Best New Midwest Places to Play, Eat and Stay: 2011
Jasper, Indiana: "Spirit of Jasper" train
The romance of rail travel returns to the southern Indiana countryside, where this beautifully restored train takes summertime evening trips to the resorts at French Lick (812/482-9229; spiritofjasper.com).
Dubuque, Iowa: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
A $40 million expansion celebrates the river's mystique, with a 4-D movie theater that uses wind, sound, scents, seat movement and mist to tell its story (800/226-3369; mississippirivermuseum.com).
Kenosha, Wisconsin: Southport Light Station Museum
Climb the 72 steps to the top of this 1866 piece of Great Lakes history and let yourself get lost in the lore (262/654-5770; kenoshahistorycenter.org).
Altoona, Iowa: Adventure Bay
Iowa's biggest amusement park, Adventureland, still has a family-friendly, throwback feel, even with 13 slides, a lazy river and swim-up bar in the newly expanded water park (800/532-1286; adventurelandpark.com).
Carmel, Indiana: Arts and Design District
We love the lavish new businesses in Old Town that celebrate arts and style. A snazzy interior design center recalls Chicago's Merchandise Mart. And perfect acoustics and plush heated seats make the Palladium a must-do concert spot (317/571-2787; carmelartsanddesign.com).
St. Joseph, Michigan: Silver Beach Carousel
Whether you ride the new hand-painted horses or just watch from a nearby rocker, you'll be glad St. Joe resurrected its amusement park heyday (269/982-8500; silverbeachcarousel.com).
McPherson, Kansas: McPherson Opera House
Take a guided tour to learn how a spectacular renovation brought this crumbling palace back to life, 121 years after it opened in 1889. If you can, catch one of the shows; $3 from each ticket goes toward ongoing preservation of the hall (620/241-1952; mcphersonoperahouse.org).
Valentine, Nebraska: The Prairie Club
A beautiful lodge, stellar food and a stunning golf course show what happens when city swank meets Nebraska Sandhills. River, canyon, woodland and wildlife await (888/402-1101; theprairieclub.com).
Branson, Missouri: Branson Air Express
Need your Branson fix? The fares on this new airline are unheard of nowadays (from $63 from Des Moines, Chicago and Indy), and the airport shop sponsored by Bass Pro Shops is a fun place to browse (888/359-2541; bransonairexpress.com).
Mason City, Iowa: Architectural Interpretive Center
Frank Lloyd Wright's influence flows from this new center, from his restored Historic Park Inn & Convention Center (left) -- set to open in June -- and from tours of Wright buildings downtown (800/423-5724; visitmasoncityiowa.com).
Duluth: Timber Twister
For a wild six minutes in an open car at 26 mph, hang on tight to this Alpine coaster where you control the speed. And, if you think of it, drink in Lake Superior views from the top of Spirit Mountain before you fly down (800/642-6377; spiritmt.com)
Madison, Wisconsin: Madison Children's Museum
A huge new home gives kids plenty of creative places to burn energy (608/256-6445; madisonchildrensmuseum.org).
Zion, Illinois: Lake County Fielders
Team co-owner Kevin Costner brings minor league ball (and $5 tickets, silly races and the Billy Goat's cheeseborgers) to Chicago's far-northern 'burbs (847/731-8000; fieldersbaseball.com).
Indianapolis: 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park
OK, so the neighborhood is a little dodgy. But this former quarry between the White River and the art museum has become a relaxing place to admire modern art (317/923-1331; imamuseum.org/100acres).
Restaurants: Indianapolis' Recess
It's like the Soup Nazi, only nicer. You pay one price. You get four courses. You find out what they are when you sit down--and you'll love it. Promise (317/925-7529; recessindy.com).
Chicago: Gilt Bar and Restaurant
Rumors of comfy couches and designer cocktails lured us to this low-lit Mag Mile clubhouse. Roasted beets with clementines, feta and peppercorn vinaigrette will bring us back (312/464-9544; giltbarchicago.com).
Knoxville, Iowa: Peace Tree Brewing Company
The fat bottles with cool labels are just so fun (and the microbrews so good), we don't even mind that they don't cook. Hungry? Just use one of the takeout menus behind the bar (641/842-2739; peacetreebrewing.com).
Boyne City, Michigan: Cafe Sante
Cafe Sante patio, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways. Lake Charlevoix waves. Hypnotic fire ring. Truffled mushroom pizza. European and Michigan brews. Sigh (231/582-8800; magnumhospitality.com).
Cleveland: AMP 150
Talk about a surprise. It's in a newly renovated Airport Marriott. It has a garden out back where the chef grows heirloom veggies labeled with cute little chalkboards. And its affordable small-plates menu packs amazing flavor (hello, five-spice marshmallows floating in pumpkin soup) (216/706-8787; amp150.com).
Saint Paul: Heartland
Classic Midwest meat and potatoes? Well, sort of. A James Beard-nominated chef dresses up bison, duck, lamb, pheasant, and, during the winter, his own canned fruits and veggies in a new, huge location in Lowertown (651/699-3536; heartlandrestaurant.com).
Omaha: Hiro 88
Sushi fans have rejoiced over this hip addition to the Old Market district, but even if your favorite Asian food comes in a paper carton with soy sauce packets, you'll find something to love on this eclectic menu (402/933-5168; hiro88.com).
Madison, Wisconsin: L'Etoile
A new location in the U.S. Bank Plaza building gives this beloved restaurant, known across the country for its haute green cuisine and stunning wine pairings, room to breathe. Graze, a new gastropub across the hall, lets diners on a budget join the party (608/251-0500; letoile-restaurant.com).
More we like
Kansas City, Missouri: Glace Artisan Ice Cream Chocolatier Christopher Elbow uses local Shatto Milk Company cream in delish flavor combos like peanut butter with a swirl of homemade strawberry jam (816/561-1117; glaceicecream.com).
Dickinson, North Dakota: Stix 'n' Twigs You gotta love an organic veggie cafe sprouting in the gateway to cowboy country off I-94'--especially with sandwiches this hearty (701/483-7849).
Traverse City: Michigan Soul Hole It ain't fancy, but patrons are piling into this tiny Old Town dining room for the Southern crawfish, po'boys, sweet tea and drunken peach cobbler (231/929-7238).
Fish Creek, Wisconsin: Coopers' Corner Door County comfort is the yin to this contemporary bistro's yang. You'll see that everywhere, especially in the wild mushroom strudel with porcini cream and cherry spinach salad with lingonberry vinaigrette (920/868-2667; cooperscornerdoorcounty.com).
Lodgings: Chicago's Elysian
632. That's the square footage of a standard king room at this French-inspired boutique hotel known for lavish art, in-room fireplaces and carrara marble baths. From $375 (800/500-8511; elysianhotels.com).
Indianapolis: JW Marriott
Opening in February, this 34-story, 1,005-room wonder will be a posh place to crash across from White River State Park and round out the new five-hotel Marriott Place. From $199 (866/704-6162; jwindy.com).
A $25 million renovation gives this Mag Mile site a fresh look. A battalion of attentive staff stands ready to serve, and guests shop at the Water Tower Place below. From $375 (312/266-1000; fourseasons.com/chicagorc).
Columbus, Indiana: Inn at Irwin Gardens
An Italianate-style B&B finally gives visitors a peek into the 1864 home that has housed one of the town's wealthiest families. From $175 (812/376-3663; irwingardens.com).
Novi, Michigan: Baronette Renaissance Detroit
Special touches at this 155-room suburban boutique hotel are all about Michigan--music, manufacturing and cars, plus Zingerman's cheese and Lake Huron trout at the on-site restaurant. From $109 (248/349-7800; thebaronette.com).
Dubuque, Iowa: Hotel Julien
A no-expense-spared renovation at this luxe historic property in the Old Main District includes reclaimed artifacts from its original grandeur. From $109 (800/798-7098; hoteljuliendubuque.com).
Custer, South Dakota: Custer State Park Reunion Cabin
If you can find 30 people to vacation with, you'll all fit comfortably in the park's plush 4,200-square-foot "cabin." From $925 (888/875-0001; custerresorts.com).
Chicago: Hotel Palomar
They had us with the Rat Pack-esque doormen, free daily wine reception and the nods to Chicago history, including cool photos of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. From $199 (877/731-0505; hotelpalomar-chicago.com).
Kohler, Wisconsin: The American Club
A renovation is draping rooms at the Midwest's only AAA five-diamond resort in rich chocolate browns and trading bathtubs for lovely rain showers. From $200 (800/344-2838; destinationkohler.com).
Shell Knob, Missouri: Stonewater Cove
In the mood to splurge? Then head to this secluded resort with sumptuous king beds, in-room leather sofas, rainfall showers, and on-site zip-lining, ATV rides and boating. From $437, meals included (800/792-3956; stonewatercove.com).
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2011.)