Thursday, June 23, 2011

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Statue of the Fonz

He's one of Milwaukee's most famous residents, if fictional characters count.

"He" is the Fonz, Henry Winkler's character in the television series "Happy Days." The show was set in Milwaukee, and the Fonz became a memorable figure within a couple of years.

But how to honor him? The city fathers decided a statue on the Riverwalk would be appropriate. It went up in 2008, with much the show's cast attending the dedication. So the Fonz's image is there to welcome visitors, 24 hours a day.

How to get there? Head for the intersection of Wells Street and the Riverwalk. It's on the east side of the river, south of Wells.

The one catch might be that the statue doesn't look like it is in a particularly busy or prosperous section of the Riverwalk. Commercial development seems a little spotty in the region. But, you gotta start somwhere.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Lakefront Brewery

Now THIS is what a brewery tour should be like.

Lakefront Brewery is rather tough to find, as it is tucked under a bridge along the river north of downtown. Therefore, you should get good directions first. And then get there.

First off, upon paying for the tour each customer receives four tokens each good for a six-ounce glass of beer. What's more, you are encouraged to get one before the tour even starts. Everyone, therefore, is in a good mood right from the start.

The guide plays her role nicely, with plenty of funny lines along the way. Most play up the angle that Lakefront Brewery is the little guy. Miller and Budweiser lose more beer in spillage than Lakefront brews in a given time period. There is some explanation of the brewing process, which is welcome. The building used to pull streetcars around the city, but had been empty when it was taken over by the brewers.

Along the way, this exhibit is shown. When Bernie Brewer slid into a big beer stein after a homer in County Stadium, this was the target. The stein didn't make the move into Miller Park (can't imagine why), so it has found a home in the brewery.

The tour concludes with everyone singing the initial verses to the Laverne and Shirley theme song. Then visitors head out to the sidewalk outside the brewery, where more taps await them.

If that weren't enough for $7, tourists receive a coupon good for another beer at local restaurants if redeemed by 6 p.m. that day. They also can trade in their paper cup used during their visit for a pint glass. During our visit, we talked to a native who didn't bother with the tour any more -- he just liked to come down to the brewery and sip on his beers.

This all works well; it's great -- and tasty -- public relations. Why would you go anywhere else?

Madison, Wisconsin: Monona Terrace

The good people of Wisconsin really took their time with this one.

Frank Lloyd Wright came up with the idea to design a "convention center" in 1938. It got built about 59 years later. Heck, Wright himself died in 1959.

The idea was to connect the lakefront to the state capitol. This picture was taken from the observation deck of the capitol. You can see a fountain in the middle, and there's a nice patio on the roof. Inside, there is plenty of rooms for meetings, receptions, etc. When we were there, a public radio program was being broadcast.

The picture isn't the best of the facility, of course. We probably needed to go out on to the water and look back to get the full impact of the building. Nice to see the place done, though.

Madison, Wisconsin: State Capitol

The summer of 2011 was a very odd time to visit the State Capitol building in Madison.

Where did all the protesters go?

The building was the center of attention during the months before that, what with the fight between Governor Walker and Democrats in the State Senate and the neighborhood filled with angry workers. The area became almost familiar through television.

A budget was passed shortly before our visit, and the only people in the surrounding streets this Saturday were customers for the farmers' market. It was a peaceful mob.

The Capitol is an impressive building even when not filled with angry people. After a rebuilding from a fire that was completed in 1917, the "new" structure is said to be closer to the U.S. Capitol than another state's center of government. The building is located on top of a hill between two lakes in downtown Madison. The facility has four main areas (executive, Senate, Assembly, Supreme Court) with a common meeting area under the dome.

Tours are available throughout the week, and are pretty interesting. Visitors do get to actually sit in the Senate chamber, which is odd considering the angry confrontations from that area shown on the news shortly before that. And the tour includes a visit to the observation deck, which has a nice view of downtown Madison and the University of Wisconsin.

But if you do visit, don't bring any tomatoes. Leave that to the legislators.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Madison, Wisconsin: Ella's Deli

You want a nice, quiet meal? Go elsewhere. Ella's is for the child in you.

This deli east of the State Capitol in Madison is quite an attraction. The sign of the front lawn and the merry-go-round next pictured to the right might be your first sign that this is not a typical deli.

Inside, picture a baby's playpen gone berserk, and you'll get the idea. There's all sorts of toys in the building, with training running near the ceiling. Many of the tables have particular themes, such as one devoted to the Packers. Supposedly, when the owners get a new toy, they don't take out anything -- they just add to the collection.

As for the food, it's a big menu and certainly suitable. The ice cream list certainly got rave reviews from the public.

I think it's fair to say kids will love the place. Even the big ones.

Middleton, Wisconsin: National Mustard Museum

Barry Levenson was the Assistant Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin in 1986. He also was a devoted Boston Red Sox fan. You might remember the World Series of that year, which didn't go well for the Red Sox. Levenson decided he needed some fun in his life.

So he quit his job and opened the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, near Madison.

One word of advice: go.

This place is amazingly witty, bursting with cleverness. The downstairs area is a not-for-profit organization legally, relying on the donations of visitors. There's a video on the subject called "MustardPiece Theatre." Sample mustard jars from brands throughout the world are on shelves. There's a trivia game about mustard. And an oversized stuffed French's mustard mascot that perfect for silly pictures.

Upstairs, you can buy a lot of different mustard, and can try them first at the Mustard Bar. Then there's the gift shop, filled with stuff actually buying. A sweatshirt devoted to Poupon U.? Check. The post cards are so clever, you'll want to buy a dozen.

Levenson happened to be in the building when we were there, and he's funny and gracious.

You might get some odd looks if you tell people that a mustard museum was a highlight of a vacation. But it will be.

Spring Green, Wisconsin: Taliesin

If you like Frank Lloyd Wright, then a trip to his house in Wisconsin obviously makes sense a tourist attraction.

Wright always struck us as more of an artist than an architect. As he put it, he had a choice between arrogance and false modesty, and he took the former. But there's no double his work was distinctive, almost museum-like.

To be fair, this is pricey stuff. As of 2011, the house tour costs $47, and the full tour is $52. That's not Disneyland, but still rather expensive. So we passed on it. But those who like Wright's work seem to think it was worth it. Check out the reviews for proof. Reservations are suggested.

By the way, there's a visitors' center across the road from the actual home, which is nicely done. We didn't have the guts to sneak down the private road to take a picture of the house, so this shot of the entrance will have to do.

Spring Green, Wisconsin: House on the Rock

Alex Jordan wanted to be an architect, so he applies to study under Frank Lloyd Wright's studio just down the street. Jordan was eventually told that he wasn't good enough to design a chicken coop and told to get lost.

Jordan went down the street, found a plot of land that included a big rock, and started building. And building. And collecting.

The result is "The House on the Rock," a rather peculiar tourist attraction in Spring Green. Words fail us in trying to come up with a description of the place.

There are three separate tours in the facility. The first is of the house itself, which has some odd touches that feel a little like a Wright project. The rocks on the mountain are part of the architecture, and the ceilings are low. It is unusual.

The most striking part of the house certainly is "the Infinity Room." This extends out from the rock into space. You can see a picture of it here, taken from a scenic viewpoint on the road to it. Even though visitors can't walk all the way to the end -- there's a barrier about halfway out -- they can go for enough to get dizzy in some cases.

Jordan opened up the facility to visitors and sold tickets, and people flocked to it. Naturally, he started plowing the profits into buying, um, stuff. The collections make up Tours Two and Three. The centerpiece is the world's largest carousel, which is great fun to watch. There are all sorts of other things here, such as guns and dollhouses and replica whales and a Streets of Yesterday display. On and on it goes. You just never know what's around the next corner.

There are no rhymes and little reason to the layout, and the effect is to make the late Mr. Jordan come off as, um, odd. This reminded us of Northlandz in Flemington, New Jersey, only bigger. Oh, there are some nice gardens on the grounds, and a building that offers insight into Jordan's life.

We thought tours one and two were the most interesting, while number three wasn't really worth the time. Your opinion may differ. The price for two tours isn't much different than for three, so if you make the effort to get there you might as well go for the Full Jordan.

P.S. The facility also runs an Inn and a Resort, complete with golf. We heard good things about the Resort and mixed reviews for the Inn.

Spring Green, Wisconsin: Military Park

Attractions can pop up in unexpected places. Like this one.

We were driving from Wisconsin Dells to Spring Green in Wisconsin. As we approached our destination, in the middle of farm land, we came across this just off the road near the airport. So we stopped.

As you can see, it contains a helicopter, tank and airplane. It's something of a tribute to our military forces, which is nice. But if you look carefully, you can see a farm house in the background. It's a little jarring.

We couldn't find any more information on the place, but there's stuff like this out there for the curious.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: Mt. Olympus

Wisconsin Dells gets more tourists than any other part of the state. It's tough to figure out why until you actually get there.

It's Las Vegas for kids.

There are all sorts of attractions for the younger set -- miniature golf, bowling, chain restaurants, magic shows, and water parks. Lots of water parks.

One of the biggest attractions, especially in terms of advertising dollars spent, is Mt. Olympus. It's hard to avoid the signage approaching the area.

Mt. Olympus has six roller-coasters and some water slides. We particularly liked the coaster that goes under the body of a Trojan horse.

The facility has taken an unusual approach to housing. There is a hotel right on the grounds called Hotel Rome, pictured here. Those really are rooms facing out of the Colisseum replica. But Mt. Olympus also purchased some mom-and-pop hotels (and there are lots of them) in the neighborhood, no doubt to give the consumer a few more options when it comes to pricing.

We didn't stop and visit the park, due to a lack of time and interest in the main attractions. Still, as a service we checked the reviews for the place. While the rides seem to be fine, the rest of the place -- especially the hotels -- doesn't rate too well with the public. Customer service doesn't seem to be a priority, and security is an issue.

By the sounds of it, the park may be worth a visit if you like this sort of thing, but there are better places to stay.

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: Top Secret

Sometimes you have to make decisions while on vacation, and we made a good one here.

We saw a brochure for an attraction called "Top Secret," and the description was quite vague. Then we pulled into the parking lot for a look. The premise is that aliens picked up the White House and dropped it upside down in Wisconsin Dells. So, we took a picture of the place, and moved on.

It took some digging to figure out what was going on. Essentially, this is a fun house. Some of the rooms are said to be built upside down, so there are artifacts stuck to the ceiling, etc. We don't like fun houses.

As it turned out, that was a good idea. Upon returning home, we looked up the reviews for the place. Here they are. I think it's fair to say the paying customers generally weren't impressed. Ouch.

If you do go, don't say you weren't warned.

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Baraboo, Wisconsin: Circus World

Vacations are supposed to be fun, right? And what makes you feel more like you've gotten away from it all than a circus?

No wonder Circus World in Baraboo is a popular attraction. It used to be the winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus, before the merger with Barnum and Bailey in 1922. You can still see some structures from that period.

John Kelley, the lawyer for the Ringlings, wanted to preserve some of the history from the period of the great railroad circuses, so he started Circus World. There are indeed circus acts put on during the course of the day. A particular favorite were the trained dogs, or if you prefer, "David Rosaire and his Perky Pekes." There are acrobats, clowns, horses, etc. as well.

But that's not all. This is said to be the largest collection of circus wagons in the world, and there's no reason to doubt it -- see the picture above. It's really a nice tribute to a past era.

The signage to get to Circus World can be a little unclear, so you might want to go on line to the website get clear directions. But if you simply drive into to the town, you'll find it by the river eventually. It's only 10 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, so there's a nice base of kids who should be ready and willing to go.

Ripon, Wisconsin: Little White Schoolhouse

Here? The Republican Party started here?

That's right. The Grand Old Party has a birthdate -- March 20, 1854. The debate about slavery was raging at that point, and the Whig Party had essentially gone out of business. Alvan Bovay had moved to Ripon from New York, where he was a friend of newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. The Kansas-Nebraska bill had extended slavery into new locations, and Bovay had had enough. Some ex-Whigs and Free-Soil party members got together to see if they could come up with something better. Bovay suggested the name "Republican" and it went over pretty well and was adopted. Bovay wrote Greeley, and the fuse was lit.

In quick succession, the Republicans had a state meeting in July of 1854 in Michigan. Then the first national convention followed in 1856 in Pittsburgh. You could probably argue that our system is designed for two strong parties, and the vacuum had to be filled somehow. Even so, it was filled by an idea that started here in Ripon.

The hosting Little White Schoolhouse is located right in the middle of downtown, having been transported a few blocks before landing in its current spot in 1951. There are a few exhibits on the walls, and replicas of schoolbooks from the past are placed on the benches.

The facility is not heated, so you'd better show up between May and October when it is open. There's a most friendly woman who works inside that is more than happy to go over the history of the place. She even seemed appreciative when we pointed out that Greeley's name was misspelled on a blackboard in the front of the schoolhouse. (Note: His name also is spelled incorrectly once in the official brochure. Tsk, tsk.)

You don't have to be a Republican to enjoy a short visit to the place if you are in the area.

Green Bay, Wisconsin: Packers' Hall of Fame

Need a crash course in the history of the Green Bay Packers? Come to think of it, there might not be many people in that exact situation. But if there are, this is the place to visit.

The Packers moved their Hall into Lambeau Field when the atrium was built, and they did a first-class job in every sense. The exhibits are well done, and there is plenty of history and artifacts on display. You can visit a replica of Vince Lombardi's desk, and even pose for a picture in his chair.

As you'd expect, the greatest players in Green Bay history get plenty of space. Only the Bears have more people in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so there's plenty to talk about.

You might be surprised to know that this facility outdraws the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Then again, it's a better attraction. The place in Canton, which could use a lot more room, could take some tips from its counterpart in Green Bay.

Green Bay, Wisconsin: Lambeau Field

You might be surprised to know that an atrium is the biggest attraction of any visit to Lambeau Field.

This addition to the fabled stadium was added around 2003, and it is spectacular. The Green Bay Packers really did a nice job with the atrium, which serves many purposes. The team's executive offices are there, as are a restaurant and bar. Down below are the team's facilities, which really are state of the art. And naturally, there is a huge souvenir stand. If you want anything with the Packers' logo on it, this is the place to visit. Our personal favorite was a woman's purse shaped like a football and decked out in green and gold. The cost was a little more than $100.

What's more, the addition has helped turn the stadium into a revenue producer. Tours are given of the building year-round, and Lambeau hosts something like 600 events per year.

Even if you are lukewarm about football, this is worth a stop.

Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin

There's been a theft! Someone has taken the apostrophe out of his town's name!

It still is a pretty place anyway, in spite of the high crime rate. Baileys Harbor is on the Lake Michigan side of Door County. That's the relatively undeveloped side of the peninsula, although you wouldn't confuse any place on the strip of land with downtown Chicago.

According to the brochure, Captain Justice Bailey needed to get away from a storm on Lake Michigan in 1848 and landed in the harbor that now has his name. Before anyone knew it, people decided to say and settle in the area. A lighthouse went up in 1852.

There are some hotels and restaurants in the town, as well as a few other businesses. In fact, there's a "general store" of sorts on the waterfront that seems to have everything you could possibly need during a stay there. Just up the road from the waterfront is Kangaroo Lake, a pretty body of water that isn't too deep but good for some water sports like kayaking. It all looked pretty peaceful during our visit.

Sister Bay, Wisconsin: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant

This is one of Door County's most famous tourist attractions ... most of the time.

Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant and Butik is well known for its roof. Its roof? Yup. Because it is made out of grass. And sheep spend days grazing on the roof. You can cruise down Highway 42 (North Bay Shore Road) and see them.

Except, when we happened to be visiting. The friendly staff told us that reseeding of the roof was taking place, so the goats had to stay away for a few days. Darn, darn, darn.

Luckily, there's a goatcam attached to the restaurant's website. So we can check up on the goats whenever we want, and so can you.

The restaurant has all sorts of Swedish food on the menu -- it even has a fish boil on weekends -- and the gift shop is filled with items of that nature. It's perfect for someone who is even 1/500th Swedish (the author qualifies).

Peninsula State Park, Wisconsin

Door County in Wisconsin practically becomes a suburb of Chicago in the summer, as many flock to take advantage of the cool lake breezes. There isn't a great deal of infrastructure in Peninsula State Park, as it's mostly designed for hiking, biking, boating, fishing, camping, etc. There's also a golf course in the grounds.

What's surprising about this area is that there's not a great deal of public access to the waterfront, as much of it seems to be in private hands. So it's nice to see that something like seven miles of coastline was preserved in this park.

The views of Green Bay, like the one above from Swen's Bluff on Skyline Drive, are particularly nice on a good summer day. Eagle Tower also is in that category if you are willing to climb a few flights of stairs.

Egg Harbor, Wisconsin: 45th parallel marker

In theory, there are all sorts of places that could mark the spot that is theoretically halfway between the equator and the North Pole. After all, the 45th parallel goes around the world.

Few places actually do it, but Egg Harbor is one of them. (I've been to another in Nova Scotia.) It's right off Route 42 in Door County, the Cape Cod of Wisconsin. Pull off the side of the road, and you'll get a quick lesson in geography. For example, the distance between the two points on the globe isn't quite even, as the poles are flattened -- so the equator is 12 miles closer.

As you can see in the link here, there's another marker a few miles to the east.

Namur, Wisconsin: Belgian Settlement Marker

Some drivers pull off the road when they see a sign for an historical marker, and I'm one of them.

While on the way to Door County, Wisconsin, drivers will see such a sign. They'll head down a side street, make a couple of turns, and be greeted with the nice display in Namur shown in the picture here.

I can't say I knew a whole lot about Belgian immigration to the United States, but seeing Brussels on a map of Wisconsin alerted me to the possibilities. There's a church and cemetery right behind the spot, that has been designated as National Historic Landmark.

More information can be found here.