My Piggly Wiggly T-shirt bears the image of a sweet-cheeked pig in a white paper counter boy's cap. When I wear it, I am transported to a summer day in Door County, the 70-mile-long peninsula that juts out like a melting popsicle into Lake Michigan from the eastern shore of Wisconsin. The shirt, from a Door County grocery store, was an anniversary present from my Cheesehead husband, who first introduced me to the area's charms nearly two decades ago. Since then we've returned dozens of times, in recent years sharing the tradition with our children, Cady and Hudson.
Named for the nearby strait where so many shipwrecks occurred that sailors called it Death's Door, the county has 300 miles of shoreline, 53 swimming beaches, 34 outlying islands, 24 state and county parks, and 11 lighthouses. While it's possible, even in the busy summer season, to drive for miles on some back roads and pass only a few cars, the area's shoreline towns draw boatloads of visitors -- literally. Families dock their vessels at the town piers to explore tidy villages with appealing names: Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Fish Creek.
As our kids have grown, so too has the scope of our Door County adventures. When they were toddlers, Cady and Hudson loved feeding bottles to baby goats at the Farm, a rural museum with plenty of hands-on activities. As grade-schoolers, they begged to spend evenings eating popcorn on the hood of the car at the retro Skyway Drive-in Theatre. These days, 11-year-old Hudson and 14-year-old Cady prefer wakeboarding and tubing on Clark Lake with their cousins, although they never tire of old favorites: sipping homemade root beer at Wilson's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, posing by the humongous cow at Schopf's Hilltop Dairy, marveling at the pyrotechnics of the fish boil at Pelletier's.
All this touristy fun isn't the only reason my family keeps coming back. We've found that Door County's low-key vibe actually brings out our better nature. Electronics stay stowed as we take a country drive, the kind of bygone pleasure we rarely take time for back home in Connecticut. As we pass by dairy farms and cherry orchards, we have fun spotting the mom-and-pop shops that sound like they were plucked from a board game: Yum Yum Tree, Jorns' Sugar Bush, the Chocolate Chicken.
Development has altered Door County's character in some spots, but it remains the wholesome, rural gem I encountered when Bryan introduced me to its riches years ago. Now it's that rarest of places where our whole family truly unwinds. That makes Door County's playful spirit all the more endearing with each visit. And it keeps my Piggly Wiggly T-shirt all the more meaningful to me.
For more tips and to learn about 3 more great lakes escapes, see the next page.