Whether you are traveling with family, taking an annual summer vacation, looking for day trips, or planning a quick weekend jaunt, keep these Wisconsin destinations and attractions in mind.
Get in touch with nature
The Aldo Leopold Nature Center is truly a gem in the Madison area—a natural oasis in an urban setting. Located just minutes from downtown Madison, the ALNC offers trails throughout more than twenty acres of native prairie, woodland and wetland nature areas, adjacent to Monona and Madison parks. The indoor Nature Nook also offers an all-season space for families to learn about monarch butterflies and prairies, native fish and wetlands, and woodlands. An interactive climate science center explores weather and earth science using interactive displays.
The Center, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, began in 1994 as a small shed and greenhouse with field trip programs for each season. Over the past two decades it has expanded into an energy-efficient, educational facility that offers more than sixty field trip programs, hundreds of summer camps, and year-round family programs.
According to Sierra Muñoz, director of marketing and community engagement, the Center fills an important need, both for area residents and for visitors. “Increasingly, people are looking for a convenient, family-friendly way to connect with nature or just spend some time outside,” she notes. “The Aldo Leopold Center offers just that, with indoor exhibits for all ages and accessible nature trails.”
To help connect the public with information about green spaces around the area, the Center’s staff publishes an annual “nature passport,” an activity guide for families detailing more than a dozen outdoor learning sites.
Muñoz, who first joined ALNC as a naturalist and an educator, says “connecting people of all ages to nature is still the highlight of my work. I love reminding people that it is accessible—experiencing nature is as simple as noting the changing seasons or the tree outside your window.”
Saying hello to a pink elephant
Nicole Moll, marketing manager for the DeForest Area Tourism Commission, says DeForest is known as “Madison’s North Star.” Ten minutes from that city’s airport, twenty minutes to a UW Badger game, twenty-five minutes to the capitol and thirty minutes to the Wisconsin Dells, the DeForest area offers visitors a rural escape close to the city. Conveniently located near the Interstate, the community of DeForest provides easy access to its activities, restaurants, parks, historical landmarks, and other attractions close to accommodations.
“The tourism economy is up, which is great news for our state and local attractions,” Moll says. “We continue to see travelers looking for memorable experiences, not just a place to check off their list. Travelers are spending time researching, reading reviews, and determining the best activities and locations to visit.”
For those in search of a weekend getaway, DeForest offers two bed-and-breakfasts; the Speckled Hen Inn and the Token Creek Eco-Inn. Both provide a quiet, peaceful retreat close to home. If visitors wish to get outdoors and enjoy nature, Moll says DeForest is also a great place to explore. “We have a wonderful trail system that provides year-round opportunities for fishing, hiking, kayaking, bird watching, photography, fitness, snowshoeing, and ice skating.”
And one attraction that is truly unique to DeForest is the larger-than-life, bespectacled pink elephant that stands outside the Shell One Stop gas station. “Travelers from across the country make sure to stop and take a photo with Pinkie in her cool, hipster glasses,” Moll says. If visitors need more than a photo to commemorate the occasion, the station also has a wide variety of pink elephant souvenirs including T-shirts, coffee mugs, magnets, postcards and key chains.
Moll enjoys her work and being part of the travel and tourism industry. “Reading reviews and receiving comments from travelers when they have had a great experience is very satisfying,” she says. “Seeing our trails filled with adventure-seeking travelers, restaurants packed with diners and tourists lined up to take a photo with Pinkie the elephant is so rewarding.”
Celebrate a grand opening
The Edgewater has been a fixture in downtown Madison for decades, providing luxurious accommodations and stunning views of Lake Mendota to business travelers, groups and visitors to the university. After nearly two years and $100 million, the landmark hotel will re-open in August, significantly renovated and expanded. Among the improvements are upgrades to the hotel’s existing rooms, a new eight-story tower, a spa, four restaurants, and a pier. In addition, a new rooftop terrace will provide the perfect backdrop for live music, Badger tailgating parties, and even ice skating in the winter.
“The Edgewater has been completely reimagined with the intent to restore its historic sense of place,” says General Manager and Senior Vice President Ronald Morin. “Not only is there a new tower, but we reconfigured the property to provide an incredible new public plaza. The effect has also allowed the original building to regain its architectural Art Deco appeal and prominence.”
As interest and excitement about the renovated building grows, Morin believes that The Edgewater is perfectly positioned to capitalize on current trends in travel and accommodations. “People continue to seek out experiential travel,” he explains. “The more discerning guests are finding properties that are unique, and reflect the character of the community in which they’re located. Madison is a historic, foodie town with an impressive arts community. Through innovative and thoughtful programming, The Edgewater will highlight all three of these qualities.”
Morin, who describes himself as a big fan of historic and iconic hotels, says he most enjoys making memories for his guests and visitors. “We always feel honored that so many of our guests want to share some of the most important times in their lives with us,” he says.
Explore a great lake
Kara Kinas had so much fun vacationing in Green Lake as a kid, she became one of the area’s biggest promoters when she took a position as events coordinator at the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “My entire family, extended family, is from here. My parents grew up here. When I had the opportunity to come back, I jumped at it,” she says. “I love it here.”
Green Lake itself is the deepest lake in Wisconsin, which makes it ideal for swimming, fishing, water sports, boating, kayaking, and paddle boarding. “Basically there are tons of things to do on the lake, and there’s not only easy access, there are some great public beaches too,” Kinas says.
Capitalizing on the natural beauty of the area and on increased interest in recreational biking and hiking, the community of Green Lake recently invested in upgrading local trails. Visitors who prefer the links to the lake have long been drawn to the area’s renowned golf courses, including the Golf Courses of Lawsonia, Mascoutin Golf Course, Tuscumbia Golf Course and White Lake Golf Resort.
This summer, Green Lake will host a variety of events, from free concerts in the park, to a fine arts festival, a traditional Fourth of July celebration and the Wisconsin State Chili Cook-off. In late September, Green Lake is set to celebrate Harvest Fest, with the Taste of Green Lake food faire, the Jack Taylor Memorial Classic Car Show, kids’ games and activities, a petting zoo, a parade, festive music, a farmers market, and more than one hundred craft vendors
A town of only one thousand permanent residents, Green Lake expands to accommodate many more during the months of June, July and August. Some of the population influx comes from vacationers from Northern Illinois who own second homes in the area, but many of the visitors are Wisconsinites, driving approximately an hour and a half from either Milwaukee or Madison. “We really are only a couple of hours away, but worlds apart,” Kinas says.
Discover a great getaway
Located on the shores of beautiful Green Lake, Heidel House Resort & Spa encompasses twenty wooded acres. This full service, 190-room resort includes three restaurants, a spa, meeting facilities, indoor and outdoor pools, a game room, tennis courts, and a fitness room. The property even has its own sixty-foot yacht for boat tours around the lake.
While it is easy to see how guests could become enchanted with the outdoor activities on the resort and nearby—everything from water sports, boating, swimming and fishing, to hiking local trails, golfing on championship courses, or renting a bike to “loop the lake”—General Manager Scott Krause believes that the Heidel House may need to thank the “stay-cation” movement for the influx of visitors from southern Wisconsin. “Due to financial concerns, over the last few years people started looking for vacation spots within driving distance of their homes. That encouraged them to explore the great destinations in their own back yards,” he says. “And fortunately for us, it meant a lot of people from Madison and Milwaukee rediscovered the Green Lake area.”
Krause says the Heidel House’s wedding business has also boomed over the last five years: “For a lot of couples looking for a destination wedding, our property has everything they need. They can have a gorgeous ceremony on the lake, an elegant reception under a tent, and dancing in our ballroom.” He adds that many of the couples preparing for their weddings at the resort were event guests in previous summers.
Similarly, many visitors exploring the resort for a summer vacation have a family member who attended a business function at the Heidel House in the past. Krause explains, “People come here for a convention, a company retreat or a training session, then come back with their families. With the lake, area golf courses and the spa, there’s a lot to do.”
Find “Lady Luck”
Located at the outer edge of Madison, Ho-Chunk Casino is a fun, friendly and exciting entertainment venue for adults, featuring more than one thousand slot machines along with eight electronic poker tables and a fast-casual restaurant that seats eighty-five. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with the action slowing each day between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., the casino hosts an astounding 4.2 million patrons per year. Executive Manager Dan Brown says, “We want to complement the many outstanding attractions in southern Wisconsin, offering something unique for visitors to this area.”
Brown says he has noticed more multi-generational vacationers patronizing the casino over the last few years. In response, he says Ho-Chunk is providing newer, more exciting games with advanced graphics that are attractive to the younger set. There are also regular promotions giving away cash and cars to keep players engaged.
Although the casino has paid out more $9.6 million in jackpot winnings this year, Brown says “the idea is to have fun. And there’s always a chance to win if you play. With an average ninety-five percent payout percentage, we’re the best chance for winning in the region.”
The dollars generated by the Ho-Chunk Casino go toward funding tribal programs. As a former vice president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Brown has witnessed how the revenue benefits the seven thousand members of the tribe. The casino also contributes to local non-profit organizations and partners closely with the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.
Brown, who previously managed Ho-Chunk’s Wisconsin Dells property, began working in the gaming industry in surveillance and quickly moved up to management. “When you’re constantly watching every area of the business, making sure that things are running smoothly and processes are being followed, you become a real expert,” he says.
Ask him about the most rewarding part of his job and Brown will say that he enjoys working to make guests’ visits memorable and exciting so that they will return to enjoy themselves again.
Visit Broadway stars
Ten Chimneys, the sixty-acre estate lovingly created by theatre legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, is open to the public as a world-class house museum and national resource for theatre, arts, and arts education. Located in the rolling hills of southeastern Wisconsin near Genesee Depot, the former summer home to the stars is thirty miles from Milwaukee, sixty miles from Madison, ninety miles from Chicago, and nine hundred miles from Broadway.
“It’s an easy day trip from Madison,” says Randy Bryant, president and CEO of the Ten Chimneys Foundation. “After taking a tour, there are lots of local restaurants and shops to explore.”
The estate is indeed named after the number of chimneys in the elegant three-story main house, quaint country cottage, and one-room Swedish-style log cabin studio. The property also includes a pool and pool house, a creamery, a greenhouse, barns and a chicken coop.
Now the public is invited to tour the estate, replete with original furnishings and overflowing with theatre memorabilia. Small groups are led through the site by knowledgeable docents who provide historical background on the family, the artifacts on display, and the décor of the houses. With special reservations, visitors can even indulge in Champagne and canapés on the cottage porch, as the Lunts might have.
The estate comes alive with special events throughout the season, which runs from April 15th to November 30th. In addition to play readings, lectures from legends of the contemporary American theatre, and intimate concerts of opera and jazz in the “Music in the Drawing Room” series, Ten Chimneys hosts the pre-eminent fellowship program in the country for American theatre actors. This year the master class, limited to ten fellows from regional theatres around the country, will be led by noted Broadway, television and film actor David Hyde Pierce. “We’ve been trying to get David out here for years,” Bryant says. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity for theatre professionals to work together to hone their craft. And it’s really a continuation of the work that Lunt and Fontanne did here.”