Door County’s White Gull Inn: A Fish Creek delight
Story & photos by Brian E. Clark
Northern Door County’s charming White Gull Inn (whitegullinn.com) is on Main Street in Fish Creek. But not on the main drag, a key distinction.
Rather, it’s tucked away on a quiet road, an idyllic location bordered on two sides by parks and an intimate city park that provides a restful space to view the inviting waters of Green Bay
So when a guest and I shared a recent weekend at the hotel, which dates to the late 1800s, we were well away from the traffic that flows through town on Highway 42, which also doubles as Main Street.
That meant we could sit on our veranda, sip coffee that was delivered to our door, and enjoy birdsong, butterflies and children’s laughter instead of vehicle noise.
But there’s much more that attracts visitors to the White Gull Inn – which dates to 1896 and consists of several buildings for a total of 17 rooms – than its location beside the Episcopal Church of Atonement’s lovely grounds and nearby Sunset Park.
The main structure, a hotel built by German doctor Hermann Welker, was originally named after his wife, Henriette. He also owned a casino down the street, now a hostelry known as the Whistling Swan.
The White Gull Inn, crowned with a broad, second-story balcony, has a cozy feel and beautifully landscaped surroundings that gives guests a feeling that they’ve stepped back into a slower time. (At least that’s how we felt.)
It’s been updated in an understated way, though, so the men’s and women’s bathrooms are now ensuite, no longer requiring a trek down the hall in the main building. There are also gas fireplaces in many of the rooms. And the four-suite Welker building – which was erected 20 years ago but looks it could also be from 1896 – even has two-person jet tubs for those seeking a bit of warm luxury.
Moreover, the food is excellent. The inn gained fame in 2010 when the Good Morning America television program named its Cherry Stuffed French Toast the best breakfast in the country for that year. The inn’s fish boils are also popular as are the candle-light dinners offered several nights a week.
I had the inn’s signature and delicious, cherry topped French Toast with Door County maple syrup both mornings, and the evening meal of baked salmon graced with string beans, ending with a delightful finish of ice-cream topped fruit crumble.
“That ‘Best Breakfast Challenge’ award really put us on the map nationally,” said Meredith Coulson-Kanter, whose parents owned the inn from 1981 to 2018, when Meredith and her husband, Chris, bought the property.
Meredith pretty much grew up at the White Gull Inn with her two sisters helping their folks with various tasks. (One sibling now is a winemaker in eastern Washington State, while the other owns a restaurant in Orange County, Ca.)
“I worked as a busser, my mom’s retail assistant and a prep cook,” Meredith said. But that fell off when she went to college and veterinary medicine school because her summer jobs needed to be related to her chosen career.
She toiled for seven years as an emergency room veterinarian, often working night shifts at a clinic in Madison, WI. But the inn drew her back six years ago after a year’s sabbatical at the University of Wisconsin, during which she received a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems.
“Even though I became a vet, I always envisioned myself being here eventually,” she said. “However, I wasn’t quite sure how that would work out after going to school for 12 years for something else and having all my students loans.”
During her sabbatical, her parents began talking about selling the inn, which alarmed Meredith and her siblings.
“We didn’t want that to happen, but we couldn’t just drop what we were doing,” she said. “As it turned out, my folks lost their long-time kitchen manager around the same time. I filled in and after six months, it became clear that this was where I wanted to be long term.”
Her husband, Chris, who was working on his Phd thesis in dairy economics at UW-Madison when they moved north, signed on, too. In 2018, they bought the inn from Meredith’s parents.
When my guest and I visited Fish Creek in July, the inn was relatively busy with travelers beginning to come out of their pandemic shells. All the staff at the hotel and restaurant wore face masks and tables in the restaurant were at least six feet apart.
We explored the town, strolled through the grounds of the Church of Atonement and Sunset Park, watched the sun set on the bay and viewed lovely sailboats in the town’s marina.
But we didn’t stay entirely in Fish Creek during our visit. One evening, we ventured north a few miles to Sister Bay, where we boarded the Edith Becker (saildoorcounty.com), a 65-foot sailboat that’s a replica of a late 1800s’ merchant schooner for a sunset outing.
Once out of the marina, two hearty young deckhands – following the commands of Captain Andy Hallett – raised the canvas sails over our heads on the schooner’s two masts. As we sailed past forested hillsides and rocky shores, the captain told us that Herb and Doris Smith, who penned the book “Sailing Three Oceans,” built the ship in the early 1980s and named it Appledore III.
In 1984, the couple and some paying crew members set off to circumnavigate the globe. They then sold the ship, built another and did it again. And again…
Peder Nelson, a former Chicago school teacher and avid sailor, purchased the ship nine years ago and renamed it for his great grandmother Edith Becker, who spent her entire life in Door County.
After two hours, the sun slipped behind the western horizon and we headed back to the marina. But not before the deckhands fired off a small cannon to dramatically announce our return.
“It’s fun to captain this boat,” said Hallet, a science teacher at Gibraltar High School when he’s not sailing. “She really does feel like a piece of history, even if she isn’t 130 years old.”
For more information on Fish Creek, Sister Bay and Door County see doorcounty.com.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.