Out in the countryside, fall is a good time to go hunting.
There's so much to scout out autumn colors, new trails, interesting shops. Lots of people head for the river valleys, to orchards on the St. Croix and towns along the Mississippi.
But one October, two girlfriends and I headed north instead. And in an overlooked part of the state, between Brainerd and Mille Lacs, we found a rich vein of fun.
In September and October, artists everywhere throw open their studio
doors, inviting the public to see some fall colors along with fine art.
It's tempting because of the scenic landscapes in which so many artists live: the bluffs of northeast Iowa, the coulees of southwest Wisconsin, the towns around Lake Pepin, the lumpy terrain of the Ice Age Trail.
is such a pretty area in the
fall, and we thought it would be nice to have a tour where people
could travel through it,'' says potter Diana Johnston, who helped found
southwest Wisconsin's Fall Art Tour, the region's oldest.
We all know what summer means days at the beach, boat rides, marshmallow roasts . . . and shopping.
Not at malls but under the little white tents that pop up wherever there's a festival, on the shores of lakes, in parks and on picturesque town squares.
That's where the region's most accomplished potters, glass makers, jewelers, painters, weavers and photographers bring out their wares and make themselves available to whoever cares to stop customers, passersby, admirers.
In spring, women's weekends pop up like daffodils.
Chalk it up to cabin fever women just want to get away. Or, perhaps more accurately, tourist-starved destinations want women to get away.
In 2018, the Lake Michigan town of Holland is first out of the pack with Girlfriends Weekend March 2-4. The famous tulips won't be out, but hotels offer specials, and a package includes a breakfast buffet, champagne brunch, fashion shows, concerts, clinics and swag bags.
In the grand scheme of things, Galena, Ill., was destined to be a flash in the pan.
The flash came from the shiny lead sulfide upon which the town's fortunes were built in the 1830s, '40s and '50s; galena is the Latin word for the ore.
It made many people rich, and in the 1850s, Galena, three miles from the Mississippi, was the busiest port between St. Paul and St. Louis.
When a small town is about as pleasing as can be, what else can it do?
Why, make sure everyone notices, of course.
In 1972, an old Yankee mill town just north of Milwaukee started a Wine & Harvest Festival. Two years later, it started Winter Festival.
Some people may guess that lakes or bicycle trails are the chief attraction for travelers in the Upper Midwest. Other might say museums, state parks or stadiums.
Wrong, wrong and wrong. The No. 1 attraction in travel is . . . shops.
Shopping is sightseeing for a lot of people. On vacation, they shop not as they would at the local mall, but as if had all the time in the world to browse, stroll and sample.
As fall winds down on forest trails, the season is just gearing up on wine trails, where groups of wineries invite folks to take a little drive, sample the wares and maybe take home a few bottles.
Since wineries tend to be in very scenic areas, thats not such a bad idea. And in November, many offer special events to put buyers in the holiday spirit.
Here are wine trails in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan that have planned events in 2017.
In November, women make a break for it.
As men sit in deer stands or watch football games on TV, women hit the road with their friends. They shop, visit spas, sip wine, take cooking classes and see musicals their husbands or boyfriends don't want to see.
For women, November is a great month. Not only do they have a good excuse to get away with their friends, but they can get a head start on shopping for Christmas.
Down comforters, to nestle all snug on a bed. Fleece stockings, to wear with care. Bowlsful of jelly, and a shop full of toys.
These visions were enough to draw six Minnesota women toward the rolling folds of southwest Wisconsin, holiday lists in hand. Until that trip, my friends and I never had thought of ourselves as power shoppers.
"Wow, I've never done this before,'' marveled my friend Mary, looking on as three of us tried futilely to close the lid of the bulging car-top carrier. "I've heard about women who do this.''
For some people, Wisconsin wine is a puzzling concept, like New York nice.
But grapes do grow in Wisconsin, primarily on the high ridges of the Wisconsin River, near its confluence with the Mississippi. There, vines bask in sunlight and frosts sink into valleys.
What vintners cant grow they truck in from other states, adding a Wisconsin je ne sais quoi to the grapes during blending, fermentation and aging.
In travel these days, girlfriends rule.
They shop, they sip, they splurge. No wonder every resort, spa and tourism bureau is touting "girlfriend getaways,'' trying to reel in the roving groups of women who are out spending quality time with each other.
Galena advertises pajama parties, makeovers and massages. Chicago plugs "shoes, shoes, shoes.'' In Door County, Sturgeon Bay hosts a Groovin' Sisterhood Weekend in April.
When women want to find the perfect travel companions, they know where to look: each other.
On the road, women can be more adventurous and spontaneous than they are at home. They also tend to laugh a lot more.
I've traveled with friends, sisters and nieces more than 50 times in the last 20 years. We like to do all kinds of things: Amish tours, eagle-watching, horseback-riding, tennis camp and tubing at indoor water parks and on rivers.
There are certain towns that are so adorable and have so much that appeals to tourists that you just have to call them show towns.
They're real towns, of course, but they're always on their best behavior because tourists are always watching, and many have evolved in lockstep with tourism.
There's no question about what goes on the top of this list Galena, Ill. This 1850s lead-mining boom town snoozed for a century before it was rediscovered and turned into a playground for weekenders, especially from Chicago.
Everywhere I go, I see groups of women out having fun. Women on bikes. Women on skis. Women shopping, sightseeing and sampling.
Often, they're wearing the tell-tale colors of the Red Hat Society, a loose-knit organization of older women whose mission is to have fun.
One June, I spotted three of them at Strawberry Festival in Cedarburg, Wis., having some laughs over a bottle of strawberry wine. They'd driven up from the southern Wisconsin town of Orfordville for the day, one of many trips they take throughout the year.
In winter, a spa getaway sounds like just the thing.
Relax, rejuvenate and renew. Cleanse the skin, clear the mind. Get rid of stress and enter a portal to tranquility.
Like a lot of women, I thought a spa vacation would make a good girlfriend getaway, a relaxing break in routine.