Cherries and Lavender are a Door County Draw
Story by Brian E. Clark
Wisconsin’s Door County has long been famed for its cherries.
And I’ve eaten more than a few on visits over the past two decades to this finger-shaped peninsula that sticks out into the northwest corner of Lake Michigan. The best cherry laced repast I’ve tasted was French toast from Fish Creek’s White Gull Inn.
But I’d never picked any. Not until this August on a trip with a friend that also took us to Washington Island off the northern tip of Door County, to gather a sprig or three of lavender.
Our digs for the visit were the historic Maxwelton Braes Lodge just outside of Baileys Harbor on the less-visited and quieter east side of the peninsula. Built in the 1930s by a wealthy Chicagoan, it sits in the midst of an 18-hole golf course and also features tennis and pickleball courts.
The lodge is trimmed with limestone in many places and adorned inside with numerous photos of golfers from 80 years ago. We made good use of its cozy fireplace one rainy morning, waiting for a storm to pass while playing Scrabble.
As for the unusual name of the lodge, it came from the first line of the Irish song, “Annie Laurie,” which a lodge investor reportedly heard during dinner at the posh Edgewater Gulf Hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi. In the tune, a homesick singer croons “Maxwelton Braes (riverbanks) are bonnie.”
On our first night, we dined at the cozy Chives Restaurant on Main Street in Baileys Harbor. I’d gotten to know this town a bit years before on a scuba diving sojourn to explore the sunken steamer Frank O’Conner, which went down in Lake Michigan 100 years ago in 65 feet of water.
We stayed out of the water on this trip and enjoyed a dinner of grilled shrimp and king salmon served with aplomb by waitress Maggie Sauls, a tall and friendly redhead. We topped off our meal with a dessert of golden raspberries, amaretto ice cream and biscotti before talking a moonlight promenade around this village of 1,000 souls.
We were up early the next morning to catch the ferry from the northern tip of the peninsula to Washington Island. Our destination was the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm, which is owned by Martine and Edgar Anderson.
They are anything but your typical Wisconsin farmers: Martine was born in France, grew up in Africa and had a long career working in this country with Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Her spouse grew up in Honduras, studied architecture in Florida and traveled the globe working as a top executive for McDonald’s.
The couple had planned to enjoy their retirement on the island after they remodeled a home there. Instead, they developed what is now one of the largest lavender farms in the Midwest, boasting more than 20,00 plants, a distilling operation, cafe and shop.
We strolled the lovely gardens, lunched on quiche and pasta, and then topped it off with ice cream laced with lavender before heading off to visit a wooden stave church. Patterned after a “stavkirke” built in Borgund, Norway in 1150, it was one of more than 1,000 such churches that once existed in Scandinavia. Today, only 33 remain in Norway and one in Sweden.
Perhaps appropriately, we met a couple (she was Swedish and he Norwegian) who were visiting the Lutheran stave church on an outing from their home in the Twin Cities.
Then it was on to Schoolhouse Beach on the northwest corner of the island. Named for a wooden, one-room school that once stood nearby, the popular beach has no sand. Rather, it consists of countless smooth-and-white limestone rocks that are pleasant to walk on – though spreading out a blanket without a cushion underneath can be a bit uncomfortable.
Polished by glaciers and tumbled by lake waves over millennia, the pretty rocks are ideal for stacking in cairns. The ivory-colored stones proved so popular that taking them home has been prohibited – backed up with a fine of $250.
We made our way back to the mainland on the ferry later that afternoon, wandered around Sister Bay on the west side of the peninsula and watched children frolic in the water. We also checked out sailboats in the marina, one of my favorite pastimes.
We chose Wild Tomatoes for dinner and got a ringside seat to view pizza makers tossing flattened dough high in the air before covering each pie with a variety of sauces, meats, veggies, and spices.
We saved the best for the last of the trip. Once Sunday morning’s thunderstorm passed and the Scrabble game was over (I lost), we headed to Ephraim, home to Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor – a Door County institution since 1906.
We ducked under a red-and-white-striped awning, reviewed Wilson’s numerous ice cream options and decided to split a large vanilla cone that was laced with cherries. Then we retired to a bench on the lawn in front of the Viking-inspired Ephraim town hall to listen to tunes by a local band of folkies known as the Eclectics because their playlist was, well, eclectic. And toe-tapping fun.
When the last of the ice cream was consumed, we headed north to Carlson’s Island View Orchard near Sister Bay, which was brimming with cherry laden trees. We got pails from the Wildwood Market, which is housed in a refurbished migrant workers’ bunkhouse on the edge of the orchard and headed for the cherry trees as dusk arrived. The bunkhouse, interestingly, had once been home to dozens of migrant African-American pickers who came north for the harvest prior to World War II. During the war, it housed German POWs.
We found several heavily laden trees and – after sampling more than a few tart cherries – filled our pails. Within 45 minutes, we’d gathered five pounds of the fruit – a slow pace that would have gotten us fired as pickers, for sure.
But we didn’t care. And since we’ve returned to our homes in Madison, the cherries have disappeared into cobblers, crisps and smoothies. And as much as I’d wanted to make cherry jam, well, we just didn’t harvest enough.
So, note to myself for another Door County trip next late summer: Get additional pails, ya dummy. They hold more cherries.
For more information on other things to see and do in 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.