Plunked along the decline of a steep hill and hollow tunneling toward a yawning bay, Ellison Bay’s facade isn’t initially as spectacular as Ephraim ’s, the architecture isn’t as quaint as Fish Creek ’s, and it’s a fifth of the size of Sister Bay . Nonetheless, there is something engaging about the place. It begins with what may be the best view from the highway in the whole county. Atop the 200-foot bluff on the south side of town, you can see clear to Gills Rock , farther up the peninsula.
Founded in the early 1860s, the village originally served as a hub for lumber, courtesy of the operations in nearby Newport State Park . As recently as the 1930s, the town’s commercial fishery led Wisconsin in tonnage—perhaps the reason a local restaurant is credited with the first fish boil.
The name is often misinterpreted as an approximation of the 130 lovely acres overlooking the northern fringe of Ellison Bay (north on WI 42, then left on Garrett Bay Rd.), but in fact, The Clearing (12171 Garrett Bay Rd., 920/854-4088, www.theclearing.org ) refers to something a tad more metaphysical—closer to “clarity of thought.” A contemplative retreat for the study of art, natural science, and the humanities—philosophy is ever-popular—the school was the result of a lifetime’s effort by famed landscape architect Jens Jensen.
Much like contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, Jensen’s maverick style and obdurate convictions grated against the entrenched elitism of landscape architecture in the early 20th century. His belief in the inseparability of land and humanity was considered foolish, if not outright heretical, in those early days.
A Danish immigrant, Jensen arrived in the United States in 1884 and became more and more enamored of the wild Midwestern landscape while simultaneously cultivating his radical notions of debt to the earth and the need to connect with it despite living in a rat race. While in Chicago creating the parks that made his name, he began buying land around Ellison Bay. By the 1930s, everything had jelled into a cohesive plan, and he spent the next 15 years establishing his retreat according to folk educational traditions in northern Europe.
The grounds contain a lodge, a library, a communal dining area, and cottages and dormitories for attendees. Summer classes are held May–October and last one week, though some day seminars are also offered. Meals are included. Lots of group work, outdoor exploration, campfires, and other traditional folk systems are the rule. Fees, including room and board (except Thursday supper, when attendees are encouraged to explore the town for a fish boil), are around $500 a week in the dormitory, $550 a week in a double room. Nonparticipants can visit on weekends 1–4 p.m. mid-May–mid-October.
Ellison Bay has the grand Bluff County Park, three miles southwest along WI 42 and then off toward the lake. Nearly 100 wild acres atop 200-foot bluffs overlook the lake. There is no camping, but some rough trails (none to the water) wind through the area. You’ll find some wowser views!
The best places to stay are actually in the vicinity of Ellison Bay. Just north of “downtown” and very good for the price is the Parkside Inn (11946 WI 42, 920/854-9050, www.theparksideinn.com , $89–129). The main lodge has basic but very clean motel-style rooms; there’s a more upmarket guest house with one or two bedrooms as well.
The eatery of choice in town—it is in fact the heart of the village—has for a long spell been The Viking Restaurant (12029 WI 42, 920/854-2988, 6 a.m.–9 p.m. in summer, till 7 p.m. thereafter, $4–15). Credited with filling that first iron cauldron with whitefish, potatoes, and onions and brewing up a culinary tradition, The Viking sadly was damaged severely by a fire in September 2010, quieting the roaring kettle fire for the first time in decades. At the time of writing, the staff (and many locals) were feverishly working on reconstruction and expected to have it reopened by spring 2011.
T. Ashwell’s (east of WI 42 on Mink River Rd., 920/854-4306, 5–10 p.m. Wed.-Mon. May–Mar., $20–34) is another Door County  bistro worthy of an extra nickel or two. Creative comfort food, unique nouvelle cuisine, and yes, it features sustainably raised local food as much as possible, and much more, all in a cheerily casual environment. Take in a Thursday, or tapas night; otherwise, it’d be a lovely surprise if you got there on a Chef’s Choice night and let him do it all for you.