Pile into the station wagon and hit the road. Here are 5 great Wiscosnin spots to escape reality for a few days, all within easy driving distance from Milwaukee.
How far is it? 175 miles | 3 hours
The Peninsula of Performing Arts
While famous for cherries, impressive lake views and a plethora of vacation accommodations, Wisconsin’s popular peninsular destination also has a long history of live theater. It all started with a performance of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever in the summer of 1935. Young and idealistic, a brother-and-sister team began producing plays, with their mother in charge of sewing the costumes. Two years later, they bought a former boys camp in the woods just south of Fish Creek for their open-air theater, and 20 years after that, they built a pavilion over their heads. Today, the Peninsula Players is the oldest resident summer theater in the nation. With bonfires at intermission, the sweet smell of cedars, the nearby lake, and a state-of-the-art theater, who needs Broadway? Their season runs from June into October and includes five different plays. If you’re looking for something raucous and a bit risqué, check out The Full Monty, playing July 27 to Aug. 14.
For theater-goers who prefer watching plays en plein air, the appropriately named Northern Sky Theater puts you right out under the stars in an impressive amphitheater tucked in the forest of Peninsula State Park. Once known as the American Folklore
Theatre, the company produces original musical comedies. Each season offers four shows, performed on a rotating schedule starting June 15 and running through the end of August. This year’s offerings include a revival of Lumberjacks in Love, a Northern Sky audience favorite. For those planning an autumn excursion, there are two fall productions, performed at indoor venues in Fish Creek. One of this fall’s selections, And If Elected, is performed only during election years.
If music be the food of love, count touring musical performers among your options. Birch Creek Music Performance Center, inside a repurposed dairy barn near Egg Harbor, showcases talented young musicians who come to this summer music academy to learn from nationally known performers and teachers, and then perform with them at concerts scheduled throughout the summer months. Symphony shows are on the agenda through mid-July, followed by jazz from mid-July to mid-August. Seeing the pros and the aspiring artists side by side may be as inspirational for the audience as it is for the upcoming musicians. Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek brings big names to the stage, this season including performances by Jim Belushi, Lyle Lovett, Bela Fleck, and ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, among others.
The peninsula offers plenty of lodging options for when the music stops. Fish Creek has great inns, including the Thorp House Inn & Cottages, a bed & breakfast set in a century-old Victorian home. Charming rooms, a scenic setting, and proximity to Fish Creek Harbor make this inn a popular destination.
Whistling Swan Inn & Restaurant, an upscale seven-room guesthouse, dates back to 1887. It serves breakfast and is home to some of the finest dining in the county. In the off-season, go here on Casual Tuesdays, when the menu offers dishes under $15 and discounts on wine and Hinterland craft beer.
The White Gull Inn offers 13 finely appointed rooms in three buildings, as well as four other rental cottages and houses. The restaurant serves an outstanding daily breakfast, including cherry stuffed French toast, and, four times weekly, a traditional Door County fish boil.
How far is that? 60 miles | 1 hour
Escape and Relax
Known for its open-road racecourse in the 1950s and now home to the popular permanent road course, Road America, the village of Elkhart Lake has speed in its veins. So how ironic that it is also the perfect place to slow down and escape the rat race? When the railroad arrived here in 1872, a massive stream of tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee came to see the beautiful lake, and by the early 1900s six resorts had opened.
The Osthoff Resort fits lodging, spa and entertainment options within the same space, offering a one-stop escape from stress and worry. Set along a sandy beach, the hotel looks out over the water and offers full suites that feel like vacation condos with fireplaces and kitchens. Enjoy fine dining at Lola’s on the Lake – the caramelized scallops are not to be missed; and pamper yourself at the award-winning Aspira Spa. Treatments range from facials and pedicures to chromotherapy, and they also offer yoga, sauna and whirlpool time, and a circular temple-like meditation room with a trickling pool at the center. At the end of your treatment, enjoy a fruit smoothie at the spa’s cafe.
The Osthoff’s L’ecole de la Maison is a classroom kitchen where you don the apron and follow along as a professional chef guides you through a traditional gourmet menu that can be repeated in your own kitchen. Go on vacation and come home skilled in preparing a shrimp bisque with cognac or a classic tiramisu.
Other lodging options range from the long-established Siebkens Resort and Victorian Village Resort, both at lakeside, to the Jay Lee Inn, a 7-room bed-and-breakfast set in a 1902 Victorian home in a quiet residential neighborhood.
For some wine to unwind, check out Vintage, owned and managed by award-winning certified sommelier and author Jaclyn Stuart. Take away a bottle or three of over 200 wines and perhaps some gourmet cheese, or attend one of the shop’s special events, which include tastings and wine classes.
Dinner options include the Paddock Club, which offers a seasonal menu, serving fresh pasta (notably available in half-portions), meat and seafood entrées and sandwiches. Another great spot is Lake Street Café with its Wine Spectator-accredited wine list, wood-fired pizzas, and dinner entrées such as Wagyu steak or grilled salmon.
Walk off your meals at The Ice Age National Scenic Trail’s LaBudde Creek Segment (iceagetrail.org), just east of town, which includes two short out-and-back hikes amid wetlands, grasslands, and forest.
For more serious hiking, head minutes south of Elkhart Lake to pick up the 31 contiguous miles of the Ice Age Trail within the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Northern Unit. Broughton Sheboygan County Marsh Park gives you a camping option, more nature to explore, and an 80-foot observation tower, the tallest such wooden tower in Wisconsin. Dine in the park’s full-service restaurant, Marsh Lodge.
How far is that? 120 miles | 2 hours
Titletown and the Packers
For football fans – not just Packers fans – a trip to Green Bay is a sacred pilgrimage. Street names honor the legends of the game: Lombardi Avenue, Brett Favre Pass, Tony Canadeo Run, Holmgren Way. Team flags hang from the houses, and even the curbside recycling bins are green and gold. At the heart of it all towers the pantheon of the Packers, Lambeau Field. On game days the city fills to capacity, or beyond it. But even if you come here during the off season, you will find abundant options for getting in the Packers spirit.
The Packers Hall of Fame, newly updated and renovated in 2015, resides within the hallowed Lambeau Field. Put a visit here together with a stadium tour which takes you high above the turf for a bird’s-eye view as well as a look out across the city. Stop in the gift shop to update your Packers wardrobe. Have your picture taken under the 50-foot chrome Lombardi trophy in the east-gate lobby, and at the feet of the bronze statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau outside in the Atrium plaza.
But this is only the beginning. Be sure to have your walking shoes on and head to The Stadium View Bar & Grille on Holmgren Way, where you can begin the Oneida Nation Walk of Legends, a 1.4-mile course that takes you past 24 marble-and-steel monuments commemorating great Packers and franchise history back to 1895. The self-guided tour ends at the stadium. From here, head downtown to the Neville Public Museum to start the walkable Packers Heritage Trail, a collection of 22 plaques around town. Downtown holds 17 of them, including a great corner memorial where you can pose with bronze Packers legends such as Paul Hornung and Bart Starr. Save your soles by booking a ride on the Parkers Heritage Trail Trolley, which offers a guide-narrated ride to over 22 sites, including the Packers’ pre-Lambeau home, City Stadium.
Get in the tailgating mood with a brat at Hagemeister Park Restaurant (named for the park where the Packers first played in 1919), and enjoy the vintage Packers interior.
The heritage trail passes here, and the eatery’s patio opens up to The CityDeck, a boardwalk along the Fox River. Cross the Dousman Street Bridge to Titletown Brewing (titletownbrewing.com) and enjoy a meal or a pint of craft-brewed – and often Packers-themed – beer. How about a Johnny Blood Red? The player statue out front came from the old Hall of Fame and has been repainted to represent local favorite and Hall Of Fame wide receiver Donald Driver. Or sip a Packerland Pilsner at Hinterland.
Closer to the stadium along the Walk of Legends, find Brett Favre’s Steakhouse or Green Bay Distillery, which serves a cheese-curd burger as well as some truly Green Bay vodka and gin. For a sweet finish before you head home, stop in De Pere at Seroogy’s Chocolates for a G-emblazoned meltaway bar.
How far is that? Crivitz in Marinette County: 170 miles | 2 hours, 45 minutes
For an off-the-beaten path nature experience, you can’t do much better than Marinette County and its 14 tumbling waterfalls surrounded by pristine forests.
Located in the upper northeast corner of Wisconsin, Marinette County faces off with the Upper Peninsula across the Menominee River and grants Lake Michigan’s Green Bay a bit of shoreline just south of the city of Marinette. Back in the day this was prime property for the lumber industry and by the end of the 19th century, much of the land had been clear cut. Today, the county maintains some sustainable logging, but most of the 231,000 acres of county forest are thick and wild.
The Pine, Popple, and Pike Rivers flow into the Menominee River, while the Peshtigo empties into Green Bay, its last eight miles offering some easy paddling. But upriver, these rivers boil and tumble through some rocky landscape amid the county parks, creating beautiful waterfalls and cascades.
Lace up your hikers, because these falls are not roadside attractions. Dave’s Falls off Highway 141, the most visited site, requires a short walk into the woods. A quarter-mile trail takes you to the 50-foot cascade at Long Slide Falls. On the Menominee River, Piers Gorge requires a half-mile hike, but thrill-seeking travelers might prefer to see the gorge and its Class IV rapids up close and personal on a whitewater raft. Reputable outfitters such as Kosir’s Rapid Rafts and Thornton’s Rafting guide tours here and on the Peshtigo River.
Getting around often involves gravel roads and sparse signage. If you are not comfortable with maps, consider using a guide. Dennis Marcely, a retired county park ranger, leads a the Waterfall Caravan tour to as many as six of the waterfalls, depending on your time. Follow in your own vehicle, then enjoy the scenery while Marcely tells you more about the falls and the forest at each stop. It’s a great way to ensure that you don’t spend the day stopping for directions.
Campers have some good options to choose from, including Twin Bridges County Park with a 62-site campground on High Falls Flowage of the Peshtigo River.
Governor Thompson State Park, near Crivitz, has 103 campsites, showers, and both vault and flush toilets. As much of the county is forest, hotels are mighty few. For simple rooms, consider The Grand Motel in Pembine. If you’re traveling without children, Christmas Lane B&B set on 50 acres along the Pike River outside Dunbar is a great refuge for a weekend in the Northwoods.
Supper clubbing is the way to go for food. Near Crivitz, Rene’s Dining Room (W11581 County Road X in Crivitz, 715-757-3411), near Popps Resort, specializes in steaks and seafood, but be sure to try the housemade soups. Paris in Pembine is also popular, serving lunch and dinner and a Friday fish fry (perch, walleye or haddock). You may need reservations on weekends in summer.
How far is it? 210 miles | 3 hours, 15 minutes
The City and The River
Looking out over the Mississippi River Valley from Grandad Bluff, you take in a panorama of beauty. Towering, verdant cliffs stretch away north to south to either side of you, while an equally magnificent run of them to the west traces the edge of Minnesota. In between lie interweaving river channels – two smaller rivers empty into the Mississippi here – and placid backwaters reflecting the sky and the charming city of La Crosse.
La Crosse has five districts on the National Register of Historic Places, not to mention dozens of individual buildings and bridges. A stroll through the downtown district is a trip back in time amid brick and stone beauties dating back to the 1860s. Here you are just steps from the Mississippi along Riverside Park. At the park’s north end, you can visit Riverside Museum at the visitor’s center and learn the river’s story from the first human settlers over 10,000 years ago up through the lumbering and steamboat days of more recent vintage. Don’t miss the lovely Riverside International Friendship Gardens and Peace Gazebo alongside the La Crosse River behind the museum for even more serenity.
Right next door is the boarding zone for the La Crosse Queen, a diesel replica of a steam-powered paddle boat, which sails along a mostly undeveloped stretch of river. See herons on the shores, eagles in the sky and turtles on the logs as you pass lush green shores and a rare swing bridge. Tours are daily but watch for dinner and pizza cruises, as well.
Part of the historic downtown, overlooking the park, is the 1898 Joseph B. Funke Candy Company building, reopened in 2015 as The Charmant, a boutique hotel. The fifth floor has the city’s only rooftop bar, serving wood-fired pizzas, and offers suites with private river-view decks. The restaurant also looks out to the park and river. When you check in to your room, you receive a gourmet chocolate, reminding you of the building’s history.
Across the handsome blue steel-truss Cass Street Bridge, Barron Island is home to Pettibone Park, popular with picnickers and shoreline anglers. Go to the southern end of the island to find Pettibone Boat Club, a casual family restaurant overlooking the passing water and a seasonal patio. Not to be missed are the deep-fried white-cheddar cheese curds. For something more upscale and a similar outdoor-dining view, try The Waterfront Restaurant Downtown, serving seasonal American fare and fresh seafood. Save room for dessert and enjoy a Chocolate & Whiskey Caramel Bombe, served with salted butter-caramel ice cream. Don’t even think about the calories – you’re on vacation, after all. For old-fashioned sweets, The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor & Coffee House serves up rich ice cream and confections true to its 1930s soda fountain motif.
At the end the day, follow your bliss (Bliss Road, that is) up to Grandad Bluff to witness a sunset over that remarkable river valley and enjoy views of three states: Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. Check ahead, though, as Bliss Road often turns into closed road after heavy rains or other erosion-inducing weather. If Bliss can’t be accessed, detour to the big climb over at Irish Hill and find your way to Grandad. Whatever the route, the destination will make the journey worth it, and more.
The Great River Road
Getting there is half the fun. Between La Crosse and Prairie du Chien lie 60 miles of The Great River Road National Scenic Byway, winding along between the Mississippi River and the towering bluffs of the Driftless Area, left untouched by the last advance of Ice Age glaciers. From high up on forested bluffs, see where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi at Wyalusing State Park; visit the 1870s mansion Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien; watch barges and boats pass through Lock and Dam #8 and #9; pick up fresh curds at Ferryville Cheese & Convenience Store; and learn about the river residents at Genoa National Fish Hatchery.