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In Travel & Visitors Guide

The S/V Denis Sullivan is a familiar sight around Milwaukee, and also a modern-day reminder of the Schooner Coast's maritime history. (Photo: Chris Winters)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The USS Cobia, the coast's World War II submarine, is open for tours at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. (Photo: Tina Prigge)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Visitors can also tour the tug John Purves, shown here docked alongside the Door County Maritime Museum.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The River Rendezvous Build-A-Boat challenge offers intrepid sailors the chance to test their skills on the open water.

Get your sea legs on Wisconsin's Schooner Coast

Wisconsin is far from lacking when it comes to the great outdoors. Between camping and cabin life, there are plenty of natural wonders to explore in the woods "up north."

In the 1800s, these forests were a major source of lumber for growing cities on the Great Lakes and out east. Maritime shipping flourished on the northeastern shores of the state, including in Manitowoc, which became famous for its schooners.

While the shipping industry has dissipated, the region still proudly showcases its nautical culture – from historic shipwrecks still preserved in the depths of Lake Michigan to a brand new summer program designed to attract even more visitors to its distinctive shores.

"There's no place else in the country – even on the east coast in New England, believe it or not – where you can travel 60 miles of beautiful shoreline that has two wonderful maritime museums and all the other attractions right here," said Norma Bishop, executive director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.

One of the largest maritime museums on the Great Lakes, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum worked in partnership with the Door County Maritime Museum to create a singular identity that reflected the area's rich history on the open water.

"We worked for over a year and a half to put this together," said Bishop. "In the 19th century, we were renowned for our ability to build schooners. We thought that was just a perfect heritage to highlight with Wisconsin's Schooner Coast."

Wisconsin's Schooner Coast brings together the communities of Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Kewaunee, Algoma and Sturgeon Bay. The creation of this unified maritime destination was made possible by a $40,000 Joint Effort Marketing (JEM) grant from the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which offers state non-profits the ability and funding to promote and grow local tourism efforts.

Among some of the Schooner Coast's more unique offerings are the shipwrecks that lie at the bottom of the area's Lake Michigan waters, including the famous Christmas Tree Ship, the Rouse Simmons. According to Bishop, these wrecks make for an especially attractive draw for both new and experienced divers.

"In most places of the world where there are shipwrecks, there's salt water and the shipwrecks deteriorate very rapidly, but we have fresh, cold water, which preserves these things in remarkable condition," she explained. "The recreational diving business is growing here. We have tour leaders, dive masters here in the community that can take people out to these wrecks."

In addition to the interesting landmarks beneath the water, there is an abundance of lighthouses, boats, beaches and other sights shoreside. To help sort out the many attractions and guide visitors through the highlights of the Schooner Coast, the two museums have coordinated a Schooner Coast passport, available at both museums and online. It directs sightseers to the main attractions, plus offers coupons for hotels, restaurants and gift shops along the way.

"There's a nice selection in there for all ages to enjoy that really makes it worth the trip for families," said Bishop. "As they go up the shoreline, there's actually a family treasure hunt game where they can find out the answers to interesting questions about each of the five communities, and then when they get up to Sturgeon Bay they can go into the Door County Maritime Museum and redeem their passport with all the answers filled in for a free gift for the kids."

While the Schooner Coast will host a number of new celebrations to kick off the year, a popular favorite, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum's River Rendezvous, is returning for its third. Milwaukee area visitors will also recognize a familiar sight from southeastern Wisconsin's own lakefront at the two-day celebration, which takes place this Saturday and Sunday, June 25-26.

"We will have the schooner Denis Sullivan here for cruises and deck tours," said Bishop, who added that the flagship will also bring 15 area students aboard after the Rendezvous for a three-day Science Under Sail program, a unique, hands-on educational opportunity.

One of the biggest draws to previous River Rendezvous celebrations, though, has been the Build-A-Boat challenge, in which teams spend the morning building a sail-worthy vessel that will withstand a bow-to-stern boat race along the length of the SS Cobia, the museum's submarine.

"It's a little dicey sometimes, so we have the Coast Guard standing by," laughed Bishop.

Though a little experience might help in navigating the Build-A-Boat challenge, visitors don't have to have a history on the high seas to enjoy the fun and charm this picturesque Wisconsin area has to offer.

"We're just having a lot of fun with this, and believe me, you don't have to be a nautical expert," said Bishop. "I think even people who don't know anything about ships, when you say "schooner," it's a very evocative image, and one that's very unique in the Midwest. You really feel as though you're going back in time."


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