Sheboygan, Wisconsin, is lovingly called the Malibu of the Midwest. Discover this surfing city on the shores of Lake Michigan.
On a cool October weekday, sunlight glistened across calm Lake Michigan waters beyond pale sand and clusters of seagrass. Fluffy clouds dotted the blue sky. Empty white Adirondack chairs provided broad beach views, including a distant antique lighthouse. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, becomes much busier from late fall into April. That’s when surfers flock to this Malibu of the Midwest. Surprised? For more than fifty years surfing in Sheboygan has drawn enthusiasts from across the globe to this town-many of whom consider these waters a bucket list destination.
Sheboygan surfers must adjust to less buoyancy than what saltwater provides. But wave volume isn’t shabby, especially when winds from the northeast or west top 20-25 miles per hour. However, these surfing waves aren’t nearly as warm as those in the original Malibu. That means head-to-toe wet suits are essential for optimal comfort when surfing in Sheboygan.
If you’re a novice surfer, schedule private lessons through EOS Surf & Revolution Board Shop. Operating since 1998, Wisconsin’s first surf and paddleboard shop stocks plenty of gear, from surfboards (or Stand Up Paddleboards) to shoes and gloves. You can rent a board and/or wetsuit before surfing in Sheboygan.
Beyond the Board
Although this area isn’t as well-known for other water-based sports, many sailing enthusiasts launch from this shore too. The not-for-profit SEAS organization (Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan) strives to provide boat access despite any financial, physical, or cognitive challenges.
Individual classes address the safe handling of power and sailboats, per US Sailing standards. Winter classes may cover local maritime history, water safety, traditional skills, the marine industry, and marine preservation.
SEAS also partners with Sheboygan Sea Scouts (a Boy Scouts of America offshoot) and Sheboygan Youth Sailing Center. A third partner, Sail Sheboygan U.S. Sailing Center, promotes national and international sailing competitions. The organization hosts World Class regattas. It also supported and provided training for women’s racing during the 2012 Olympics.
Local fishing holes and lakes draw plenty of fishing enthusiasts. In addition, outdoor lovers enjoy kayaking or exploring local parks.
Where Sheboygan Surfers Stay
Independently owned lodging includes the AAA Three Diamond Blue Harbor Resort and Conference Center. It opened nearly two decades ago inside sprawling buildings left behind by a previous tenant. This resort reminded me of another California hotspot—Hotel del Coronado—from its white exterior and rounded towers to deep red roofs.
The lobby captivated me. Pale blue paint and fluffy clouds decorated the soaring ceiling, and long twin balconies encircled the room. Patio umbrellas stood above linen-dressed dining tables. Restaurant and café entrances also opened into this inviting space. And Halloween pumpkins decorated the area at the time of our visit.
We briefly toured the enormous, multi-level indoor water park during off hours. Brightly colored floats rested in the water. Stairways linked long slides to the pool or ground. An enormous snack bar menu awaited visitors too. Resort guests automatically receive passes to the park. Day passes are also available.
Blue Harbor is the only Wisconsin resort on Lake Michigan; Chicago or Milwaukee residents are frequent visitors. Guests can book various suite configurations or rent a private villa. My bi-level accommodations featured queen beds upstairs and downstairs. Deep blues accentuated walls, carpeting, decorative tile, and curtains. A bright red sleeper sofa stood across from the wall-mounted television and gas fireplace.
Our property tour introduced us to multiple suites, often with gorgeous Lake Michigan views. Sheboygan surfing fans also book lodging at independently owned properties such as the 25-room Watershed Hotel & Event Center or historic The Rochester Inn.
Dining & Drinks After Surfing in Sheboygan
As Sheboygan’s surfing reputation has solidified, multiple restaurants and arts enclaves beckon visitors too. Our group enjoyed one delicious multi-course luncheon at Blue Harbor in a group meeting space.
Then, on a chilly, gray evening, we sipped wine in the cozy lobby at Lino Ristorante Italiano while waiting for tables. Our authentic Italian feast began with a fantastic Caprese salad. We then shared antipasto platters before my enormous plate of Ravioli Burro e Salvia arrived to delight my tastebuds even more. Butter and sage flavored the tender spinach and ricotta ravioli. Finally, our group sampled fresh tiramisu and a refreshing limoncello gelato.
You’ll also find brewhouses and sports bars in Sheboygan, or sample breakfast, deli fare, and soft-serve ice cream. There’s even some New Orleans-inspired fare at the Bourbon Street Pub & Grill.
The arts are a big deal in Sheboygan. Operating since 1967, the free, not-for-profit John Michael Kohler Arts Center is full of contemporary exhibits and family-friendly activities, including a decades-old arts-based preschool.
We admired installations crafted from natural wood to brightly dyed, hanging fiber art. Surprisingly, some of my favorite ‘installations’ were floor-to-ceiling, handcrafted tiles inside public washrooms. From pale pink tiles, flower buds, and elegant female images, or iconic New York City building depictions to praying hands and armored knights, each space mesmerized me.
Surrounded by lush trees, the Art Preserve of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is an extension of the Arts Center, which opened in the summer of 2021. When our group visited, much interior work remained to prepare the bright, airy space for dozens of incoming artists and their individual art-making areas.
However, from the moment we entered the parking lot, this building’s gorgeous, soaring timber entrance captivated me. The naturally built entryway also shields art inside the building from direct sunlight. Today, the 56,000-square-foot, multi-level Art Preserve remains the first museum “dedicated to the exhibition, preservation, and care of artist-built environments.”
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Plan Your Trip to Malibu of the Midwest
Whether the surfing in Sheboygan or the gorgeous lake views draw you here, there’s plenty to like about this Malibu of the Midwest. When planning your outdoor activities or a trip to Wisconsin, let Wander With Wonder be your guide.