over” listed in brochures all over town.
“Which story of the fish boil should I go with tonight?” Joe Scaturo asks one of his college-age assistants.
“Go traditional,” the kid says, poking a curtain of sparks from logs crackling beneath a 5-gallon pot. “Give them the lumberjack story.”
“Sounds good,” Joe says. “You see, in lumber camps, they had a lot of fish, a lot of wood and a lot of men to feed quickly. And that was the beginning of the fish boil.”
Folklore complete, Joe tells us to turn on the cameras as the kid approaches the fire and tosses on a cup full of kerosene. In a gusty whoosh, fire erupts, water boils over the top and Joe says, “Give us 10 minutes, and your whitefish will be ready inside.” On my camera’s screen, it looks like a small nuclear bomb has gone off in the yard outside Scaturo’s.
Check one off the bucket list: Door County fish boil. It’s practically a legal requirement in this famed tourist haven, a 70-mile peninsula stretching into Lake Michigan under a storied load of orchards, wineries, rocky coasts, scenic drives and enough boutique shops to outfit every living room in the Midwest.
But amid all those staples, there’s one thing too few Door County visitors do: Stop in Sturgeon Bay. In general, visitors roll across the town’s three drawbridges and arrow north toward the better-known towns up State-42. But those who pause in their fall getaway discover Sturgeon Bay is far more than a marker on the way to Fish Creek.
Fall color in Sturgeon Bay.
The established Door County flavor gets a twist down here. Buildings run more toward limestone than clapboard. Towering freighters and yachts anchor in shipyards that still help float the local economy. It’s that big-shouldered spirit that drew Stephanie Trenchard here to open a glass studio with her husband, Jeremy Popelka. When the couple was relocating from San Francisco, a building in a former shipyard seemed like a perfect fit.
“We like the kind of industrial, blue-collar feel here,” Stephanie says.
On most days, Jeremy leaves the garage open, letting visitors hear the kiln’s roar and see its fiery eye glow as he works a piece of glass into his latest vision. In the adjacent gallery, Stephanie explains their signature technique of using “inclusions,” glass sculptures wrapped within larger blocks of clear glass.
Across town from the studio, Sturgeon Bay’s shipbuilding industry still provides equal infusions of capital and mystique. On a downtown tour aboard Segways—those stand-up scooters that require no more skill than leaning in the direction you want to go—visitors peek through windows at two yachts inside Peterson Builders’ enormous fabrication building.
“Not sure who’s buying them,” says our guide Paul, a retired science teacher. “Probably some oil-rich king.”
Big freighters (known as lakers) pass a few yards away, sliding under Sturgeon Bay’s drawbridges and through the ship canal to Lake Michigan. Travelers make the same voyage aboard the Fred A. Busse, a one-time Chicago fireboat cruising the canal to the Coast Guard station and lighthouses on the lake.
One of the lighthouses that guard the area.
Outside town, parks line both the Lake Michigan and Green Bay sides of the peninsula. To the west, a 150-foot bluff in Potawatomi State Park pins the center of a panorama taking in Green Bay, Sturgeon Bay and forests painted with fall. To the east, short trails in Cave Point County Park lead to the kind of layered limestone formations that have filled watercolors by generations of Door County artists.
Cave Point County Park.
It seems inevitable that a town full of shipyards and Victorian homes would give way to ghosts at dusk. And so, as the sun sinks, a small group surrounds Brother James in a cemetery, listening to the bearded man tell of a local boy’s ugly encounter with the neighbors. “He was a very troubled boy,” Brother James says, his black cloak writhing in the wind. “A very. Troubled. Boy.”
Brother James’ trolley tour stops several times along the lake, where waves battle his voice for control of stories about ghosts that keep showing up in that lighthouse right over there. Just as things get heavy, Brother James punches a button on a CD player, and the theme from Ghostbusters fills the trolley, with James leading the chorus of “Who ya gonna call?”
During a trolley ghost tour, Brother James shares tales of souls lost in the bay's cold water.
Maybe not the soundtrack you expected for a fall trip to Door County. But a stop in the door to the Door is all about a fresh perspective.
What to do
Cave Point County Park Rocky ledges along Lake Michigan offer beautiful photos at the end of short trails. Next door: the sweeping beaches of Whitefish Dunes State Park. (920) 746-9959;
The Chicago Fireboat Cruise the ship canal for perfect photo ops of two lighthouses on Lake Michigan. (920) 495-6454; ridethefireboat.com
Door Peninsula Winery About 15 minutes north of Sturgeon Bay, the massive store, cafe and tasting bar draw weekend crowds. Don’t miss the flavored oils and local sauces. (800) 551-5049; dcwine.com
Haunted Olde Sturgeon Bay Ghost Tour Tales of murder and mystery fill two-hour tours to the cemetery and lakeshore. (920) 868-1100; doorcountytrolley.com
Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery and Market Take a drive to the Fish Creek area for apple picking, wine tasting and art in a massive barn. (866) 946-3263; orchardcountry.com
Popelka Trenchard Glass The gallery is open daily seasonally, and on many Saturdays, guests come into the furnace area to see glassmaking up close. (920) 743-7287; popelkaglass.com
Works at Popelka Trenchard Glass.
Potawatomi State Park About 10 minutes from town, hike a bit of the famed Ice Age Trail and enjoy scenic overlooks and rocky shoreline. (920) 746-2890; dnr.wi.gov
Segway the Door Tours The town tour provides a great intro, and gadget geeks and anyone with weary legs love the Segway scooters. (920) 376-0256; glidenew.com
Segway tours cover the highlights of Sturgeon Bay.
Shopping Shops line downtown Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue, including Cornucopia for kitchen items. Don’t miss the shops in colorful old homes up the road on Jefferson Street. Highlights include Bliss for funky home decor.
Sturgeon Bay Harvest Festival, Car Show and Street Art Auction See works by dozens of local artisans downtown (September 19, 2015), plus a classic-car show, live music and the auction of painted sturgeon sculptures from around town. (920) 743-6246; sturgeonbay.net
Third Avenue Playhouse Live shows range from classics to quirky modern plays. Music includes local and national acts. More entertainment awaits 45 minutes north at the Peninsula Players Theatre and the Northern Sky Theater. (920) 743-1760; thirdavenueplayhouse.com
Where to eat
Bluefront Cafe Wraps and sandwiches fill the contemporary-casual lunch menu. Casual dinners are also served. (920) 743-9218; thebluefrontcafe.com
Donny’s Glidden Lodge This old-school supper club’s starring dish is “gliddenized” steaks—served on toast covered with Gorgonzola and topped with sauteed onions and Merlot sauce. Almost as memorable: the stone building on the shore next to Whitefish Dunes State Park. (920) 746-9460; donnysgliddenlodge.com
Scaturo’s Baking Company and Cafe Get your signature Door County fish boil here. The fish is all-you-can-eat, but save room for cherry pie, which is as tasty as the goods you’ll find in the attached bakery. (920) 746-8727; scaturos.com
Where to stay
Bay Shore Inn You’ll find this condo-style resort just 3 miles north of town on the shore of Sturgeon Bay. All of the rooms have water views. (800) 556-4551; bayshoreinn.net
Inn at Cedar Crossing The rooms are a bit dated, but the downtown brick building has an ultrahandy location, and people come from all around for breakfast. (920) 743-4200; innatcedarcrossing.com
Scofield House Bed and Breakfast Get a taste of Sturgeon Bay’s signature Victorian B&Bs here. The white chocolate cherry scones made us forget all others. (920) 743-7727; scofieldhouse.com
Fall foliage near Sturgeon Bay.
For more information: Door County Visitor Bureau (800) 527-3529; doorcounty.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2013. Prices, dates and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)