You don't have to go far to get the most out of winter.
There’s no need to leave Wisconsin in winter – because that’s when a unique variety of seasonal activities pop up, whether it’s skiing upstate or checking out Milwaukee’s burgeoning craft-distillery scene. This is also a chance to tour the Main Streets of Milwaukee-area suburbs, where eclectic shopping and ethnic dining – paired with a hot-chocolate break – easily fill an afternoon as the perfect staycation.
Known as the Midwest’s No. 1 ski-resort vacation destination, Granite Peak Ski Resort in Wausau’s Rib Mountain State Park is just a three-hour drive from Downtown Milwaukee. Perfect for not only adult skiers but families of differing levels, too, there are 75 runs, four terrain parks and three high-speed lifts, all at the base of Granite Peak. Nervous first-time skiers can get their bearings in the on-site ski school while après-ski culture awaits at Sundance Chalet, a structure dating back to 1939 and now serving appetizers and drinks near a crackling fire. Since the runs were created in the late 1930s, new attractions have been added over the years, including a multimillion-dollar investment last summer that further boosts the Midwest’s largest snowmaking operation (a boon during an unseasonably warm spell when snow has all but melted).
Consider staying overnight near the resort to avoid a lot of driving in one day. Many properties offer a water park (such as at Grand Lodge & Logger’s Landing Indoor Water Park) or indoor pool (such as the Jefferson Street Inn, which includes a free breakfast and is pet-friendly) to extend the fun as well as sooth muscles sore from skiing. Another reason not to head back to Milwaukee the same day: You can check out the nightlife (live music, pubs and more) found in Wausau’s River District. Family Festival Weekends in each ski season cater to multi-generational groups.
Mirroring the growing craft-brewery scene in Milwaukee, craft distilleries are also opening up around town. A true original is Great Lakes Distillery, which launched in 2006 in a Riverwest warehouse and, since 2008, has operated a fancy tasting room in Walker’s Point. One-hour tours of the attached distillery are offered daily at set times in the afternoon, showing the small-batch environment. For a $10 fee, a flight of six products can be tasted, with soda available at no cost for non-drinkers.
“Great Lakes Distillery is a great unique destination during the holiday season,” says owner Guy Rehorst. “We have regular visitors that visit us every holiday season as a part of their shopping routine. It’s perfect, since you can come and relax, get a bite and a cocktail in our tasting room, and also get some shopping checked off of your list in our gift shop.” Items for sale include glassware, copper mugs and Great Lakes Distillery apparel. After some shopping and touring, rest your tired legs with flatbreads, sandwiches and small plates – served between 11:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. – in the tasting room, which stays open until 10 p.m. A rotating lineup of cocktails made with the distillery’s products shifts with the seasons.
If you haven’t been to Oconomowoc’s downtown in a few years it might be time to go back. “There’s been tremendous improvements,” says Bob Duffy, the city’s economic and tourism development director, “and we’ve just replaced the waterfront in 2017.” With a boost in residential units in the downtown corridor, this small city’s downtown area continues to attract restaurateurs and retailers. Holiday festivities include the Dec. 2 Christmas parade featuring holiday lights and, the next day, a holiday-train stop that picks up food donations for the Oconomowoc Food Pantry. “That’s a well-received activity for families,” says Duffy, especially as the train is all lit up.
“Our community is tremendously walkable,” says Duffy, “with authentic ethnic restaurants. Most of what we have here is niche shopping.” A day could start with lunch at Manthra Indian Bistro or Fiesta Cancun Mexican Restaurant & Cantina followed by shopping. Hooves and Paws, as well as The Doggy Bag, sell luxury pet items while Fox Lake Country Antique Mall features 100 dealers.
Golosi – considered one of the state’s best gelato shops, and owned by a family that got its start making gelato in Casale Monferrato, Italy – is a sweet way to end the day. Or order a mug of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream at The Roots Coffee Bar & Cafe.
Feel at home for the holidays in the Wauwatosa Village, a thriving business district offering more than 100 stores, restaurants and businesses in a setting reminiscent of the great villages of Europe. This begins with Café Hollander, modeled after a Belgian pub and serving a strong lineup of Belgian beers along with a food menu. Another restaurant reminiscent of Europe is Le Reve Patisserie & Café, a two-story space entirely focused on French cuisine. To break up a day of errands, a visit to the pastry case downstairs is a must to pick up macarons or fruit tarts. Rustic Italian fare served in an intimate environment (for dinner only) at Ristorante Bartolotta is a popular reservation not only for couples dining out but also small groups. For more eclectic New American dining, Firefly is a solid bet, with shared plates like bacon-wrapped dates filled with boursin and almonds, or hearty entrees such as pork chops with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and broccolini.
The village is further enhanced by a recreational trail running through the heart of downtown, with easy access to parks and parkways with biking and hiking trails. Get some holiday shopping done at Urban Laundry, Soaps & Scents, Salamander or Magpie Jewelry & Metals Studio. Meet up with friends at Lucky Joe’s Alchemy & Eatery (Tiki-inspired cocktails), The Ruby Tap (wines by the glass) or Cafe Bavaria (Bavarian beers), just three of the trendy watering holes. ◆