Just before we packed up to spend a weekend in Manitowoc, I coincidentally ran into one of the few people I know from that city and he scoffed when I told him we were headed up for a visit.
"Why," he asked, nearly bristling at the idea.
Two days later, my son and I were sitting in Beerntsen's old-timey confectionary, eating gigantic ice cream sundaes in a wooden booth, having the time of our lives.
That's Manitowoc for ya. A town with a lot of great stuff to do with the family, and something of an image problem.
"I would agree 100 percent that people don't give Manitowoc enough credit as a destination, it is partly our own doing as the people who live here know how great it is – Forbes Magazine ranked Manitowoc the No. 2 best small city to raise a family, but we are too humble to brag about it," says Jason Ring, former Riverwesterner, who is now president of the Manitowoc Area Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"That is where I come in. The biggest challenge I face is that I have a small budget that only does so much to get the word out about all the great things we have here in Manitowoc-Two Rivers. You will find a good time in Manitowoc without having to look. I can guarantee that."
We built an easy and fun little getaway around a visit to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and fittingly, that's where we started after our roughly 90-minute drive from Milwaukee.
The museum, located downtown on the lakefront, is suited to visitors of all ages. While some of the boats and history may be lost on the littlest kids, older ones and adults will likely find it interesting to learn about Great Lakes wrecks, Wisconsin fishing industry history and more.
Kids of all ages will dig the intricate ship models and the "Streets of Old Manitowoc" in the Maritime History Gallery.
Work your way slowly downstairs and just when you think the kids are running out of steam, you'll come ashore in the Children's Waterways Room, which will fire them up.
The insanely fun space lets kids put plastic boats in real waterways to learn about how locks work, about the Great Lakes and the mighty Mississippi. There's a blower for sailboat races, sections of perforated pipe to let kids built water-spurting contraptions and more.
Put on a waterproof smock when you get in and dive in. We had a blast and had we turned around at this point and driven back to Milwaukee, we'd have had a super trip. But, we didn't. Instead, we took a guided tour of the World War II submarine docked next to the museum – the USS Cobia spent more than a decade moored at Milwaukee before moving north to Manitowoc – which was interesting and, I was surprised to find, nearly as fun for my little one as the waterways room.
Just out the door and across the street, we ducked into the Harborside Restaurant, 701 York St., for lunch. The much-awarded Harborside is a restaurant and cocktail lounge that has great food and a warm, welcoming, down-home vibe.
And, no one flinched when I walked in with a kid. In fact, they set him up with a tall glass of milk, a pile of crayons and a coloring book. Naturally, then, they have a kids menu, too, and at least one Milwaukee boy will rave about the crisp and perfect grilled cheese.
I had a great fried fish sandwich and an interesting Reuben soup that was rich, creamy and flavorful.
Although the waitress boasted about the Harborside's cheesecakes, we decided to head around the corner for dessert at Beerntsen's Confectionary.
Along the way, on York, I noticed a tatty old storefront with a fabulous vintage facade and was unsurprised to find the crusty gem was the studio of renowned photographers J. Shimon and J. Lindemann – a talented duo that gave Manitowoc some street cred a couple decades.
Around the corner, we landed at Beernsten's, which is a lot like Ferch's in Greendale, but with way more candy. Walking into Beernsten's is like walking back in time; back to a super sugary-sweet time, that is.
You can order food from the wooden booths, which are located in the dining room behind the shop laden with chocolates, nuts and other treats, but we went straight to the sundaes and chose two concoctions from among many on the menu. The results were sinfully large. So large that one of us couldn't even finish (you know it wasn't me).
"Two Rivers is birthplace of the ice cream sundae, and Cedar Crest Ice Cream is made right here in town," says Ring, "and if you want to visit an old fashioned soda fountain then Beerntsen's is the place to go."
Though we could have done more downtown (and nearby) – including visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo and Rahr-West Art Museum or having still more ice cream at Historic Washington House, we opted to go check in at the Holiday Inn Manitowoc, where we got a room.
Located right off I-43, the hotel is convenient to downtown and other options in the area, including the respected Al Corso Restaurant, just west of the freeway in the town of Collins.
We explored the hotel a bit, as we always do, stopped to gaze down into the sprawling atrium and checking out the indoor rock pond, before diving (OK, wading) into the pool and passing the rest of the afternoon in the water.
Some other attractions near Manitowoc that are worth a visit are Henning's Cheese, London Dairy Alpacas (we wanted to visit but the owner was out of town), Woodland Dunes Nature Center and some great hiking on the Mariner and Rawley Point Trails. Manitowoc's shoreline is lovely and boasts some fine lighthouses, too.
"Neshotah Beach which spans 50 acres along Lake Michigan is (the best-kept Manitowoc) secret," says Ring.
"It is a groomed sand beach with areas for swimming, volleyball, launching jet skis and kayaks. The beach also offers playgrounds, access to the Rawley Point Bike Trail, and park shelters for picnicking and grilling. There is a Beach House with concessions, changing area, restrooms and indoor/outdoor showers. Until I visited Neshotah Beach I didn't realize Wisconsin had beaches of this quality. It really is one of the best beaches in Wisconsin."
Sunday morning, we hit the hotel restaurant for breakfast and then hit the road. We had time for one more stop before going south, and we passed up the Point Beach Energy Center (that's the visitor's center at the nuclear power plant) and the other options – after our idea of hanging with alpacas tanked – for a rollicking romp up and down the dunes at Terry Andrae State Park.
Despite the overcast skies and the nippy wind, we ran and climbed and explored at one of the best day-trip-from-Milwaukee state parks.
But, hey, Manitowoc, we'll be back to see you again soon.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.