Day Trip: Ellison Bay
Art, culture and spectacular views in a Door County square mile
Your tour guide: Robert Murray, Cana Light Communications
Question: Where in North America--within one square mile--can you find the highest inland bluff overlooking the largest inland bay in the lower 48 states, a world-famous folk school founded by America's foremost landscape architect, a rare-book seller stocking over 100,000 volumes and an international emporium specializing in ancient Asian arts and artifacts?
Answer: Ellison Bay, Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is shaped like a mitten, its "thumb" poking up between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. These two great inland bodies of water meet at the top of the thumb, creating crosscurrents that have doomed many a vessel. As long ago as the 1600s, in the day of French explorer Jean Nicolet, this earned the passage the moniker "Porte des Morts," or "Death's Door." Thence came the eventual name of the peninsula--Door County. Ellison Bay is a mile-long, mile-wide notch on the northwest coast of the peninsula.
Settled by Danish immigrant Johan Eliason in 1866, the hamlet of Ellison Bay is an easy two-hour drive north of the Green Bay Packers' hometown on Highway 42. The hamlet is cuddled at the base of the Big Bluff, the highest inland outcropping of the Niagara Escarpment in the United States. As you crest the Big Bluff plateau, to your right you will see the white gables of Shepherd of the Bay church, harboring one of the finest pipe organs in North America. Then to your left unfurls one of the most breathtaking vistas in all of Door County--the new Grand View Scenic Overlook and Park public nature preserve--sweeping out to the wispy shoreline of western Michigan some 30 miles away.
Should you arrive on the last Friday in June, you'll be immersed in "Olde Ellison Bay Days," a festival that has celebrated the coming of summer in Door County for the past 46 years. Friday evening, you can catch a talent show at the church. Saturday morning, watch the Grand Parade roll down the Ellison Bay grade. During the weekend, stroll the Arts & Crafts Fair, savor root beer floats and strawberry shortcake like grandma used to make, and enjoy activities for the entire family, ranging from an all-comers "water golf" shoot-out by day to street dancing and fireworks by night.
Okay, that's stretching a Day Trip. But if you really have only a day, make it a full one because there are nice surprises galore here. And pleasant places to stay if you arrive the night before, including the Hotel Disgarden, a vintage 1902 hostel (now a B&B) featuring original pioneer-era stovewood construction.
Next morning, kick off your day with a hearty breakfast at Mink River Basin Supper Club, a 1920s dance hall now known for its "up-home" American food and drink. Just steps away, you'll find an eclectic collection of artisans' studios and galleries, including Linden Gallery, a treasure trove of Asian artifacts, some over 2,000 years old. Across the way is the Pioneer Store, a born-again village market dating back to the early 1900s, stocking most everything, from BBQ makings to suntan lotion and curative Door County tart cherry juice.
Opposite the Pioneer Store is The Viking Grill, featured in the 2010 film "Feed the Fish," where you can enjoy a leisurely luncheon on your way to Wm. Caxton Ltd., Bookseller & Publisher a few doors away. There you may browse to your heart's content rare tomes and collectors' editions under the seemingly all-knowing gaze of ebullient founder and curator, Kubet Luchterhand.
From Kubie's, turn left on Highway 42 then bear left up Garrett Bay Road about a quarter mile to a "private" drive marked The Clearing. This woodland byway meanders another quarter mile or so through sun-dappled cedars and birch to the world-renowned folk school founded by Jens Jensen in the 1930s. A Frank Lloyd Wright contemporary and sometime collaborator, Jensen is remembered as his peer in landscape architecture, and little wonder. This rustic retreat is, itself, a work of art.
Finally, your aesthetic pallet having been cleansed at The Clearing, prepare for a delicious dining decision: vintage Wisconsin or classic European? If your taste buds are inclined to traditional Great Lakes fare, you can return to The Viking Grill for Door County's original Fish Boil. Or continue through town and up the hill to Ellison Bay's Pasta Vino Ristorante on your left for possibly the best Italian cuisine this side of Firenze.
We look forward to your visit. PREGO!