Before “Ike” (that’s President Eisenhower, kids) gave America the wonders of the interstate, four lanes and 70 mph to everywhere, we didn’t have I-43 to speed us to Door County. it was a true journey. But that wasn’t all bad.

There was a time people drove “up the Michigan Coast” and entered through a back door. It was slower, to be sure, but it was good. You met Lake Michigan sooner. There were one-of-a-kind roadside attractions. Beaches. Fishing boats. Supper clubs. Art. Travel was adventure. My friends call this area, affectionately, “The Dairyland Riviera.”

And in autumn, nature’s color-show, azure skies and frosty air make it all the more compelling.

Start in Sheboygan, home of scrumptious German sausages. Bratwurst is an art form here. Locals say you can’t beat the brats at Schultz’s on Calumet Drive. But Sheboygan also showcases other artists. Don’t miss cutting-edge contemporary exhibits at John Michael Kohler Art Center. Admission is free. Don’t leave without visiting the six world-renowned artist-designed restrooms. Really. You must! Love ocean views? Drive east to the lake and follow Broughton Drive north. While it’s not Malibu, Sheboygan’s North Point gets huge waves in autumn making it a favorite Midwest surfing destination. The Midwest Surf Classic is held here every Labor Day weekend.

Head west to North 15th Street and turn north (right). County Road “LS” is a favorite autumn drive skirting Lake Michigan farms, pastures, woodlots and shoreline all the way to Manitowoc.

At about 5.5 miles is Kohler’s spectacular Whistling Straits Golf Course. Pete Dye sculpted it along Lake Michigan to resemble a traditional British Isles links-style challenge. Now Straits’ wind, sand, surf and nature “have their way” with golfers of all skill levels. A herd of black-faced sheep roam the grounds. The course hosted PGA Championships in 2004 and 2010 and the 2007 U.S. Senior Open. It will host the 2015 PGA Championship, August 10-16, and the 2020 Ryder Cup Matches, U.S. vs Europe. Even non-golfers appreciate the Irish-style clubhouse and links panorama. Pull up a chair on the patio, breathe lake air, be captivated by the glistening waters. Watch golfers and white-uniformed caddies negotiate undulating fairways, gnarly fescue fields and testy sand-spits trying to reach the 18th hole, named, appropriately, “Dyeabolical.” Whistling Straits’ restaurant is known for traditional, hearty Irish Pub fare. Try Sherry-infused Leek Soup, Rack of Lamb and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Superb!

Cruise north on “LS” toward Manitowoc through the hamlet of Cleveland. Enjoy lake views, dairy farms, cottages and country lake estates along the way. Open the windows, smell sea air, hear shore birds call. Fisheries, fields and autumn roadside markets give this quiet back road the natural, unpretentious ambiance Door County was known for 50 years ago — before the world discovered “the Cape Cod of the Midwest.”

In Manitowoc, “LS” becomes 10th Street. At 2000 South 10th a huge cow greets visitors to Cedar Crest Ice Cream Parlour. Cones, sundaes and malts are calling your name.

Stay on 10th to Washington Street then jog right to 8th Street. The Courthouse Pub on the corner is known for steak, seafood and craft beers. Continue through downtown Manitowoc across the draw bridge to Maritime Drive. Turn right to Wisconsin Maritime Museum, displaying artifacts and exhibits celebrating Great Lakes shipping history. During World War II Manitowoc built submarines. Squeeze down into the retired USS Cobia permanently docked here. You’ll leave with a deep appreciation for the courage and sacrifice of those young sailors of “The Greatest Generation” who went off and saved the world.

A few blocks away is Rahr-West Art Museum, recently named one of the “Best Small Town Art Museums in America” by Travel + Leisure magazine. The collection includes works by O’Keeffe, Warhol, Picasso and other notables. On Sept. 5, 1962, a smoldering hunk of Soviet satellite Sputnik IV crash-landed on 8th Street in front of the museum. A replica is on display. Admission is free.

Follow Maritime Drive north from the Maritime Museum, past the Manitowoc Yacht Club at Lakeview Park. Watch for the SS Badger, the last of the Great Lakes car ferries. The 6,650-ton boat takes 140 cars and 600 passengers 60 miles across the lake in four hours to Ludington, Mich., May to October.

Continue on Maritime Drive to join Highway 42 north. The paved recreational path along the lakeshore is the Mariner Trail, a favorite of bikers, walkers and skaters. Six miles north is Two Rivers and Washington House, the “real birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae.” Stay on Highway 42 through town to 22nd Street. As 42 turns left (north) continue straight onto County Highway O 4.8 miles to Point Beach State Forest. Drive in to see Rawley Point Lighthouse built in 1853. Hear the surf? Point Beach has six miles of pristine shoreline, toe-dippers welcome! The property covers 3,000 acres and supports 127 campsites, many with electric and water.

Back on Highway O turn right (north) and in 1.8 miles it will swing left, become County Highway V and in two miles meets Highway 42. Turn right on 42 North.

Drive through Wisconsin farm country about 9.3 miles to County Highway J. Turn left (west) on J for six miles to Sleepy Hollow Road. Turn right and ahead is Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery started in 2005 by husband and wife team, Steve Johnson and Maria Milano. They grow “cold climate grapes” like Marechal Foch, Frontenac and Petit Pearl that thrive in Wisconsin. A life-long Packer fan, Steve says their wines provide “a taste of Frozen Tundra!” They’re so good even Bears fans enjoy them!

Return to Sleepy Hollow Road north (left) for about three miles to Highway 29. Turn right (east) for 8.5 miles into Kewaunee to Highway 42. Explore the parks, lakefront and shops then head north on 42. In about 9.5 miles, on your left you’ll see “The Flying Pig” Gallery and Greenspace. This fascinating shop has what co-owners Susan Connor and Robyn Mulhaney call “a relaxed style of contemporary folk art, the works of emerging artists, digital arts and styles a bit beyond the landscape.” Art lovers just say, “Wow!”

Continue on Highway 42 into Algoma, another picture-postcard coastal community that’s poised to emerge as the next Fish Creek or Baileys Harbor. Photographers can’t resist the spectacular harbor and everyone loves a visit to historic Von Stiehl Winery at the lake.

Turn right on Water Street and motor along the shore about four miles on County Highway S to County Highway U. Turn right on “U” and explore another 4.6 miles of classic Great Lakes Shoreline. Welcome to Door County’s “back door!” Stay to the right on South Lake Michigan Drive for about 3.6 miles to Hornspier Road. Take Hornspier left two miles to County Highway S and then go right 4.3 miles on “S” to Highway 42 and 57 at Sturgeon Bay.

Hurrying up the expressway, the masses rush across the bridge thinking, “At last, Door County! We’re there!” Really, you beat them to it. Welcome to Sturgeon Bay. Head for Door County Maritime Museum to get a solid introduction to the peninsula’s rich sea-faring history and a guided tour of the tug, John Purves. Cross the historic Michigan Street Steel Lift Bridge to 3rd Avenue. Discover art galleries, boutiques and excellent restaurants. Settle in. A dozen top-rated bed and breakfast homes like White Lace Inn, Inn at Cedar Crossing or Scofield House make Sturgeon Bay “the B&B Capital of the Midwest.”

Yes, relax. You have been “there” since Sheboygan!

This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Wisconsin magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article. 

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