Princeton, Green Lake: ‘quiet time’ appealing

It is mid January, but winter has taken its time to reappear, at least in southwestern Wisconsin. After our holiday landscape melted into a dank and leafless gray-brown, it didn’t take long to wish for sunshine, a fluffy blanket of white and somewhere interesting to go.

For much of the state, winter is our quiet time. Fewer tourists, less value? Nah. It can mean just the opposite. More elbow room, less need to hurry and scurry

Some people frame this as our off-season, but it’s hard to get comfortable with what that suggests. The phrase is about as attractive “off key” or “off kilter.”

This time of year can be so much more attractive than that, a time for renewal and reconnection – between people or with nature. Even in Green Lake County, best known for its lovely golf courses and longstanding summer resorts.

Princeton, population 1,500, presents the state’s largest weekly and outdoor flea market from May to October. The paces changes in winter, but the town is far from dormant.

Water Street has a quietly impressive stretch of shops that is about more than antique hunting. This is thanks, in part, to Princeton native Tracy Porter, the artist/designer (www.tracyporter.com) whose home and personal furnishings – featured at Target stores – have earned accolades from Oprah as well as Elle and Good Housekeeping magazines.

Tracy and her family have a studio in Ripon and live near Princeton. Her story, success and presence have lured other creative entrepreneurs to Princeton as well. They fill wonderfully creaky old buildings with art, furniture, gifts and home accessories. Consider daiseye, which advertises earth-friendly and one-of-a-kind treasures, many made with reclaimed materials – wood to tin.

There are other one-word business names, too: Elvin, Dish, Embellished, Henry’s, Pastimes and georgies (which sells Tracy Porter items).

StarDancer is the place to get pierced or tattooed. Wee Cycle is all about stuff for kids, and parents-to-be.

The tough breakfast choices include Peach Pecan French Toast, Banana Crepes or Cherry Waffles at Once in the Blue Moon, but not this month or next. The proprietors are on vacation, knowing that hungry people are in good hands at Mimi’s (whose staff takes its siesta in March and a part of April).

John Castino opened Mimi’s inside of a former furniture store, and its upstairs casket showroom, in July 2000. The menu is full of northern Italian cuisine, and the place is named after his grandmother, whose vexing portraits are on the walls.

“She was Irish and never cooked,” he says, with a grin.

John was drawn, from Chicago, to Princeton’s more sensible property prices. He was charmed by the tin ceiling that “looks like a wedding cake,” the hardwood floors, the slower pace of existence.

This is where authors do readings and “garden people” gather in summer. There is a basket of reading glasses at the bar, in case you leave yours at home, and a view of the Fox River, where you can see sturgeon spawn in April.

“We are a new twist on old small-town America,” John says, noting the lack of chain stores. Since the mid 1990s, retailers from San Diego, Boston and Minneapolis are among those who have opened shops.

For a night of pampering, head east 10 miles, to the Heidel House Resort in Green Lake, which has been a comfortable, amenity-filled getaway for 60 years. General Manager Scott Krause recently was selected Innkeeper of the Year by his peers, the Wisconsin Innkeepers Association.

Panoramic lake views, an indoor pool and sauna make this a good winter stay, and room rates are much lower than in summer.

The fine dining at Grey Rock Restaurant is among the best in the state. Portions are hearty; the menu includes steaks, chops, rack of lamb, duck and fish that is stuffed, seared or with a nut coating.

For Sunday brunch, in the more casual Sun Room: a half-dozen kinds of Bloody Marys – with gin, with Cajun spices, with seafood, and so on. Nice lineup of food, too, like sour cherry bread, homemade granola, blueberry blintzes.

To feel less guilty about grazing and lazing around, pack the cross country skis or hike trails at the resort and neighboring Tuscumbia, the oldest golf course in Wisconsin. Do it at dusk, and wildlife likely will be spying on you.

Green Lake, the town, tends to turn in early during winter, but one exception is the Thrasher Opera House, which sometimes has live entertainment on Saturday nights. Bowling and golfing on ice are two of the quirky diversions during Winterfest, Feb. 10-11.

Before heading back to Madison, we veered four miles west of Princeton, to Mecan River Outfitters & Lodge, a family-run business with 10 miles of cross country skiing trails, easy to moderately difficult. A pristine setting, with an inexpensive trail fee, and we arrived during a gentle snowfall.

The log cabin lodge is cozy and convenient, a good place for one of you to relax while the other refines skills on the hills.

There is a bar, a 35-foot fieldstone fireplace, football on TV on Sundays and a casual restaurant. Five rooms are for rent, each woodsy in theme and roomy in size. Most have two beds apiece, so it’s an especially good place for families or hunting/fishing/hiking/biking friends to crash.

Too plush for you? Other lodging options are camping space and rustic/secluded cabins.

For more about Princeton: www.princetonwi.com, 920-295-3877.

For more about Green Lake: www.visitgreenlake.com, 800-253-7354.

For more about Mecan River Outfitters & Lodge: www.mecanriveroutfitter.com, 920-295-3439.

For more about Heidel House Resort: www.heidelhouse.com, 800-444-2812.