THE DöRR Offers a Classy Door County Winter Escape
By Brian E. Clark
A cold-weather trip to Door County, Wisconsin can mean having much of the peninsula, its parks, trails and lodging options to yourself.
That’s a far cry from this past summer when it was hard to find a room at any inn on the peninsula. According to James Lohmiller, general manager of the Nordic-inspired THE DöRR in Sister Bay, the 47-room boutique inn was nearly sold out every day from July into the autumn.
But come winter, much of this bony finger of land in the northeastern corner of the Badger State – part of the Niagara Escarpment – takes a breath and is covered in snow and quiet. When a guest and I visited in December, we saw only one other hiker as we trekked on the snowy trails of Ellison Bluff County Park on the Green Bay side of the peninsula and on the boardwalks and paths of the Ridges Sanctuary on the Lake Michigan strand. Other nearly deserted options included Newport State Park, Peninsula State Park and Whitefish Dunes State Park.
And for a game of Scrabble and a glass of wine one chilly evening, we had the Dörr’s cozy lobby and fireplace all to ourselves.
“Don’t get me wrong, summer up here is wonderful,” said Lohmiller. “But it can be crowded. At this time of year, it’s simple and quiet and you can easily find a soft place to land.”
In addition to hiking, he said ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are all popular in the winter on the peninsula.
“Or you can come up here and simply relax,” he added. “Nothing wrong with that at all.”
My friend and I were more than pleased with our choice of the Dörr – a Swedish word that can be translated as either gateway, portal or simply door – which is the first hotel to open on the peninsula in nearly two decades.
Lohmiller said planning for THE DöRR started about five years ago when Chris Schmeltz, a Chicago businessman who is the property’s primary owner, was approached to build a hotel in the village.
A few years prior to that proposal, the village purchased and razed the 50-room Helm’s Four Seasons Resort on the waterfront of Sister Bay to make way for a public beach – with the understanding that another hotel would replace it nearby.
“The village was forward-thinking and said we needed a public beach for families to gather and that also coincided with building the beautiful Sister Bay marina,” he said, noting that builders broke ground for THE DöRR in December of 2019. It opened on Memorial Day of 2021.
Lohmiller said THE DöRR was inspired by the Norse history of the Peninsula, which was settled by many Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Icelanders and even a few Danes in the 1800s.
“We wanted to fill the niche for a luxury, casual boutique hotel while creating a modern Nordic experience that brings people together in a cozy and comfortable setting,” he said. “That was lacking and that’s who we are.”
He said those who worked on the hotel didn’t want to duplicate the Nordic design that is already in place on much of the peninsula.
“There is so much old-school Scandinavia up here,” Lohmiller said. “Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant – which is just up the street here in Sister Bay – really captures that well with its design, Swedish costumes and goats on the sod roof during the summer.”
“What we wanted to do was bring modern Scandinavian architecture and design into 2021. So when you walk into this hotel, you could be in Stockholm, Copenhagen, New York or even Aspen. It’s definitely Door County, but different.”
Lohmiller said he worked closely with designers from Aria Architects of Oak Park, the Chicago suburb that was once home to the esteemed Frank Lloyd Wright, a Wisconsin native and arguably North America’s most famous architect.
Lohmiller, who has a background in art and fashion, said he became involved with the hotel project in 2020.
“When I got my hands on the spec books and saw the interiors, I thought this place was going to be really stunning,” said Lohmiller. “And it is.”
He was “boots on the ground” during construction and said he worked closely with THE DöRR’s designers and architects to help make decisions about the colors, tiles, wall coverings and other aspects of the project.
“It was really a fun effort for me,” explained Lohmiller, who said many of the hotel’s interior walls are covered in Venetian plaster, which is made in part from marble dust.
“Venetian plaster was very popular in the 1970’s and 80’s and is now coming back,” he said. “It’s an expensive process that has been popularized again by Belgian designer Axel Vervoordt. The dark color we used on much of the interior here is quite dramatic.”
My favorite design element of THE DöRR was the fireplace, banked on each side with tall, inset log holders that were filled with white-barked wood cut from the owner’s property in the nearby village of Ephraim.
“The contrast of the white birch with dark Venetian plaster really does pop,” noted Lohmiller, who said designers added a bit of whimsy to the hotel by adding umlauts (two dots over the ö) above the room numbers’ zeros.
Rates in the summer at THE DöRR – which has nine suites, 22 king rooms and 14 double queen rooms – range from $500 a night for the premier suite to $400 for a king suite to $180 for a room that doesn’t face Green Bay.
In the winter, however, the prices fall to $95 a night for the least expensive lodging to $250 a night for a suite.
Lohmiller acknowledged that one downside of winter is that some of the peninsula’s restaurants are closed for the season.
“But not all, and our staff will certainly help guests find good ones that are open,” he said.
Lohmiller said the big greensward in front of the hotel was used for everything from weddings to lawn games to a place for “plen aire” artists to work their magic during the summer. Other activities will be added come June or July, he added.
“We’ve had a remarkable first year,” he said. “And we couldn’t have done it without our incredible staff, especially the folks in housekeeping.”
Lohmiller said lots of first-time visitors came to Door County from around the Midwest in 2020 because of the pandemic. Many of them returned in 2021 along with long-time guests, which meant that THE DöRR was more than 95 percent full from July through October.
“The peninsula broke every record in the books,” he said. “We’d like to think we added a wonderful new destination for visitors who are looking for something different. And they responded.”
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.