A vacation in Door County, Wisconsin, is a chance to experience the pleasures of a simpler time. Plus: three other Great Lakes escapes just right for families.

Door County
Credit: Photograph by Jason Lindsey

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.

Places to Go

Newport State Park. Watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan, handle fossils at the interpretive center, and hike on 28 miles of trails in this 2,300-acre-plus wilderness area. Ellison Bay, dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/newport/

The Ridges Sanctuary. Study dragonflies, try geocaching, and help tag Monarch butterflies at Wisconsin's first land trust. Baileys Harbor, ridgessanctuary.org

Peninsula State Park. Experience this 3,776-acre state park by foot, bike, or boat, see a show at the outdoor American Folklore Theater, and play all day at Nicolet Bay Beach. Fish Creek, dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/peninsula/

Waterfront Park. Rent kayaks to explore this new park along 2,000 feet of shoreline. Sister Bay, sisterbaywi.gov/Parks.htm

Things to Do

The Farm. At this rural museum, kids can hold kittens, feed pigs, and milk a goat. Sturgeon Bay, thefarmindoorcounty.com

Washington Island Ferry. Cross Death's Door via a half-hour ride to Washington Island for kayaking, cycling, and a Cherry Train Tour on an open-air tram. Northport Pier, wisferry.com

Door County Maritime Museum. Don pirate garb, explore a pirate ship, and view pirate paintings at the waterfront museum's newest exhibit. Sturgeon Bay, dcmm.org

Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP). Plays, concerts, and student workshops are on tap all year round. Sturgeon Bay, thirdavenueplayhouse.com

Where to Eat

Fred & Fuzzy's Waterfront Bar & Grill. Enjoy juicy burgers and awesome views at outdoor tables along Green Bay. Sister Bay, fredandfuzzys.com

Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard and Restaurant. Pose for goofy photos while enjoying this famed treat. Fish Creek, notlickedyet.com

The Village Café. Try a cherry jack wrap (smoked turkey with dried cherries and Monterey jack cheese) at this art-filled eatery. Egg Harbor, villagecafe-doorcounty.com

Renard's Cheese Store and Deli. Don't miss the cherry-cheddar cheese and flavored cheese curds (peanut-size bites made from milk solids) at the family-owned shop, flanked by a statue of a smiling mouse atop a cheddar wheel. Sturgeon Bay, renardscheese.com

Yum Yum Tree. Our favorite place for homemade ice cream, fudge, and caramels. Baileys Harbor, 920-839-2993

Schopf's Hilltop Dairy. Tour the milking parlor, pose by colossal Cookie the cow, and try Cookie Crunch ice cream (vanilla mixed with Butterfinger and Snickers bars). Sturgeon Bay, dairyview.com

Culver's. Driving to Door County from Milwaukee or Chicago? Take a break at this franchise famous for ButterBurgers (beef patties on a toasted, buttered bun) and a mind-blowing assortment of frozen custard (including Turtle Cheesecake and Chocolate Oreo Volcano). Many locations, culvers.com

Where to Stay

Cottage rentals. Try Door County Cottages (doorcountycottages.com), Door County Property Management (rentdoorcounty.com), and Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com).

Glidden Lodge Beach Resort. About two miles south of Whitefish Dunes State Park, the lodge offers one-, two-, and three-bedroom condos, an indoor pool, and a sandy beach. Sturgeon Bay, gliddenlodge.com

Gordon Lodge. Reserve a large lodge room or one-bedroom suite at this 130-acre retreat with a private sandy beach. Use of kayaks, paddleboats, bikes, and fishing poles included. Baileys Harbor, gordonlodge.com

More Great Lakes Escapes

Munising, Michigan

By Deborah R. Huso

I never thought I'd find a place in the United States with water as perfectly aqua blue as the Caribbean. Then I discovered Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, just east of Munising on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Chapel Beach, my family's pick for water fun, is located near the sandstone formation of Chapel Rock and adjacent to the famous cliffs. Our adventure starts with the easy three-mile hike in from the parking area off Chapel Road. For swimming we can reach by car, we head to Twelvemile Beach.

No trip here would be complete without some kayaking on Lake Superior, gliding within touching distance of 200-foot sandstone walls painted with mineral stripes of copper, blue, and green. Outfitter Northern Waters (northernwaters.com) provides guided trips (if your children weigh less than 75 pounds, call ahead), which let you peer down at sunken shipwrecks.

For a full-day hike, we like the ten-mile Chapel-Mosquito loop, with a picnic lunch overlooking the archway at Grand Portal Point. The Au Sable Light Station is a favorite, too. Hike along the beach trail to see old shipwrecks washed onto the sand. Visitor information: munising.org. Rental cottages: homeaway.com and vrbo.com. National Lakeshore campgrounds: nps.gov/piro

Traverse City, Michigan

By Tammy Stables Battaglia

Our sons -- Jimmy, age 11, and Zach, 14 -- always look forward to a trip up north to Traverse City, at the pinky tip of Michigan's mitt. The reason: nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The boys love running along the wooden walkways to the jaw-dropping 450-foot bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan. At the nearby Dune Climb, we all hike up, then slide, roll, and tumble back down in the soft sand.

Along with shops, wineries, and restaurants, beaches are the draw at Traverse City. Busy Clinch Park Beach is right downtown; the spectacular shore of Leelanau State Park is a terrific place for wading, swimming, and hunting for Petoskey Stones, fossilized coral with starlike designs.

To get out on the water, the boys "crew" on the 47-foot Nauti-Cat catamaran (nauti-cat.com). When the kids were small and we all fit in one canoe, we'd take floats down the Platte River to the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. Now a tube is their transportation of choice.

Lodging in Traverse City runs from high-end resorts like the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa (grandtraverseresort.com) to mom-and-pop motels and campgrounds, to rental cottages. Visitor information: traversecity.com and michigan.org. National Lakeshore: nps.gov/slbe

Madeline Island, Wisconsin

By Laura Billings Coleman

Many of Lake Superior's beaches aren't just cool -- they're downright cold. That's why my family loves Madeline Island, a 25-minute ferry ride from Bayfield, Wisconsin. Here, the 22-island Apostle chain provides protected conditions for playing in the waves and paddling kayaks. In the evening, we can pedal bikes to the historic village of La Pointe for pizza and ice cream.

There's not much else to do on Madeline Island, but that's part of its charm. For our three sons -- ages 7, 9, and 11 -- the 35 square miles equal one big playground, great for nature walks through wetlands and boreal forests, treasure hunts at Chequamegon Bay, and stargazing and s'more-making at the island's two campgrounds. On rainy days we go back in time at the Madeline Island Historical Museum or visit the old school turned public library for a good book (like Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House, the story of a young Ojibwa girl growing up here in the 1800s). Just beware that you may end up on island time. "I can never remember what day it is here," my 11-year-old mused during our last visit, a sure sign of a successful family getaway. Visitor information and lodging options: madelineisland.com. Ferry details: madferry.com

Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of FamilyFun

Family Fun