Survey determines state’s small-town gems

Whenever there’s an election, you hope for fair play. No stuffing of the ballot box, no heavy-handed grandstanding, no bullying to unduly sway the results.

Earlier this spring, we asked you to go to www.wondersofwisconsin.com and vote for your favorite small towns (population less than 15,000) in 20 categories. We’d wince when hearing rumors that one community or another was out to blitz the system, but that’s not how the results appear.

Thousands of you have expressed your preferences, and now we have 18 winners. Here they are – just in time for summer vacation planning – and we added thoughts about what to check out when visiting.

Most scenic beauty in the surrounding area: Bayfield, www.travelbayfieldcounty.com, 800-472-6338. The biggest gem is the 21-island Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, accessible by kayak or excursion boat, www.nps.gov, 715-779-3925.

Most beautiful town: Mineral Point, www.mineralpoint.com, 888-764-6894. Check out wide range of art classes at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, whose setting is restored 19th century buildings, www.shakeragalley.com, 608-987-3292.

Most distinctive architecture: Cedarburg, www.ozaukeetourism.com, 800-237-2874. A prime stop in the quaint, historic downtown is Cedar Creek Settlement, an 1864 woolen mill that today houses about 25 boutiques, www.cedarcreeksettlement.com, 866-377-4788.

Best galleries and arts scene: Egg Harbor, www.eggharbor-wi.com, 920-868-3717. Pretty Door County inspires artists of many types, and a series of arts festivals continues through summer, www.doorcounty.com, 800-52-RELAX.

Best theater and entertainment town: Spring Green, www.springgreen.com, 800-588-2042. Nothing matches a summer picnic and short uphill hike to the open-air American Players Theatre for a little Shakespeare, www.playinthewoods.org, 608-588-2361.

Best festival weekend: Warrens Cranberry Festival, www.cranfest.com, 608-378-4200. Expect more than three miles of vendor booths. Also check out the town’s Cranberry Discovery Center, in an old cranberry warehouse, www.discovercranberries.com, 608-378-4878.

Best town for dining: tie between Lake Geneva (www.lakegenevawi.com, 800-345-1020) and Sister Bay (www.sisterbaytourism.com, 920-854-2812). Both provide plenty of ways to gleefully add calories. The finest of dining choices include Gilbert’s Restaurant (www.gilbertsrestaurant.com, 262-248-6680) and the Inn at Kristofer’s (www.innatkristofers.com, 920-854-9419).

Best town for a fishing getaway: Minocqua, www.minocqua.org, 800-44-NORTH. Field & Stream this year dubbed it one of the top 20 places to fish in America. Among the plethora of accommodations are cozy condo units at The Beacons of Minocqua, www.thebeacons.com, 800-236-3225.

Best town for a biking getaway: Sparta, www.spartawisconsin.org, 800-354-BIKE. The area is best known for the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail, where riders pass through three tunnels (one three-quarters of a mile long), www.elroy-sparta-trail.com.

Best snowmobiling getaway: Eagle River, www.eagleriver.org, 800-359-6315. Long touted as the Snowmobile Capital of the World, there are 500 miles of trails, www.snowmobileeagleriver.com, 715-479-5185.

Best town for a boating getaway: Pepin, www.pepinwisconsin.com, 800-442-3011. Stop for lunch or dinner at the Harbor View Café, which overlooks the water, www.harborviewpepin.com, 715-442-3893.

Best cross-country skiing town: Blue Mounds, population 800, earns raves for trails at Blue Mound State Park, www.dnr.state.wi.us, 608-437-5711. Also nearby: Cave of the Mounds, a national natural landmark; www.caveofthemounds.com, 608-437-3038.

Best town for folk/outsider art: Baraboo, because Tom “Dr. Evermor” Every’s Forevertron is considered the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. It is 50 feet high, 120 feet wide. This piece of art is no longer easy to see, but other sculptures by the self-taught artist can be seen along Highway 12, near Devil’s Lake.

Best ethnic getaway: New Glarus, www.swisstown.com, 800-527-6838. Visit the New Glarus Bakery, where almond horns and other Old World recipes stay authentic, www.newglarusbakery.com, 866-805-5536.

Best shopping: Cedarburg. See above.

Best historic town: Mineral Point. See above.

Best town on a lake: Port Washington, www.portwashingtontourism.com, 800-719-4881. Strolling the Lake Michigan waterfront is one of the true delights of summer. Listen for the foghorn.

Best town on a river: Trempealeau, www.ruralexperiences.com, 800-927-5339. Watch the Mississippi River traffic and currents while savoring a walnut burger at the historic Trempealeau Hotel, www.trempealeauhotel, 608-534-6898

Most romantic town: Bayfield, www.travelbayfieldcounty.com, 800-472-6338. Book a room at the Old Rittenhouse Inn, where accommodations are cozy and dinner is a leisurely, gourmet delight. www.rittenhouseinn.com, 888-611-4667.

Best town for a family weekend: Wisconsin Dells, www.wisdells.com, 800-223-3557. The nation’s waterpark capital makes a big splash in all seasons, but an abundance of options.

A round of applause goes to travel journalist/publicist Gary Knowles of Madison, who organized this project and the 2007 “Wonders of Wisconsin” voting.

We are in the midst of determining, with first lady Jessica Doyle, how to acknowledge the winners in public. More about that as decisions are made.