Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 10/10/2015 (2075 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
WISCONSIN DELLS, Wisc. -- The man checking out of Fitzgerald's Motel puts the keys down on the counter and says, "See you next year, same time!" to proprietor Margaret Gewont.
Helping himself to a cup of coffee for the road, he tells me, "I've been coming here, to this motel, since I was seven years old. Next year will make 30 years in a row."
That's the kind of place Fitzgerald's is. A 1950s-style two-storey building with a courtyard pool, it has a wrought-iron balcony surrounding its narrow external walkway, where guests sit with drinks in Solo cups, chatting in the warm evenings. This insanely affordable motel has made some modern concessions -- the comfy rooms have mini-fridges and microwaves -- but the keys still come on giant plastic key chains. The vibe is nostalgic retro with a hint of kitsch.
And that's also the kind of place Wisconsin Dells is, a testament to old-fashioned family fun with attractions that hearken back to a more innocent age -- a Ripley's museum, old-timey photo studios, novelty stores, minigolf -- but with modern touches in laser tag, brew pubs, ziplines and extreme water sports.
Of course, the modern touches extend to the waterslides, where the technology is cutting-edge, befitting the destination's reputation as the waterpark capital of the world.
For this Dells newbie, whose only prior waterslide experience was Fun Mountain, the variety and ingenuity was staggering. Rides as simple as giant funnels or as complex as a combo coaster slide were exhilarating enough to wipe the memory of 45 minutes spent in line from your mind.
Though we braved the bone-rattling roller coasters at Mt. Olympus and were menaced by the T. Rex on the Time Warp at Noah's Ark, the most fun we had being frightened was on the Ghost Boat (invariably pronounced, in appropriately spooky voices, as "Ghoooost Booooat" by my family).
The producers of the lovely daytime Dells boat cruise -- which takes visitors on a scenic trip past the rocky geological wonders of the Wisconsin River and then a winding trek through Witches Gulch -- have cleverly doubled down on the venture by creating a "haunted" nighttime version.
It sets off at dusk, and as the skies grow dark, a recording tells passengers a cockamamie legend explaining why the area is haunted.
Once you disembark, you're led up to a path that winds through the gulch, which is stunning in daylight, but pretty spooky at night, lit only sporadically and dimly enough that the crevices are black and deep -- deep enough to hide a body. As you shuffle along as a group, you never know when a hand will reach out from under the bridge you're crossing or a giant spider will drop down in front of you, eliciting shrieks that move down in the line in a wave.
At the turnaround point, the crowd is split up into smaller groups, so the way back is even scarier -- you can hear the faint screams of the group ahead of you, but you can't see what's in store, so the tension is unbearable... and the scenarios aren't the same ones you encounter on the way in.
The scenes touch on every horror-movie trope -- around one corner is a chainsaw-wielding maniac, the next features staggering zombies. It mostly relies on the "boo!" factor to frighten, but it's a genuinely effective, creepy-funny experience, even though I knew it was just kids in makeup with mood lighting, I couldn't stop my nervous laughter. (The warning "May be frightening for young children" should not be taken lightly and may also apply to wimpy adults.)
It's easy to develop an abiding affection for the Wisconsin Dells, but maybe you're not the type who can make, as novelist Michael Chabon wrote, "one of those common esthetic efforts that consists of just swallowing an entire system of bad taste -- Las Vegas, or a bowling alley, or Jerry Lewis movies -- and then finding it beautiful and fun."
Don't get me wrong -- there is plenty in the Dells that is genuinely beautiful and you'd have to be a serious curmudgeon not to have fun, but you may eventually tire of unironic Suns Out, Guns Out T-shirts and cheese shops.
If that's the case, you need only drive a bit further east to see a less touristy side of the state.
The 19 communities under the Fox Cities umbrella lining the Fox River, 90 minutes north of Milwaukee, are known as a shopping destination, but they have much more to offer than malls.
The supper club is a uniquely Wisconsin experience and Mark's East Side in Appleton is a perfect example. Family-run since 1967, there's nothing exclusive about this club -- it's a welcoming place, homey, kind of like a giant '70s rec room. An evening there starts with the supper club's signature drink -- brandy old-fashioned, sweet -- consumed at a polished wood bar. There is much heated debate over who makes the definitive old-fashioned, and Mark's devotees swear by this version, a not-too-sweet but deceptively potent potable garnished with maraschino cherries.
Set into the wall behind the bartender (on this occasion, Mark's namesake, Mark Dougherty, who took over from parents Bill and Jan in 1982) is an aquarium, another signature supper-club touch, like the matchbooks embossed with the restaurant's name.
It's clear from the familiar chatter among the patrons that this is a regular haunt; Mark's is the kind of place where you have your regular table, where the waitress calls you "hon" and knows your order. The food is the kind of hearty, breaded, Germanic fare that elastic-waist pants were made for, tasty and nap-inducing.
Not that we needed anything more to eat after rolling out of Mark's, but nonetheless we headed to downtown Neenah to visit Zacatecas, a Mexican restaurant run by Ernesto Padilla, who emigrated to Wisconsin from Mexico City 12 years ago.
At night, the wall displaying his house-infused tequilas looks like a mad apothecary's shop, beautiful bottles and jars lit from below and filled with mysterious jewel-toned spirits. His experiments include flavours such as pear, pomegranate, tamarind and local Door County cherries, and such exotic mixtures as habanero-mango-peach.
He makes a wonderful cocktail with gold chipotle-infused tequila, honey liqueur and orange juice, but it's worth trying a tasting flight to appreciate his concoctions without mix.
Of course, tequila isn't the first beverage that comes to mind when you think of Wisconsin. That would likely be a more wholesome, all-American drink: milk.
Lamers Dairy in Appleton is aware of the current trend toward quality local ingredients and small-batch production, but they've been doing it that way for five generations. Using only rBGH-free milk from cows within a 40-kilometre radius, the family-run operation is committed to freshness and quality, and you can taste it in the milk.
Its assembly line, clearly visible behind a plate glass window from the store, has been featured on the Food Network show How It's Made. While we browsed the aisles, which feature gifts and gourmet foods among the wide range of hard and soft cheeses, curds of every flavour imaginable and other snacks -- cheese-fudge, anyone? -- a couple of families with children came in to watch the milk-bottling process, something that seemed like an only-in-Wisconsin outing.
Lamers has a glass-bottle program, does a run of goats' milk once a week, and also caters to the Orthodox Jewish population in Chicago with a kosher line. (The farm that provides the milk for the kosher product has a rabbi living on-site to verify the cows are eligible.)
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Another beverage that likely springs to mind when you think of Wisconsin is beer (admit it -- you're humming the theme to Laverne & Shirley right now). That sitcom's Shotz beer might not be a real brew, but the state ranks 11th in the U.S. for number of craft breweries, and Appleton is home to some stellar examples, Stone Arch Brewery and Appleton Beer Factory among them.
If you need another excuse to drink beer, Appleton's Octoberfest is held in late September. Billed as Wisconsin's biggest one-day festival, it lures about 100,000 people downtown to take in food stalls, craft booths and beer vendors pouring local microbrews, U.S. macrobrews and cider, plus a Magic Marzaniac, created especially for Octoberfest by the Wisconsin Brewing Co.
By evening, one imagines things might devolve into a riotous vomit-fest, but in the afternoon, there's just a mild buzz, a convivial air of camaraderie and celebration. It's so enjoyable to stroll the street with a cold draft beer in your hands (no restrictive alcohol licensing here), stopping for famous five-alarm chili at the booth run by the fire department or a snack at All Things Jerky, where you can rip into dried, spiced alligator or alpaca meat.
There's chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick and Wisconsin's famous hot beef sundae, a concept that simultaneously attracts and repels (probably more of the former the most beer you drink).
Who says you need waterslides to have a good time?
Jill Wilson Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
A sophisticated oasis on Broadway in the Wisconsin Dells serving up fresh, healthy dishes such as walleye, fish tacos and salads, along with steak, salmon and creamy pastas full of Wisconsin cheese. A great option for parents weary of meals entirely aimed at picky children (but there is an excellent kids menu). www.highrockcafe.com
It's a bit off the beaten path, but this fun, family-friendly restaurant in the Dells offers a shuttle service to and from nearby hotels. It has a huge outdoor patio with lots of games and serves up delicious Jamaican jerk options amid the pastas and burgers. www.marleysclub.com
An Appleton restaurant with an emphasis on farm-to-table philosophies, Gather -- its clever name implying both harvest and coming together -- is incongruously set in a boxy-looking mall surrounded by parking lot. But inside, the ambience is light and lovely and the chef is creating wonderful, sophisticated, fresh "Americana" dishes that make great use of local ingredients. The brined pork belly with maple glaze and apple-pear compote is delectable, as is the lavender lemonade. gathereat.com
This Appleton shop's trademark is hand-crafted confections, but the real fun is at the Mix It Up Chocolate Bar, which lets you pick your type of chocolate and fillings from a list that includes gogi berries, cayenne pepper, pop rocks and potato chips, along with more traditional fillings. My bar was so delicious I made it last almost six months. www.wilmarchocolates.com