On the quest for a cool summer: Wisconsin just might be your great escape
By Peter Covino
And you thought Wisconsin was just about cheese.
Sure, Wisconsinites have had a love affair with cheese since the 1840s, but if you really want to know what “America’s Dairyland” is all about, a long weekend in the Fox Cities region is in order.
It’s a group of 19 communities in Central Wisconsin, not too far from Green Bay, with the greater Appleton area as its hub. But as Central Floridians wilt with the onslaught of the seemingly endless daily heat and humidity of summer, the average high temperature in Appleton in August is a balmy 79-degrees.
With cooler temperatures a way of life, it’s no wonder, that in addition to cheese, chocolate is another one of the region’s major obsessions.
There are two great places to stop for the chocolate fancier in the Fox Cities: Vande Walle’s Candies and Wilmar Chocolates, both
You may never look at a Hershey bar the same way again after biting into a made-to-order bar at Wilmar. (Note: You can also order this great confection online at www.wilmarchocolates.com).
This is an incredible bar ($9.50), that you “make yourself” while you wander around the shop. You pick the ingredients, the type of chocolate and then choose from a large menu list of ingredients. You can watch while your chocolate concoction is mixed, and in about 15 minutes or so, you have an amazing chocolate bar. If you want something really special, ask for the semi-sweet bar made with cayenne pepper, Vietnamese cinnamon and locally grown cherries. You can order the bar online, but if you go to the shop, the made-to-order bars are only available on certain days.
Vande Walles offers a really nice, behind-the-scenes tour of how its chocolate is made, a tradition that goes back some 75 years. That shop offers some 95 different varieties of fine chocolate, each batch of candy made in copper kettles.
Again, you can thank the Wisconsin climate as a traditional place place to make great chocolate. In the Deep South in summer, chocolate just wants to melt, like the rest of us.
With both shops, it is a one-two chocolate punch that will have you snacking in the store, as well as have a nice chocolate memory to take back with you to Florida. You can also order chocolates on line at Vande Walles at Vandewallecandies.com.
Back in the car (a rental car is essential for getting around the Fox Cities) it is time to say, “cheese.”
There are lots of cheese options in the Dairyland, but there can’t be anything better than Simon’s Specialty Cheese, also in Appleton. The company has a few locations in the area, but the one on Freedom Road, is adjacent to the company factory, so the dairy products are about as fresh as having your own cow.
This is a nice, casual option for lunch. You can walk around the large shop, with its display cases of locally made cheddar, string cheese, smokey chipotle Monterey Jack, cheese curds and more, as well as lots of Wisconsin souvenirs, like a plastic cheesehead sombrero.
And don’t forget to sample some of the local wines. There are more than 45 wineries in Wisconsin, most growing their own grapes.
When you are ready for lunch, just stop by the store deli and make your selections. Whatever you do, don’t miss out on their pizzas. Made in-house, it is the Wisconsin cheese that will make you want order more than one. Friday is the best day to stop by the shop, it is Demo Day, and you can sample lots of goodies before making a purchase. And don’t leave without a glass of chocolate milk (it is actually still packaged in bottles) or some of the homemade fudge.
Again, you can order Simon’s Specialty Cheeses on line (www.simoncheese.com).
You might want to eat cheese and chocolate all day with a trip to the Fox Cities, but then you will miss out on some of the unique sightseeing opportunities the area has to offer.
Things to do
Appleton is home to legendary magician Harry Houdini. The city even has a plaza named after him, but if you really want to know what tricks Houdini (real name Erich Weiss) had up his sleeves, go to the History Museum at the Castle (www.myhistorymuseum.org). Located in a former Masonic lodge (the building opened in 1924, and retains much of the organization’s mystique), it is a great setting for an exhibit on the master showman.
AKA Houdini is a mostly hands-on, family-fun exhibit. You can even try for yourself, his famous Metamorphosis illusion on stage.
The Fox Cities (named for the nearby Fox River) has been home to many paper mills through the years and one of them, the historic Atlas Mill Building is now home to the Paper Discovery Center (www.paperdiscoverycenter.org).
The center is home of the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame, but more than that it is a lot of fun for the family. While the Fox River churns outside the building’s large windows, you can get in on the paper making process and make some paper of your very own.
There is a lot more fun for the youngest members of the family at The Building for Kids in downtown Appleton (www.buildingforkids.org). Situated on two floors, it doesn’t get any more hands on than this. Your kids may never want to leave. Youngsters can “drive” their own fire truck, play store at a mock grocery store, serve up food at the Kids Town Diner, be a pilot in the Gulfstream Jet and even cure the ills of a favorite doll at the doll hospital.
Mom and dad or grandma and grandpa can get in on the fun at the Davinci Studio, an art and science studio where lots of science and art projects spark the imaginations of youngsters and grownups alike.
You might want to leave the kids at home for a trip to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of glass (though mostly everything is a safely out of reach) with the world’s most representative collection of antique and contemporary paperweights. (www.bergstrom-mahlermuseum.com).
In Neenah, Wisc., the museum is housed in the former residence of Evangeline and John Bergstrom, and it is Evangeline who started the paperweight collection with the purchase of one piece in St. Petersburg in 1935, and her collection soon grew to more than 200 pieces.
The museum now encompasses all things glass. There is a shop with unique glass gifts and jewelry, and if you have time, you can even take a class in glass fusing at the glass studio.
As the sun sets, some music or a stage show might be the perfect way to end the evening and The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (www.foxcitiespac.com) has plenty of both throughout the spring and summer.
It looks like every seat is a great seat for viewing at the 2,100-seat hall. The hall’s 5,000 square-foot stage is the second largest in Wisconsin and it will play host to The Phantom of the Opera, Steely Dan, The Moody Blues, The Book of Mormon and Disney’s Fantasia in the weeks and months to come.
With the start of a new day, if you are feeling adventurous, there are many outdoorsy types of things to do throughout the area including High Cliff State Park (on the shores of Lake Winnebago, the state’s largest inland lake) or the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve, a 775-acre non-profit wildlife preserve and nature education facility with eight miles of trails for hiking, jogging and bird watching.
If you are ready for lunch, a best bet is the Appleton Beer Factory.
There is not a great variety to the beer menu, the current menu lists only seven on tap, but they are all made on the premises, just a few feet from your table. And all, are excellent, depending on your preference from light, the Blonde Ale, to full-bodied, the Oatmeal Stout.
This almost new establishment, it has been open less than a year, also makes some great sandwiches including the Pub Reuben (piled high with ale braised corned beef) and the Beer Mac & Cheese sandwich, featuring Wisconsin white cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon and pasta, between slices of Breadsmith spent grain French peasant bread.
If it is closer to dinner-time, and Friday night, hit the highway to the High Cliff Restaurant in nearby Sherwood. Friday night is the all-you-can-eat fish fry at this country club setting restaurant. For just $10.99 you can have your fill of their tasty Leinenkugel beer-battered haddock, served with coleslaw and choice of potato. There are daily specials most days of the week, if you don’t visit on a Friday (www.highcliffrestaurant.com).
For something upscale, but easy on the wallet, Ione’s Dining Room offers a fine dining experience without the expense. The restaurant is part of the Fox Valley Technical College and is run by the students. Every day is a unique themed experience, from German Haus, New England Bounty, French Country Fare and more. Website: http://www.fvtc.edu/public/content.aspx?ID=1336&PID=1. You might want to make reservations ahead of time for this popular dining spot.
You might not think Appleton, Wisc. is the place to find some outstanding Greek cuisine, but Apollon Restaurant serves some truly memorable Mediterranean cuisine. (apollonrestaurant.com). This is a family-run restaurant featuring an innovative menu and extensive wine list.
The Fox Cities also is home to some great shopping in downtown Appleton and Neenah and as well as Fox River Mall, the second largest mall in the state. There are several antique shopping centers as well, including the Harp Gallery (www.harpgallery.com), named Wisconsin’s Best Antique Store by Wisconsin Trails Magazine.
If you go: There are many fine hotels and motels in the area. The Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau (foxcities.org) has an extensive list of lodging places, as well as restaurants, shopping and more places to see and things to do. The website has several package offers with shopping/lodging combinations, romance and more.
The city is also home to Outagame County Regional Airport, which serves several major airlines which fly to major hubs in Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis