Travel/Algoma, Wis.: No dull moments in this small town

Travel/Algoma, Wis.: No dull moments in this small town

By FRANK HOSEK

Algoma, Wis., might best be described as a one-stoplight town, except it doesn't have even a single traffic light. And the folks there are very proud of it.

Nestled on the Lake Michigan shoreline in Kewaunee County, Algoma tends to get bypassed by tourists in a hurry to get to the better-known Door County, a northern neighbor. But this less-traveled and, consequently, less-hectic destination can provide a picturesque and relaxing escape.

Established in 1851 as Wolf River, the name was changed to Ahnapee eight years later, after a local Potawatomi legend. In 1879, the village fathers chose another Native American word, Algoma, meaning "Park of Flowers," as its final name.

Just north of the city on County Road S, a few miles outside city limits, our first stop brought us to Wienke's Market. Housed in an old weather-beaten barn, The Wienke family has provided a cornucopia of pickled vegetables, sweeten jams and baked wonders for more than 40 years.

Shelves lined with an unimaginable variety of items made for a difficult decision, but we soon found ourselves with a case of assorted prizes as we headed out the door.

Immediately to the south is the iconic Renard's Dairy Store and Cheese Factory. Another family-run business, Renard's has been creating a wide variety of cheeses since 1961. Today, they are the only year-round cheese factory in the area. They still get their milk from family farms in Door and Kewaunee counties. Taking full advantage of the free sampling, we were soon making off with an armload of cheddars, Havarti and a single chub of sausage.

As we drove across the Ahnapee River into town, we headed to Legion Park on Crescent Beach along the Michigan shoreline. Making a lunch of a selection of the recently procured treats, we watched the rolling waves of an angry lake break against the bright red, steel lighthouse that has stood guard over Algoma Harbor since 1932.

After lunch, we bid adieu to the beach and drove the few blocks to Steele Street and its eclectic art scene and fun-filled shops. The compact downtown shopping area makes for an effortlessly walkable area.

The shopping district is a story of decline, survival and revival. Interspersed amongst a few empty shop windows are vibrant Victorian storefronts and colorful facades that adorn the compact downtown area, beckoning visitors into a fanciful and lively scene of various boutiques, shops and art spaces.

One such well-established venue is the Steele Street Trading Co. With its shared location of Good Tidings Nautical Gifts and Steele Street Florists, it provides a decidedly, well, nautical theme, as my wife, the one who bought a sperm whale weather vane, can attest to.

The nearby teal facade of the James May Gallery provides a hint of what lies within. It is a contemporary art gallery with a stylish sensibility. The artist-run gallery specializes in showing regional works of art and crafts. The ever-changing assemblage allows for a new experience on each visit.

After a few more stops, and lugging an oversized cetacean weather vane to our car, I was ready for a little libation. The slightly incongruous local beverage scene, located on Navarino Street, will find you being served wine in a brewery and beer in a two-car garage.

Ensconced in an ex-Civil War-era brewery built of cream-colored bricks, Von Stiehl Winery, at 50 years, is the oldest in Wisconsin. It boasts wines produced from Wisconsin fruit and California grapes. A cozy lounge provides an inviting atmosphere for sipping a glass, or two, of house specialties such as Doc Stiehl's Cherry Bounce or Naughty Girl, a fusion of blackberries and grapes. An outdoor patio provides great views of Lake Michigan.

Two doors down, we walked into Ahnapee Brewery's taproom. While the brewery is located 5 miles out of Algoma in an ancient dairy barn, the taproom is housed in a former two-stall garage. We were greeted by Brady, as in Bunch, who was to be our server.

While trying a flight of Ahnapee's revolving list of brews, including styles like their Two Stall, a chocolate milk stout and their seasonal pumpkin ale, we met and spoke with Josh Green, the assistant brewmaster.

He spoke of the machinations of creating a good brew. A lot of chemistry, a willingness to experiment and just a bit of luck. Their taproom features eight lines always offering either their own crafts or other Wisconsin-based brews.

Afterward, we stretched our legs and worked up an appetite with a self-guided tour of 10 murals created by the visiting Walldogs artists in 2007. The images, painted on many of the downtown historical buildings, pay tribute to local history and long-ago businesses.

There is a great many choices for dining in Algoma, but one of the most innovative and, quite frankly, odd, is Skaliwag's. Located in a brown and white, clapboard-sided building of dubious heritage, Skaliwag's can best be described as fine dining disguised as the local tavern. Or, as chef and owner Chris Wiltfang puts it, "food that's five-star in a crazy little dive bar."

The small bar with tiny tables only seats 31, 21 of those at the bar that dominates half of the room. The menu is a chalkboard, reflecting the continually changing selections. We started with an appetizer of amazingly tender, and tasty, alligator bites. While his son Marshall prepared our dinner on, what can be charitably called, a smallish grill, Chris gave us a brief history of the joint.

His mother, an ordained minister, bought the bar to entice her son to move to Algoma. On taking up the challenge, he convinced a friend in Hawaii to provide him with fresh fish twice a week. The menu board reflects the varying offers as each shipment can be a surprise.

As he finished, Marshall placed our entrees down — sail fish with roasted asparagus and mashed sweet potatoes for the wife as I dug into a marvelous bowl of shrimp and cheesy grits, a throwback to the chef's childhood in Georgia. It was five-star indeed.

It's friendly and walkable, the pace is a little slower, things are a little quieter and the people we encountered were friendly and outgoing. And there isn't a single traffic light, but that should not keep you from stopping.

Frank Hosek of Bourbonnais is director of human resources at Carpet Weavers Inc. in Champaign. His hobbies include travel, reading, writing and photography.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Travel