Golf, art, nature and more in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (2024)

Amy Bertrand

When I told people I was vacationing in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I got a lot of raised eyebrows. Clearly, people in St. Louis aren’t aware of the vacation town along Lake Michigan, with one of the best resorts in the country and PGA-caliber golf courses.

Sheboygan, about an hour north of Milwaukee and a seven-hour drive from St. Louis, is home to Kohler Resort. You may recognize the name Kohler. You’ll find it on kitchen sinks, faucets, baths and even toilets. In 1900, the Kohler Co. built a factory just outside of Sheboygan.

In 1978, the American Club there was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Herbert V. Kohler Jr. made the brilliant decision to turn the Tudor-style building into a luxury hotel.

I stayed at Kohler Resort in 2021 and was blown away by its luxury and attention to detail. My family actually counts that stay, in a Kohler cabin with its own lake, as one of our best vacations ever. We loved it so much we stayed pretty much to the cabin and resort, never venturing to the city of Sheboygan.

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Sheboygan, the town

On a trip this May, I realized what I’d missed in not going to Sheboygan, a town of about 50,000 incorporated in 1846.

The downtown area is as quaint and adorable as many northern Midwest towns. Ice cream parlors, restaurants, boutiques, galleries and a fun board-game store line sidewalks that appear straight out of a postcard. Even their library has an elaborate waterfall in front of it.

Blue Harbor Resort (blueharborresort.com) is the highlight of the town proper. It sits on a piece of land that juts out into Lake Michigan, and many of the hotel rooms and condos there have views. A bookstore, jewelry store, coffee shop, ice cream parlor and several restaurants line the Sheboygan River and harbor area as it dumps into the lake. A large beach area and piers make it feel more like Texas or Florida in the warmer months.

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We rented a condo on Vrbo.com called A Glorious Getaway that had three bathrooms, four bedrooms, a large common area with a fireplace (needed on chilly May Wisconsin nights) and a deck with a view over the trees of Lake Michigan. It was a perfect jumping-off point for our adventures, or for a night ordering takeout and playing board games.

Kohler resort

Despite its being Memorial Day weekend, there wasn’t a lot going on at Blue Harbor. The pool wasn’t open yet, weekend bonfires weren’t lit and several restaurants were only open on the weekend. So we headed over to Kohler for some activities. There are so many things to do and see there that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but mine may be the morning I spent alone, sipping a chai latte and reading a newspaper in the Greenhouse, a gorgeous conservatory with stained glass windows surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens. It was a simple pleasure, the kind you only get on vacations.

Had the spa next door been open, I could have continued my relaxing morning. But it’s undergoing a major renovation. When I visited three years ago, I was captivated by its mosaic-tiled relaxation pool with an 8-foot wall of water cascading at one end, and I’m curious to see how they are improving something already so stunning.

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River Wildlife: On this trip, I was traveling with my son, his two friends and their two moms. The one activity we all did together is something most of us never thought we’d do: a Tactical Pistol & Rifle Course at River Wildlife ($50 site rental; $30 gun rental, plus ammunition, per person).

Other than my son, who attends West Point, most of us had never or rarely shot a gun. Our guide, Darlene, made us feel at ease while respecting the safety of what we were doing. We used pistols and rifles to shoot targets from 10 to 200 yards away, each taking our turn and each supporting our friends when we weren’t shooting.

The River Wildlife is a 500-acre preserve that is like a country club in the wilderness. It’s a private club with dining, organized pheasant hunting, river kayaking, hiking and the shooting course. The land is beautiful, a mix of forest and prairie; the river is swift-moving. There is also fishing (guided and solo), cross country skiing in winter and some rustic campsites. Local residents and companies buy memberships to the club, but guests at Kohler can get a pass.

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Kohler Design Center: Redesigned during the pandemic, the Kohler Design Center is part museum, part store, part showroom. Those things happen on each of three levels.

The main level is mostly products for sale. Often designers come with clients to pick out fixtures and get design ideas. Upstairs you can find room after room of perfectly designed bathrooms showcasing Kohler products. I oohed and ahhed and made snap decisions on whether I’d love it or just like it in my house. The highlight though was the Numi 2.0 toilet. I jumped when I walked by it as a kaleidoscope of colorful lights on the back and bottom moved in tune with the music it started to play. You can control this $8,000 privy with a remote.

The lower level features a museum of Kohler history and bathrooms of yore. If your grandma had a toilet you flushed with a chain above it, you can see it there. If you had a harvest gold tub or avocado sink, you can relive those memories there. The design center is free. And you can also meet there for tours of the factory across the street.

More to do: Yoga on the Lake offers more than 75 classes a week in a variety of locations, indoors and out. You can take tours of the gardens, dine on a curated picnic lunch or do stand-up paddleboarding. In winter, one of the golf courses become “Frozen Fairways” and offers ice skating, curling, firepits and more.

The art

Sprinkled through the Kohler resort you will find sculptures, indoors and out, often made in the factories there and often as part of a world-renown program called Arts/Industry. Artists-in-residence spend three months creating works of art utilizing the company’s industrial materials and equipment. It’s the 50th anniversary of this program, and you can find special exhibits related to it at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in downtown Sheboygan.

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It’s a somewhat unassuming building taking up most of a city block. Park on the Seventh Street side and walk through what look like ruins of an old building, past sculptures and into the main entrance. Inside you will find permanent and traveling exhibits, but it’s hard not to love the items from the Arts/Industry program — I mean, a car made from a Kohler sink?

The works presented are fascinating, but the location is no match for the new Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Located en route between Sheboygan and Kohler, it’s the world’s first museum to focus entirely on work from artist-built environments, which refers to spaces transformed by artists to express their personal identity, culture or history.

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This 56,000-square-foot, three-level building holds more than 25,000 works, from the 161 small handmade wooden sculptures of Levi Fisher Ames to the Wisconsin “Concrete Park” of Fred Smith. Both of the museums are free.

The golf

Kohler Resort boasts two outstanding golf clubs. Blackwolf Run features two courses by Pete Dye, in the verdant woods of Wisconsin. When it opened, Golf Digest named the River course the best new public course of 1988. It caused Herb Kohler and Dye to build a second course called Meadow Valleys, which is where we played ($225 greens fees). There is a third course here, too, the Baths, a 10-hole, par-3 course and two-acre putting course.

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Don’t miss dinner after in the Blackwolf Run restaurant, with a wood-burning fireplace and giant picture windows overlooking the 18th holes of Meadows Valley and the River. Its cheese curds and beet co*cktail (yes, tequila, beet juice and lime juice) were my favorites of the trip.

Whistling Straits is perhaps the better-known club at Kohler. It features two courses: the Irish Course and the Straits. The Straits course, which is sculpted along two miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline, has hosted PGA Championships, U.S. Opens and the Ryder Cup. The course, designed by Dye, is walking only, with sometimes steep and narrow paths. As we neared the 18th hole, near the restaurant and clubhouse, a lone bagpiper stood atop the hill, playing slightly melancholy tunes and making us feel like we were indeed in Ireland.

We did not make it to the Irish Course, but word is there are black-faced sheep that roam the course during the day. Golf there is pricey; it’s definitely a bucket-list outing (summer twilight greens fees for the Straits are $420), but anyone can go to the restaurant or upstairs pub, where maybe you can catch a few notes of the bagpipe.

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Golf, art, nature and more in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (2024)

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