Before the holiday season, why not sneak in a relaxing, late-fall getaway through the countryside? We’ve called ahead to find out what’s going on in five of our favorite day-tripping destinations.
As early fall turns to late fall, it’s a beautiful time to hop in the car and meander back roads north, south, east or west. Indulge your senses and stop wherever you please. Slow down. Take your time. A peaceful respite is just the thing to prepare you for the busy upcoming holiday season.
We’ve called ahead to see what’s going on in five of our favorite road trip destinations between now and Thanksgiving. Hint: Celebrations involving wine, beer and food are definitely in vogue, about now.
It’s worth noting that the Wisconsin Department of Tourism provides maps for all 115 rustic roads in the state, at dot.wisconsin.gov. Many are in our backyard. These lightly traveled roadways, which aren’t always paved, offer a way to enjoy scenic countryside at a leisurely pace no faster than 45 mph. Watch for the brown and yellow markers.
Have fun exploring the sights and sounds of your own backyard!
And remember, the joy really is in the journey.
Green County, Wis.
This welcoming county offers plenty of unspoiled countryside to roam and celebrates its ethnic ancestry to the fullest. Simple pleasures like enjoying locally made cheeses and beers are cherished. Four Wisconsin Rustic Roads wind through hilly dairy pastures, fields and farmland – Routes 27, 81, 90 and 94.
If you’re looking for a quirky excuse to head north, the 28th annual UFO Day in Belleville, Wis., on Oct. 25, fills the bill nicely. Locals enjoy a small-town parade, fun run, show and good food, all to commemorate a 1987 UFO sighting by two police officers.
Belleville aside, two communities claim the largest share of Green County activity. Monroe is a lively city of 11,000 people, with a unique city square that’s anchored by an 1891 courthouse surrounded, on all four sides, by small businesses. Shopping in Monroe is a bit like stepping back in time, since most of the shops are locally owned and have knowledgeable, friendly clerks.
“Nearly every space on the square is rented out,” says Noreen Rueckert, director of Green County Tourism. Her office is on the square, and she’s personally excited to see an expansion of longtime women’s clothing store JoAnne’s Dress Shop.
“It’s such a different, better experience than shopping in a chain store, and there’s a lot more for sale than just dresses,” she says. A new men’s clothing store, Max’s Threads, recently opened. There are home decor, antique, art, book, pet and shoe stores.
Restaurants, bakeries, candy stores and pubs are situated on the square, too. Some are new, like BuggyWorks Restaurant and Pub, located in a former buggy factory on 18th Avenue. Others are fixtures, like Baumgarten’s, which opened in 1931, and the Turner Hall Ratskeller, where locals gather around Swiss/German cuisine. On Nov. 2, Turner Hall hosts the Annual Swiss Fest. “It’s mostly about traditional Swiss music, with yodeling, alpenhorns and all,” says Rueckert.
Turner Hall will host its annual Christkindlmarkt on Nov. 28 and 29, where vendors will sell handmade gifts made by local artisans, including traditional European favorites like Scherenschnitte (scissor cuttings), Kerbschnitte (chip-carving in wood) and Holzschnitte (wood carvings). Also for sale are rugs, soaps, quilts, floral arrangements, jewelry, home decor and baked items, like paper-thin Swiss Bräzeli cookies. “The Swiss ladies each have a different pattern of iron for their Bräzeli,” says Rueckert. Find a full list of vendors at turnerhallofmonroe.org. Christkindlmarkts have been a German tradition since the 14th century.
While you’re in Monroe, consider a visit to the Monroe Arts Frehner Gallery. Through Nov. 28, it’s featuring a juried exhibit with the theme “Seasons of the Sugar River,” and the submissions are stunning. Or, visit the National Historic Cheesemaking Center.
A tour and tasting at historic Minhas Brewery is another fun option. “Minhas has opened a micro distillery that offers tours, as well,” says Rueckert. Vodka, rum and gin are made here, and you can even learn how to make moonshine.
About 20 minutes north of Monroe is New Glarus, Wis., a bustling community of about 2,300 residents who are unusually dedicated to their ancestry and eager to welcome visitors. Settled in 1845 by Swiss immigrants, it attracts tens of thousands of tourists from around the world each year. The downtown, with its colorful Swiss flags and chalet-style architecture, is the main draw, filled with one-of-a-kind shops like Esther’s European Imports, The Bramble Patch, Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus, and Brenda’s Blumenladen.
Stop in for authentic Swiss fondue or Wiener schnitzel at the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, run by trained Swiss-born chef Hans Lenzlinger, or go to the Glarner Stube, with its rows of colorful beer steins lining the walls.
Anyone who enjoys locally made beer will appreciate the New Glarus Brewing Co., located on a hilltop just south of New Glarus; it offers regular tours and tastings and has a gift shop.
Because Green County is inherently beautiful, there are many natural areas to explore. One of the newest is the Pearl Island Recreational Corridor, an island between the Sugar River near Brodhead, Wis., and the millrace that flows out of the river and rejoins it. Brodhead is in the process of improving it, and there are already walking trails, bridges and benches. The corridor meets up with the state-maintained Decatur Lake Trail.
New Glarus is the trailhead for the Sugar River State Trail, a 23-mile route through bucolic countryside near Monticello, Albany and Brodhead, on a former rail line. It intersects with the Badger State Trail in Monticello and continues south to Freeport, Ill., as the Jane Addams Trail.
The 47-mile Cheese Country Trail runs from Mineral Point, Wis., to Monroe, crossing through Iowa, Green and Lafayette counties. It runs through a driftless area with rocky outcroppings, very different than most of us are used to.
This community lives and breathes to show tourists a good time, and seldom fails. It’s a triple whammy of picturesque driftless area, 1800s architecture and a well-developed arts, history and wine culture. Main Street buildings were frozen in time when lead miners abandoned Galena mid-century and Chicago replaced it as the state’s most important trading post.
Stately homes watch over the city from high bluffs, many built by 1800s shipping magnates. Some are open for tours, others are bed & breakfasts.
“One thing you can count on in Galena is that there will be something new every time you visit,” says Betsy Kaage, social media specialist at the Galena/Jo Daviess Convention & Visitors Bureau. “For example, this fall, Amelia Wilson-Roth and her husband, Andy, are offering ghost tours by luxury shuttle. Another new favorite attraction is the P.T. Murphy Magic show, but tickets sell out fast.”
Stopping in at the downtown’s specialty shops, tasting rooms and antique stores is always a pleasure, especially in crisp autumn weather. Some kind of harvest ritual is happening every weekend. But if you do your homework, you’ll learn there’s more to this tri-state area than shopping. Eco-activities, winery tours and all kinds of recreational adventures await, and many key attractions are outside the city proper. For example, some Galena artists and chefs provide hands-on lessons in their studios and kitchens. You can fire pottery or make your own jewelry. Or, you can cook up something delicious in the kitchen of Goldmoor Inn, which overlooks the Mississippi River backwaters.
Hop on a trolley for a one-hour guided tour to get your bearings. Longer tours stop at the home of President U.S. Grant, the Old Market House, the DeSoto House Hotel and the Washburne House, which is renowned both for its Greek Revival architecture and the historic luminaries who frequented it.
The most important late-fall event in Galena is the Nouveau Wine Weekend, a French-inspired celebration of the fall harvest vintage, this year celebrated Nov. 21. Spearheaded by Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery 30 years ago, Nouveau opens on Friday with a horse-drawn wagon parade on Main Street that carries the new wine. Afternoon wine and cheese parties follow throughout the downtown, as do wine-inspired meals and hotel packages throughout greater Galena.
For people who like action, the Galena area offers plenty. Fever River Outfitters rents out equipment and organizes activities year-round, from scooter rides to biking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and snow sports.
As long as you’re in the area, take a drive through the lovely Galena Territory, which has its own lake, stables, golf courses, restaurants, spa and lodge.
Keep in mind that the Mississippi River is just a short drive westward; a boat ride down Old Man River is a great way to spend a few hours. Which leads us to …
A few miles and one Ol’ Man River west of Galena lies Dubuque, Iowa, a city that’s taken great pains to reinvent itself and make full use of its riverfront.
There’s a thriving foodie scene, with a local distillery and several breweries and wineries nearby. Interesting tours and tastings are easy to come by year-round, but the annual Food and Wine on the River Festival, held the weekend of Nov. 7 at the Port of Dubuque, is a convenient way to sample the region’s gourmet food, wines, brews and spirits, all in one place.
“There are all sorts of activities associated with this festival and it was a huge hit last year when it was launched,” says Taylor Cummings, director of marketing at the Dubuque Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This year’s celebrity host is Paul Gilmartin, a stand-up comedian and co-host of ‘Dinner and a Movie,’ a weekly TV show on TBS.” The fun begins Friday night at the Mississippi Moon Bar, inside the Diamond Jo Casino, with reserve wine tasting and small plates from four local restaurants, against a backdrop of live music and a comedy segment by Gilmartin.
Saturday kicks off with a downtown parade starting at Stone Cliff Winery in the Port of Dubuque, led by Gilmartin. The noon tasting at Stone Cliff will feature “The Great Soup-Off of 2014,” plus spirits and specialty food tastings and breakout sessions that offer insight into gourmet food and beverages. The day wraps up with soup judging at 2 p.m.
“It’s easy to eat and drink your way through Dubuque, but we do have lots of other attractions, too,” says Cummings.
At the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, all ages have fun learning about the river, its inhabitants and history, through aquariums, hands-on displays and a steamboat tour. There’s a 3D/4D “immersion theater” with special effects like mist, seat movement and scents that correlate with on-screen subjects. The museum is open year-round.
Dubuque also is known for its gambling options, with riverboat casinos Diamond Jo and Mystique; the latter has a greyhound racing park.
Starved Rock State Park, Utica, Ill.
If you decide to head south, there’s always something interesting taking place at this gorgeous state park, with its 18 canyons, 2,630 wooded acres, 13 hiking trails and 1930s log lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The lodge sits high on a bluff and overlooks the Illinois River.
The ancient geology here is completely at odds with Illinois’ flat farm fields and rich, black soil. Mysterious, fern-laced canyons beg to be explored; rocky buttes reward hikers with bird’s-eye views; gnarled trees climb through white sand and limestone, reaching for light.
Anyone with the slightest interest in Illinois natural history, geology, botany, archaeology or American Indian life will find the park fascinating. Historians believe that several native tribes lived here since 8,000 B.C. But this is also a place for those who simply crave respite from the buzz of city life. The lodge and rental cabins are cozy and comfortable, the Elements dining room serves up good food seven days a week, three meals a day plus Sunday brunch, and park activities don’t stop in cold weather.
“We offer a 4.3-mile sack lunch hike, of moderate difficulty, every Saturday and Sunday, March through December,” says Kathy Casstevens, marketing director. “For those who don’t want to walk, there are historic trolly tours that depart twice a day on weekends and include visits to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and the Starved Rock Visitor Center. The trolley tour is a good way to get your bearings, when you first arrive.” In January and February, the historic trolly ride is replaced with a “discover the eagles” tour.
Special events this November include a Nov. 14 & 15 Woman’s Outdoor Workshop; a Nov. 17 & 18 matinee “Silver Screen” live performance and lunch inside the lodge; and Thanksgiving Brunch.
Says Casstevens of the latter: “It’s a special experience to have a Thanksgiving meal in a national landmark like Starved Rock. That experience attracts families near and far because of the historic significance of this location.”
French missionaries were once active in this area, and contributed to a thriving winemaking culture in Illinois, planting cold-climate vines from their homeland. A recent post-Prohibition resurgence of winemaking in Illinois still relies heavily on French varietals, and Utica, the town nearest the park, is a hotbed for wine enthusiasts. Starved Rock has its own label of locally made wine and hosts a tasting each Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. The lodge also makes its own brand of ice cream, using gourmet ingredients like fresh vanilla beans from Madagascar.
November is when Starved Rock Lodge hosts its famous Leinenkugel Dinner, in which all dishes incorporate the Wisconsin-made brew, “but tickets were sold out in April,” says Casstevens. Be sure to book early if you want to attend it in 2015.
Walworth County, Wis.
This is lake country, and Walworth County not only contains 5,260-acre Geneva Lake, but dozens of smaller lakes. Five Wisconsin Rustic Roads meander through this county: Routes 11, 12, 29, 36 and 85. But if it’s action you’re after, the city of Lake Geneva should be your first stop. Here you’ll find shops, galleries, eateries and interesting lake views. There’s an ever-changing list of things to do. At Studio Winery, sip while you paint. At the Lake Geneva Cooking School, pick up some gourmet skills. “It’s run by a very entertaining chef,” promises Julie Baron, of the Lake Geneva Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Geneva retailers will present their Holiday Open House on Nov. 15 & 16 with extended hours, food and drink, and appearances by musicians, authors and artists.
Go back in time at the Baker House, a restored 1885 Queen Anne mansion-turned-hotel with a restaurant and speakeasy. Celebrate Lake Geneva’s Gilded Age here, with cabaret nights, mystery cocktail parties, masquerade balls and other adult fun. The star attraction in November is an elegant Thanksgiving Day feast served tableside from silver platters.
“It’s something few people experience anymore,” says Baker House co-owner Bethany Sousa. “An elegant holiday meal with full silver service.”
Points of interest elsewhere, in this county, run from swanky resorts and golf courses to the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, which offers free tours each Saturday, year-round.
Late autumn special events include Oktoberfest in Delavan on Oct. 26; a WGTD Radio Theater event on Oct. 25 at Lake Lawn Resort; music by Terry Sweet at Lake Lawn on Nov. 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29; and the Lake Geneva Beer & Spirits Festival, Nov. 1 at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, from 1-5 p.m.
The latter event offers, for $45, unlimited tastings of beer from among 120 selections, representing 30 craft breweries, plus bourbon tastings. “This event was very popular last year, and fits with the local foods trend,” says Baron.
As a warm-up to that event, Grand Geneva will present a five-course Lakefront Brewery Beer Dinner Oct. 31, hosted by Jim Klisch, co-founder of Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee.
In other fine dining news, Nov. 4-9 is Dine Around the Lakes week. Many finer restaurants will offer a three-course lunch for $10-$15 per person and a three-course dinner for $20-$25 per person. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Among the participants are 240 West and The Waterfront at The Abbey Resort in Fontana; Frontier Restaurant at Lake Lawn Resort in Delavan; Hunt Club Steakhouse in Lake Geneva; Lakeview Grille at Geneva Ridge Resort, Lake Geneva; Pier 290 in Williams Bay; Popeye’s in Lake Geneva; and The Black Sheep in Whitewater.
Walworth County is also full of family attractions, including hay rides, a water park and Saturday magic shows at Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.Also find the Dancing Horses Theatre, Busy Barn Adventure Farm, and the East Troy Electric Railroad, which runs from East Troy to the Elegant Farmer Depot in Mukwonago, with its orchard, corn maze and award-winning apple pie baked in a paper bag.
Bigger kids and the young at heart enjoy the zipline and other eco-adventures offered by Lake Geneva Canopy Tours year-round. During October, you can even drop a pumpkin over a bull’s-eye from a 40-foot-tall zipline.