SleighRideDoor County, Wisconsin, is a popular family vacation destination for Chicagoans who celebrate its warm-weather charms in the summer.

Turns out the Door County, Wisconsin, peninsula has lots of cold-weather charms as well. Hiking, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, sleigh rides, hot tubs and fine dining are all there, without the crowds and high prices that can be a turn off in the summer.

The county gets its name from the strait between the peninsula and the islands off its northern end, dubbed Porte de Mortes by the French, for Door of the Dead. The locals later shortened it to the more palatable Door County. The county, about 45 miles northeast of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a peninsula 70 miles long and less than 10 miles wide. Lake Michigan is on the east side, Green Bay on the west. There are five state parks and more than a dozen county parks for hiking, biking and boating during the summer months and snowshoeing, cross country skiing, tubing, sleigh rides and ice fishing in the winter.

TubingThe county is stocked with charming bed and breakfasts and a couple of larger hotel resort properties, including the Landmark Resort, an all-condo development that is undergoing a much-needed facelift. I stayed there as a guest of the Door County Visitor Bureau during a December press trip.

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have been to Door County, but only in the summer and fall high seasons. If I hadn’t been invited, it never would have occurred to me to visit in the winter. But I’m very glad I did.

What to Do

This county is all about the outdoors. With so many state and county parks and miles of beach and lakefront, there’s no reason to stay inside, even if it is pretty darn cold outside.

snowshoes.jpgSnowshoeing: Stop first at Nor Door Sports & Cyclery nordoorsports.com to rent your snowshoes ($4 for the first hour, $2 for each additional hour or $15 for the day). I had expected the snowshoes to look like tennis rackets I would strap to my feet, but it turns out snowshoes are much more modern these days. We headed to Peninsula State Park and strapped on the snowshoes. It took a few steps to get used to the idea of walking with the snowshoes, but after that, it was a walk in the woods. A beautiful, peaceful, soul-filling walk in the woods.

Cross-Country Skiing: The ski trails weren’t opened yet when I visited, but Nor Door also rents skis ($12/day for adults; $10/day for kids) and the parks have groomed ski trails.

handson.jpgHands On Art Studio: This is the coolest place I have visited in a long time. It’s like a paint-you-own-pottery place on steroids. In this farm-turned-art-studio, you can spend an hour or a day making art. You can paint a pot, glassware, or wood, can make a mosaic, jewelry or metal sculpture or learn to weld. A little nervous that your arts muse will fail you? No problem. The Hands On Arts Studio is all about having fun. So relax. Your art will turn out just fine. (Mine did and I’m no artist.) The studio fee is $7 and additional costs are sold per piece, which start at $3. Best of all, you create and the staff does the icky work, such as grouting the mosaics and firing the pottery. Everything is ready for pick up the next day.

Shopping: This is the land of art galleries and boutiques. Many of these shops close for the winter, but there are enough still open to keep a shopper trolling for deals.

Get to know the locals: This is so much easier in the winter when folks have more time to chat. Door County is filled with friendly, quirky, entrepreneurial people, most of whom moved here from somewhere else. Some of my faves: Cy Turnbladh, owner of Hands On Art Studio; Susan Guthrie, owner of Bluefront Cafe, and Jon Jarosh, director of Communications and PR for the Door County Visitor Bureau and star of the fun “Explore the Door” videos on the CVB Web site.

Where to Stay
whitegull.jpgDoor County is dotted with charming bed and breakfasts, inns, cottages, more traditonal motels and larger resort properties. If you’re traveling without children, opt for a bed and breakfast. Some have rooms with fireplaces, two-person hot tubs and gourmet breakfasts. Some accept children (generally older kids are preferred), but the charms of a B&B are lost on most kids.

If you’re traveling with kids, consider one of the larger resort properties. I stayed at the Landmark Resort. www.thelandmarkresort.com It’s an all-condo property, which means it has the amenities families need most: separate bedrooms, more than one television, a full kitchen and a swimming pool. It has 294 rooms and it’s off season rates start at less than $100 a night. And a continental breakfast is included.

How to Get There

You have to drive to get to Door County, but can fly into Green Bay, which has a terrific little airport, Austin Straubel Airport, which offers easy access, friendly service and free wifi. Just don’t dis the Green Bay Packers within earshot of a local.

For tips on where and what to eat in Door County, click here.