In Wisconsin's Door County, you can spend a lot of money on a place to stay -- but you don't really need to.
In the 1990s, upscale condo resorts went up in this popular vacation destination, and now a lot of tourists think they're the place to stay, with their hot tubs and gas fireplaces and indoor pools.
They're nice, for sure. But so are the dozens of mom-and-pop motels -- you know, those little family-run motor hotels that once lined U.S. highways by the thousands. Those smaller hotels are alive and well on the Door Peninsula.
The first place I visited on a June scouting trip was the Voyager Inn in Sister Bay (www.voyagerinndc.com), which is separated by a hedge from the Scandinavian Lodge, a big condo resort built in 1998.
"We were here long before them, but we're the obscure one,'' says Carol Mullaney, who has owned the Voyageur with her husband, Jim, since 1989.
Visitors may get more services on the other side of the bushes, but I was surprised by how much the Voyager offered. The cheerful rooms, some with private decks, look onto a pretty back yard with small pool, hot tub and picnic tables, and a guest kitchen in a common room has a wood-burning fireplace.
I toured 20 of the many mom-and-pop motels in Door County; each had clean and pleasant rooms, cable TV, mini-fridges and a pair of chairs on a shaded walkway in front of the door. Oh, and rooms that go for less than $100 in peak summer, and much less in shoulder seasons.
A lot has changed since a 1969 National Geographic story on the Door Peninsula spoke of the "endearing fustiness to which the peninsula clings ... [that] finds hotel guests still summoned to meals by the ringing of a clapper bell.''
Now, even the littlest motel has a website, and some offer Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs.
They're certainly not fusty. You might see a few dull paintings on room walls, or faux-wood paneling, but most owners continually update their rooms. The grounds especially speak of their pride: They nearly always feature shade trees, hanging baskets of flowers and carefully tended beds of perennials. Since there are so many places to stay in Door County, proprietors know that if their lodgings don't measure up, tourists can go elsewhere.
Visitors look for cheap stays
In Fish Creek, Julie's Park Café and Motel (www.juliesmotel.com) occupies an enviable spot -- on the road to Peninsula State Park and a short walk to downtown -- but standard rooms top out at $96. Sande Solomon and her husband, Shane, bought the motel and café in 2010, and she says they're gradually updating them.
"We want to make them nice, but not so fancy we have to raise the rates,'' she said.
Down the street, Robin Klatt runs Robins Nest Cottages (1-920-868-3541), a collection of 1940s and '50s housekeeping cabins that look cramped from the outside but are cheerful and airy inside. Each has a deck, on which Klatt places tomato and pepper plants for guests to pick. The resort backs onto Fish Creek and the state park, and has a small playground with nets for volleyball or badminton.
Klatt knows that many guests have become accustomed to indoor and outdoor pools, fitness facilities and rooms with whirlpools and game systems. She doesn't hesitate to direct those people elsewhere. But owners of motels report that they're getting more and more people who come for the outdoors. Those people especially appreciate low rates, because all they want is a comfortable bed after a day of bicycling, kayaking, hiking or swimming.
"When you come to Door County, you don't come to sit in your room,'' says Kurt Grube, who owns Sister Bay's Bluffside Inn (www.bluffside.com) and says his business is up.
The Bluffside indeed is built into the bluff, in an area once called Shady Hollow, and it includes tiny cottages once used by cherry pickers and a popular family apartment above the office. Like many small motels, it offers a variety of lodgings and rates: cheap, cheaper and cheapest.
Half a block away, the Village View Inn (www.village-view.com) looks like a typical motel, with rooms above the office. But tucked behind it are units in five charming buildings surrounded by trees at the foot of the bluff. In peak season, none costs more than $98, including a cottage with its own wraparound deck.
New park in Sister Bay
Both the Bluffside and Village View are a short walk from downtown Sister Bay, which is putting the finishing touches on a newly expanded waterfront park that winds for more than a third of a mile along the harbor.
At the nearby visitors center, Paige Funkhouser says many tourists ask for "waterfront'' lodgings, which are in short supply on the peninsula and thus expensive. She reminds them that they can be on the water in the park, which includes a beach, playground, kayak rental, scenic boat rides, marina and a gazebo where free concerts are held on Wednesdays.
All of the villages have town parks with beaches. At the Ephraim visitors center, I chatted with staffer Andy Dukehart, who says she reminds tourists that they can stay away from the water but have a beach vacation by using the town beach, just south of downtown.
Dukehart says she herself prefers to stay in modest lodgings, so she can spend her money on fun things to do. "Renting a pontoon boat is expensive. ... I'd rather do that," she said.
I loved that idea -- sleep cheaply and use the money you save to do something fun and expensive.
My June stay at the Bluffside Motel cost me only $47 per night, thanks to a special that gave me half-off a third night. Since I would have had to pay $99 to stay in the cheapest room at the Scandinavian Lodge (though that also was a good value), I reckon I "saved'' $156.
You can have a lot of fun with $156 in Door County.
Beth Gauper lives in Minneapolis and is the publisher of MidwestWeekends.com, a guide to travel in the Upper Midwest.