(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2008.)
Many of the Midwest's most popular vacation areas fall in the category of lakeside spots. You'll sacrifice some accessibility and convenience, but families will love the range of activities and lodgings. Our top pick: Branson, Missouri. There are lodgings for everyone, including big, full-service resorts and motels, as well as quieter, small resorts and condominium complexes along Table Rock Lake. Music shows, Silver Dollar City theme park and the lake are among the attractions. To plan your trip: explorebranson.com.
Five other areas were top picks from our research: Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, which is in a popular central location with a wide range of lodging choices (funlake.com); Brainerd Lakes area, Minnesota, a premier vacation area known for family activities and resorts as well as cottages (explorebrainerdlakes.com); Door County, Wisconsin, which has a generations-long reputation as a family destination (doorcounty.com); Traverse bays area, Michigan, with Lake Michigan beaches, pretty shore towns and top resorts (visittraversecity.com; petoskeyarea.com); and Mackinac area, Michigan, which has beaches, parks, historic sites and storied Mackinac Island (mackinacisland.org).
Medium-size cities and suburbs
Suburbs and smaller cities are often character actors in the Midwest's lineup of star destinations. But they deserve a second look as reunion spots. Our top choice: DuPage County, Illinois. Chicago's western suburbs are minutes from O'Hare and a quick train ride from downtown. Nearby are the DuPage County Forest Preserve's well-tended parks, Naperville's walkable downtown and the Morton Arboretum. To plan your trip: discoverdupage.com.
Our other top choices for medium-size cities and suburbs: Omaha, with more to do than you think: a great zoo, museums, historical sites and other attractions (visitomaha.com); Duluth, with a stunning Lake Superior location and a wonderfully walkable downtown (visitduluth.com); Quad Cities, Iowa/Illinois, unfairly overlooked as a destination—it has strong planning help and an impressive array of activities (visitquadcities.com); Grand Rapids, Michigan, close to the Lake Michigan shore with a compact downtown and an array of family-friendly attractions (experiencegr.com); and Lake County, Illinois, with Six Flags Great America amusement park and Gurnee Mills Outlet Mall (visitlakecounty.org).
Some destinations have carved their own niches as getaway spots, often with unique character or special-interest attractions. Our top pick: Wisconsin Dells, a longtime top family destination with a reputation that has been energized with the addition of kid-pleasing, indoor water parks to many resorts. Old-time cabin compounds and smaller, bargain-priced properties also are available. The Dells tourism office gets high marks for planning help (wisdells.com).
Other great getaway locations: Brown County, Indiana, which has an acclaimed artists' enclave centering on Nashville with 300 shops and outstanding parks (browncounty.com); Frankenmuth area, Michigan, with German food, shops and crafts (frankenmuth.org); Elkhart County, Indiana, the heart of Amish country, with crafts, small towns and hearty cooking (amishcountry.org); Hocking Hills, Ohio, popular for parks and trails (explorehockinghills.com); and Nebraska City, Nebraska, which offers small-town charm close to Omaha, plus an outdoorsy, green vibe at a top reunion property (nebraskacity.com).
The Midwest's largest cities can be the most convenient reunion spots, especially if you have family flying in. Our top pick: the Twin Cities. Minneapolis' reenergized downtown has become a sought-after destination. But it's still easy to navigate, thanks to skywalks and a light-rail system. The light-rail also links downtown to the airport and the Mall of America. The mall, Minnesota's No. 1 attraction, is another popular reunion hub. To plan your trip: minneapolis.org.
Five more high-rated picks for a city reunion: Detroit, which offers top-notch planning and mid-range, reunion-savvy lodgings (visitdetroit.com); Cleveland, which offers excellent planning, lots of lodgings, and attractions such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Great Lakes Science Center (positivelycleveland.com); Indianapolis, boasting an appealing, walkable downtown (visitindy.com); St. Louis, with lots of free and low-cost family attractions, plus a great central location (explorestlouis.com); and Kansas City, Missouri, with new must-see attractions as well as classics such as Country Club Plaza (visitkc.com).
Organizing and getting help
We heard the same advice from dozens of tourism offices, planners and lodgings. For a successful reunion, you need organizers, a person or committee to lead the planning—a year or more in advance, if possible. The best places book up early; family calendars do, too. Also, use expert help. Most convention and visitors bureaus will send your reunion information to area hotels and ask for prices, often securing lower rates than you would on your own. Don't be afraid to negotiate. Hotels expect it. Rates and extras, such as complimentary meeting rooms and breakfasts, all are up for grabs.
Two must-haves for a family reunion: a meeting room or another space where your group can mingle informally and, for younger families, a pool—the bigger, the better. (Hot days. Bored kids. Enough said.) Also, spend time planning meal strategies. A cookout is cheap and easy. Convention and visitors bureaus often can recommend parks and caterers, if you don't want to do the grilling. Splurge on at least one banquet. Many hotels and restaurants will design affordable menus and even work with family recipes.
Top lakeside lodgings
Thousand Hills. Loved: Plush cabins and planning help. But: It's hilly and spread out. www.thousandhills.com
Westgate Branson Woods Resort, on the edge of town. Loved: Nicely equipped gathering spaces; lodgings, including bargain motel rooms. But: Drive to attractions. www.wgbransonwoods.com
Still Waters Condominium Resort, lakeside. Loved: New swimming pool; lodgings, including updated motel rooms; outstanding marina with free water toys and new boats. But: Small cafe only when we visited. www.stillwatersresort.com
The Village At Indian Point, lakeside. Loved: Family-oriented owners; nice condos; indoor gathering space with kitchen next to patio with grills. www.villageatindianpoint.com
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
Tan-Tar-A Resort, a huge retreat with conference and family business; some lakeside lodgings. Loved: Lodgings variety; bargain rates; family activities, including an indoor water park. But: Spread out and hilly. www.tan-tar-a.com
The Resort at Port Arrowhead, medium-size lakeview motel complex near area attractions. Loved: Rates include free meals for kids 12 and younger. But: Standard rooms basic. www.theresortatportarrowhead.com
Bass Point Resort, 25-acre, family-owned, 40-year-old affordable cabin complex along the lake's quieter west side. Loved: Relaxed, friendly vibe; beach along the lake; lots of activities. But: Not much close by; towels not provided; some cabin interiors basic. www.basspoint.com
Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
Grand View Lodge, historic retreat on huge Gull Lake. Loved: Planning help, beach; range of rooms, cabins, condos; spa and fine dining restaurant. But: Pricey. www.grandviewlodge.com
Madden's on Gull Lake, sprawling along two miles of shore. Loved: Golf; family-friendly atmosphere; activities. But: Lowest-price rooms pretty basic. www.maddens.com
Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort, on a quieter lake south of Gull. Loved: New, big cottages. But: No restaurant. www.kavanaughs.com
Door County, Wisconsin
Gordon Lodge, a classic under new ownership on 130 acres on the peninsula's quieter Lake Michigan shore. Loved: Setting and outdoor gathering spaces; stylish redone lodge rooms. But: Cabin interiors basic. www.gordonlodge.com
Eagle Harbor Inn, in the heart of Ephraim along Green Bay. Loved: Apartment-like suites; lovely setting one block from the city beach; nice gathering space; indoor pool. But: Busy area in summer. www.eagleharbor.com
Traverse Bays area, Michigan
Boyne Mountain Resort, one of three Boyne area resorts. Loved: Range of lodgings; setting; water park; spa. But: A drive between some lodgings and a beach on Deer Lake. www.boyne.com
Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, huge, nicely kept resort (600 rooms) with a full range of amenities, including a spa, golf and a new water playground six miles east of Traverse City. Loved: Indoor sports center. But: A drive to anywhere off property. www.grandtraverseresort.com
Holiday Inn West Bay, along the bay in Traverse City, walking distance to downtown shops and restaurants. Loved: Beachfront location; amenities for all ages (including large, heated indoor and outdoor pools); kids eat free. But: On the pricey side. www.tcwestbay.com
Trout Creek Condominium Resort, in pretty bayside Harbor Springs north of Petoskey. Loved: Casual, homey atmosphere; nice meeting area; family-friendly amenities--pools, hiking trails, playgrounds, fishing ponds--better than summer camp. But: Hilly and spread out. www.troutcreek.com
Mackinac area, Michigan
Mission Point Resort, an updated historic resort on Mackinac Island. Loved: Lake views; variety of activities and rooms. But: Island may seem too remote for some. www.missionpoint.com
Top lodgings in medium-size cities and suburbs
DuPage County, Illinois
Doubletree Chicago Oak Brook Hotel, a high-rise across from Oakbrook Center mall. Loved: Excellent planning help and willingness to work within organizers' budgets (they'll do a hot dog and hamburger buffet). But: Feels like a business hotel. www.doubletreeoakbrook.com
Eaglewood Resort and Spa, a rebuilt, four-diamond, Prairie-style hotel in Itasca with a renovated 1920s championship golf course. Loved: The setting; nicely done rooms and gathering spaces. But: Amenities pricey. www.eaglewoodresort.com
Hilton Chicago Indian Lakes Resort, a full-service golf resort in Bloomingdale. Loved: Cool vibe; check out the Cave Bar. Big outdoor pool. But: Layout designed to be interesting can be confusing and feel too spread out. www.hiltonindianlakes.com
Regency Lodge, west of downtown. Loved: Independently owned; upscale vibe and above-par catering options, including poolside barbecues. But: Typical motel decor in standard rooms. www.regencylodge.com
Edgewater Resort and Waterpark, along the northern end of the downtown lake walk. Loved: Family focus; rooms for up to eight people. But: On-site cafe only; shuttle ride or quite a walk to some attractions. www.duluthwaterpark.com
The Inn on Lake Superior, along the lakefront, walking distance to downtown attractions. Loved: Family amenities including nightly s'mores; location. But: Included daily breakfast doesn't vary much. www.theinnonlakesuperior.com
Quad Cities, Illinois/Iowa
Stoney Creek Inn, in Moline, Illinois, a nicely designed chain hotel overlooking the Mississippi River. Loved: Family-friendly, North Woods-themed suites, on-site movie theater and screen porch. But: No restaurant. www.stoneycreekinn.com
Holiday Inn Rock Island, downtown Rock Island, Illinois. Loved: Knowledgeable sales staff; lovely complimentary meet-and-greet room. But: Indoor pool only. http://www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/rock-island/rkiil/hoteldetail
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, downtown. Loved: Upscale, but friendly, feel; riverfront location near museums, shops and restaurants. But: Can be pricey; boisterous kids may seem out of place. www.amwaygrand.com
Lake County, Illinois
Illinois Beach Resort, updated 1960s resort along Lake Michigan. Loved: Beachside setting; affordable group menus. But: Parts still tired. www.ilresorts.com
KeyLime Cove Water Resort, Caribbean-theme resort that opened in 2008. www.keylimecove.com
Top special getaways lodgings
Baker's Sunset Bay Resort, family-owned on the edge of town along Lake Delton. Loved: Meeting room with a kitchen at no charge or low cost. But: No on-site restaurant. www.sunsetbayresort.com
Chula Vista Resort, a big, full-service upscale resort along the Wisconsin River. Loved: Huge indoor water parks, one with a roller coaster; kiosks with kid-friendly activities; Duck shuttle, boat and water taxi rides available from the resort dock. But: Not for those who want to be in the middle of the Dells' action. www.chulavistaresort.com
Meadowbrook Resort, on a pine-shaded hillside on the edge of town. Loved: North Woods setting on 12 acres; reunion-friendly attitude; affordable. But: Cabins and rooms, new or updated, are simple. www.meadowbrookresort.com
Great Wolf Lodge, a premier water-park resort in the business district. Loved: Kid-friendly rooms with bunk beds in a separate "cabin"; vast indoor and outdoor water play areas. But: Water, water and dripping, excited, running kids everywhere. www.greatwolf.com
Brown County, Indiana
Brown County Inn, updated, family-friendly motel on the edge of town. Loved: Comfortable and accessible. Lots of reunion-friendly amenities, including a large covered pool, grills and poolside dinners. But: No frills rooms. www.browncountyinn.com
Salt Creek Golf Retreat, condos along a golf course outside of town. Loved: Beautiful, tranquil setting. But: On-site recreation mainly golf and pool. On the pricey side. www.saltcreekgolf.com
Artists Colony Inn, an upscale, small hotel in Nashville decorated with Brown County artists' works. Loved: Cozy feel. But: No pool; better for adults or older children. artistscolonyinn.com
Elkhart County, Indiana
Essenhaus Inn and Conference Center, a nicely done motel with country-style quilts and furnishings in Middlebury; Amish-style food and from-scratch pie next door. Loved: Individually decorated rooms in reunion-friendly configurations (two bedrooms can connect to one sitting room, for example). But: You have to like quilts and country everything. www.essenhaus.com
Amish Acres Historic Farm and Heritage Resort, part of a farm complex with a dinner theater in Nappanee. Loved: Family activities, including outdoor pool. But: Too much country for some. www.amishacres.com
Frankenmuth area, Michigan
Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn Lodge, a big, updated motel along the main street near shops and restaurants. Loved: Family amenities, including larger rooms; five indoor pools; game room. But: Very Bavarian. www.bavarianinn.com
Zehnder's Splash Village Hotel and Waterpark, near shopping district, a new motel affiliated with the famous chicken restaurant by the same name. Loved: Creatively designed indoor water park; affordable. But: Town carries Bavarian to the max. www.zehnders.com
Hocking Hills, Ohio
Old Man's Cave Chalets, cabins and first-class vacation homes for up to 20, some with pools; close to trails and attractions. Loved: Woodsy surroundings; decor; some homes pet-friendly. But: A drive from each other and the lodge. www.oldmanscavechalets.com
Nebraska City, Nebraska
Lied Lodge/Arbor Day Farm, on the estate of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton. Loved: Pastoral setting; deck and rooms overlooking the countryside. But: Nebraska City and nearby Brownville, with shops and riverboat cruises, possibly too quiet for some groups. www.liedlodge.org
Top big-city lodgings
The Depot Minneapolis, A Renaissance Hotel Loved: Location; building character. But: Parking is pricey. www.thedepotminneapolis.com
Crowne Plaza Northstar Hotel, near Nicollet Mall shopping, restaurants and light-rail stop. Loved: Rooftop party space; affordable. But: No pool. www.cpminneapolis.com
Radisson Hotel Bloomington by Mall of America, new property with lots of services, including free shuttles to mall and nearby park. Loved: Truly cool water park. But: Big and busy. www.radisson.com/bloomingtonbymoa
Courtyard by Marriott Downtown, near the riverfront. Loved: Restaurant, location and pool area overlooking the city. But: Limited gathering spaces. www.marriott.com/
Best Western Sterling Inn, 15 miles northeast of downtown. Loved: Family-friendly vibe, indoor water park and savvy catering chef. But: Basic rooms. www.sterlinginn.com
Embassy Suites Beachwood, in a southeast suburb 30 minutes from downtown. Recently renovated. www.embassysuites.com
Omni Severin Hotel, a grandly restored 1913 building downtown. Loved: "Sensational Kids" program; evening milk and cookies in rooms. But: Small indoor pool. www.omniseverin.com
Embassy Suites, connected to Circle Centre Mall downtown. Loved: Well-appointed rooms and the location; hot breakfast included. But: Typical business hotel. www.embassysuites.com
Sheratons at Westport, part of a west suburban business/entertainment hub. Loved: Expert planning help and excellent catered meals; lakeside location of Chalet building; restaurants and clubs in walking distance. But: A half-hour drive to downtown and major attractions. www.sheratonwestport.com
Kansas City, Missouri
Holiday Inn Northeast, across from suburban Worlds of Fun/Oceans of Fun theme park. Loved: Longtime friendly staff. But: No-frills rooms. www.holiday-inn.com/mkc-northeast