This out-of-the-blue challenge came from a stranger in New Jersey this month:
Soon, “three of us will be in Wisconsin for six days, intending to just drive around and see good things,” wrote Jim Elliott. “Could you please list 10 places/things that we absolutely MUST see or do in Wisconsin?”
It would be the trio’s first trip to the Midwest.
I wasn’t sure if the group was three guys on a bender, a mom and dad with a child or some other combo. I didn’t know if they were foodies, hikers, farmers, history buffs or sports fans.
Didn’t matter. In Wisconsin are unique destinations that are universally good for all who love travel.
“We Midwesterners have this push-pull thing going on,” I teased, in my reply. “Part of us wants to prove why we are more than fly-over country, and part of us wants to keep secret all that is good about where we live.”
Then I added recommendations.
Capitol Square, Madison – Every U.S. state government has a home, and many are architecturally beautiful, but Wisconsin’s hub also reveals the heart of the city. Time a free tour around noon, to hear protest songs from the weekday Solidarity Sing Along, or walk counterclockwise outside on a Saturday morning (late April to early November), to shop the nation’s largest producer-operated farmers’ market. dcfm.org, 608-455-1999; tours.wisconsin.gov, 608-266-0382
Side trip: Walk a block east to tour Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (a Frank Lloyd Wright building), especially on a Saturday when Michael Feldman’s “Whad’Ya Know?” radio show is taped there. notmuch.com; mononaterrace.com, 608-261-4000
Door County Coastal Byway – We call Door County the Cape Cod of the Midwest for good reason. Follow the 66-mile loop of highways 42 and 57 to efficiently explore the peninsula’s rich mix of small towns, lush parks and sexy coastline. doorcountycoastalbyway.org, 920-743-3113
Side trip: Take a 30-minute ferry ride to Washington Island, five miles north of the peninsula, for bountiful natural beauty but lots less tourists. Bring a car or bike. washingtonisland-wi.com, 920-847-2179
Driftless Region – Wisconsin doesn’t have mountains, but we do have an exquisite area left untouched by long-ago glacial movement. Find County D near Cashton, in Monroe County, where the driveways of Amish farms start with simple signs to sell furniture to bakery. Down a Country Road arranges tours, and the last neighborhood Growers Produce Auction of the season is Oct. 23. growersproduceauction.com, 608-654-7880; downacountryroad.com, 608-654-5318
Side trip: You can’t go wrong with a stop in vibrant little Viroqua, at least for a farm-to-table meal at Driftless Café. driftlesscafe.com, 608-637-7778
Great River Road – The 250 scenic miles snake through dozens of pretty, sleepy and quirky little communities along the Mississippi River. The nation’s oldest byway also is one of Wisconsin’s best drives, during any season, and most of the route follows Highway 35. wigrr.com, 800-658-9424
Side trip: “Made where it’s grown” pizza at A to Z Produce and Bakery, on a farm four miles from Stockholm, is served 4:30-8 p.m. Tuesdays, March to Thanksgiving. atozproduceandbakery.com
Green Bay – No NFL team lives in a smaller city, and – OK, arguably – no fan devotion is more intense. Even the inside of at least one McDonald’s is decked green and gold. ’Nuf said? Packer tours a-plenty help out-of-staters better understand. greenbay.com, 920-494-9507
Side trip: The Vatican acknowledges the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, 17 miles northeast, as the only U.S. siting of Virgin Mary apparitions. shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com, 920-866-2571
Harley-Davidson Museum, Milwaukee – I’m not a rider but am impressed with the extent of pop culture, passion and kid-friendly efforts that are a part of this interactive, global attraction. Motorcycle components are treated like artwork, and for bikers all over the world, these grounds are a place of pilgrimage. harleydavidson.com, 414-287-2789
Side trip: Indulge in a cocktail or more at Iron Horse Hotel, boutique lodging with unusual energy, luring suited business execs to dusty Harley riders. theironhorsehotel.com, 414-374-4766.
Kohler – The elite American Club and PGA championship golf courses draw high-end visitors to this modern company town, but other attractions appeal to cheapskates. Kohler Company retirees lead free, three-hour, up-close and exceeding rare factory tours on weekday mornings. In the basement of the stylish Kohler Design Center are nifty art and history exhibits. destinationkohler.com, 855-444-2838
Side trip: As temps cool, surfing peaks in Sheboygan, where land extends five miles into Lake Michigan, making conditions ideal for riding waves on windy days. visitsheboygan.com, 920-457-9491
Leopold Shack and Farm, near Baraboo – The inspiration for Aldo Leopold’s 1949 “A Sand County Almanac,” a bible of thought for ecologists, is a National Historic Landmark and accessible to average travelers. Add hiking trails and the much-newer, eco-progressive Leopold Legacy Center. aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279
Side trip: Eight miles west is the International Crane Foundation, the only the place in the world to see all 15 species of the bird. Also expect thousands of migrating sandhill cranes on Wisconsin River sandbars in late October and early November. savingcranes.org, 608-356-9462
Taliesin, Spring Green – Architect Wright’s summer home and design studios remain open for tours until Oct. 31. The estate, a National Historic Landmark, is a huge reminder of how much the designer, who died in 1959, was ahead of his time. taliesinpreservation.org, 608-588-7900
Side trip: “Up the Hill” shows at the wooded, outdoor American Players Theatre end this month, but then the steamy “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” plays at more intimate, indoors Touchstone Theatre. americanplayers.org, 608-588-2361
I’ll keep the 10th suggestion a secret, for now, because soon I’ll write about it separately. What could it be? Send me a note before Nov. 1; I would love to read your guesses and share them.
Turns out that Jim Elliott is a research chemist for his home state and Rutgers University. He was traveling with friends – an engineer and an international rep for a publishing company – while his wife was teaching English to teachers in the Republic of Georgia.
All are in their 70s – “maybe up in years but all still having fun” – with interests that he described as universal. “We drive, we stop, we look and drive some more, and then find a place to stay,” he explained recently, to describe the group’s previous outings, in the western U.S.
I’d be the last to argue with that generic formula for feeding wanderlust.