Cruising Stories

Cruising Itinerary: Wisconsin's East Coast

Great Lakes
Have fun in Milwaukee | Credit Visit Milwaukee

It’s easy to fall in love with the Western Michigan shoreline and its fresh summer breezes that make it a haven for sailing. But you’re in for a pleasant surprise as Wisconsin’s East Coast can boast that it also has as much to offer.

What’s not to like about visiting the bratwurst capital of the world, the best zoo north of Chicago or waterfront restaurants that will dazzle you with German, Dutch and Italian cuisines that make your cruise along the historic shore a delight? If you’re a fan of beer and cheese, then welcome to Milwaukee, the birthplace of American beer. Be sure to visit the old Pabst Brewery and its world-famous gardens.

In the last issue of Marinalife, we took the trip north of Chicago toward Leelanau County, but this time we’ll boat our way up to Door County from Milwaukee to Sturgeon Bay. The region looks and feels a bit like the Maine coast, minus lobster, salt water, and low or high tides. While it lacks the peninsular grandeur of Michigan and the magic of Mackinac, it’s warmer than Thunder Bay, but probably colder than Put-In-Bay.

Aside from my first adventure in 1963 on the SS Badger, a coal-fired car and passenger freighter that runs from Ludington, MI, to Manitowoc, the memory that serves me best is taking my son across when he was five. He was thrilled by the boat that makes daily voyages from mid-May to mid-October.

On this East Wisconsin cruise, you’ll find plenty of nice beaches and great swimming as water temperatures reach the 70s during summer months and the breezes are usually light to moderate.

Starting Point: Milwaukee

What was once an old lumber port that became famous for brewing beer, Milwaukee has a retro 1950s feel in its skyline and is a very welcoming port of call. Its summer schedule is filled with festivals, and the city is excited to welcome back IndyCars to its historic mile oval on the state fairgrounds.

As a culturally and ethnically diverse city that embraces those rich traditions, Milwaukee was heavily influenced by German immigrants in the 19th century and is well known for beer. Everything in Milwaukee is either named Miller or Pabst, but try a mug of the Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewery for a new local brew.

Downtown’s Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, the Bradley Symphony Center and Discovery World are all short distances away. Summerfest is a centerpiece of the concert calendar, and a particular highlight for me was seeing the WOMAD (World of Arts, Music and Dance) Festival there with Peter Gabriel as the headliner. Restaurants to target include the Milwaukee Sail Loft and Barnacle Bud’s.

Where to Dock: McKinley Marina

Sunset over Port Washington | Credit Jeff Ewig/Port Washington Visitors Bureau

Stop 2: Port Washington

Estimated Mileage: 20 NM

While visiting Port Washington for the first time last summer, I was awestruck at how beautiful and meticulously clean the small city was. It is the long-time home of Sailing Magazine, and sailboat masts aren’t the only things that dot the harbor.

Local whitefish is delicious from the top of Lake Superior to the bottom of Lake Michigan, but there’s something about the way it’s caught and served here that makes it different. Port Washington’s Port Fish Days festival and fair runs from July 18-20 this year, and it’s a fun annual tradition to explore all the different ways that restaurants prepare their fish dinners and chowders. Restaurants of note include the Dockside Deli, Twisted Willow and Schooner Pub.

Where to Dock: Port Washington Marina

Stop 3: Sheboygan

Estimated Mileage: 23 NM

This destination is known as the “Bratwurst Capital of the World” and celebrates at Bratwurst Days festivities and the Johnsonville World Bratwurst Eating Championship. Surfs up in Sheboygan as well, as local surfing dudes have tagged it as the “The Malibu of the Midwest” for its waves that rise along the shore. Highly recommended restaurants include Field to Fork, The Blind Horse and Whistling Straits.

The Harbor Centre Marina on the waterfront is undergoing a major renovation on its aging infrastructure. Recurring damage through the winter months to docks has required significant capital reinvestment in the marina facility. Up to $13 million is expected to sustain marina operations while maintaining more than 250 slips. Sheboygan currently manages all boat slip facilities along the Sheboygan River and plans to oversee the Harbor Centre Marina as part of the project.

Where to Dock: Harbor Centre Marina

Stop 4: Algoma

Estimated Mileage: 53 NM

This quaint little fishing village has quite a historic legacy of its own. Originally founded as Ahnapee, the town changed its name with the advent of railroads and industry.

Downtown Algoma has the feel of a bygone era when train travel opened the frontier here with factories and mills. The town’s architecture heralds that time, and each lovingly preserved building encapsulates the ghosts and memories that give the town its warmth and character.

Antiquing is a must! You’ll find some cool places to hit, especially if you want items for your boat. If you’re hungry after shopping, check out Son of Skaliwags, Off the Hook Bar & Grill or Three Eleven Bar & Bistro. The channel hosts a bit of warm weather algae, but the local harbor is filled with fishing boats, and the coastal village retains its charm during “Shanty Days” each summer.

Where to Dock: City of Algoma Marina

Stop 5: Sturgeon Bay

Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal Light | Credit Jim Bauer on Flickr

Estimated Mileage: 15 NM

Sturgeon Bay is divided into halves, depending on what side of Michigan Street or Bayview Bridge you are on. Both sides have great shops and restaurants. Eating spots include Waterfront Mary’s, Stone Harbor and Kitty O’Reillys Irish Pub.

Door County Peninsula begins near Sturgeon Bay and ends 63 miles up the winding coast at Death’s Door Maritime Museum adjacent to the ferry over to Washington Island, where many ships met their fate at the bottom of the lake in a passage that is a laden watery graveyard.

“Death’s Door” comes from indigenous Potawatomi tales passed down through multiple generations until the story made its way to French explorers, because for centuries, ship captains would tempt fate, ultimately in many cases to their own demise. It is a treacherous passage where fog can materialize without warning as if generated for a special effect in a horror movie. The narrow passage is riddled with rocky shoals and tricky currents.

Eventually when the first lighthouse was built in 1837 off Rock Island, it made more sense to take the long way around than to risk becoming “Davy Jones” next neighbor. These days, many Great Lakes freighters navigate the waters through the Sturgeon Bay ship canal that was constructed in 1881.

Much of the history and maritime artifacts of the peninsula are found at the Death’s Door Maritime Museum that traces the region’s rich fishing and shipping legacy.

Where to Dock: SkipperBud’s Quarterdeck Marina or SkipperBud’s Harbor Club Marina

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