When the temperature rises, our thoughts naturally drift to water. Swimming, sailing, surfing – it’s all right here in southeast Wisconsin. Read on to find out where to enjoy the best our region has to offer.
By Lindsey Anderson, Ann Christenson, Kristine Hansen, Anna Miller, Carole Nicksin, Adam Rogan, Rich Rovito and Dan Simmons
Of the many different ways to experience and enjoy Lake Michigan, a few hours on the S/V Denis Sullivan is definitely one of the most unusual, and quite possibly the most enjoyable. The 95-foot-tall reproduction of a 19th-century schooner has three masts and 10 sails that make good use of the wind, affording passengers the opportunity to commune with nature, without the noise of a motor to distract them. And if bad weather hits, well, that’s just part of the adventure.
S/V Denis Sullivan
500 N. Harbor Dr.
“I’ve seen people so excited to be out in harsh gales and lightning and some who are scared to even get on the boat,” says Tiffany Krihwan, captain of the Denis Sullivan. “No matter your weather preference, it’s difficult to deny that the Sullivan is special to Milwaukee.”
But what to do when the waves kick up? “I always tell people to dance with the boat, to sway their hips in a rhythm – that steadies their head and prevents vertigo,” says David HB Drake, who was one of 3,000 professional shipwrights and amateur boat lovers from Milwaukee and beyond who helped build the vessel, which docks outside of Discovery World.
Two-hour cruises start at $45 for adults ($40 for Discovery World members). A variety of packages are available, including beer cruises and a four-night adventure, this year to Door County and back.
Explore Lake Country
Join a Yacht Club
You don’t need to own a yacht or wear an ascot like Thurston Howell III to join these organizations, which are primarily geared towards sailing. Membership is open to everyone, and affords you the opportunity to become part of the community while enjoying the water.
Billed as a competitive scow sailing club, the La Belle Yacht Club welcomes nonboaters, too. There’s nautical education and sailing instruction, of course, but there are also year-round social activities, from on-water treasure hunts and lakeside family picnics to networking connections with Oconomowoc-area businesses.
Established in 1895 exclusively for sailboats, the club features a quaint lakeside clubhouse with a kitchen and bar, an active membership involved in pleasure and competitive sailing, and a range of instructional programs, plus plenty of social events. sailnlyc.org North Lake Yacht Club Promoting sailing as a lifelong activity is the aim of the North Lake Yacht Club and North Lake Sailing School. You don’t even need your own boat – the sailing school has a fleet available to beginning sailors.
The club has a long history of developing quality racing fleets and sailors who are among the country’s best. It’s not all about racing, though. The clubhouse on the lake’s north shore bustles with social events for members throughout the year.
The club, launched in 1896, has a vast and scenic waterfront property and a long history in the sport of scow sailing. The club is geared for family activities, offering youth sailing programs, as well as a play area and sandbox for children.
Calling all party people
Almost any summer weekend, revelers gather on “Party Island” on the east end of Okauchee Lake. They tether their boats and spend the day on the water, or in the water playing Frisbee on the sandbar. A grand tie-up party, usually on the last Saturday in July, attracts 100 boats or more.
Enjoy the view
Summer dining or imbibing on the shore of a lake is like getting a special side dish. Here’s where to go.
Don your shorts or seersucker suit:
Weissgerber’s Golden Mast Inn
W349 N5293 Lacy’s Ln., Okauchee
While you can indulge in house specialties like Wiener schnitzel and roast duck with spaetzle, the separate “casual” menu can hook you up with a small plate (ribs, shrimp cocktail, lamb chop minis), tenderloin sandwich or “seaside” tuna salad. Casual menu: $6.50-$16.95.
Pre-dinner drink or nightcap:
The Lakeside Supper Club & Lounge
37238 Valley Rd., Summit
This is a hit-or-miss spot for food, but great for grabbing a craft beer or cocktail and watching a summer day melt into night.
Foolery’s Liquid Therapy
N52 W35091 Lake Dr., Okauchee
No fooling: This place excels at wings and burgers – and bar food such as nachos (made with house fried corn chips, mmm). The halfpound burger comes 10 ways, including the (critic-approved) Foolery burger topped with haystack onions, three cheeses and a fried egg. The patio comes complete with a bar and plenty of swivel chairs that face the boating Shangri-La of Okauchee Lake. $8-$15.
Doc’s Dry Dock
N38 W27091 Parkside Rd., Pewaukee
Some of the best ’za west of the city is whisked out of the oven at this wood and stone bar. But despite its prime location on Pewaukee Lake, there is no outdoor seating. The thin, crisp-crust pies are plentifully sauced and topped with cheese and (our pick) pepperoni, sausage, green peppers and other colorful veggies. Pizzas: 12-inch, from $11; 16-inch, from $16.
Seasonal, changing menu:
179 W. Wisconsin Ave., Pewaukee
If you perk up at the mention of mussels in Galliano cream sauce and grilled harissa prime flat iron steak, you will appreciate this “modern, global” – and spendy – dining room. Arm yourself with a craft cocktail and lasso a table on the small deck facing Pewaukee Public Beach. Entrées $26-$36.
1474 E. Friess Lake Dr., Hubertus
In addition to a glorious sunset view, evenings offer your pick of all-you-can-eat menu specials – for instance baby back ribs (Tuesday) and prime rib (Saturday). Specials $13.95-$34.95.
Lake Country Beaches
Pewaukee Public Beach
The only free public beach in Lake Country sits in the heart of downtown Pewaukee near shops and restaurants. The beach hosts the Taste of Lake Country & Fine Arts Festival in late July and a water ski show every Thursday during the summer.
Oconomowoc City Beach
Located on the southern shore of Lac La Belle, the beach’s bandshell is the site of the Rock the Dock free summer concert series.
Located in a small park on the eastern shore of Lac La Belle. Street parking is available. Beach is staffed with lifeguards.
Ottawa Lake Beach
Open year-round, the swimming beach at the 17-acre Ottawa Lake is in the scenic southern unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Picnic tables, grills and restrooms are close by.
Naga-Waukee Park Beach
The 130-foot beach is located along the picturesque waters of Nagawicka Lake (the name means “there is sand”). A playground is adjacent to the beach.
Sure, you can take a dip at Bradford or Atwater, but for a world-class beach experience, head south about 30 miles to Racine. North Beach boasts 2,500 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline and has earned many accolades, including designation as a Certified Blue Wave clean beach by the National Clean Beaches Council. There are concessions and restrooms, but most importantly, plenty of room to spread out and relax. Visit in early to mid-August, when the water temperature is at its highest – typically an invigorating 70 degrees.
Prefer a pool?
If lakes creep you out or are simply too dang cold, you’ll find a more controlled environment at the heated Tosa Pool in Wauwatosa’s Hoyt Park. Kids run the place, which offers an expansive, zero-depth area with small slides, drop buckets and jets of water galore. Older swimmers will appreciate a bigger, Dells-style spiral slide, lap swimming and a fantastic beer garden just steps from the front gate.
A pool party legend dishes on his welcoming waters.
Andy Nunemaker does not use his 20-by-40-foot salt water pool for swimming laps. When he comes home from work, he does not settle in for a solo soak in the inset hot tub, which is heated to a steamy 99 degrees.
“I’ve never even been in the pool by myself,” reports the tech entrepreneur.
What makes Nunemaker happy is seeing the pool filled with people. “At my parties, it doesn’t matter if you come alone or with a group of friends. Once you’re in the water, everybody gets to know each other. It’s a very diverse crowd and everyone feels welcome. It feels like a very special boutique hotel,” says Nunemaker, who has entertained as many as 100 people at a time in his cement pond.
His East Side neighbors often marvel at the fact that Nunemaker’s parties rarely get rained out. “They say, ‘You’re so lucky with the weather.’ But that’s because I don’t plan the parties far in advance,” he says. “I look at the forecast, and choose a date for later that week.”
The pool was installed about seven years ago. “The house was built in 1905, and the original plan included a pool. It just took another 105 years to put one in.” Nunemaker feels it was the perfect finishing touch. “The pool makes me happy because it makes other people happy.”
How To: Front Crawl
Dale Schrank says he lives “a very chlorinated lifestyle.” He’s been a swim coach for close to 50 years, guiding state champions such as Ben Davis from Greenfield High School in 2018 and also providing lessons for Wisconsin’s youngest swimmers with Swim America, which he helped bring to Milwaukee more than 30 years ago. Schrank gave Milwaukee Magazine a “mini-clinic” for improving our front crawl stroke/freestyle. (They’re the same thing; who knew!?)
Step 1: “Find that spot in the water where you get the most resistance,” Schrank says. “The more you feel the water push back against your arm, the more propulsion you generate.”
Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
When Beth Handle’s old employer asked her to work outside the city seven years ago, she said, “No thanks, I’m staying here.” That’s when she founded Milwaukee Kayak Co., 318 S. Water St. Now she offers tours, rentals and lessons to folks who want to explore the sacred rivers of her beloved Milwaukee. Handle mapped out three lesser-known water paths that explore the city by her preferred mode of travel: kayak. (All three tours start at the Milwaukee County Boat Launch, 600 S. Water St.)
Head south toward the Harbor District and the Kinnickinnic River. You’ll pass several of Milwaukee’s iconic train bridges as you close in on Bay View, as well as UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. This stretch of river has gotten substantially cleaner in recent years, thanks in part to UWM, Handle’s advocacy and other water-friendly groups around Wisconsin. “People really started to care about the river,” Handle says of a recent shift in MKE culture. The full tour will take you down to Chase Avenue and back, about three hours in total without stops.
Head north. At the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers, head west on the Menomonee. Hang a left in front of the Harley-Davidson Museum and you’ll find two small canals. They’re short and run alongside some historic industrial structures, offering a different perspec tive of the two We Energies smokestacks on the west side of I-94.
Once again, head north and then west on the Menomonee. Continue straight past HarleyDavidson. The river will narrow, but depending on the water level, you might be able to make it all the way to Miller Park – rivers tend to be higher in spring and lower in fall. It’s more than three miles from the confluence to the stadium, so make sure to bring plenty of drinking water for an afternoon’s worth of paddling. On the return trip, stop at City Lights Brewing for a celebratory beverage.
Hanging Ten with Eric Gietzen
We spoke with the chairman of the Milwaukee chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, who has been surfing in the city since 1986, about his never-ending quest for the perfect wave.
The conditions are almost always cold. I surf maybe once a year in my trunks. The rest of the time I wear a wetsuit. And if a swell comes in on the ocean, it can last for days. Here, the waves are fickle. When you do get the wind, there’s a window of hours. You gotta be ready.
What do you like about surfing in the Midwest?
Whenever I travel to the Coast, I realize that the surf culture in the Midwest is going through a golden age. The attitude is positive, and you know a lot of the people in the water with you. The waves here aren’t ocean quality, but a lot of what people love about surfing has nothing to do with the water and everything to do with surf culture. When conditions are good, you’re excited for the waves, but you’re also excited to see your friends. You get days every once in a while that are so special. The experience transforms you. That’s what keeps me coming back, in spite of the crappy weather.
Surf Week Surf @Water
Aug. 4 | Atwater Beach
For five years, the Milwaukee chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has been hosting this beach bash. The festivities begin at 5 a.m. with a sunrise surf or paddle-up and end around sunset. In between, water lovers can sign up for beach yoga and surf lessons, or grab a bite to eat at a food truck.
A Shore Thing
Step inside the Lake Effect Surf Shop (1926 E. Capitol Dr., Shorewood) and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a sun-soaked beach town somewhere in Cali. Gleaming longboards and brightly colored T-shirts line the walls, and co-owner Jake Bresette could be mistaken for a cast member from the Point Break reboot.
Bresette, who opened the store in 2016, says that he’s been surfing the Great Lakes for about nine years. “When I first started I’d see maybe one or two other people in the water,” he says. “Now I sometimes see as many as a dozen.”
Surf-curious shoppers who want to get their feet wet can rent all the gear they need from the shop for about $60 a day. Visit lakeeffectsurfshop.com for more info.
The Best Sconnie Surf Spot?
Deland Park, Sheboygan
Sure, it’s the bratwurst capital of the world. But 8-foot waves (during the winter) earn Sheboygan the moniker “Malibu of the Midwest.”
What to wear
Styling by Anne Leone | Photo by John Paulson
Dive into the season with these looks.
Olympus water-restistant camera, $389, Best Buy, bestbuy.com
Ronix wakeboard, $385, Les Moise, 10130 N. Port Washington Rd., Mequon, and 19730 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield
Bikini top, $68, and bottoms, $54, J. Crew
Flip-flops, $46, Les Moise
Board shorts, $50, Lake Effect Surf Shop
Waterproof phone case, $25, Laacke & Joys
How To: SUP
Wisconsin native Sara Lamion Luke and her New Zealander husband Whakapaingia (Whaka) spend their summers on Pewaukee Lake, spreading the gospel of stand-up paddleboarding (or SUP) as the proprietors of Koha Yoga. Here, they share some tips for newbies.
Where to learn: For beginners, it’s probably best to stick to calmer waters (such as Pewaukee Lake), not Lake Michigan or current-filled rivers. Don’t venture too far from shore until you gain confidence.
Where to stand: Keep your center of gravity above the center of the board, next to the handle. Paddle on your knees for a bit until you find your balance and are confident enough to stand up.
Relaxed feet: “People come in all sore because they’ve been gripping the board with their feet for an hour,” Lamion Luke says of nervous students. A smart paddleboarder lets the board do the work.
Getting back on the board: “It’s just like getting out of a pool,” Lamion Luke says. The board may shift as you lift yourself up, but it won’t sink or flip over so long as you “stay calm.”
Illustrations by Kagan McLeod
FORGET UBER. LET GO OF LYFT.
This summer, the trendiest way to get around town is via water taxi. Milwaukee’s Water Taxi began motoring down the Milwaukee River earlier this year, ferrying passengers to and from bars and restaurants along the water, via pontoon boat. The taxi is the latest business venture spearheaded by Redmond Tuttle, who last year introduced the Paddle Tavern. “People kept coming up to us, asking if we could take them to the next bar along the river,” he says. “Why not?”
Passengers are welcome to drink and listen to music while on board. “The taxi will take you from Point A to Point B,” he says, “but it’s also supposed to be a fun experience.”
Fare: generally, $10-$20 per person. Text 414-563-7025 to schedule a pick-up time and location.
Rent a boat
Canoes, kayaks, paddleboards
407 N. Water St., Milwaukee
Canoes, kayaks, paddleboards
318 S. Water St., Milwaukee
Milwaukee Lakefront Jet Ski and Motor Scooter Rentals
2000 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., Milwaukee
Milwaukee River Cruise Line – Edelweiss
Pontoons 205 W. Highland Ave., Suite 204, Milwaukee
Riverwalk Boat Tours & Rentals
950 N. Old World 3rd St., Milwaukee
Beachside Boat & Bait
Fishing boats, kayaks, pontoons
129 Park Ave., Pewaukee
145 Park Ave., Pewaukee
Smokey’s Muskie Shop
Rowboats, fishing boats, kayaks, canoes
N27 W27250 Woodland Dr., Pewaukee
Will deliver to a variety of Lake Country locations.
307 E. Forest St., Oconomowoc
Lac La Belle Al’s Bait Shop
Canoes, kayaks, fishing boats
34048 Delafield Road, Oconomowoc
Buddy’s Beach Bungalow
City Beach, Oconomowoc
LeatherLips Watersports Rentals
Pontoons, speedboats, wave runners
151 Wrigley Dr., Lake Geneva
Elmers: Lake Geneva Boat Line
Catamarans, pontoons, speedboats, wave runners
195 Wrigley Dr., Lake Geneva
Ferry on Over to Michigan
If you’re looking to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, then consider traversing Lake Michigan by boat. Sip Spotted Cow or a glass of Wollersheim wine and settle in for a two-and-a-half-hour cruise to Muskegon, Michigan, aboard Lake Express’ high-speed ferry.
It’s a 10-minute drive from the dock to downtown Muskegon – summon an Uber, or bring your bicycle, motorcycle or car on board (for an extra charge). Here are five things to do in Muskegon (pop. 38,000), from craft beer to world-class art.
Go vintage shopping. Muskegon’s downtown flaunts boutiques like The Front Porch (shabby chic-style repurposed antique furnishings, vintage jewelry and clothing – you can schlep it all back on the ferry!) and Vintage Redefined (nautical striped dresses join antique playing cards). Nab a Nina Simone or Johnny Cash record at Third Coast Vinyl.
Bite into the artisan food scene. Definitely check out The Cheese Lady’s cute shop. Grab pour-over coffee from Drip Drop Drink and tripped-out pizza (like “The Jack White,” garlic alfredo sauce and roasted chicken) from Rebel Pies’ counter next door. For a finer-dining experience, book a table at 18th Amendment Spirits Co. for dinner. On Saturdays, stop by the farmers market.
Admire world-class art. A Deborah Butterfield metal equine sculpture, plus lithographs by Picasso and a Camille Pissarro oil painting, are within the Muskegon Museum of Art’s permanent collection. On or near Western Avenue are several large sculptures, including Chicago artist Richard Hunt’s stainless-steel “Muskegon, Together Rising.”
Sip craft beer or Tiki cocktails. Downtown Muskegon boasts two craft breweries: Unruly Brewing (quirky beers like Orange Julius are on tap) and Pigeon Hill Brewing, which is still pouring during a taproom expansion. (Pro tip: try the “Belly Full of Hoppyness” icecream bar, which folds in its beer.) Or park yourself at Dockers, and listen to live music at the Tiki bar.
Head to the beach. Pere Marquette Park is a swath of sand – sink your toes in and stroll out to the city’s iconic red lighthouse at the end of a pier. It’s a 10-minute drive from the ferry dock. More time on your hands? Head to Muskegon State Park, a paradise with 12 miles of hiking trails, two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and a replica historical fort.
If You Go
$157-$203 adult round-trip (plus $194 vehicle round-trip)
Where to Stay
Emery House Bed and Breakfast is tucked into a Georgian Colonial house and within walking distance of downtown.
Milwaukee Harbor has a world-renowned reputation for producing trophy fish. In 2011, Eric Haataja of West Allis reeled in a 38-inch brown trout, nearly a foot longer than the previous catch-and-release record, which had also been caught in our harbor.
Haataja’s boat launched out of McKinley Marina, the same marina that Jason Woda uses for his fishing charter: Reel Sensation. “We sell fun. It’s all in the personality of it,” says Woda, a South Sider who, in the tradition of all good sailors, claims to have “probably drank in every bar around here.”
Like most charters, Reel Sensation is all-inclusive. For around $100 per person (with a minimum of six), you get the boat, its captain, bait, fishing rods, all of it – just don’t forget your windbreaker and a cooler to store your haul.
“That’s the big one. Strong, hard-fighting,” says charter Capt. Jim Hirt. For a trophy catch, try late in the season.
CRIMINAL. That’s the word Ruth Bauman uses to describe all those years she spent at home along the lakefront, or heading to and from her job as a lawyer, while gazing out at the sailboats bobbing on the waves of Lake Michigan. In 2017, things changed at work, freeing up her schedule.
“First thing I did,” she says, “was march myself down here and sign up for lessons.” “Here” is the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center. Next to McKinley Marina, the center is housed in a sleek headquarters that looks a bit like an upside-down boat, with a silver hull-like roof and wall-sized windows. Surrounding is the harbor and the center’s fleet of more than 60 sailboats, ranging from workhorse Ensigns for newbies to Solings for sailors who have been around the lake.
Like a liquid library, the center allows anyone to join and check out a boat anytime, once you’ve done two weeks of lessons. A year’s membership sets you back $360 ($600 for couples), with about 650 participants in the fold annually, ages 8 to pushing 90. This is the 40th anniversary for the center, which also hosts a variety of programs to give disabled adults, low-income kids and others a chance to sail.
Sailing requires a buddy, but that can be easily arranged. Arlene Wisotzke, an 80-something regular who rollerblades in daily around noon, is known to ply the lakefront, approaching strangers with a question: “Want to go sailing?” Minutes later, they’re on the water.
In 1992, Barbara Klinger and husband James bought a 42-foot Morgan Catalina, Baba Lou. They set off from the center, where they were longtime members, and sailed to the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they wintered on the boat for the next seven years.
Now 86, Klinger is widowed and no longer sailing much. But she still returns to the center just to be there.
“How could you get any better than this?” she says.