When I grew up near Sheboygan during the 1960s, the biggest thrills seemed to be the Prange Department Store, freshly grilled brats and rides along the Lake Michigan shore.
OK, so I’m showing my age. The Prange’s brand has vanished, but the other two attractions remain and much more has expanded or sprouted to enrich an overnight stay.
What makes Sheboygan worth a visit? Let me count the ways, and I won’t cheat by venturing into nearby Kohler, worth a trip all on its own.
Kohler-Andrae State Park — all 1,000 acres of it — means windswept sand dunes, miles of coastline and boardwalk hikes over marshland. Red pines and prairie further diversify the area. Bring a jacket, even on sunny days, because “cooler by the lake” certainly applies.
Also in the vicinity, just south of Sheboygan, is the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden, an unusual outdoor art installation of about 30 religious, historic and fantasy figures. The rural art show was created in 15 years by a longtime factory worker who had little art training.
Now the Kohler Foundation (www.kohlerfoundation.org) maintains the little-publicized, free attraction and posts directions to it online. Consider lunch at the nearby Majerle’s Black River Grill, a woodsy setting with friendly proprietors and good food at fair prices.
Far be it for me to dissuade you from eating brats here or elsewhere, and the pork sausage is omnipresent — especially on weekends, when the midday brat fry seems routine at local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores.
Best place to indulge: the come-as-you-are Charcoal Inn, which has earned attention from Gourmet to Money magazines. Add a side of potato salad and baked beans (which arrive in a little brown pot, a pad of butter swimming atop). One portion of each is enough to split with at least one friend.
Johnsonville Sausage Co., the brat-manufacturing kingpin, does its business a dozen miles west. Sheboyganites do their part to keep the company profitable but also rave about Meisfelds Triangle Market, whose brats come in many flavors — Cajun to cordon bleu to French Dijon apricot. So consider packing a cooler, to shop like the locals do, and maybe add a dozen of our beloved hardrolls from Johnston or City bakery.
We’re also proud of our toilets in Sheboygan County, and the prettiest are inside the John Michael Kohler Art Center, where seven washrooms have been transformed into amazing art statements. Bold colors, interesting murals and intricate designs fill walls, stalls, sinks, urinals and toilet bowls.
Even without the fancy bathrooms, the free-admission Art Center is a fun way to spend an hour or two. Exhibits include a small portion of Kohler’s artist-environment collection (items created by people not trained as artists).
The best shopping? Check out boutiques along South Pier, where shopping happens in former shacks of commercial fishermen and a boardwalk leads the way. Downtown gems on Eighth Street include Chocolate Fantasies and Nest (a classy home furnishings store).
Consider making a condo or suite at the Blue Harbor Resort your home for a night, especially if your companions love the water. It’s always summer at the modest, indoor waterpark, and outdoor views of Lake Michigan are plentiful.
And when it’s time to eat again, head to chef Stefano Viglietti’s four casual-to-fine-dining restaurants. The good word about this guy’s Italian cooking is out (he travels to Italy a couple times a year, ever in search of exquisite recipes), so make a reservation if you expect to eat at the top-line Trattoria Stefano’s.
The other choices — Il Ritrovo (for authentic Italian pizza), Field to Fork (a regionally-based natural foods restaurant and specialty grocery store) and Duke of Devon (which elevates English cuisine) — also work and are the best examples of how Sheboygan cuisine has matured from the days when I was a kid, in search of no more than a flame-grilled double on a hardroll.
For more about Sheboygan tourism: www.visitsheboygan.com, 800-689-0290. Call in advance for store and restaurant hours because some Sheboygan businesses are closed on Sundays.