Not having passports in hand can be a challenge. During the renewal process (which turned out to be much faster than I expected) I planned a trip to Kohler, WI as a surprise for Jane. The town is the home of the company of the same name, famous for bathroom fixtures. The jewel in the crown is the American Club hotel, yet we stayed in at the Sheboygan Fairfield Inn, on the other side of the main highway. It is not only the only Marriott in Sheboygan, it’s the only Marriott hotel for thirty miles in any direction!
We had a spectacular time and cannot wait to return! Here is what made our trip special. You can easily “follow in our footsteps” it sounds good to you.
Thursday, April 27th:
We flew from Philadelphia to Milwaukee nonstop on American Airlines. The flight is under two hours. We didn’t catch the $238 RT airfare that first got my attention, but our tickets were only $298.
We arrived in Milwaukee about 10:30, allowing for the time change. We rented our car from Dollar, which turned out be Hertz, at least here in Milwaukee.
Sheboygan is an hour north on the Interstate. The weather was sunny, but chilly. We made a side stop at Costco midway in our journey. Why? We like to pick up wine for the hotel room. This was also a good place to stop for lunch. We arrived at our Fairfield Inn about 2:00 and checked in. The area is flat, with lots of farms, huge factories and distribution centers. Our hotel is one of several where business travelers probably stay.
Our stay was a delightful experience from the moment we arrived. The hotel manager and staff are very friendly. When we started asking questions about what to do, we were equipped with a couple of excellent tourist guides for “Sheboygan: The Malibu of the Midwest.” Getting handed brochures might sound normal, but the manager at the front desk said things like: “If you like doing (this) then you must try (that.)” She had genuine enthusiasm.
We had an early dinner at Frankie’s Pub and Grill. It is a neighborhood place, filled with locals. Here we discovered the official cocktail of Wisconsin is the Old Fashioned. I asked the bartender what she was mixing, then as I later did research, realized it seems to be featured at every restaurant. Since Wisconsin is famous for beer, that is the other major beverage.
Frankie’s is unique because they serve one-pound hamburgers that are 10 inches across! They must have the buns baked specially. They describe them “as big as your head.” Forewarned, we only ordered one. We also tried cheese curds, another Wisconsin specialty. These resemble shorter versions of deep-fried mozzarella sticks. They seem to be bland, but there are a lot of them! If we were to redo our visit, we would not have ordered the French fries! Even though we split the big burger, there was way too much food!
Here are some of the other culinary facts we learned, background information that made planning the next few days very easy:
- Bratwurst is Sheboygan’s other claim to fame. Johnsonville, the bratwurst maker is headquartered here. They have a bratwurst eating content in the summer! Traditionally, they are served on a hard round roll, also unique to Sheboygan. The brats must be fried. They seem to have lots of rules.
- Friday night fish fry. They are on Lake Michigan, so they can easily get fresh fish. Many restaurants adopt the fish fry theme on Fridays. There is a competition for who offers the best fish fry. The manager gave us several recommended places.
- Supper Clubs. Another Wisconsin tradition. Apparently, there are 250 in the state. These are restaurants where you show up, sit at the bar drinking your Old Fashioneds until your table is called. It seems prime rib and baked potato is the favored menu selection. I read a review where someone remarked the cocktail list is longer than the menu. It appears seating is family style. After dinner you stay a bit longer, have an after-dinner drink and then drive home! I can see some problems here. We saw a TV news film clip about one of these supper clubs, about 25 miles away. One couple has been having dinner there every Friday night since 1984!
Friday, April 28th:
We had a good night’s sleep and woke up refreshed bright and early. Not actually bright because we needed to wait for the sun to come up.
Breakfast at the hotel was quite good. The buffet included different types of cereals, oatmeal and yogurt plus half a dozen toppings like pumpkin seeds and raisins. They also had individual Western omelets, bacon and waffles. At Fairfield Inns, breakfast is included in the room rate.
With itineraries supplied by the hotel manager, we headed out towards our first stop, Meisfelds, a gourmet meat market. They also carried local cheeses and things I have not seen before, like pheasant pie. My favorite items were the Old Fashioned cocktails in cans, the Sex Olives and Mommy’s Time Out Pinot Grigio.
Next, we headed to the Wigwam Mills Outlet, which I initially thought was an outlet center, like Franklin Mills outside Philadelphia. It turns out Wigwam Mills is a factory making socks for over 100 years. The outlet is a tiny room on the side of the factory that is open limited hours only three days a week. One person, one cash register. This is what outlets used to be.
Our next stop was the Hennings Cheese factory. As you can imagine, we bought several cheeses. We learned more about cheese curds. When they are fresh, they squeak when you bite into them! Yes, we brought cheese curds back.
Stop number four was the Johnsonville Marketplace. These are the bratwurst people, and their shop sells every item you can imagine with their logo. Besides jackets and hats, you can buy logoed meat thermometers and golf bags too. They have a big red BRAT sign on the lawn on the style of the Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture in Philadelphia.
We hoped to visit the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, but it was closed midday for a private event. We drove through downtown Sheboygan and stopped at The Black Pig for lunch. They have a wine list featuring some incredible bottles that our server explained nobody local appreciates. This is an area devoted to Old Fashioned cocktails and beer of all kinds.
We headed back to the hotel for our afternoon naps.
At about 5:30 we headed out for that Sheboygan tradition, the Friday night fish fry. We went to the Scenic Bar, another neighborhood corner bar a couple of miles away. You stand in line until you get to the hostess station. They put your name on a list. You stand at the bar until your name is called. It’s a high energy place. People are friendly. Their slogan is “Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.” The concept of the fish fry is fish and chips under another name. They have five types of fish and lots of different beers. It’s not a place you linger over dinner. We had a great time.
Saturday, April 29th:
We were up early and had breakfast at the hotel. This time we tried the egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches you pop in the microwave. We also tried their blueberry muffins too. They were quite good.
On Friday, Jane mentioned to the hotel manager the cheese factory we visited produced the same brands we see in supermarkets back home. She was looking for artesian cheeses, specifically aged cheddar, which we had in a restaurant on a previous visit to Kohler.
The manager suggested another cheese factory about 25 miles away. We headed to the Cedar Valley Cheese Store in Belgium, Wisconsin. They are well known for their string cheese, but they also have blocks of aged cheddar from five to about 20 years old. As I recall, 20-year cheddar is about $60/pound. We thought the five-year version would be just fine.
Although it was raining, we decided to continue our sightseeing. Jane expressed an interest in seeing a supermarket, to learn about how people live and what they pay for groceries. We stopped at Meijer’s, part of a large supermarket chain started around 1934. One of their slogans is: “The customers do not need us. We need the customers.” Prices are the same or higher than our supermarkets back home, although eggs are $2.19/dozen.
We had intended to check out the American Club in Kohler, so we drove in that direction. Kohler is a factory town that is perfect looking. The hotel we stayed in years ago has expanded as has the high-end shopping that surrounds it. Compared to Sheboygan, it is a parallel universe.
One of the things giving us the most fun is the unexpected experiences. Wisconsin tends to label the roads that are not main highways with alphabetic letters or numbers. On Friday, she was surprised we were traveling on “Highway X.” We wondered about street addresses for residents. Today, the guidance system told us to make a left on “PPP highway.”
We braved the rain and visited a couple of other stores. We picked up lunch, a Philly cheese steak sandwich at Jersey Mike’s. Jane remarked we have traveled 800 miles to enjoy food we would normally find back home.
We had lunch in the hotel room, waiting for the rain to stop. Afterwards, we chatted with one of the front desk staff. They remarked upon something we have enjoyed figuring out, that Sheboygan has revitalized over the past twenty years. He explained the saying used to be: “Welcome to Sheboygan. Please set your watch back fifty years!” Today they are known for auto racing, golf, bratwurst and freshwater fishing.
Saturday evening was our opportunity to try one of the supper club restaurants. We went to Rupp’s, a restaurant opposite the theater we would be attending that night. We had reservations and were shown to our table on arrival. We each had an Old Fashioned to start. This was followed by soup and a visit to the salad bar, which was about the same as you would find at a diner back home. The prime rib was enormous, and I had a beer, the Three Sheep Cashmere Hammer. All in all, it was like going out to a steakhouse type restaurant where people don’t dress up.
Saturday’s major activity was visiting the Weill Performing Arts Center to see Girls Night: The Musical. Five women performed the show on stage. The storyline was about friends getting together for drinks in the evening and catching up. Four were dressed in regular clothing, the fifth dressed in white with angel wings because she died in a traffic accident years ago. The show was a comedy and a way to perform about a dozen famous songs like “I Will Survive.” There were hundreds of women in the audience…and 10 men! We had a great time. Everyone was on their feet clapping and singing along.
It appears Sheboygan rolls up the sidewalks at 9:00 PM. When the show let out, there was virtually no traffic. The restaurants and bars were either empty or closed. This was a Saturday night! FYI: Street parking is free on evenings, weekends and holidays.
Sunday, April 30th:
Sunday brought us the reason we flew to Milwaukee, drive to Kohler and stayed in Sheboygan. More on that in a moment.
Once again, we were up early. I went to the 7:30 AM Mass at one of the local churches. Although I plan ahead, I still make mistakes. The closest church was not the one with the 7:30 AM service. I wondered why the doors were locked. Fortunately, the right one was a couple of blocks away.
I was back about 9:00 AM. We had breakfast at the hotel and drove into Kohler, the home of the Kohler bathroom fixture company. The town has a 36,000 square foot Kohler Design Center. You can see everything they make! Kohler makes generators. You can get one with a camouflage housing, to blend into your landscape. You can get standing tubs in Freeform designs. You can get motion-sensing toilets that raise the lid as you approach. Jane had a great time the first time we went over 10 years ago. This was our return visit.
Next, we drive to the Kohler Art Preserve, a freestanding building in a sculpture park. We went to see the building, which appears to have huge wooden beanm leaning against the front.
It was almost lunchtime. We heard about the Sheboygan Pasty Company and decided to give it a try. They are affiliated with the Four of a Kind bar. They go by the initials FOAK, which takes some getting used to.
A pasty is a meat-filled English version of calzone. Mine was the Sheboygan pasty, made with bratwurst, potato and onion. It was excellent. After lunch we headed back to the hotel.
It was a damp day with on and off rain. This was a good time to use the hotel gym and try out their indoor pool. Fortunately, Jane bought me a bathing suit on Saturday.
We wanted a simple dinner. There was a pizza place called Rocky Rococo at the next traffic light down from the hotel.
Sunday, May 1st:
We woke up to snow! It was May 1st! We were about six weeks into Spring! This is Wisconsin! Fortunately they were only flurries.
After packing, we had breakfast at the hotel. This included western omelets and small egg and spinach quiches. Once fortified, we drove the 60 miles back to Milwaukee International Airport, returned the car and got on the standby list for the earlier American Airlines flight to Philadelphia.
One of the features that stands out at the Milwaukee Airport is the used bookshop. It is big and right in the center of the terminal. They carry everything from mysteries to rare books! The store has been at the airport 25 years!
We were fortunate to get seats on the earlier flight, had an on time takeoff and landing in Philadelphia, took the commuter train back, picked up our car and drove home.
It was a spectacular long weekend! There is literally nothing we would change!
Pictures credit Bryce Sanders
Cover photo: Sheboygan trees, credit Sheboygan Chamber
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