St. Paul Pioneer Press

Jul 9 2016

Pack the cooler, create the perfect playlist and head across the border — it’s road trip season. We all love our Minnesota summers, but with the lower gas prices, it might be the right time to explore our neighbor Wisconsin. On two recent hosted trips, I explored Green Lake County and vacation hot spot Door County. Much to my surprise, I learned the St. Paul influence clearly has touched the land of green and gold.


Green Lake County is in central Wisconsin and includes the communities of Berlin, Green Lake, Princeton and Ripon. The county is home to Green Lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin at 237 feet. Remarkably, the lake usually does not freeze over until late January, making it an interesting but challenging lake for ice fishing enthusiasts.

There are many wonderful cottages and resorts in Green Lake County. During my visit, I spent my time at the Heidle House Resort and Spa. It sits alongside Wisconsin’s oldest golf course, Tuscumbia Golf Course, which opened in 1896.

I checked out the Evensong Spa on the property for a day of yoga and a relaxing stone massage. The spa also has a peaceful indoor labyrinth.

The county is home to many wineries, distilleries and breweries. One of my favorites was the Hendricks Family Distillery, a small family-owned operation that distills handcrafted bottles of spirits. You may have seen its artistic bottles of Pür Class potato vodka at a few local watering holes in St. Paul.

For outdoor enthusiasts, options include biking, canoeing and hiking along the shores of Green Lake.

Ripon has loads of small-town charm with interesting shops, restaurants and Knuth Brewery. The brewery is hyper local and is perhaps one step above a home brewer. The owners are committed to churning out extremely small batches of hand-brewed beer for the locals.

I ate lunch at the Treasury, located in a converted bank building on Ripon’s main street. We sat in the bank’s original vault that had all of the feeling of what life must have been like when the art deco bank building was built in 1934. The lead bartender at the Treasury said he learned much of his mixology knowledge working at O’Malley’s Pub in Woodbury.

The menu was perfectly crafted with big-city flavor and a dash of small-town sensibility. I am officially obsessed with executive chef Patrick Isajiw’s chicken fried brussel sprouts — mint, sesame seeds, honey and peanuts all cooked in chicken-fried breading.

Boerson Farm in Green Lake County in Wisconsin is run by Matt and Danielle Boerson and welcomes visitors. (Boerson Farm)

My trip was capped off by a visit to Boerson Farm, an 80-acre certified organic farm tucked into the rural fabric of Green Lake County. Matt and Danielle Boerson of Princeton, Wis., farm the land and are committed to a very traditional way of farming. The farm has an active community-supported agriculture business and provides produce to many of the local businesses, including the Treasury.

The Minnesota connections continue there, too. Matt attended the University of Minnesota and was an avid supporter of the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, and Danielle worked at St. Paul’s SteppingStone Theatre.


I’m not sure why it took me so long to visit this destination, often called the Cape Cod of the Midwest. Visitors to Door County will find a variety of lodging choices from vintage hotels and inns to historic bed-and-breakfasts to luxury waterfront suites and cottages. I stayed at the Eagle Harbor Inn in the town of Ephraim.

A quick geographic lesson: Hold up your hand and you will have a visual example of the shape of Wisconsin. Door County is your thumb. If I had a dime for every time someone did this visual for me while visiting the area, I would be a wealthy man.

Door County has about 2 million visitors a year who explore its 19 municipalities, 34 islands and 11 lighthouses. What it doesn’t have is a McDonald’s or a Starbucks. The county is devoid of any such chains.

Several lighhouses populate Door County, Wis., including Eagle Bluff Lighthouse at Peninsula State Park. (Door County Visitor Bureau)

If you are looking for a relaxed stay that includes nature walks, performances at local theaters and fine dining, you’re in luck. If you are looking for a family vacation filled with beaches, ice cream shops and dining choices with storytellers, that’s covered, too.

I decided to explore the state parks, Lake Michigan and a few orchards and breweries. Door County encompasses a large area with its multiple counties and five state parks, so one of the best ways to get the lay of the land is to board the Door County Trolley for a narrated scenic tour.

A trip to the area is not complete without a visit to one of its many cherry orchards. I visited the Orchard County Winery & Market in Fish Creek, where workers freshly pick and package Montmorency cherries. For fun, this orchard has a cherry-pit-spitting area, where visitors can try to break the pit record: 38.4 feet. (I’m proud to say I hit the 38-foot mark!)

The area is also home to Peninsula State Park, 3,776 acres that offer hiking, biking, boating, swimming and camping options. I spent the afternoon kayaking to Horseshoe Island while admiring the dramatic cliffs surrounding the park.

Later, I visited Door County Brewing to see how the brewery explosion has tapped into this market. This place appears to be a home run for the McMahon family. Mom, dad and the two brothers run the place, which is hipster from door to tap, in a very natural and organic way.

And here are more St. Paul connections.

Youngest brother Ben McMahon attended St. Paul’s McNally Smith College of Music and is the spokesman for the brewery. Ben also books the music for the joint, bringing in many former classmates to take the stage. And Ben’s brother Danny went to St. Paul’s Hamline College.

It’s been a fast road to success for the family. Danny started brewing beer as a hobby while at Hamline and has been brewing at the current location since 2013. You can swing by the Happy Gnome on Selby Aveune in St. Paul to taste this Belgian beer from Door County. I certainly have since returning from my Wisconsin road trip.

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