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Cheap Getaways

Enjoy these free or inexpensive destinations all summer long

May. 25, 2011
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No need to scrap your summer vacation because of budget-guzzling gas prices. These nine good-value options won't drain the tank. Free attractions are noted; others require a reasonable fee or donation.

But first, three pieces of advice:

  • Think “picnic” instead of “restaurant.”
  • Pony up $25 for a Wisconsin State Parks vehicle admission sticker and access to guided hikes, naturalist talks and other action during all of 2011.

Natural Connections

Head toward Baraboo to see what makes Wisconsin a lover of and leader in all things environmental.

Roam for free at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center and Leopold Shack (www.aldoleopold.org), the iconic conservationist's inspiration for A Sand County Almanac. The shack is a National Historic Landmark. Nearby is the International Crane Foundation: No other place in the world is home to all 15 species of cranes (www.savingcranes.org).

At the free MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette are a mix of habitats, nature trails, wildlife and activities (mackenziecenter.com). Lions, tigers and leopards live at Rock Springs' Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue, an exotic animal sanctuary (www.wisconsinbigcats.org).

Historical site and state park passes cover admission to H.H. Bennett Studio in Wisconsin Dells (a showcase of local landscapes, photographed in the 1800s) and Devil's Lake State Park (celebrating its centennial year). Precious Devil's Lake moments include shady Parfrey's Glen (best place to hike in hot weather) and sultry ballroom dancing (monthly, at the park pavilion).

Art Meets Industry

Get acquainted with the Kohler empire without lifting a linen napkin, golf club or spa robe.

Free, three-hour Kohler Co. factory tours occur on weekday mornings. Kohler Design Center shows off fashionable plumbing fixtures and furnishings; don't miss the free museum that explains the toilet's evolution. Ask for a map to find outdoor sculptures made by artists-in-residence with industrial materials and equipment (destinationkohler.com).

In nearby Sheboygan is the free John Michael Kohler Arts Center; each of six bathrooms is a commissioned room of art (www.jmkac.org). The Kohler Foundation champions the work of self-taught artists—that includes the James Tellen Woodland Sculpture Garden (www.kohlerfoundation.org/tellen.html), not far from the sand dunes of Kohler-Andrae State Park.

Lakefront Lounging

Follow the Lake Michigan shoreline for an exercise in diversity.

Bike, jog or stroll the 5.5-mile Mariners' Trail that hugs the lakeshore between Two Rivers and Manitowoc (www.marinerstrail.net). On Saturday morning, the ride ends with nibbles at the downtown Manty farmers' market. Watch yachts come and go at Eighth and Quay streets. Also on the route: West of the Lake Gardens, a free and rose-rich patch of paradise that faces the lake (www.westofthelake.org).

Tour a simulated nuclear reactor at the free Point Beach Energy Center, near the lanky and lovely beach inside Point Beach State Forest (www.manitowoc.info). Away from shore (but not far) are the unusual and free Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, and tours and tastings at Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma (vonstiehl.com).

Book a room at the family-owned Lighthouse Inn Hotel, right on the lake (www.lhinn.com). Rates are reasonable.

Wright Angles

Taliesin, the longtime Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in rural Spring Green (www.springgreen.com), is 100 years old. But estate tours aren't the only way to get better acquainted with the iconic architect's work.

Follow the dozen stops on Spring Green's free and online architectural driving tour, which includes Wright's Unity Chapel, home to themed services at 11 a.m. Sundays on select dates in the summer. Your optional offering includes lemonade and a slice of pound cake (www.unitychapel.org).

Take a guided tour of Madison's Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, proposed by Wright in 1938 but not completed until 1997 (www.mononaterrace.com), and First Unitarian Society Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark. A recent church addition earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification (www.fusmadison.org). Tours of the SC Johnson Administration Building and Fortaleza Hall in Racine are free, but reservations are required (scjohnson.com; search for “tours”).

Occasionally open for Sunday tours are Seth Peterson Cottage, one of Wright's last commissioned works, overlooking Mirror Lake near Wisconsin Dells, and the Bernard Schwartz House, Wright's 1938 Life Magazine dream house, in Two Rivers (www.theschwartzhouse.com).

Meandering Madison

Set aside a Saturday for strolling on and near the Capitol Square. Protest sign not required.

All 150 vendors at the weekly Dane County Farmers' Market produce what is sold, the largest such market in the nation (www.dcfm.org). So stock up on honey, fresh pasta, beef jerky, artisan cheese, bakery and more. A ten-spot ($5 for students and senior citizens) buys coffee, a doughnut and a seat at the morning taping of the nationally syndicated radio show “Whad'Ya Know?” with Michael Feldman in Monona Terrace (www.notmuch.com).

Much is free, including tours of the State Capitol (wisconsin.gov; search “capitol tour”), visual variety at UW-Madison's Chazen Museum of Art (www.chazen.wisc.edu), meteorite and fossil exhibits at the UW Geology Museum (geology.wisc.edu) and guided hikes at the UW Arboretum (uwarboretum.org). If no band is playing at the UW Union Terrace, go anyway: Terrific Lake Mendota views exist 24/7 (www.union.wisc.edu).

Need more? Plop a canoe into peaceful Lake Wingra (www.wingraboats.com) or whoop it up with Leo Pold, the new lion cub at the adjacent Henry Vilas Zoo; admission is free. In the lineup are 100 summer events to celebrate the zoo's centennial year (www.vilaszoo.org).

Bargain Bound

Truly save big at the annual Lands' End Warehouse Clearance Event July 27 to Aug. 1 at Harris Park, Dodgeville (www.landsend.com; search “warehouse sale”).

Also in the vicinity: Crazy Frank's Liquidators, near Mineral Point (www.crazyfranks.com); Swiss Colony Outlet Stores, Monroe (greencounty.org, click “attractions”); Detweiler's salvaged and bulk grocery stores, rural Albany (greencounty.org, click “attractions”); and the durable, no-nonsense goods of Duluth Trading Co., Mount Horeb (www.duluthtrading.com).

Simply Patchwork

Quilt squares show up on barns, gardens and/or small-town exhibits in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois (www.quiltsonbarns.com). Add quilt shows, shops and workshops during the summer-long Northern Illinois Quilt Fest (www.northernillinoisquiltfest.com).

Explore the traveling Smithsonian exhibit “Key Ingredients: America by Food” in Brodhead until June 17 (www.keyingredientsbrodhead.com), or attend the Midwest Fiber and Folk Art Fair June 24-26 in Grayslake, Ill. (www.fiberandfolk.com).

Family Fun

For fresh Great Lakes views, sunbathe on Racine's North Beach (www.cityofracine.org) or picnic at Wind Point Lighthouse, the oldest and tallest at work on Lake Michigan (www.windpointwi.us).

In Kenosha, watch bike racers zoom around the Velodrome, the nation's oldest such track, (www.kenoshavelodrome.com), then tour and sample delicious to disgusting candy flavors at the Jelly Belly Center (www.jellybelly.com).

Madison travel writer Mary Bergin's newest book is
Sidetracked in the Midwest: A Green Guide for Travelers (Itchy Cat Press). Contact her at mary@roadstraveled.com.


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