The New Midwest Vacation
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Changing travel styles
Surveys say many of us are shifting our travel priorities by:
-- Trading one long trip for several short ones
-- Focusing on food
-- Traveling by car
-- Staying in the Midwest
-- Seeking authentic experiences
-- Looking for bargains
A review of some classic Midwest destinations reveals a lineup that connects perfectly with the new traveler. Check out a few of our favorite getaways that will suit your tastes today.
Authentic crafts and a slower pace: Iowa
Travelers consistently say they're seeking something--anything--that feels authentic. In a green east-central Iowa River Valley along Interstate-80 (100 miles east of Des Moines), the seven Amana Colonies have clung to their roots with German steadfastness since 1855.
"Oh, there's a lot of history here," Deb Heitmann says as she pours beer at the Millstream Brewing Company in Amana, the largest colony (population: 2,000). "I live in my great-grandparents' house."
Most proprietors begin stories this way; 400 buildings appear on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the commune became a private land-owning corporation in 1932, more than half of current residents are descendants, and inns, restaurants and shops draw heavily on traditional foods and handicrafts.
The area makes a few mainstream concessions, including the Wasserbahn water park at the Holiday Inn Amana Colonies along I-80. But heritage and history dominate, as in the Wiener schnitzel-heavy menus at the Ronneburg and other restaurants.
More to do in Amana
Amana Heritage Society Museum Not just a museum, this spot offers guided bike and wine-tasting tours. The society also operates the High Amana Store (left).
Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse As old as Amana itself--this store was established in 1855.
Colony Inn Amana's oldest restaurant serves up hearty classics.
Fireside Winery Enjoy an afternoon picnic in the vineyard, or gather around the fire pit.
Hahn's Hearth Oven Bakery Try homemade breads and pastries baked in the only original hearth oven in the Amana Colonies.
Old Creamery Theatre The oldest professional theater company in Iowa brings in actors from across the nation.
Ox Yoke Inn Amana Farmers started the tradition of enjoying hearty, family-style meals at this classic eatery.
Colony Inn 319/622-3030
Hahn's Hearth Oven Bakery 319/622-3439
More authentic getaways: Ohio and Indiana
Traditional crafts and foods are a way of life for the region's largest Amish communities centered on Holmes County in central Ohio and northern Indiana's Elkhart County (left). For acres of fresh food and artisans' works: Indiana's new American Countryside Farmers Market in an Amish-crafted barn. Smaller Amish enclaves flourish elsewhere, including around Arthur and Arcola in east-central Illinois.
Big-time thrill rides and quiet beaches: Ohio
Plenty of Midwesterners chase thrills at theme parks, 10 million of us at last count, in fact. We're almost 30 percent more likely than other Americans to vacation at theme parks. And if you're looking for the next hot ride, all you really need to know about is Sandusky's Cedar Point Amusement Park.
America's second-oldest amusement park, set along Lake Erie west of Cleveland, holds one of the planet's great collections of roller coasters. Out of the park's 75 rides, 17 are roller coasters (left). The Millennium Force tops out at 93 mph. This screamer and its kin all stand within an hour of Cleveland, two hours of Detroit and Columbus and an easy day's drive from Milwaukee, Chicago and Indy.
If you get woozy just by walking through a revolving door, relax. A half-dozen golden beaches stretch about 90 miles along this shore from Vermilion (40 miles east of Cleveland) to Maumee Bay State Park outside Toledo. Perhaps the best sand beach on Lake Erie unfolds just beyond the lobby doors of The Breakers, Cedar Point's glorious white wedding cake of a 1905 hotel. And for visitors who like quieter surroundings, ferries regularly depart for peaceful offshore island.
More to do on the Western Lake Erie shore
Great Wolf Lodge Only guests can use the indoor water park.
Kalahari Resort This kid-pleaser claims to be America's largest indoor water park--bigger than three football fields.
Maumee Bay Resort Set in a 1,850-acre state park, the modern lakeside lodge features 120 rooms and a restaurant that serves expertly prepared fresh fish. A campground, beach, wildlife walk and 18-hole, Arthur Hills-designed golf course provide enough fun to make the area a vacation destination in its own right.
New Sandusky Fish Company This is the best bargain in the region for sandwiches of freshly caught perch and walleye.
Toft's Dairy At the Sandusky dairy plant, the ice cream parlor, decorated with Holstein-accented murals, serves 51 flavors, including Bare Foot Brownie and Howly Toledo.
Offshore Islands Ferries based in Sandusky and Port Clinton and on the Marblehead Peninsula link the mainland to South Bass island and neighboring Kelleys Island.
Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial More than 300 feet above South Bass, an expansive view opens atop this tribute to the leader of an 1812 Lake Erie battle.
The Boardwalk In South Bass' touristy village, Put-in-Bay, try the famous lobster bisque in the main restaurant with indoor and open-air seating.
Kelleys Island This quiet getaway (left) offers miles of hiking trails, long stretches of pristine beach, Native American pictographs and camping at Kelleys Island State Park.
New Sandusky Fish Company 419/621-8263
More beaches: Wisconsin
Thirty beaches dot some 300 miles of Lake Michigan coast along the Door Peninsula on Wisconsin's east side (155 miles north of Milwaukee). But most visitors end up splitting time among this area's other attractions: five state parks and pretty fishing villages full of lodgings, restaurants, shops and art galleries featuring local artists' work.
Big adventures on a budget: South Dakota
For those with modest budgets and a tolerance for driving across the prairie, the mountainous Black Hills still provide the stuff of family-vacation legends.
Up-close views of Mount Rushmore (free, except for $10 for parking) and the Crazy Horse Memorial ($10 each, or $27 per carload) alone make the trip worthwhile. Everyone should walk Rushmore's Presidential Trail. This one-mile paved path loops under the presidents' noses and provides outstanding places to snap photos. Some rocks you pass still show drill marks from carving in the 1930s.
The storied Iron Mountain Road winds around corkscrew bridges to connect Rushmore with Custer State Park ($15 for a week's pass). About 2,000 bison, the nation's largest remaining herd, roam part of the 70,700-acre park. Seeing them can be as easy as driving the Wildlife Loop. Trails throughout meander to overlooks and creeks perfect for wading.
Each of four affordable, family-friendly lodges at Custer State Park offers unique character. Three bucks buys a day pass on the George S. Mickelson Trail, a converted-railbed bike trail running 109 miles through the Hills beside streams, over trestles and through tunnels.
Your Custer State Park pass gets you one of the Hills' best views at the end of a drive up Mount Coolidge, encompassing Crazy Horse, Rushmore and the Badlands. And that scene, as you probably guessed, is priceless.
More to do in the Black Hills
Custer State Park lodges We especially love the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Sylvan Lake Lodge on a rock-rimmed pool that starred in the recent movie National Treasure II. Blue Bell Lodge offers a Western feel in the heart of the park. Legion Lake Lodge, right on the water, is perfect for fishing, swimming or boating. State Game Lodge and Resort claims stays by presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower.
1880 Train This historic rail line travels through splendid scenery with views as far as Harney Peak, the highest mountain in South Dakota.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway The 68-mile byway passes along jutting granite cliffs, serene lakes and pine-clad mountains.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway Meander past rock formations and pull over to splash in Spearfish Creek (left), known for its trout fishing.
Wind Cave National Park Take a candlelight tour of one of the world's longest and most complex caves.
More adventure: Michigan and Minnesota
Majestic wilderness, the sort crowded out by development elsewhere, survives on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a 250-mile-long wedge of forests, waterfalls, lakes and rugged Great Lakes coasts. Whether it's a hike on 90 miles of trails in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park or a trip along the storied Tahquamenon River (left), the experiences of a lifetime await.
Canoe and camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the chain of lakes and streams along the Minnesota/Canada border. Or check into an area lakeside lodge for a not-too-rugged adventure (canoeing and fishing by day; fine dining at night).
Beach getaways close to home: Michigan
Midwesterners rank a beach getaway as their top vacation choice, but many find themselves with less time and money to travel to the coasts. Fortunately, "beach" doesn't have to mean "far-off ocean." The southwest Michigan shore claims miles of blue water and white sand within a half-day's drive of Chicago and Detroit.
Sand spreads north from the Indiana line, interrupted only by harbors crowded with pleasure boats, lively towns that make summer their business and piers perfect for walking into legendary sunsets. Inland, the lake-tempered climate nurtures vineyards and fruit farms.
Just across the Indiana line, New Buffalo, Michigan, qualifies as a straight-out-of-a-painting beach town with a main street that stretches almost right onto a sun-toasted beach.
Tree-shaded Ludington, 175 miles north, anchors the north end of the most accessible coast. Here, a carefully tended beach unfolds beside a miniature-golf course, a new skateboard park and a shady, Frisbee-friendly boulevard of picnic spots, with hotel options such as the comfy, value-priced Four Seasons.
Saugatuck, South Haven, Holland and Grand Haven each has its own unique graces, such as Saugatuck's legendary Oval Beach (left). The towns also share a new energy infused by chefs cooking in unlikely places and entrepreneurs remaking the resort scene. Saugatuck's Bella Vita Spa and Suites, for example, offers romantic, contemporary suites appointed in Scandinavian style.
More to do in southwest Michigan
Chestnut House Bed and Breakfast Cozy up with Lake Michigan views from your window.
CityFlats Hotel Stay in one of Michigan's first LEED-certified hotels, in Holland.
Gordon Beach Inn/Timothy's Restaurant Swim from the private beach near New Buffalo; also, an inventive, upscale menu.
Kamp Across from the Dunes Park your RV across from scenic Warren Dunes State Park and Lake Michigan.
Marina Grand Resort In New Buffalo, luxurious rooms and condos look out on a Lake Michigan harbor.
Round Barn Winery and Distillery (left) Try the specialty wines, fruit brandies, vodka and microbrews.
Saugatuck Brewing Company Schedule a brewing session with friends and make your own beer to bring home.
Silver Beach County Park Fish or swim in Lake Michigan at this local park.
Tabor Hill Winery and Restaurant Bring friends along for group tours and wine tasting.
Weko Beach A campground and a summer concert series make this better than your average Lake Michigan beach.
Windmill Island and Gardens In Holland, visit with the only female Dutch-certified miller in North America.
Surprisingly hip small towns: Wisconsin
The lush farm country south and west of Madison aligns perfectly with travel trends toward fresh food and active, green, artsy pursuits.
Outsiders started noticing the area when Mineral Point, a historic mining town, reinvented itself as a center for the arts. Cool really crept in when Madison chefs set up shop in The Bank Restaurant and Wine Bar in Spring Green and in The Dining Room at 209 Main in tiny Monticello.
Active travelers from Chicago and Milwaukee have started coming for a great trail network and bike-able backroads (kept in good condition for dairy trucks). Places are popping up to serve these newcomers, including the new, ecofriendly Earth Rider Inn on the Sugar River Trail.
The new is settling seamlessly with the old. The classic tourist attractions remain, including House on the Rock. Monroe still pumps out the cheese and beer that give the state much of its identity. Spring Green traces its artsy vibe to Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio, Taliesin, and the acclaimed open-air American Players Theatre.
More to do in Wisconsin
Baumgartner's This combination cheese store and tavern on the square in Monroe takes local flavor to the extreme with a famous Limburger cheese sandwich--just as stinky as you'd expect, but surprisingly good.
Cave of the Mounds Near Mount Horeb, the hour-long tour of this family-owned cave (left)--discovered by accident on a family farm in 1939; now a National Natural Landmark--provides fascinating, up-close looks at delicate crystal formations and spooky lights-out time.
Chalet Landhaus Inn The Sugar River Trail runs past this nicely kept Swiss-theme motel in New Glarus; also an easy walk to restaurants and shops.
Glarner Stube Locals get their Swiss fix at this cozy New Glarus eatery. Try roesti, a sort of Swiss hash browns but with Swiss cheese!
House on the Rock Resort Rooms look out on a 27-hole golf course at this first-class resort in Spring Green, near the American Players Theatre and House on the Rock.
Little Norway Along with other historic buildings filled with a fascinating collection of Scandinavian settlers' artifacts, a stavkirke (Norwegian church) nestles in a green valley near Mount Horeb.
Alp and Dell Cheese Store In Monroe, watch cheese-makers at work, and buy samples in the store.
More hip small towns
A green, artsy attitude comes naturally to Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, a tiny Flint Hills county seat surrounded by the world's largest remaining tallgrass prairie (80 miles southwest of Topeka). Equally natural in this prime cattle-grazing country is an appreciation of beef and fresh local ingredients like those served in the dining room of the AAA Four Diamond Grand Central Hotel and Grill.
Artists offering classes in painting, mosaics and fiber arts bring a new creative spirit to Nashville, Indiana, a southern Indiana artists' enclave (left), 60 miles south of Indianapolis). The forested hills that have staved off development and inspired generations of painters also bring outdoorsy types. Nearby Brown County State Park, the state's oldest and largest, and vast Hoosier National Forest offer miles of trails.
First, antiques and specialty shops resurrected historic Galena, Illinois. Then, artists and foodies began to infuse their own brands of inspiration into this 1800s river port and lead-mining boom town. Now, galleries and studios, several with hands-on art experiences, mingle with other shops, and chefs teach cooking classes. Meanwhile, antiques shops and B&Bs are flourishing.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® March/April 2009.)