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See Wisconsin’s Best Towns This Summer

Your favorite destinations for every activity

May. 15, 2008
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The Traveling Shepherd’s Best Wisconsin Towns poll is perfectly timed for those who want a close-to-home trip instead of a wallet-busting holiday. In our survey, nearly 3,000 people voted for favorites in 20 categories of Wisconsin towns. Now those recommendations can be your inspiration for summer day trips, weekends away or full-blown vacations. These are Wisconsin places you can afford to visit—even if gas prices reach the dreaded $4 a gallon.

Here are the winners, close runners-up and tips on what else to look for when you get there.

Meet the Best Wisconsin Towns

Most Scenic Beauty

First Place: Bayfield, with its toes in Lake Superior, sits on the sunny east side of the orchard-covered hills that overlook the wild Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. You can learn to kayak, enjoy the sandy beach, climb aboard a chartered sail boat or catch the Apostle Islands cruise boat that splashes past historic lighthouses as it circumnavigates the islands.

Second Place: Alma, the historic postcard-pretty town on the northern end of Wisconsin’s Great River Road.

Third Place: Green Lake, the town on Wisconsin’s deepest inland lake in east-central Wisconsin, is a great family getaway, according to our respondents.

Most Beautiful Town

First Place: Mineral Point, in southwest Wisconsin, was home to the state’s “badger” miners who dug lead and zinc out of the rolling hills and built one of the most charming settlements in Wisconsin Territory. A great way to see it is during the “Garden Tour & Garden Clinic” on June 20 and 21. On June 21, two master gardeners will conduct a garden clinic at beautiful Shake Rag Alley. Pendarvis, a state historic site, is a showcase of architecture, history and Cornish culture. Visit on June 7 for the summer Art Walk or Aug. 2 for Gallery Night, when you can meet dozens of artists in their galleries. Check out outstanding original live theater productions on the new outdoor Alley Stage. Lodging ranges from historic miners’ houses to country estates and national franchise inns. The Brewery Creek Inn serves great food and its own craft beers. The Red Rooster Cafe and the Old Royal Inn are known for their pasties and figgyhobbin.

Second Place: Cedarburg(see Most Distinctive Architecture)

Third Place: Ephraim,on Highway 42 on the bay side of the Door Peninsula,has earned a reputation as the most beautiful town in Door County.

Most Distinctive Architecture

First Place: Cedarburg,on Cedar Creek, long a favorite getaway for Milwaukeeans, has been discovered by travelers from the rest of the state for its unique heritage, 19th-century stone buildings and local flavor. An excellent time to visit is June 7 for the Stone House Tour or June 28 for the annual Strawberry Festival.

Second Place: Mineral Point (see Most Beautiful Town)

Third Place: New Glarus (see Best Ethnic Getaway)

Best Town for Galleries and Arts Scene

First Place: Egg Harbor, in Door County,draws visitors because of its fantastic galleries. Don’t miss the incredible decorated egg collection at the Dovetail Gallery. Yore Place features prints and originals with Door County themes while the 1871 Cupola House offers works by Phil Sealy. The art scene is enhanced by 32 concerts offered over the summer by the Birch Creek Music Association. Celebrate Independence Day weekend at Egg Harbor with a fireworks display (July 3) and parade.

Second Place: Mineral Point (see Most Beautiful Town)

Third Place: Paoli,a tiny town15 miles south of Madison, boasts five galleries as well as the Paoli Cheese Shop, likely Wisconsin’s smallest cheese emporium.

Best Theater and Entertainment

First Place: Spring Green is home to American Players Theatre (APT), the Tony Award-nominated outdoor theater that specializes in the works of William Shakespeare. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Hillside Studio are just up the road. For a taste of Wright-style lodging, book a room at the House on the Rock Resort, the work of Wright’s apprentices and built on property that Wright once owned. Keeping with the designer labels, the excellent golf courses at the resort were designed by Robert Trent Jones (the Original 18) and Andy North and Roger Packard (The North Nine). Head into Spring Green for art galleries, antiques, shopping and dining. The Bank, once the Bank of Spring Green, features lots of local produce and the creative cuisine of chef James Jens. To dine in an authentic Wright-designed building, go to the Riverview Cafe at the Wright Visitor Center, open daily from May to October. The Visitor Center also has one of the best Wright gift shops in the Midwest.

Second Place: Fort Atkinson’s Fireside Dinner Theatre is one of the Midwest’s most popular professional dinner theaters and one of the largest group tour destinations in Wisconsin.

Third Place: Fish Creek’s Peninsula Players of Door County opened with a Noel Coward play in 1935 and has been charming theater-lovers ever since.

Best Town for a Festival Weekend

First Place: Warrens, just north of Tomah off I-94, hosts the Cranberry Festival (Sept. 26 to 28) with a 100-vendor farmers’ market, a flea market with 350 sellers and an arts and crafts market with 800 exhibitors. A huge parade will feature Wisconsin’s largest marching band. The Cranberry Discovery Center is open from June through October. Warrens also has great trout fishing and biking on the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail.

Second Place: Monroe,in Green County, celebrates Cheese Days on Sept. 19-21.

Third Place: Port Washington, just north of Milwaukee, will serve up the World’s Largest One-Day Outdoor Fish Fry on July 19.

Best Town for Dining

First Place (Tie): Lake Geneva deserves this honor. From incredible steaks and wines at the Geneva Chop House at the Grand Geneva Resort to the Red Geranium, El Palenque or Popeye’s casual sining, an institution overlooking the grand waterfront, Lake Geneva can please any palate. To round out your trip, catch a ride on one of the Gage Marine excursion boats and get a relaxing view of the lavish estates built by Chicago-land industrialists, or stargaze at the historic Yerkes Observatory on Williams Bay.

First Place (Tie): Sister Bay’s Al Johnson’s restaurant has goats on its sod roof, but be sure to go inside for the lingonberry pancakes. And don’t miss the Mission Grille or the Inn at Kristofer’s.

Second Place: Green Lake with Grey Rock, Norton’s Dining Room and Carvers on the Lake.

Best Town for a Fishing Getaway

First Place:Minocqua, surrounded by hundreds of excellent muskie lakes, has long been a favorite headquarters for serious sport fishers and families looking for Northwoods tranquility. The quiet town that once was a favorite getaway for mobsters like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson now sports dozens of great shops, excellent restaurants, bookstores and latte kiosks, as well as excellent family resorts.

Second Place: Hayward not only has 55,000 acres of lakes and miles of great rivers, but it also hosts the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame with the world’s biggest muskie, five stories tall.

Third Place: Eagle River, in northeast Wisconsin on the 14-mile chain of 28 lakes, is said to be the longest inland chain in the world. For excellent resort lodging and dining, the Chanticleer Inn on Voyageur Lake is a longtime favorite.

Best Town for a Biking Getaway

First Place: Sparta, about 20 miles east of La Crosse, is at the northern end of the famous Elroy-Sparta Trail and claims to be the Bicycling Capital of America. It’s set in the picturesque rolling hills and valleys of west-central Wisconsin, where you can also visit the museum that honors Apollo astronaut Deke Slayton. From June 6-8, don’t miss Butterfest.

Second Place: Two Rivers claimed second place on the strength of two great trails that skirt the Lake Michigan shoreline and connect Point Beach State Forest with Two Rivers and downtown Manitowoc.

Third Place: Boulder Junctionis a wonderful Northwoods town with a railroad and logging history and a well-deserved reputation for great fishing, but it earned this honorable mention because of its outstanding bike trail system.

Best Snowmobiling Getaway

First Place: Eagle River is where the World Champion Snowmobile Derby got its start and where its 500 miles of groomed trails draw thousands of fans every winter.

Second Place: Hayward (See Best Fishing Getaway)

Third Place: Minocqua (See Best Fishing Getaway)

Best Town for a Boating Getaway

First Place: Pepin on Highway 35 in northwest Wisconsin is best known as the birthplace of author Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Save Sept. 13 and 14 for the delightful Laura Ingalls Wilder Days.) But don’t overlook the beautiful Lake Pepin, the natural lake of the upper Mississippi River. Watercraft of every shape and size—including one-person kayaks, fishing boats, houseboats, sail boats, riverboats and barges—make their way through these waters. If you don’t have a boat of your own, check out On-Deck Seminars and Charters for a cruise. The Victorian Harbor Hill Inn is a great B&B treat, and the Pickle Factory restaurant and bar and the highly acclaimed Harbor View Cafe are worth a visit.

Second Place: Baileys Harbor on the scenic lake side of Door County.

Third Place: Eagle River (See Best Snowmobiling Getaway)

Best Cross-Country Skiing Town

First Place: Blue Mounds, with Blue Mounds State Park, about 25 miles west of Madison, has quietly developed a reputation as one of the finest cross-country skiing areas in southwest Wisconsin. The 1,153-acre park has excellent ski trails, while the nearby Tyrol Basin attracts the snowboarding set and downhill fans. Check out the year-round Cave of the Mounds, too. From late spring to fall, visitors can enjoy the historical buildings and exhibits at Little Norway, including an authentic Norwegian Stavekirke, one of the few remaining buildings from the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition.

Second Place: Cable, home to the internationally known American Birkebeiner cross-country race every February.

Third Place: Fish Creekand Peninsula Park in Door County (See Best Theater and Entertainment)

Best Town for Folk/Outsider Art

First Place: Baraboo is close to the mind-blowing outdoor park known as Dr. Evermore’s Sculpture Park, just off Highway 12 between Prairie du Sac and Baraboo. It just might be the world’s largest outdoor sculpture garden, and it’s definitely an awesome display of imagination and creativity. Its centerpiece, the Forevertron, is a massive “time machine,” and in a grove of underbrush you’ll find the “Bird Orchestra” with 10-foot-tall metal birds made from junk.

Second Place: Dickeyville is the site of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious shrine created from stone, mortar, ceramics, glass and seashells between 1918 and 1931 by Father Mathias Wernerus on the Holy Ghost Parish Grounds.

Third Place: Hollandale, about 12 miles east of Mineral Point on Highway 39, is home to Nick Englebert’s Grandview, a fanciful sculpture garden of cast concrete figures that recall mythology, fantasy and fairy tale characters.

Best Ethnic Getaway Town

First Place: New Glarus was settled by 108 immigrants who left economic hardship in the Swiss Canton of Glarus in 1845. Today their community preserves the ambiance of Switzerland in art, culture and architecture. On any given night you can sample delicious Swiss meals, fondue and craft beers and enjoy yodeling, bone-dry Swiss humor and an occasional alphorn concert at the New Glarus Hotel or the Chalet Landhaus. The annual Heidi Festival, with sidewalk sales and a production of the Heidi play, is scheduled for June 27-29. On Aug. 2 the fire department celebrates it 106th anniversary; Swiss Fest, with plenty of accordion music, alphorn concerts and flag throwing (yes, it’s legal) is on Aug. 3; and the Wilhelm Tell Fest will be held Aug. 29-31.

Second Place: Cashton, on Highway 33 in western Wisconsin’s “Coulee Country,” is known for its Norwegian heritage and Amish community.

Third Place: Lac du Flambeau on Highway 47 northwest of Minocqua has the George Brown Museum & Cultural Center and Waswagoning Ojibwe village.

Best Shopping

First Place: Cedarburg is rich in art and history (the downtown is on the Historic Register), but it’s also full of great shopping opportunities, with Washington Avenue’s specialty shops, inns, pubs, antiquaries, art galleries and coffee shops. Bargain hunters flock to town May 25, July 13, Aug. 31 and Oct. 5 for some of Wisconsin’s greatest shopping during the town’s Maxwell Street Days.

Second Place: Mount Horeb charms thousands of visitors each year with its “trollway” shops, antique stores and the one-of-a-kind Mustard Museum.

Third Place: Sturgeon Bay, the portal to the Door County peninsula, offers a charming downtown in a maritime setting.

Best Historic Town

First Place: Mineral Point (See Most Beautiful Town)

Second Place: Prairie du Chien, in southwest Wisconsin on Highway 35, the Great River Road, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, served as the gateway community to Wisconsin Territory. Today the Villa Louis historic site and Fort Crawford Museum preserve and interpret Wisconsin’s past.

Third Place: Ripon in east-central Wisconsin is famous for great cookies, but it’s also the birthplace of the Republican Party in The Little White Schoolhouse.

Best Town on a Lake

First Place: Port Washington is a great quick getaway for Milwaukeeans who want to explore more of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Second Place: Ashland, on the south shore of Lake Superior, was once a bustling port. Today it’s known for its spectacular vistas, sailing and sport marinas.

Third Place: Elkhart Lake in east-central Wisconsin is a traditional Victorian-era resort town on a sparkling glacial lake, and home to Road America, one of the world’s finest race tracks.

Best Town on a River

First Place:Trempealeau is on one of the most stunningly beautiful areas of the Mississippi River and Great River Road, Highway 35, north of La Crosse. In fact, some 150 years ago a local Methodist minister published an essay “proving” with biblical references that the area must have been the original Garden of Eden. You can argue the point at one of the fine pubs in the area or, better yet, just explore PerrotState Park and the Trempealeau National River Wildlife Refuge or watch river traffic on Lock and Dam No. 6. Bring your bike and ride the Great River State Trail. The preferred lodging and dining is at the 1880s Trempealeau Hotel, which also hosts musical entertainment throughout the summer. Seek out Art on the River with music by Jimmy Liggett on June 29.

Second Place: St. Croix Falls is one of the nicest towns in Wisconsin, but it’s better known to Minnesotans because of its remote location at the northwest corner of Wisconsin on the St. Croix River.

Third Place: Cassville,on the Mississippi in the southwest corner of the state, is a favorite place to watch eagles. It’s also the hometown of Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey. His farmstead, Stonefield, is open to visitors as a state historical museum and a ferry offers service (seasonally) to the Iowa shore.

Most Romantic Town for an Adult Getaway

First Place: Bayfield is home to some of the finest B&Bs in the Midwest, like the Old Rittenhouse Inn, Cooper Hill House, Bayfield Inn and Greunke’s First Street Inn (where JFK Jr. hung out). Plus, some of the finest musical entertainment in the state is presented just south of town at Big Top Chautauqua from June to September.

Second Place: Lake Geneva (See Best Town for Dining)

Third Place: Fish Creek (See Best Theater and Entertainment)

Best Town for a Family Weekend

First Place: Wisconsin Dells is the place H.H. Bennett made popular with his photos, and who can resist the amphibious Dells Ducks rides and the Upper and Lower Dells Boat Tours? But the Dells’ entertainment offerings don’t stop there. Besides the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski, Sky and Stage Show, visitors can also enjoy the Rick Wilcox Magic Show or spend a day in a wave pool at Mt.Olympus amusement park. Adults get their playtime at Trappers Turn Golf Club, the nearby Ho-Chunk Casino or the Sundara Spa. The Del-Bar, Field’s at the Wilderness and Kalahari have brought fine dining to town. What’s next? Watch for The Dells to become a major competitive sports destination.

Second Place: Green Lake offers much family fun. Catch a ride on the Escapade catamaran cruise boat at Heidel House Resort, play golf at Lawsonia Links and bring the whole family for the Fourth of July festivities. Dine at Norton’s Dining Room for steaks and seafood, or head to award-winning Grey Rock at Heidel House Resort for American regional cuisine.

Third Place: Minocqua (See Best Fishing Getaway)

For More Information:

Visit www.TravelWisconsin.com.

You’ll find info on all these towns, along with maps and free travel guides.


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