Truly rural Fox Hills aims for good value

Only a country road separates farm from resort.

Vince Lombardi used to bring his coaches here for a little R&R in the 1960s. Hundreds of Chicago police officers more recently sought the same benefit, from the same place, during work retreats.

The area’s longstanding reputation is a part of its charm, and challenge.

Good golfing in a peaceful, rural setting was enough of a draw when Fox Hills Resort opened in Mishicot in 1964. Now travelers expect more, be it free Internet, pillowtop mattresses or fat menus of spa services and dining choices.

The Manitowoc County resort’s eight-year owner – Menasha-based Jacobson Group, which sells pool tables to pinball machines to jukeboxes – realizes this and is investing $2 million to boost business.

Diane Thon, senior sales manager, says the widespread revamp is a first for Fox Hills. It tackles golf paths to wall paint.

“I think we’ll get back a lot of clients that we lost only because we were getting old,” she asserts. A goal is to complete work in time for the resort’s golden anniversary, in 2014, and position the property as a good-value destination.

Golfers compete on 45 holes, not including the mini golf course.

Fox Hills, which began as a nine-hole course on a former mink ranch, soon gained a supper club and cocktail lounge because business was good and the future seemed bright.

Within 10 years, 107 hotel rooms and 18 more holes of golf were added. Then came a conference center (with room for 500-person events), villas and condos. The National, a more challenging 18-hole course at Fox Hills, opened in 1988 – the same year as Kohler’s Blackwolf Run, about 50 miles south of Mishicot.

Today, Fox Hills and its 45 holes (plus a miniature golf course) cover 500 acres in a community whose population barely exceeds 1,400. It is truly rural: Across the road from guest registration are farm buildings.

There is no lake and no longer an outdoor pool – resort owners decided the $30,000 required for updating would be better used in other ways.

“We are, after all, Wisconsin,” Diane says. “For how much of the year would we really use it?” Newly resurfaced is a large indoor pool, and condo renters gain access to a second swimming facility.

A $2 million investment is lavish to the average person, but it’s frugal for a resort makeover. Upgraded room décor comes from Hobby Lobby. That filled-in swimming pool is destined to become a tiki bar.

Thirty weddings this year are booked at the resort chapel, a former storage area. Another 19 weddings are scheduled outdoors, in front of a golf course pond.

What does “good value” mean? Even standard guest rooms contain a microwave, refrigerator and coffeemaker. Golfers can sign on for unlimited play packages that include lodging, or simply pay as little as $22 for 18 holes.

“Hotel guests are computer savvy, price savvy and know there is a lot of competition out there,” Diane explains. “They know how to find a great price and a great product.”

Catering to the customer means allowing dogs for an extra $10 per night, staffing an activities room for children and adding specific massages for the tired muscles of golfers and hunters.

Cosmetically, change means covering bland white walls with a more trendy Cashet Cream or Tansy Green. It’s about resurfacing cabinets and countertops, buying richer-looking linens and flat-screen TVs, offering bonfires and more music.

It’s also about reminding prospective guests that Lake Michigan is just a 10-minute drive away, as is Two Rivers’ Neshotah Beach and Point Beach State Forest. Closer is hiking on the Ice Age Trail.

Building a sense of community and connection also is part of the strategy. From November to May, monthly “celebrity bartender nights” includes raffles at the resort’s Benchwarmers Sports Bar that raise up to $1,600 in two hours for a local charity.

Bob Hope has slept at Fox Hills. So did Willie Nelson, LeRoy Butler and Davy Jones, the recently departed Monkee. That’s fun trivia, but some of it dates the resort, which seems to seek a new identity.

“Mishicot is really trying to find its voice,” Diane says. “It’s a small voice, feeding off of Manitowoc and Two Rivers.”

For more about Fox Hills Resort, 250 W. Church St., Mishicot: www.foxhillsresort.com, 800-950-7615.

Upcoming resort events include golf tournaments that are open to the public.

What else does the Mishicot area offer? I discovered a fine trio of little-advertised rural businesses:

Andercraft Woods, 620 Church St. – Three women use carpentry and art skills to produce hundreds of atypical and sometimes elaborate bird houses and feeders from weathered barn wood and neatly sawed slabs of cedar.

“Living bird houses” have a roof filled with succulent plants. Yard art costs under $10 (for a suet holder) to $300 for unusual benches. Notice the three-tiered bird houses/feeders for $150. www.andercraftwoods.com, 920-755-4289

Wilfert Farms, 7528 Manitou Dr., Two Rivers – The 135-year-old, 700-acre family vegetable and fruit farm sells its harvest from an onsite store that is open every day during the growing season.

What’s in stock? Terri Wilfert goes online to update inventory daily (or even more often, as warranted). Bags of fat and tender, just-snapped asparagus were $2.50 per pound during my quick visit. www.wilfertfarms.com, 920-683-3264

Alpaca Threads Gift and Fiber Studio at LondonDairy Alpacas, 6827 Hwy. 147, Two Rivers – A farm needs to raise multiple champions to earn Alpaca Elite membership, and LondonDairy qualifies. It was one of Wisconsin’s first alpaca farms, in business since 1996.

The gift shop, open by appointment only, sells socks, scarves, shawls, slippers and other merchandise made with alpaca wool. That includes furry teddy bears.

Farm visitors are welcome 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 27 for Alpaca Odyssey, a festival where the animals can be pet and fed, musicians and poets perform, vendors sell alpaca products and other events educate visitors about alpacas. Admission is free, but donations of canned goods and money for the local food pantry are encouraged. www.londondairyalpacas.com, 920-793-4165