Sheboygan is unabashed at declaring itself the bratwurst capital of Wisconsin. It's hard to divorce the image of meat from the name - and you don't have to. But it's worth looking beyond meat, to nature, art, golf, surfing and toilets.
Just south of Sheboygan on the Lake Michigan shoreline lies Kohler-Andrae State Park. Although it's only 760 acres, the park is set in the midst of Wisconsin's best and largest open sand dunes. Michigan got the better ones thanks to the west winds across the lake; huge dunes run all along its western shore. Kohler-Andrae's can't truly compete with the expanse and height of our neighbor's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. But the ecosystem here at Kohler-Andrae resembles the sand dunes of the Atlantic Coast, replete with beach grass, creeping juniper, common evening-primrose and other species that stabilize the dunes. No clambakes, but other than that, the scene could transport you to Cape Cod (as long as you don't think about it too hard).
The state park has established a 2.5-mile boardwalk-like trail called the cordwalk across the fragile dunes. The boards and rope make it easier to walk on sand while protecting the plant life. The cordwalk trail takes walkers to three lookouts for views of Lake Michigan and the "swale," a permanent wetland in the low area between the dunes with its own ecosystem, including ladies' tresses orchids. The park is also a place to spot shorebirds as well as woodland species.
The beach that runs along the length of the park is open for swimming, sunbathing, sand-castle building and beachcombing.
The campground (105 sites) is at the southern end of the park near a woodland nature trail, but there is not a lot of opportunity for serious hikers, even adding in the 2.5-mile Black River hiking and biking trail in an adjacent area of the park. Here, trails are about the park's ecosystems, not about your workout.
The non-electric sites that back up to the woods (roughly sites 220-229) offer trail shortcuts down to the beach. Midweek, just at dusk, there's nothing lovelier than a quiet stroll to the lake. The park is booked up on weekends, but you can still find solitude among the dunes, if not on the beach.
After you've mastered the cordwalk, dump the sand out of your shoes and head into town.
Start at the Riverfront Boardwalk, where the Sheboygan River enters Lake Michigan. Restored fishermen's shanties house restaurants and stores, bait and tackle shops, adventure outfitters and Schwarz's Fish Market, which sells smoked whitefish and carryout fried fish dinners.
Three blocks north, Sheboygan's great, somewhat quirky art museum, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, collects outsider art or "vernacular artists": "Artist-environment builders transform their homes, yards or other aspects of their personal surroundings into multifaceted works of art that...embody and express the locale - time, era, place - in which each of them lived and worked." Artists like Wisconsin's Dr. Evermor (Tom Every) and Nick Engelbert.
This summer, the center's multiple galleries will all be occupied with a single museum-wide show (only its second), "American Story," featuring 15 artists who fuse personal identity and cultural heritage: Xenobia Bailey, José Bedia, Hawkins Bolden, Vernon Burwell, Lesley Dill, Jack Earl, Lisa Fifield, Molly Hatch, Yoshiko Kanai, Xao Yang Lee, David Lenz, Alison Moritsugu, Adolph Vandertie, Gregory Van Maanen and Charlie Willeto.
Be sure to go in the bathrooms - all of them. Each is unique from the tile to the toilets, artist-designed, and a homage to industrial art and craft and the Kohler bathroom-fixture business that endowed the museum.
While on the subject of the Kohler Company, the nearby village of Kohler is home to the bathroom and kitchen giant, and its design center is open to the public. Start at the "Great Wall of China," a wall devoted to the porcelain god. Factory tours will show everything from the pottery molds that a sink or tub starts with, to the brass building and the foundry. The design center also features a history of the Kohler company, its long relationship with the art world, and highlights from its corporate art gallery.
Kohler also boasts big-time golf at Whistling Straits; lush resort accommodations at the American Club, with its associated fine dining restaurants; and a top spa - with Kohler fixtures, obviously.
Back to the water. Sheboygan is home to a U.S. Sailing Center that sponsors lessons, racing clinics and competitions like the Match Racing Championship Semi-Final, June 26-28, and the Northern Lights Cup Women's Match Race, Aug. 6-8.
The city has also gained a reputation as a surfing site. Sure, maybe Sheboygan is to Hawaii surfing as Wisconsin is to Colorado skiing, but the Dairyland Surf Classic, Sept. 4-6 (Labor Day weekend), held at the North Side Beach in Sheboygan, is the biggest freshwater surfing competition anywhere. Expedition Outdoor Supply in Sheboygan can set you up with a surfboard rental, if you don't already happen to have a board stuck up in the rafters of your garage. Or try a more familiar adventure and kayak Lake Michigan (kayaks are also available for rental).
It's time to take in the wurst that makes Sheboygan best. The Charcoal Inn, lauded by Road Food founder Michael Stern himself, serves a locally made double brat with pickle, mustard and onions. The only way to cap this off is with a piece of torte, which is kind of like a cream puff, without the pastry shell, on a graham cracker crust.
Or arrive in Sheboygan for Brat Days, July 31 to Aug. 1, where finding a brat will not be difficult. At various stands and tents, brats will appear singly and doubly, on sticks, made from turkey, in lasagna, jambalaya and egg rolls; tacos, chimichangas, burritos and quesadillas; on pizza and in gyros.
Brat Days' musical headliner on Saturday night is Eve 6. Remember Eve 6? Not a bad band at all, dating from the grunge years of the mid-'90s. Named after an X-Files episode. It almost goes without saying, but you can follow Eve 6 on Facebook and Twitter now. A tweet from Brat Days is better than nothing, but it can't beat turkey-brat-on-a-stick.
Kohler-Andrae State Park John Michael Kohler Arts Center U.S. Sailing Center
www.us.kohler.com/designkb/designcenter/tours.jsp 101 Upper Rd., Kohler; 920-457-3699
Mon.-Thurs. 8:30 a.m.; free. Advance reservations are required. Age 14 and up only, and you need to wear close-toed shoes.
John Michael Kohler Arts Center
U.S. Sailing Center